the things we don't say
“Bring a urine sample,” Google advises, and Luke and I wonder how exactly one collects a urine sample from a dog. Nika, our Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, isn’t inclined to pee on command and probably won’t tolerate being besieged by a soup ladle mid-stream. Nevertheless, we set out on a June morning, armed with said ladle and a bottle of Purell.
I rehearse the things we need to tell the vet: Over the previous two weeks, Nika has seemed constantly parched and started drinking water by the gallon, even sampling from the toilet on one occasion. During a dinner party, she inexplicably started to urinate at our guest’s feet and refused to stop, even while Luke and I rushed after her with paper towels. At the time, we were grateful that she interrupted a tedious, interminable story but still, it seemed out of character.
Mostly, we have attributed this cycle of thirst and incontinence to the onset of summer weather and started to take her out more often. When she lost her appetite entirely, however, I googled her symptoms and narrowed the possible causes down to a bad urinary tract infection.
Now, clumsily ladling urine into a take-out container, we hope that her vet visit won’t be too protracted or exorbitant. Luke and I have a busy day planned (matinee tickets for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall—the stage-adaptation of my favorite novel—and dinner plans with his boss).
“She seems okay, I just want to do some blood work to be sure.” I'm rolling my eyes on the inside. By now we are wise to our vet’s scare-mongering, guilt-tripping game. As first-time dog owners we are prime targets and it chafes each time they convince us to part with hundreds of dollars "just in case" when it always turns out that Nika is fine. Dogs are always fine, aren’t they?
Forty minutes later, the vet calls us back into the room. The mood has shifted. Her expression is grave. “It’s her calcium levels,” she says, “….hypercalcemia…dangerous…kidney damage” are words I hear amid a whirlwind of instruction. She is immediately referring us to an emergency veterinary hospital and packing us off in a cab. Luke takes hold of my hand or I take hold of his. My thoughts become disjointed and poorly prioritized. It’s Nika’s first cab-ride! What causes hypercalcemia? Will we make it to the play? Have I been giving her too much cheese?
Downtown, a new vet speaks in excruciating detail about more tests and ways to bring down her calcium levels. Given that this will take a few hours, we hurriedly sign off, leaving a deposit that is more than our monthly rent, and rush to the Winter Garden Theatre. Lovely name, I think.
Henricus Rex, incarnate in the matchless Nathaniel Parker, thunders around the stage but my mind is with Nika. Nika, being poked and prodded. Nika, with her liquid-gold eyes, looking up at me from the floor of the cab. Nika, who hates strangers, having to abide their roving hands. More thundering, Thomas More is in the Tower, Thomas More is dead. The play ends, doors open, sunlight displaces the audience in the dark hall as we flood into the street.
“So I ran some x-rays,” he says. My eyes snap to the wall (water stain in the shape of Africa), back to his face, to the soap dispenser, to his name tag (Dr. Thomas R— “Half the world is called Thomas,” writes Dame Hilary)—“I found a mass in her chest.”
Am I alone in this? When confronted with a paradigm-shifting catastrophe, weeping and gnashing of teeth become impossible. These reactions do well enough for everyday troubles (Luke can attest that I avail myself of both freely) but they seem performative in moments of true calamity:
1. When my car nearly skidded into the abyss on a dark drive down a mountain,
2. When my grandmother’s casket was lowered into the ground,
3. When Dr. Thomas R___ describes the mediastinal mass in Nika’s chest, which sits between her lungs, the size of a second heart.
In retrospect, I asked good questions, useful ones, although I cannot remember them now. I did not ask the ones at the forefront of my mind. How is it possible that our 1.5 year-old puppy—a spirited, beautiful dog from a healthy line of ridgebacks—should be three weeks from death? How will Luke and I pay for our wedding now that all of our money will be going to chemo? Was it the cheese?