This is the timeline so far:
Thursday, May 23, Gallatin, Tennessee: Roo was feeling good and went for a walk and a swim. In the afternoon, she rolled around in the grass, and I noticed that her vagina was swollen. Later that night I felt the first swollen lymph gland, the right mandibular at the base of her jaw.
Friday, May 24: Memorial Day weekend, and every campground is packed. We are required to leave the campground and are invited by friend Pamela to camp at her place 60 miles south. A devoted dog parent and rescuer, she has the line on vets and arranges an immediate visit for Roo. Around 2 PM, the vet there says that Roo appears to have lymphoma. Because of the holiday weekend, test results won’t come back until Tuesday. That evening, I mention to Pamela that Roo’s belly seems a little big.
Saturday, May 25: We begin the 1320-mile drive to Maine, but only manage 500 miles. Early in the drive, Roo eats some homemade chicken jerky Pamela gave us, but by afternoon refuses to eat anything more. We spend the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Ashland, Ohio.
Sunday, May 26: With 820 miles left to go, we leave Ashland around 7:30 in the morning. Thunderstorms are moving in ahead of a storm system that will later spin tornadoes and drop baseball-sized hail, and my goal is to get ahead of the storms. Roo refuses all food all day. Stopping only for gas and the short walks that are all Roo could manage, especially in the 94-degree heat and high humidity over the entire route, we complete the 820 miles to Maine and arrive at Virginia and Jim’s house at 9:45. Through veterinarian friends, the get the name of the best veterinary oncologist.
Monday, May 27: Memorial Day. Roo, exhausted and weakened, refusing to eat, is checked into Maine Veterinary Medical Clinic in Scarborough, Maine. Preliminary tests and imaging agree with the preliminary lymphoma diagnosis. Roo is placed in the intensive care unit so that she can receive IV fluids and be prepared for chemotherapy and the other drugs the oncologist might administer when she completes the examination the next morning.
Tuesday, May 28: Dr. Virginia Gill examines Roo, performs more tests and confirms lymphoma. Roo’s CHOP protocol chemotherapy is begun.
* * *
My plan, up to the time this all began to happen so fast, was to continue eastward to Asheville, where I had to see my doctor, and then to look for a place to rent somewhere. I thought West Virginia might be a likely place. It’s not where I wanted to live, but there are cheap rents, places to hike a field dog like Roo, and it wouldn’t cost as much to move my stuff out of storage in Asheville. Nothing like that will ever happen now.
The heat — the damnable heat — had been intense for weeks. Roo has always slowed down to a crawl in the heat, and though I now realize that she was also sick, I made what I suppose, and will never forgive myself for, the mistake of not realizing sooner that she was ill.
And, she also had the lingering trouble with her paw after the surgery to remove the growth between the toes on her left front paw. The incision healed nicely, but Roo picked at a little scab and gave herself a hotspot. A better dog parent might have known better, but I chalked some of her slowing down to that. And by the Thursday on which the timeline above began, she seemed happy and healthy. Even in the heat, she wanted to walk and chase squirrels. She wasn’t allowed to because she had been restricted to a leash for weeks to prevent her from hurting her surgery paw by digging up mouses.
I also missed another hint that she was feeling bad. Roo has a bed on the floor beside mine. The problem with that bed is that it’s under the air conditioner, and she has always, at some point in the night, moved out from under that and to the other side of the bed. On that side, the space is much more narrow. It’s where she has always gone to hide. She started sleeping there some days before she swelled up. She must have been doing that because she was feeling bad. I think the hard floor felt better for her than the cushion of the bed.
The other cue I missed was that a few times each night Roo sat up and placed her head on the bed to get my attention. This is what she does when there’s a thunderstorm and she wants to come up on the bed and needs help. But there were no storms, and I attributed that to her having hear some other noise in a campground, or the heat, which the air conditioner couldn’t handle. Now I know she was trying to tell me she wasn’t feeling good. I missed that. More proof that I don’t deserve a dog.
* * *
When Roo was checked into the hospital, she was of course upset when she was placed in a six-by-six-foot enclosure in the ICU. She found the strength to put up a powerful struggle to keep the door from being closed by jamming her nose in it. I went in the enclosure with her, but had to leave an hour later because visiting hours in the ICU are restricted. I wouldn’t be allowed to come back to see her again until 5 PM, so I used the time to drive the 40 miles back up to Brunswick, where I hitched the camper back up and then drove back to the hospital. I wanted to be close to Roo. I spent the night in the parking lot. Because it’s a 24-hour facility, I was allowed to schedule more visits.
On the first visit, around 5, I was able to go to Roo’s enclosure and sit with her for an hour. She was sick, stressed and exhausted, and we just sat there together. Hospital staff told me to leave at 6 because of intensive activity in the ICU that would last until 8 PM.
When I went back at 8, activity in the ICU must have been too crazy, because I was brought to a visiting room to which Roo was brought a minute later.
This was a mistake. Roo was excited to see me, but that burst of activity was hard on her and she had to lie down right away. After 15 minutes, I started to worry that it would have been better for her to settle in for the night with any more excitement. I left so that she could take the trazadone they were going to give her to help her sleep. You don’t want to leave your sick dog, but it seemed like the better way to help.
I couldn’t stand the thought of going back inside the camper, so I sat in the waiting room for an hour. There was a young couple there waiting for their Lab Cheeseburger. Cheeseburger had some blooding his urine. He was eleven-and-a-half years old.
One of them asked what was wrong with my dog and I told them. The young man said that if Cheeseburger ever got a terminal diagnosis, he knew what he would do. He’d make a bucket list of all of Cheeseburger’s favorite things and people and that’s how he and Cheeseburger would spend those last weeks.
I said that was a great idea, but it was all I could do to keep from breaking down because it occurred to me that the only thing left undone on Roo’s bucket list was to get the hell out of the camper, something there is virtually no chance of happening now.
* * *
Our appointment with Dr. Gill wasn’t supposed to be until June 3rd, but because of Roo’s condition she made time to see her first thing. We got off to a bad start when I asked her to humor what she might regard as a superstition, that I never wanted to discuss any of the grim stuff around Roo. Ever since the oncologist at Fort Collins told me that the only dog they’d ever cured of lymphoma was in her opinion cured because the dog was never exposed to any talk about dying, and I had talked about it in front of Orville for the entire course of his disease, it gnawed at me the way only the greatest of regrets can.
Dr. Gill told me what was next. She was not going to perform the fine needle aspirations of Roo’s liver and spleen because there was no point. Finding cancer there would not change the chemo protocol, so there was no reason to subject Roo to it. They had to do other studies and imaging, and once she absolutely confirmed lymphoma, she would administer the first of Roo’s chemo treatments. There was no time to waste.
And that’s how it went. I drove the camper back up to Brunswick because even after nearly four years, Roo is still frightened any time it is parked and hitched or unhitched. This way it would just be ready for her when she came back. Pickup time was 5:30. On the way, I bought a rotisserie chicken and found a place that had fresh goat milk, which Roo loves. She still hadn’t eaten anything since Saturday.
Dr. Gill met me — in another room, out of Roo’s earshot — and filled me in. Roo has Stage IV lymphoma. She suspects that it is of the B-cell variety, but the lab, in Colorado, won’t get the specimens until tomorrow morning. Roo was given L-asparaginase, prednisone and some other drugs, the first and critical step in trying to induce the remission that is the hope and goal of lymphoma treatment in dogs, a temporary restoration of some, as they say, quality of life, as opposed to quantity of life. The first goal is for the L-asparaginase and prednisone to get Roo feeling well though to perk up and start eating again. If it doesn’t work, the second drug in her chemo protocol will be given to her at her next appointment on Thursday afternoon.
I waited for Roo at the cashier, standing there beaten, seedy, unshaved, in dirty old clothes even though I wore my best shirt, which is 20 years old today and which I keep in the camper because it is the least frayed, called 70 on two separate recent occasions, though i’m ten years shy of that. For the second time since Friday a credit card quit at a veterinarian’s checkout, but somehow the third and last one took the load. I’m too far gone to have been embarrassed. I don’t know if the hospital was holding Roo hostage, I don’t think so, but they didn’t bring her out until the payment went through. As weak and drugged as Roo was, she was still so happy to see me and glad to get in the car. On the drive she slept for the first time in days. She woke up once and put her paw on my arm and looked at me with love and a straightforward expression that she wasn’t feeling good. It is now, as it was then, all I can do not to let her see how sad I am.
“I know you’re a sick little bear, Chig,” I said. “That’s why you had to go to the doctor. But soon you’re going to feel better and the first thing you’re going to do is catch a big, fat mouse.”
I’m not sure she saw it the same way. She went back to sleep.
We’re back in the camper now. I waited until she settled in and, while she slept I cut the chicken up and put some on a little cutting board. I got on the floor with her and tried to get her interested in it, and finally, she ate some.
It’s the fist glimmer of hope, but the truth is that this cancer has moved so fast that it seems like it will be a miracle if Roo lives much longer at all.