Tillie turns eight today. Over the last six weeks , we’ve gone through a health scare with Tillie. It began with a painful sore on her bottom that was not healing, despite two courses of antibiotics. The third trip to the vet revealed a growth just inside her bottom. Her vet suspected a tumour and refered us to a specialist in Cork. Once the referral was made, all we could do was sit and wait.
I’m no better than Tillie at sitting and waiting. The vet had already warned us that colon cancer in dogs carries a pretty grim outcome. My internet searches confirmed this. Most dogs will die within three months of diagnosis, even with surgery and treatment. And those three months are excruciatingly risky and painful for the dog. Large dogs and dogs between the ages of seven and nine make up the majority of those that develop colon cancer. Tillie was just shy of eight. She’s a big girl at thirty-three kilograms. She ticked all the worst boxes. My sweet girl.
Now I am generally a glass-half-empty type of person. Hope terrifies me because, historically, dashed hopes have knocked me hard. Let’s just say, I have issues. Looking at Tillie and thinking to myself ‘This could be our last week together, our last month, three months’ whatever the case — ‘our last time‘ felt tangible and near, inevitable, unavoidable and unbearable. I could not look at her in the present moment without simultaneously seeing her vanish. Anticipatory Grief. I know it well and fall down that rabbit hole so effortlessly, with such familiarity. It’s like my true home. I had to consciously pull my head out of my pre-grieving ass and be present with the living, breathing, loved and lovable, tail-wagging dog standing in front of me, wanting attention, love, contact, and my presence. Tillie was giving me a masterclass in living in the here and now. She deserved and deserves nothing less.
The next week as we waited for her appointment in Cork I probably watched Tillie closer that ever before — I mean really watched her. It was obvious that her bottom was uncomfortable, but her appetite was as good as ever, her eyes were bright and she was as happy, playful and energetic on our walks as ever before. Hope was nudging at me. I’d cuddle her, breathing in her doggy smell and whisper ‘stay with me’ into her fur. But driving to her appointment apprehension had my stomach tied in knots. I couldn’t manage a conversation with my partner at all — my head was full of Tillie.
The specialist looked her over thoroughly. He commented on how well her colour, coat and skin looked. He told us her heart sounded very strong. More hope seeped in. Questions about her history, her general health through the years and her current problems were asked and answered. He told us we could collect her later that day and he’d phone us with her lab results in about a week.
At this point Tillie was on her third course of antibiotics and pain relief. She had to wear a donut collar to keep her from licking the wound, but she was coping really well. She seemed her usual happy, hungry self. My own mood began to shift as well. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I felt very hopeful. I started allowing myself to imagine that she’d be fine and we’d have much more time together. A week later my hopes were confirmed. She doesn’t have cancer, just a nasty infection that will take a bit more time to heal.
A few weeks later and today we celebrate Tillie’s birthday. She started her sixth course of antibiotics today, but the wound is healing nicely. We’ve had atrocious weather all week, so we haven’t had much outdoor adventure time, but Spring will happen and our adventures will begin again. This is our eighth year together. This episode with her illness taught me so much about myself, about my relationship with Tillie and my history and relationship with loss and grief. It’s also taught me about gratitude, love and commitment. Tillie came into my life at a time of enormous loss. She is the baby of my grieving widowhood. She was the new light shining in a dark moment in time. She continued by my side through additional losses — my sister, my father, my two older dogs — the dogs of my marriage and that other life that now seems centuries away from where I am today. Through all of that, Tillie has had that uncanny ability to redirect my attention to the now. The drumming of her tail, the swagger in her gait, her gentle, sleeping snore restore me again and again to the present moment. She is a gift that I very likely do not deserve, but am lucky enough to have anyway. I love her and I’m so grateful that I have more time to continue loving her and making her tail wag.