When Cancer Comes For Those You Love
By Sarah Kilch Gaffney
I cringed as I listened to the nails on Gabbie’s back left foot drag along the pavement with every step. A couple of weeks ago, it was every other step. A few weeks before, it had been every seventh or eighth. Before that, it was winter, when snow banks kept us off the shoulderless road and the weakening of her limb was still imperceptible.
As Gabbie’s leg worsened, I did some research, then took her to the vet. After an examination, the vet told me it was extremely likely that Gabbie had a spinal tumor. As he began explaining how the musculature in her left leg had already atrophied, how she would get progressively worse, and how to watch for signs of pain in someone unable to communicate such things in words, I had to turn away. We agreed to not go forward with her vaccinations, and that I would call if I had questions or she seemed like she was suffering. I probably seemed disinterested, like I didn’t care that my dog was dying, but I needed to pay for the exam and I needed to leave and I needed to do it quickly.
I knew so much more about what was to come than he could have imagined.
My daughter, who was home sick from school that day, had accompanied us to the vet’s office. As soon as we got into the car, I felt the pressure rise in my chest and throat. I lowered my face to the steering wheel.
“Mama, why are you crying?” piped my five-year-old from the back seat.
I took a couple of deep breaths as I turned to face her. “Do you remember when Daddy was sick and he slowly got worse and worse?” She nodded. “Well, that’s what’s going to happen with Gabbie, sweetie.” I paused. “And eventually she’s going to die like Daddy, too.”
Almost exactly two years prior, my husband had died from a brain tumor. And now, life had thrown another one at me.
Part of me was horrified that I’d used her father’s death to explain what was going to happen to Gabbie, but I knew it would immediately provide a context she could understand. She had lived through it with her father, so why on earth would I beat around the bush with the dog?
Though I had known from my research the news about Gabbie would not be good, I was an absolute mess the rest of the day. Every time I thought I had regained my composure, it would dissolve again. It felt almost exactly like when my husband’s oncologist told us there was nothing left to be done.
We knew he was dying, but early on it had been almost easy to pretend he wasn’t. We were told the tumor would eventually be terminal, yet we remained hopeful that maybe he would be one of the lucky ones. He was so young. And for the first couple of years, you couldn’t even tell he was sick unless you knew what to look for: his fatigue; a missed word here or there; the barely-there question-mark scar.
Though I knew all along those words were coming, none of the waiting or knowing prepared me for hearing them spoken aloud. Despite my best efforts at self-control, I could not stop weeping. The nurse whisked me away from the chemotherapy treatment room where my husband sat hooked up to an IV with 20 other cancer patients.
I fell apart for a day, and then I gathered myself together and continued on, caring for my husband and daughter like I had every day before. My husband lived for another three months before he died in my arms.
Gabbie came into our lives almost nine years ago. My husband and I, who had been married for just over a year, adopted her from the local shelter. She was four and a half months old, a suspected lab/hound mix with awkwardly long legs and huge paws, and she was almost more than we could handle. Her previous owners determined she was “too active” for their older dog, and had subsequently locked her in a crate for extended periods of time before eventually surrendering her.
Her separation anxiety was monumental, but at the same time she couldn’t be contained in a small space without suffering from panic attacks. She scratched the doorframe to shreds when I stepped outside to hang laundry on the line, and she chewed my clothing and shoes when we left her alone. She was equally terrified, perplexed, and excited when interacting with people, other dogs, cats, anything living. She jumped up on people, pulled hard on her leash, and tried to dart at cars in the road. We sweet-talked the folks running a puppy socialization class into letting Gabbie in, even though she was well over the age limit. The first night of class, she cowered when a nine-week-old Golden Retriever tottered over to say hello and then spent the second half of class barking frantically.
Over the years, she slowly improved. When we bought our house, we found that the dining room was the perfect size to contain her without sending her into a panic. The following year, we got a second dog. Elsie, a Border Collie from a farm down the road and quirky in her own way, provided Gabbie with some much-needed companionship during the work day. Eventually, Gabbie’s separation anxiety abated.
The day we came home from the emergency room with my husband’s brain tumor diagnosis, I was distraught. My husband was only 27 years old and I didn’t understand how this could be happening. Gabbie was beside herself and would not leave my side. When our daughter arrived eighteen months later, we weren’t sure how Gabbie would do. But she proved to be the most tolerant and forgiving playmate a child could ask for. While Elsie, along with the cats, always made sure to stay just out of our daughter’s reach, Gabbie happily lay down next to her on the play mat, giving her soft sniffs and occasional licks. As our daughter became mobile, Gabbie didn’t care if she crawled and climbed on her. They were constant companions.
Four and a half years after my husband’s diagnosis, as he lay dying in a hospital bed in our bedroom, Gabbie and I curled up next to him. The night he died, after the funeral home had come for his body and everyone had finally left, I collapsed into bed. I stared at the empty hospital bed and Gabbie tucked herself in tightly against me, providing comfort and warmth through the most difficult night of my life.
Now she is dying from a tumor uncannily similar to the one that killed my husband. I have no idea how long Gabbie has. Her back left leg flies out behind her all of the time, but she’s still happy and goofy and running around like a puppy as best she can.
As her leg gets progressively worse, I keep an eye out for signs of pain. We still go for walks, but I’ve shortened the distance as she tires more easily. She still likes to be in the same room as me whenever possible, and will find a comfortable place to sleep wherever I happen to be working, writing, or folding laundry. I give her extra treats and extra peanut butter with her bladder medication. We play as much fetch in the backyard as her leg will allow. As I begin to work in the vegetable garden, turning the soil and picking out the innumerable stones, she sprawls in the grass nearby chewing on a ball or stick, tongue lolling in canine bliss.
I’ll do what I can to make sure she’s comfortable and happy for as long as possible, and when her quality of life diminishes beyond the point of reason, I hope I can care for her, let her feel my presence, and help usher her into death with a little peace and a lot of love. While I don’t feel ready to ease another loved one into death so soon, I also know there is no greater gift: to give love absolutely; to provide peace in any way we can; and to be there at the very end.