What is it that makes a family? Who does a family include?
Sometimes when I drive behind mini vans I notice graphics in the window, cartoon pictures telling us who usually rides in that mini van: Father, Mother, child, child, dog, dog, cat. A Family. Some families don't fit the usual prescription. Some have no father, some no mother, some have two fathers, some two mothers, some have lots of children, and some have no children at all. If we had the little graphics that the mini van people always seem to have, it would show Father, Mother, dog, dog. When you see the mini vans, the cartoon figures don't tell you what is going on in the family, only who is a part of the family. If someone dies, I wonder, do they ever peel one of the graphics off the window?
One of our family is dying, our girl Sarah. Sarah is our five year old Silky Terrier. She is 'only a dog' some of you may be thinking, but to us she is a member of our family. Sarah has a little brother, a 'half' brother, named Ulee, same mother, different father, but if we had graphics on our car window they wouldn't tell you that.
Neither would the graphics tell you that Sarah came into our lives at a time when she was desperately needed, and we doted on her. She was given the best food, the best veterinary care, the longest walks, a pool, a wardrobe of leads, harnesses, and coats for the winter. At times the human members of our extended family would sigh and roll their eyes at us, because after all she was 'only a dog'.
Sarah was born on 27 April 2006 at 2:30 am. Her breeder called us early the next morning to tell us there were only two puppies in the litter, Sarah and her sister. We would be allowed to visit them in two weeks, and then again at six weeks. We could take one of them home when they were around ten weeks old, depending on how they were developing. Sarah is a purebred Australian Silky Terrier, born into the home of what was then one of only two fully accredited Silky Terrier breeders in Canada, a breeder who produced only two litters per year, and usually only every second year. Marg didn't make a lot of money in the breeding business, and she is now retired, but she was very serious about it. Sarah is a 'true' Australian Silky, and has a pedigree that goes all the way back to Australia. We have her family tree with her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents listed, with many champions among them.
Sarah's breeder thought we would raise her as a show dog, but we only wanted to bring her home, to be a 'regular' dog, to be part of our family. Sarah's registered name is a long one, that is how it works in the world of purebred dogs, but the first part of it is 'Sarah Jessica Barker'. We call her Sarah, and like so many of you who have pets, we also have a host of nicknames for our girl: 'Saree Boo', 'Bunna', 'Pretty Girl', 'Lovie'.
Sarah has been a wonderful traveller, right from the very beginning, and has been a big part of many road trips with us. She has walked the streets of New York City, and has stayed in hotels in which she was a staff favorite. Sarah has a smile, and a warmth, that just draws people to her, and she loves to kiss faces. Silky Terriers as a breed are known for their 'joie de vive', joy of life, and Sarah has that in spades. Sarah also has an amazing capacity for empathy, is drawn to people who seem sad, and does her best to draw them out of their sadness. Just like her brother, she is also a very funny little dog, and sometimes does things that make us howl with laughter. She is an amazing little dog.
A few days ago we noticed Sarah was not quite herself. She was not eating as she usually does, had an upset stomach at times, and was very low energy. On Monday morning we called our Vets and took her in to see them. Sarah's care has always been in the hands of a husband and wife team of Veterinary doctors, Dr. Stuart and Dr. Sarah, who dote on Sarah and Ulee almost as much as we do.
We expected Sarah had a bug of some kind, but during a thorough examination, Dr. Stuart found a lump in Sarah's abdomen that had never been there before. He took x-rays which did not make the mass immediately apparent, but said he wanted to send us to a large animal hospital in Oakville , a town just west of Toronto, so that Sarah could have an ultrasound. "It will be expensive", he said, "and it may just be a fluke; they may find nothing." Dr. Stuart seemed very troubled, and so we loaded our little family into our car and headed to Oakville. Along the way we reassured ourselves, convinced that they would find nothing which could not be easily solvable, with a little bit of medicine and some quiet time, after all Sarah is only five, going on six years old.
Truth be told we didn't like the first doctor at the hospital. His manner was very clinical. He skeptically viewed the x-rays, and said it was probably nothing, but they would run a battery of tests and go ahead with the ultrasound "if we wanted to". We trust Dr. Stuart's wisdom and expertise, and he had sent us there, so "yes, we do want all the tests and the ultrasound" was our reply. We had to sign papers, absolving them of practically all responsibility in the event of 'anything', and I wondered when did everyone become so litigious?
We played with Ulee while we waited for the tests to be done on Sarah, and decided that it was probably something minor and all would be well. When the internist came back into the room he seemed upbeat and happily announced, "well your vet was right, there is a large mass and not only that but all the lymph nodes are involved".
In that moment I felt as though I was falling backward in time, into another place, and another completely unexpected diagnosis of terminal cancer for a human member of my family. We were absolutely stunned. The next few hours brought more tests for further evaluation and confirmation, and eventually we were sent home without Sarah, but with an appointment in hand to see an oncologist the next day.
During the night I could not sleep, tormented by the idea that I must have done something wrong to make this happen, and I called the hospital a couple of times to check on our girl. They said she was resting comfortably, with an i.v. drip, and pain medication helping her.
I do not want to tell you any more about Monday night, or even the hours of Tuesday, and the oppressive darkness that has descended over our lives, just that when we came home the second day we had a confirmed diagnosis of intestinal lymphoma, an extremely aggressive and quickly developing cancer. The oncologist assured us that we had done nothing wrong. "It is just the luck of the draw", she said. "Luck?", I thought, luck had nothing to do with it.
Our little Sarah, our Silky Terrier, will have chemotherapy to make her feel better, and if it improves her state of being we will be allowed to bring her home on Friday. Her little brother Ulee knows something is wrong, and he sniffs her and kisses her face so gently, it is heartbreaking.
Sarah will die; that is an absolute certainty, but her quality of life will be good, no matter what the length of its duration. In a little while our family will be minus one, but when we drive around no one will know, because the little cartoon graphic which will be on our car window will never change.
(4 April, 2012: Our beautiful girl is gone)