Right after we discovered the tumors in his lungs in March, Ben remained his usual active, eager self. He walked with me every day and jumped at any opportunity to “go bye-bye” in the car. But despite that and our changes to his diet, his illness progressed quickly after about a month.
Every cough made me grind my teeth. What started off as a brief, quiet episode first thing in the morning became louder, longer, and more frequent. When Ben jumped out of bed, he’d hack and hack until he gagged. The same would happen when he walked upstairs or downstairs. With each occurrence, it seemed to take more effort to get his breath back.
Our walks also took more and more out of Ben. His panting would escalate into several coughing fits. We had to stop regularly. He still wanted to come with me, though, so I modified our routine to suit his needs. We walked in the mornings while it was still cool out. Our 45-minute jaunt up and down a 6%-grade incline evolved into a 20-minute flat trip around the block. When even that became too much, I dusted off the baby stroller and tried to get Ben to ride in it while I walked. But he hated that. He jumped out several times, wanting to walk beside me, only to cough and wheeze. I tried to hold him in place with a tight leash and by putting dog treats in the snack tray, but if he didn’t struggle with me, he whined, both of which made him cough, too.
I felt desperate. I second-guessed our decision against chemotherapy and did more research, only to reconfirm our decision. I asked my vet if he could do anything else. Could he drain the tumors? But he could only present the options he initially gave me and offer pain medication. The most we could do now was keep Ben calm and comfortable. If we didn’t require him to do too much, he could breathe easier and just enjoy our company.
Summer approached, and the heat aggravated Ben’s symptoms. With some 100-degree days in the forecast and our central air broken, I bought a window A/C unit for our bedroom and kept Ben in there with me throughout the day while I worked. Heartbroken but determined to keep off the weight he’d helped me lose, I also started sneaking out on my walks without him.
As Ben’s cough grew worse, I felt more and more defenseless. Why did his body have to betray his spirit, which still had so much life? With Petey, we got so many second chances. There was always some procedure to correct his condition and keep him around, happy and healthy, a little longer. When the time came to put Petey down, it was relatively easy to accept because we had done so much to help him. Why couldn’t we do the same for Ben?
It was a hard pill to swallow, but we had to accept that every dog has his own path. We had to come to terms with the inevitable and cherish every breath Ben had left.
I turned to my spiritual side. In the car, I quietly asked questions and then turned on the radio, hoping for some sort of message. On April 17th, I asked how much time Ben had left, and Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” played, making me think he had either two weeks or two months. (Two years seemed out of the question.) After two weeks passed and Ben was still with us, I asked if he would be around for my birthday, which is in mid-July. Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” came on. The line, “You know that love survives so we can rock forever, on,” still resounds with me. An aching in my stomach, I figured it meant he’d be physically gone by then but that he’d be by my side in spirit. Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” also played a few times during these moments. Lyrics like the following told me that the time was coming but to stop looking at it so negatively:Now The mist across the window hides the lines But nothing hides the color of the lights that shine Electricity so fine Look and dry your eyes We So tired of all the darkness in our lives With no more angry words to say Can come alive Get into a car and drive To the other side
I also tuned into my dreams. One still stands out so vividly in my memory. In it, Rob, the kids, and I were packing into this dome theater for a Fourth of July celebration. Families sat on the floor on blankets, anticipating a laser show on the ceiling. As we looked for a spot, loud music played. Nancy Sinatra’s voice sang “These Boots Were Made For Walking.” These giant white go-go boots walked across the dome, dipping down toward us. As my family settled onto the floor, a red light caught my attention; it glowed from a dark closet across the room. I walked toward it. It took on a heart shape. As I stepped into the closet to get a better look, the music changed. Now, a choir of hundreds chanted a song that sounded like the chorus from “Over at the Frankenstein Place” in Rocky Horror Picture Show. But instead of, “There’s a light,” they sang, “There’s a heart.” I closed the closet door, and the heart grew brighter until white lines shot from it, then burst into a whole spectrum of colors. The song reached its peak as the choir belted, “Whenever this life gets too hard….” Then, a man’s voice with an English accent spoke: “I will kiss ya.” At that moment, all of the light intensified and engulfed me. I closed my eyes and soaked up its warmth.
As cheesy as some or all of that may sound, when I woke up that morning, I knew that whatever happened, Ben would always be near me. I did not have to fear losing him.
That dream would help get me through the next stages of our journey.