I had some personal struggles last month that left me wishing for a wise guru, someone who would swoop in, sort things out and tell me what to do.
And then Skye called and asked if I’d meet her for coffee. She had an hour.
Her Royal Highness Princess Grace Jelly—Skye’s 9-year-old chow and January cover girl on the vet’s 2011 calendar—had been diagnosed with an osteosarcoma above the knee in her hind left leg. The oncologist had presented two options: amputate the leg, followed by six rounds of chemo, or euthanize her. Jelly was in pain, couldn’t bear weight, refused food, wasn’t sleeping.
Skye knows more than your average dog owner about what was going on with Jelly’s leg. She’s a physician’s assistant, formerly a massage therapist and before that one of six women who ran Nederland’s Rainbow Cafe when they were free-loving, drug-friendly hippies. She never had kids but has always had a dog. Always a chow and usually more than one. To come back in another life as her pet would not be a bad thing. Most children don’t have it so good.
That morning, over her latte and my tea, she tells me about the dog whisperer. Skye’s blue eyes are rimmed in red. Telltale bags hang below them. She and her partner have had two weeks to adjust to the news. They’ve had time to get over the initial shock of the diagnosis and entertain the possibility of Jelly moving through the world on three legs, or just moving on. The dog whisperer is calling at 1:00. She does her work by phone from Portland, telepathically tuning into the dog through images, and then communicating what she sees to the owner.
“I have two questions for this woman,” Skye tells me, those bold sapphire eyes fixed on my face. “I want to know if Jelly understands what’s wrong with her, and I want to know what she wants to do about it. Is she ready to die or does she want the amputation. Those are my questions.”
I’ve never worked with a dog whisperer. This one sounds remarkable. Skye had a chow several years ago who died just two weeks after the two of them had moved to Michigan. Ozone transitioned to the afterlife the week Skye started grad school.
“This dog was the love of my life. Truly. A black chow, gorgeous. I recovered from his death because I grew up in a working class family in the Midwest and recover is what we did, but it was difficult, the hardest loss I’ve ever had. I felt so guilty. I was convinced I had killed Ozone by asking him to move.”
With PA certificate in hand, Skye lands a job in end-of-life care in Pittsburgh. She stays for four years before wanting back to the place she loves best, the place she always returns to. Colorado. She tells a friend how worried she is about moving Ted and Jelly, the chows that followed Ozone.
“Last time I moved, Ozone died. I’m terrified it might happen again. Chows are inflexible by nature. They like their routines.”
The friend tells her about the dog whisperer. “Call her,” Donna advises. “I don’t believe in woowoo, but this woman is amazing.”
Skye figures she has nothing to lose, and places the call.
“Before we talk about your concern,” says the woman in the first minutes of that conversation, “I want to tell you that a black chow is with us and he says for you not to feel guilty. The move had nothing to do with him dying. Now, what is your concern today?”
“You could have knocked me over,” Skye tells me. “I had told her nothing. I was blown away, dumbfounded. Lottery numbers, the track, you name it. I decided right then and there to listen to whatever this woman had to say.”
Fast forward seven years. It only makes sense that when Skye got the news about Jelly’s tumor, the dog whisperer popped into her head. The one o’clock phone call comes in, with Jelly in the room, the phone on speaker. Skye has briefed the whisperer on the sarcoma and the optional amputation.
“Jelly understands she might lose her leg,” reports the whisperer from Oregon after a few minutes of “communicating” with Jelly. “She wants to know what will happen to her left front paw.”
“Okay,” Skye tells me a few days later, “this is the really weird part. There is no way in hell this woman knew that Jelly has had a pronated left front paw for two years. I didn’t tell her… not one thing. Never mentioned it. Scott didn’t either. But this is what Jelly wanted to know because that paw has been problematic.”
“She wants the amputation,” the whisperer told the anxious parents. “She says she wants to lie on the sofa again and look out the window.”
Of course. Her favorite spot. In the last weeks, with the tumor growing larger and increasingly more painful, Jelly hasn’t been able to jump onto the sofa. This is her dream, to once again spend her afternoons watching the activity on the street in front of their house, the bunnies running from garden to grass, the occasional biker. Affirmative on the amputation. She wants her life back. Who doesn’t understand that.
Jelly survived the surgery. Her leg was amputated high in the hip socket. The first days home were nightmarish, hard on all of them. Jelly made sounds that Scott and Skye, in all their years of medicine, had never heard a human utter. And then suddenly, literally overnight, she seemed better. The parents stood in the kitchen on a Saturday morning and watched Jelly crouch down and saunter out the dog door. She’s on her way back, they thought… begging for food, lumbering around the house, annoyed with her chow-brother Ted, generally acting like her chow self, albeit subdued.
I rode my bike the hour and a half to their house early the next morning to see for myself. Jelly slowly raised up on her three legs when I walked into the room and came over to say hello. She’s a gorgeous beast, rather like a lion head-on. The rear view, on the other hand, was a little raw but hey, the stitches were clean and evenly sewn. It looked like a fine job to my untrained eye. Skye and Scott declared their dog on the road to recovery and I concurred. We drank lattes to celebrate. Skye treated herself to a bagel with cream cheese. I left the house, imagining Jelly on the sofa, staring out the window the next time I saw her.
One day later, a Monday. Like a great weekend that turns ugly when work kicks in, the incision started to drip, then weep, then stream and finally gush—Skye’s words in an email. They rushed Jelly to the emergency department where they learned she had a seroma—a collection of fluid and blood—in the area of her incision, and that it would take “awhile” to stop.
“A while?! What the hell does that mean?!” ranted Skye. “And in the meantime we do WHAT?!” Skye is fried. They all are. The stress of no sleep, would Jelly be okay, what’s with all the blood. They cordoned the depressed and miserable dog in the living room to contain the oozing, icky drainage on a washable hardwood floor. Scott came down with the flu, and Skye washed bedding and towels and clean-up cloths nonstop. A day later, this email arrives:
Up all night again, exhausted, worn out, uncertain, flailing, loved, supported, filthy bloody house… We are all so tired… On my way to Nia, have to move. Will write more later.
Somewhere in all that, she wrote that she was more convinced than ever that she would have made a shitty mom. Can’t take much more of this were her words.
Like the surgeon predicted, the oozing took its time, then lessened and finally stopped. Jelly gradually got her strength back. So did her parents. There was one more trip to the ED and a final visit to the surgeon. He believed they got the cancer in her leg and it didn’t appear that her lungs were involved, not yet anyway. Day by day the recovery trended upward. And then the really big news came.
The biopsy results. Turns out that wicked tumor in the amputated leg wasn’t the aggressive osteosarcoma the surgeon had predicted but a synovial cell carcinoma, a quieter, more mellow form of cancer not likely to spread to Jelly’s lungs—or anywhere else in her round, thick body. He pronounced her “cured,” with the caveat common to chows: a relatively short life. Another three years, more or less.
Since then Skye, Scott and Jelly have had two more conversations with the dog whisperer. Both times Jelly affirmed with great conviction that she would not want chemo if it were ever indicated. Jelly has said that her pain is gone and that she’s feeling good, evidenced by her bullying behavior, her rolling in the grass and the two-block walk she’s tolerating twice a week. The dog with three legs is gradually trusting her abilities again although, at last report, she has yet to hang out on the sofa. All things in their own good time.
I never did find a guru to solve my problems, but I did sit with them for nearly a month. And then one day, as miraculously as the cessation of Jelly’s oozing incision, the “problem” lifted and I found my way. Maybe I’ll hang out on the sofa later.