The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive
 

Bet on Sugarpuss at Wharfhaven.
At Mercy Meadows, Let Me See Your Ruffalo.
Your best bet this week is Shakealeg McGee at Standish Downs.

The new vet has a habit of touching my arm to reassure me that there's nothing to worry about. I hate being touched by strangers, but I appreciate her humanity, and her clean, open face. She speaks to Radar in soft, cheerful tones, and doesn't cringe when he lunges and growls. She calls his mandatory muzzle his “funny little hat.”

“We can take off his funny little hat once he's asleep,” she said, tapping his forearm for a vein. Radar had been puking for days. Typically, Radar puking is nothing to worry about. He's a master scavenger, and I can't count the times I have wedged a hand down his humid throat to retrieve a half-chewed nightmare before it disappeared: scraps of food, plastic, bone, disturbingly unidentifiable mush. He compulsively chews leaves and grass, so the occasional purging is to be expected. But this time, the allowable amount of disgusting digestive incidents had passed, and he hadn't eaten a full meal in three days. He needed X-Rays to rule out a blockage, and in order to be X-rayed, he needed to be sedated, lest he injure himself or the team of vet techs it would take to hold him still.

This was not the first time I had held Radar on a cold metal table while a vet gave him a shot to make him fall asleep. There was the broken dew claw that had to be removed, twice, and the abscess that had to be drained. Each time, like this time, the vet asked me to stay with Radar while he went under because “he does so much better when you're here.” It never takes long for the sedative to work; in moments he goes from tightly-wound ball of muscle to deep-breathing pile of loose skin. The sedative is the same one used prior to euthanasia, when animals are put to sleep before being put to sleep, designed to be fast and strong so they have no time to freak out. It's hard not to think about this while holding Radar on the table, not to flash-forward to some future day when I will hold him as he falls asleep for the last time. The saddest part of these sedation procedures is leaving the office with an empty leash. It feels wrong to leave him behind, even for a few hours, even for his own good.

“I'll call you as soon as he wakes up,” the vet said.

Radar has a superhero persona, created by my friend Brandi and me: the Scrambler: a well-intentioned hero of incredible strength who bursts on the scene to saves the day but makes a huge mess in the process.

“Help us, Scrambler!” the people cry, on the precipice of some terrible disaster.

“Scrambler, no!” they cry again, as he knocks them over the edge with his enthusiasm and good intentions.

“Oh Scrambler, we love you,” the people say, as debris falls on them from above.

A few weeks before Radar got sick, I got sick myself, falling into a deep depression that had me afraid to leave the house, going to sleep crying, waking up crying, and crying a lot in between. Picture that insipid “depression hurts” commercial, the woman staring useless at the floor while her hopeful dog brings her the ball. Animals can tell. My pets start to fight among themselves, chasing each other from room to room, taking refuge at my side and sulking when I push them away because I'm feeling everything too intensely to be touched. Radar stares at me until I close a door in his face.

Radar is a “bad dog.” He regularly destroys my personal property, rarely comes when called, barks and growls at strangers, has killed two chickens, one goose, and one mouse, and will never, ever be allowed near a human child. He's also a champion cuddler, and a favorite of every doggy daycare employee he has ever met. He wants to be cradled like a baby by the people he knows and trusts, and those people – my family, my boyfriend, the few friends who have been invited to my house – laugh at the way he hurls himself into their laps and leans into them as if trying to be absorbed. He's the most affectionate animal I've ever known.

For the longest time, Radar seemed indestructible, my little cannonball on legs. Lately, he's been slowing down, dawdling on jogs, limping stiff-legged out of bed. He's started to show his age. The thing about dogs is they get old fast, and it sucks, and the only thing you can do is take care of them for as long as you are able. The thing about dogs is you can say “the thing about dogs” and know with absolute certainty that someone already knows what you mean. Guaranteed understanding is rare in this world. It's a common but singular experience to love a dog, and to feel responsible for the wellbeing of a creature who can't tell you where or how bad it hurts.

The opening credits to the Scrambler television series show the Scrambler tearing through a poster of his own face, torpedoing across the set, knocking down boom operators and lighting rigs, streaking past the startled crew and director (me in a beret with an old-timey megaphone), and running at full speed until all that’s left is a cloud of dust and a Scrambler-shaped hole in the wall.

“This here is the spleen,” the vet said, pointing to an amorphous blob on the X-ray. “It should cup the stomach like a palm. It's a little big right now, but that's nothing to worry about. It can fluctuate.”

I nodded as if I understood, of course, that there is the spleen. In truth, Radar's organs were blurs between bone, an obvious rib cage surrounding nameless soft parts.

“It looks like there are a couple of pebbles in his colon,” she said, and immediately I panicked about paying for surgery when the X-rays alone were being charged to an emergency credit card. The vet laid a hand on my arm. “We actually don't have to worry about those, they've almost made it out on their own.”

“The thing that worries me most is the intestine,” she said, pointing to something that did in fact look like an intestine. “At first, I didn't see anything too concerning. A few pockets of gas. But the radiologist pointed out how inconsistent his intestines are. See how it goes from narrow to bulbous to narrow to bulbous?”

I nodded. I could see, of course, now that she'd pointed it out.

“Those drastic changes in diameter are unusual. I don't see an obvious blockage,” she said, touching my arm again, “but we'll want to keep an eye on him just in case.”

There was another problem spot on Radar's X-ray, something wholly unrelated to his bowels: a thickening at the base of his spine, a hardness that might explain his recent slowing down. It could be a slipped disc or arthritis, or a combination of both. Nothing to do yet but keep an eye on him, give him supplements, limit him to walks, no more runs. Nothing to do but wait until we have to do something more. The vet sent us home with prescription food and three types of pills.

At the end of every episode, the Scrambler retires to his secret underground fortress, a nondescript basement apartment where he resumes alter ego as a loving, attentive companion, curls up under a blanket as close to his human caretaker as she will allow, snores loudly, and dreams of battles yet fought. The Scrambler will stay fast asleep until morning, or until someone else is in peril and the alarm rings out:

“Scrambler, come quickly, we need you! No, not that quickly! Scrambler, no!”

I seem to be on the other side of my depressive spell, though it feels dangerous to say so, to believe I've made it through relatively unscathed. It got scary there for a while, and I'm not yet confident in my stability. What if it's just giving me a few days off before it comes back even harder than before? The thing about depression is that I know with absolute certainty that lots of people know exactly what I mean. It's hard to remember while you're deep in the shit that other people have been through it, too, and that some are going through it right now. Depression is incredibly isolating, and incredibly common; you become convinced you are utterly alone when nothing could be further from the truth.

Radar seems to be fully recovered, as well. As with most of his injuries and illnesses, he got better so quickly that I wondered if the vet visit was even necessary. It's a reassuring pattern: the dog gets sick, the dog goes to the vet, the dog gets better. The person feels bad, the person seeks help, the person gets better. We eat dinner, we go for a walk, we maintain the habits that keep us alive. That's another thing about dogs: they force you to leave the house. Maybe the cats would let me slip away. Maybe even my good dog, Ralph the Girl, who lives to please and sometimes seems to glare at the bad dog with disdain, might lie down and give up by my side. But Radar would never let me stay indoors. He can be a stone-cold dummy, but he takes loud, steady breaths, leans his full weight against my chest, stares until I get out of bed, charges out the front door, and remains my constant, inarguable reminder of the simple pleasures of being in the world.