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Sick as a Dog

Back when I was really sick—down to 122 lbs. with a broken back, propped up on a four-wheeled walker with hand brakes—my dogs still wanted to walk.  And I wanted to walk, too.  Hell, I wasn’t dead.  Not yet anyway. 

So one day, I got the bright idea of tying Summa—the larger but more controllable of my two golden retrievers—with her leash to the front of my walker.  I put on the earbuds of my iPod, sucked down some energy gel, and we strolled slowly onto the sidewalk.  When she pulled too fast, I partially-applied both hand brakes and ordered:

    “Slow down, Summa.” 

    We made it to the corner without any hitches.  I could only imagine what my neighbors must’ve thought.  I’d been a distance runner most of my life.  Lifted weights in my garage.  Surfed, too.  Until one day while training for a half-marathon, a vertebra in my lower back suddenly broke.  Hurt like crazy.  My orthopedist diagnosed it the result of a birth defect in my spine.  Birth defect?  At my age?  That was ridiculous and I told him so.  Our relationship and my health spiraled downward.  Seven doctors and nine months later—keeled-over with an all-over-body-pain in my primary-care physician’s office—Dr. Gomez explained:

    “You have multiple myeloma, Mark.”

    I lifted my head.

    “Is that a gum disease or cancer?”

    I’m kind of a smart-ass.  Sometimes.  But I really didn’t know.

    “It’s cancer of the blood and bone marrow.  I’m sorry.”

    I must’ve sighed deeply, because all the air left my being.  As a lifelong athlete, I knew my body well and it had been telling me for a long time that something—not only my wrecked spine—was wrong.  But this was my worst fear.

    “Am I going to die?”

    “Fifty/fifty.” Then he quickly recalculated: “With you—make it sixty/forty.  Better than Vegas odds.” He’d been my doctor for years and knew me well.

    I pretended to laugh.

    “The cancer has shut down your kidneys.  Our primary concern right now is to get them functioning again.  Otherwise, you’re going to be dead in two days.”

    He put his hand on my shoulder.

    “Better make plans—just in case.”

   45-minutes later, I sat in a recliner at Huntington Hospital with an IV needle in the large, bluish vein in the crook of my arm, contemplating my mortality.

    We turned south at the corner.  It was mid-day mid-week, so there wasn’t much traffic.  Another golden named Finicce (Italian for Phoenix, the mythological bird reborn from ashes) was sometimes loose on his front lawn while Justin read the newspaper on their porch.  Summa didn’t like other big dogs.  And sensing my weakened condition, she’d become aggressively defensive of me.  But fortunately, Finicce wasn’t outside today.  I was relieved.  My most immediate fear was not the cancer coursing through my veins but a loose dog or cat or Summa’s favorite—squirrels.  Chasing was no longer within my physical ability.  Slow was my only speed.  I had a limp now, too—left leg—from the cancer in my hip.  X-rays revealed it had spread to every bone in my body—even my freakin’ skull!

    Yep, I was sick as a dog, all right.  Funny expression.  Dogs aren’t necessarily sick at all.  Probably Shakespearean in origin.  From a time when God’s creatures were believed to exist on different levels: the angels above, the beasts below.  So when a man became out of sorts—afflicted with melancholy—his level lowered to that of a dog.  I think.  But it’s been a long time since college.  And I had chemo-brain now—short term memory loss from chemotherapy—which was only temporary.  But then—so was I. 

    At the southeast corner, we made another right turn.  It was warm for early December.  But Southern California was often like that.  So I’d put on sunscreen, a baseball cap, and sunglasses with my T-shirt and nylon track pants.  My clothes hung loosely on me now like a hanger.  A few cars whizzed past.  I felt oddly out of place and time, like an old jockey harnessed behind his horse in a seat-less sulky.  I tried to pick up the pace.  But that didn’t last long.  The cancer—and chemo—sucked my energy.  I just wanted to make it around the damn block!  I hit the brakes again slightly.  

    “Slow down, Summa.”

    Up ahead, a large Rottweiler patrolled his property behind a wrought iron fence and electronically-controlled gates.  As we approached, Summa pulled harder—she knew where he lived, too. 

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said above a whisper, braking.

    I didn’t want my voice alerting the Rottie either.  But Summa continued to pull, her chest heaving, her breathing rasped by the collar pulled tighter around her neck.  I continued braking but the back wheels only slid.  The big-headed Rottie lay in wait.  Summa jerked us forward until both dogs were at each other face-to-face with the wrought iron’s mesh between them, making loud, vicious noises but unable to do each other any harm.

    “Summa!  Stop!” I pulled back on the walker.  “Stop-p-p!”

    She continued to snarl her teeth but backed off from the gate.  The Rottie raced behind the fence to the western gate and stood panting, waiting for our next encounter.  I tried to steer closer to the parkway grass, but at nearly 90 lbs. and with four-footed drive, Summa’s strength out-matched mine.  They went at it again with the gate between them until I convinced Summa to pass.  The honey-colored fur on her back stood-up straight like a warning—DON’T MESS WITH ME!  That Rottie would’ve kicked her butt.  But she remained fearless, defiant. 

    I laughed and wished I had her courage to likewise face my foe. 

    There were no more dogs on this side of the block.  I remembered my iPod in my pocket and turned it on.  The Wallflowers sang of driving home “with o-one headlight.”  Partially-impaired.  Physically and metaphorically.  The objective correlative—something which stands by itself while mutually representing something else in the story.  But my walker had no-o headlights at all. 

    So where in hell did that leave me?  

    We turned north—right turn number three—at the corner.  The purplish-green San Gabriel Mountains stood serrated below the intensely blue sky.  We were more than halfway.  Thank God.  My legs, which had carried me over 10,000 miles in my distance-running past, were already tired.  The bone pain from the cancer was sometimes mind-blowing.  But today—so far—it was bearable. (The two Vicodin I’d popped earlier helped greatly.) 

    I steered us down a driveway because a pit bull lived up at the corner.  But as I strained to look over my shoulder—twisting was painful with my unstable spine—a work truck with ladders sped closely past in the street.  I squeezed the brakes hard, “Whoa!” to stop Summa in front of me.  With the late Amy Winehouse mellifluously refusing to “go to rehab” (her fatal mistake) in my earbuds, I hadn’t heard the truck.  I took a deep breath and sighed.  Summa looked back.

    “My bad.”

    But she didn’t seem to mind my tunnel-vision.  Cancer had a way of doing that to a guy—narrowing one’s vision.  Or to a gal.  It certainly wasn’t sexist.  Or racist.  Or even classist.  No, cancer was an equal opportunity killer.  I looked both ways and crossed to the other sidewalk.  My hip ached.  Just make it to flat ground at the corner.

    We did, eventually, and negotiated a wide, right-turn-number-four out into the street.  From the corner house, the pit bull barked at us.  Summa and I looked over, but he was hidden behind the cinder block wall.  Sometimes, the scariest things of all were unseen. 

    I steered us up a driveway onto the sidewalk.  Only a half-block left.  Cool.  A pleasant, little ditty—“Birdhouse in Your Soul”—came on.  I took out my iPod to turn up the volume and so didn’t see the squirrel ahead on the parkway grass.  But Summa did!  And because I had the iPod in one hand, I only held the walker with the other, which suddenly yanked me forward, face-first onto the sidewalk—“Umph!”—and out of my grasp.  Once again, all the air collapsed from my being.

    When I looked up, Summa with my four-wheeled walker bouncing behind was in hot pursuit of the squirrel, who barely beat her to the base of a jacaranda, the trunk of which it scaled as if shot from a cannon.  Summa leapt teeth-first—she had tasted squirrel before—just missing its bushy tail.  Then she jumped up against the tree as if on tiptoes, staring up, the leashed-walker lying idly behind her on its side—one wheel still spinning. 

    Looking back on that episode in my recovery, I’d be hard-pressed to call it a wholly successful leap forward in physical therapy.  (Face-forward maybe?)   But after six months of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant at our good neighbors the City of Hope, and neurosurgery to implant titanium rods in my spine, Summa and I—reborn like the Phoenix from ashes—were up to three-miles-a-day when we walked.  Without the walker.  Or the limp.  The cancer in remission. 

    I was a light-welterweight again.  Resumed bench-pressing (carefully) in my garage.  I walked my other dog again now, too, even though she was wildly exuberant, even at the end of a leash.     And now that yours truly was no longer sick as a dog, I was pretty damn exuberant, too!


(Previously published in www.commonlinejournal.com, Issue #18, Fall, ’12; Line Zero, Literature Finalist, Vol. 2, Issue 3, Pink Fish Press, 6/’12; High Hopes, City of Hope News, Vol. 11, Fall/Winter, ’15.)