victory

Nika sunrise

We sleep in the living room with her for ten days—Luke on the couch, me on the floor. Sometimes at night she thrashes, sometimes she needs to go out suddenly. I keep my keys and coat by the door along with a bottle of water for the pavement. Sick as she is, she's holds on with all her might until she gets outside. The hallway, elevator, and lobby are spared; the club-goers are not. She doesn't get much privacy as the 4am Saturday throngs teeter around her mess, squealing and grimacing. I wash it away as best I can.

During her five months of remission, I told myself she was doing well because she was. The fur grew back on her belly and paws, she celebrated her second birthday racing up and down a Jersey Shore beach, she learned to jump for treats.

Luke and I fell into a routine, driving her up to the veterinary hospital twice a week, moving the car around every morning to avoid street-cleaning tickets, taking her to a park or beach or forest on the weekends. I kept obsessive, meticulous records of her treatments; drug names cycled through my head like a spell—vincristine, doxorubicin, L-asparaginase, cyclophosphamide. 

Doing these things felt good. Every active step felt like a small victory and the more we did, the more likely she was to—what? Win? Survive? What was I hoping for? I counted the remaining treatments and she was due to have her last round of chemo on December 30th, just in time to ring in the new year with no more visits to the hospital. Then the cancer came back.

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It's hard not to think about it. What if she'd had a different life? What if she'd stayed in Argentina with her breeder, on the idyllic farm where she was born? What if the Italian couple that was supposed to take her hadn't backed out? What if she had never come to New York? People who are kind will say kind things like "Of course it's not your fault," and "cancer is unpredictable," but what if it had all been different? Nika was the quietest, gentlest soul. What if living in this loud, crowded city weighed on her so heavily that her body rebelled? What if my love, as vast as the sea and higher than mountains, was not enough to give her a happy life? 

But in the end she knows me and I know her, and I know she has always been mine. Throughout her life, people have asked me if she's a rescue, as if there's something wrong with her and that would explain it. They ask because she's shy and doesn't let strangers pet her, ducking behind my legs or a under a bench to get away—I suppose they ask because they worry what her reticence reveals about them. Woodrow Wilson said “If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience." Nika expects the latter of nearly everyone, but once she decides you are one of her people, she loves you with her whole heart.

I know this Nika. I know every freckle in her pink ears and the groove between her eyes where she likes to be scratched; I know the tiny scar on her muzzle and the bit of white on her right hind paw; I know the pattern of her whiskers, even though they fell out from the radiation; I know the veins that run around the edges of her velvet ears; I know her worry at the sounds in the hallway; I know the reflexive joy of her thumping tail; I know the rise and fall of her ribs and her audible happy-breathing; I know her beating heart and the golden depths of her eyes; I know her dreams when I hold her, watching them seep from her head to the tips of her toes. 

I know when I open the door that she is done. She wags her tail for me still, but there is a quarter-sized drop of blood on the floor. We can ask no more of this little one; she has fought so hard and given everything. I call the vet and by some miracle she is nearby. Luke and I hold Nika and whisper to her. I wish we'd rehearsed this because there is altogether too much happening—too many forms, I can't find my checkbook, too many calls, too many instructions, too many variables, effluvia, awkwardnesses when all I want to do is look into her eyes.

I named her 'Nika' after victory, and in her own way she lived up to the name. In her short life she changed everything. She is half of my soul.