I haven't been feeling too hot lately. Not the shoulder surgery, other stuff. It’s been going on for a while. I got tired of hearing myself complain, so I shut up about it.
As a result, Roo has had to wait alone at home a lot while I am bounced from one doctor to the next. Because we are already under an oppressive heat wave as bad as nothing we saw last year until August (the thermometer on the back door reads 90, at 1:30 PM, in early May), there is no question of waiting in the car for Roo, even if the appointments were short, which they never are. She has to stay home alone. This is especially hard on her when there are thunderstorms, which have been happening a lot lately.
Before I leave the house, I say, “I’m sorry, Bearface, but I have to go out and you have to stay here.” Her expression changes instantaneously, like those mimes who draw a hand over their face and go from a smile to a frown. She looks let down. She hangs her head and goes away to be alone, reverting to what she had ingrained in her as a puppy. She lies down under a table and puts her chin on the floor and watches me leave. I wonder if it makes her worry that she will be left alone again, the way she was for her entire puppyhood, the way that damaged her so badly. Alone at the hands of someone who didn’t even think to leave her something to chew, her teeth black at eight months of age.
Yesterday’s field trip was to go have a needle stuck in my abdomen.
It was awkward in the procedure room. For reasons only they will ever understand, the techs instructed me specifically to please keep my clothes on and lie down. They pulled a sheet up over me and then told me to pull my trousers down, while I was lying down. If I had known that they were trying to protect my fragile bashfulness, I would have just pulled my damned pants down and not bothered performing the acrobatics this set of instructions required, which were made more difficult by not being able to put any weight on my right arm, freed only last week from 70 days in a sling and which is still at risk not to mention hurting like a bastard until the rotator cuff that was severed to make way for the prosthetic heals in another month or two. Once I was finished contorting, they tucked the sheet around me to expose only the area where the needle would be placed. By the time they were done I felt like I was the new Southern Baptist Modesty Contest winner.
The examining table was beside a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked an overgrown swamp. All the rain of the early spring has made the weed lots around here indistinguishable from the jungles of the Amazon. Under the lush cover that swamp was throbbing with snakes, coiling timber rattlers and fat, mean-looking copperheads, not even counting all the racers and cute little yellow ringnecks and whoever else is down there looking forward to a summer of satisfying southern food. Just thinking about them made the tightening, adrenalized response I feel during every minute every of every walk with Roo these days creep back up on me. Every minute I am outside with her is nothing but terror. Call me a chicken, I don’t care. I’ve got bigger fish to fry than being considered a chicken right now. I saw her bitten last year and watched another dog die.
But back to the techs, who were flashing the needle intended for me around as if it were meant to warn off an approaching gang of street fighters.
I said, “I wonder how many snakes are down there.” The worst part of the obsession with snakes is that it is fueled by the fact that it is no longer even remotely possible that I would be able to carry Roo out of the forest if she is bitten again, and I worry about this constantly. Hell - out of the forest? I couldn’t lift her into the car any more.
You wouldn’t believe how much time I spend thinking about this. When Roo was snakebitten last August, her pain was terrible enough, but watching a 90-pound chocolate Labrador die in convulsions with four vets trying to resuscitate him was even worse, and I can’t get it out of my mind. Every minute I am walking Roo, snakes are all I think about. I am wound up tighter than a crate of them slung over a low fire and I can think of nothing but snakes out there when I am limping along on Roo’s walks. Something' s wrong with my legs, and that means that even moving at an emergency clip is no longer possible.
Neither of the techs had given a thought to the snake pit before, and they came over to have a look. This brought the needle one of them was wielding into close view. I’ve seen worse. It was only about three-and-a-half inches long. It would have been about right for a miniature horse or a komodo dragon, someone of that size and skin thickness. They both nodded at the swampy lot and one of them said, “Oh, man. LOTS. Lots and lots of snakes down there.”
“Oh, yeah,” the other guy said. “That's snake country, all right."
Of course I was thinking of how Roo would want to tear right through there, her brain lit up by the thought of bunnies who favor thorny underbrush like that.
A million buzzing insects have taken up residence in my ears, and they enjoy screaming in unison about their treatment in hell. Maybe they don’t like the high pressure to which my head is pumped up. It seems to be airtight in there. You could use it if you needed to get some rice cooked in a hurry. A few more pounds per square inch and there could be an implosion. Perhaps it would create a new universe. “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded,” Terry Pratchett noted. BANG - and a young universe radiates a cloud of dust, black holes and pit vipers outwards at 120 million kilometers per hour forever. The Snakey Way. You can see it from here.
The doctor came in. There is a trend in medicine which I think has been listed on the bullet points in hospital handbooks, requiring them to act like they care about their patients, which is ridiculous on the face of it. They have a job to do and should be allowed to execute it as coldly and swiftly as amputations were carried out in Civil War field hospitals, without niceties that just drag things out. They can't risk people writing nasty things on Yelp, though. The doctor worked his way around to his essential point, which was that this procedure was comparable to interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay and no more likely to yield positive results.
This, I am learning, is the chief theme in modern medicine. Doctors are capable of diagnosing something easy. Break an arm, they can splint it. Have a tumor show up on an MRI, sometimes they can scoop it out. But come in with something off the menu? Some unusual infectious disease that hides on tests or a test result they’re not used to seeing, like mine? Forget it. You know those paintings of doctors in velvet Henry the Eighth outfits operating on some poor screaming sonofabitch 600 years ago? Now imagine people 600 years in the future watching a YouTube video of a 2015 liver transplant. They’ll shake their heads the same way we do about curing syphilis with leeches. Complicated diagnoses are more often lost in the shuffle than addressed. Many years ago, I, for example, had to see 23 doctors before one of them figured out that I had an eight-centimeter tumor on the spinal cord. It was out of the day-to-day playbook, too much trouble to deal with. It takes time away from those good-looking pharmaceutical reps who bring Hawaiian golfing brochures over to their office and pretend that their vacations might just line up with the doctor’s.
As I was lying there, and the pressure and the tinnitus got worse, I developed the odd sensation that I was shrinking. I felt as if I was seeing myself through a camera on a balloon that had slipped its tethers and was rising, turning me into a small dot in the center of the frame while the sounds of the staff prepping and horsing around blended with the insects screaming.
Then the door opened, and a strikingly beautiful woman came halfway in, holding the door tentatively, as if undecided about coming or going. She asked if she could watch. The doctor couldn’t have been more delighted. I couldn’t blame him. Show me the guy who doesn’t want to demonstrate some high-functioning technical capacity to a woman like that. I would have buried my face in my palm if I was capable of raising my hand to my face. Not out of vanity. The last wisps of that drifted up and away over some other battlefield long ago, the way the last of it does when you are stacked like cordwood in a donkey cart.
No, it was the absurdity of the situation. Me with my trousers down, my shoes sticking off the end of the table, about to get stuck with a long needle in the belly, shrinking to the size of a mandolin peghead, surrounded by ten million crickets on a frying pan when a gorgeous woman comes in and asks if she can watch.
After she got permission from the doctor she asked me if I minded. She had something of an accent. I used to have two superpowers. The first was the ability to gauge a puppy’s age to within a day. It never failed. When they hit about five months, my accuracy diminished to a week, but that was still pretty good. The other power was nailing accents with remarkable precision. If there were a dozen foreigners in a roomful of Americans, I could tell you what part of which state each of the Americans was from and then identify the foreign accents with similar aim. I wouldn’t tell someone they had an Italian accent, for example - I would specify Bolognese or Milanese or what have you. Lack of practice has dulled these powers, but if they ever come back maybe Roo and I will take them on the road. We could have a carnival sideshow. Mystify the Turbanned Turk With Your Accent and Your Puppy. It might not be a big sell, but if the life of a carny was easy, everyone would do it.
However, at the moment, I was not up to speed. “Where are you from?” I asked her.
“Czech Republic,” she said.
“Over there by Russia,” one of the techs informed me.
I looked at him.
She said, “He looks like he knows exactly where Czech Republic is.”
In my mind I found myself spelling, “C-Z-E-C-H-O-S-L-O-V-A-K-I-A,” which is something I learned to do very fast when I was a small child living, though not suspected by me until From Russia With Love came out, on the fringes of Soviet espionage. But I suppose I just looked like I was lying there sweating and muttering and shrinking.
“Really, you don’t mind if I watch?” she asked. She asked in a genuine way that showed she wasn’t taking it for granted and really sought permission. Still, the only difference between me and a frog pinned to a vivisection tray was that someone was asking me.
“No, no - be my guest,” I said. Half the time lately, my voice is thin and weak. It came out in a croak now.
The guys had encountered a spate of paperwork, so there was some time to kill. I said, “This reminds me of the opening of a book called Ham On Rye. A 15-year-old boy has to go to the emergency room for a runaway case of acne. The doctor puts him under a powerful light and tells him to stay put and comes back with all the interns on duty and says, “Here is the worst case of acne vulgaris I have ever seen in all my career as a physician.” No one found this funny.
Done with the paperwork, the team embarked on an astonishing drill of a type I’ve never seen before to fill up the syringe, and as the next landmark I’m heading towards is 30 surgeries, it’s safe to say that I’ve been stuck by as many as most. One tech held up the little glass bottle in two hands over his head, as if it was a dangerous bomb of some kind that he was about to propel quickly into a hole as soon as everyone else made it safely into a trench. The doctor then braced himself in a wide stance that would address any eventuality up to and including an earthquake and, holding the syringe in both hands, raised it to penetrate the rubber membrane with the needle. This had the added benefit of extending the amount of time I was given to observe the length and breadth and sharpness of the needle.
I turned my head and went back to looking out at the pit of snakes who were all lying in wait for Roo to show up looking for bunnies so that they could sink their fangs into her. It occurred to me that there was a hard number - a number, like many, like the numbers of galaxies in the universe or atoms in a pencil, a number that exists and is estimable but beyond that not ours to know - a number of snakes that were at that moment down there in that swamp. My guess was 27 copperheads and 14 rattlers. Innumerably more if eggs were hatching yet. It was as good a guess as any.
Eventually the doctor sat down beside me and said, “Ready?” and, wincing, he slid the needle in, catching it for a poking moment on the layers of skin and muscle. I didn’t much enjoy his detailed narration of the entire procedure for the benefit of the Czech Republic, but I still could’t blame him. I tried to put a brave face on it, but I doubt it worked, as I am one of that tiny minority of people who does not enjoy abdominal injections. Next, he began to screw the needle around inside my gut, twisting it this way and that, using it as a pointer as he went over the nomenclature of my innards, listing them masterfully for her as he poked at them on the ultrasound screen. It would have been easier if he just sliced me open and laid everything out on the table and drew numbers on them with a Sharpie.
The doctor’s mission was to get the needle down deep inside somewhere, angling and bending it around viscera, muscles and bones on the way to tapping into a particular set of nerves. Every time he got on one of his targets he would say to me, “Lots of pressure, now,” and whang down on the plunger as if he had just spotted a holdout cockroach in a far corner of the plumbing and was mercilessly trying to nail it with a targeted stream of Raid.
“Oh, Doctor! It’s amazing the angle you are able to achieve,” the Miss Czech Republic said to him at one point. He glowed. Then she remembered that I might not be quite as enthusiastic and she gave me a pat on the knee. I don’t know why, but there was something about the way she did it that made me feel like one more pat like that and I would be brought to tears, if I wasn’t already in tears, which I might have been.
After about ten minutes of poking and squishing, the doctor said, “All done!” He pulled the needle out with a theatrical flourish and smiled up to bask in the rays of the beaming Czech sun.
“You okay?” he said to me as an afterthought.
“Ignore the critics, Doc,” I said. “You’re an artist.” I was covered in sweat. My shirt was sticking to me. Someone must been misting me with canola oil.
Outside it was hot and humid. Lately, I’ve been regretting more than ever my failure to get Roo’s List off the ground, and that was what I thought about on the drive home. Next week, more doctors, some biopsies - all more time that Roo will have to be alone. What if there's a surgery? What if it keeps getting harder to walk?
* * *
Like everyone who was interested in seeing Roo’s List come into existence, I’m worried about what happens to Roo if I can’t take care of her, either for the short term or the long term. It has become a preoccupation, a debilitating worry. When I’m not walking her and thinking about snakes, I think about that. There's nothing wrong with me that they won't be able to fix with a pill if they ever figure out which one to administer, but it is a reminder that anything can happen to anyone at any time, and then what? Back to a shelter for Roo? No. Even if it was a choice between some kind of necessary but debilitating surgery or instead scouring the country for a place for Roo to stay where she would get exercise and have her special needs addressed, that’s what I would do. How, I have no idea. No idea beyond Roo's List, which was a busteroo.
* * *
Whenever I get back home from one of these absences, Roo is waiting on the other side of the door. Especially because she was so threatened in her puppyhood by having been isolated and neglected, kept locked up in solitary, I’ve always made a point of not doing anything to make her feel that way. The trick is easy, and works to prevent separation anxiety in any dog: I come back into the house as if I had left a second ago. No hello, no nothing until there is total calm. As a result of having started with brief separations - a few seconds, then a few minutes - and having done this consistently since the beginning, Roo does not get worked up at all. She is happy to see me, but calms down instantaneously. She is such a good girl, but that is not to say that she isn’t troubled and worried about every little thing. Every day, she does seem to get over a bit more of the damage that was inflicted on her, but it will be a lifetime project for her, and it doesn’t happen at all if she doesn’t get to run free and hunt. She is more like a wolf than a dog, in many ways. It makes the idea of what will happen to her if I can’t take care of her unbearable. Roo's List would have made lining up someone who would be ready for a special needs dog like Roo, or any dog, possible if their human has to go to the hospital or drops dead. Damn it.
I changed my shirt and washed my face and thought what I wouldn’t do for a level place to walk her, one place where I wouldn’t have to spend every second praying that a pit viper wasn’t lurking under a leaf.
Roo is going crazy waiting for her walk. We're off.