A Beating Heart

I am a little distracted these days. Given the pandemic and politics and the constant concern for cancer, a little distraction is a good thing. Especially this kind of distraction – a new puppy. A sleep destroying, heart-string tugging, three-pound wriggling bucket of love named Orsino.

We are in awe. As when my children came home from the hospital, my husband, Charlie, and I instantly bonded—a shared oxytocin rush—in the love of this fluffy tumult of teeth and claws. We were simultaneously intimidated by his neediness, aware of our limitations as the responsible adults in the room, and excited by all that we will experience together, charmed by his antic exploration of his new world!

Learning to Care

I was never sure I wanted a pet. When my kids were young, pleading for a dog, Charlie and I agreed it was too much responsibility that would inevitably be mine. But we compromised and got the kids, then 7 and 9, a guinea pig for Christmas. They couldn’t believe their good luck, or that they wouldn’t have to return it at the end of the vacation. And true to their promises, they took good care of that guinea pig they named Hamlet. They fed it, trained it, cleaned up after it, and when it developed pneumonia after they—perhaps unwisely—decided to give it a bubble bath, nursed it back to the brink of health. They nebulized that dear pet twice a day for 10 days. His lungs were clearing and his health recovering, until the antibiotics given to support his recovery went too far, killing off the intestinal flora that kept him alive.

They were heartbroken and again petitioned for a dog. But neither Charlie nor I wanted to walk one at dawn and bedtime, recognizing on whose shoulders the responsibility would fall when track meets, ballet lessons and homework, or just plain exhaustion would prevail. Through perseverance and diligent research, Kate, then 14 and starting high school, uncovered the key—that Shih Tzu’s could be trained to a litter box, obviating the need for late night and early morning walks. 

Lessons in Love

We succumbed again, this time bringing Horatio, a 6-pound puppy, into the family. Ostensibly Kate’s, she fed and cared for Horatio and taught him to be a loving member of the household. When David, then 16 came home from the hospital after emergency lung surgery just months after the puppy joined the household, Horatio provided entertainment and love. He comforted Kate when she was sick with Lyme disease for six months. And he never left my side while I recovered from cancer and chemo, snuggling as if he knew I needed extra love. Horatio was a terrific addition to the household and adored by all.

When he died this fall of a brain tumor, we didn’t plan to replace him. The kids had grown up and moved out, it was the middle of a pandemic and who needs one more responsibility, right? But the house was empty without a dog, without the constant love and affection of a furry friend, inches from my feet, always wanting his belly scratched, distracting us from the day’s woes. So we got another one, Orsino, this one determined to teach me some new lessons about being a caregiver.

Isolation and Fear

Entering into a new caring relationship is never easy. People don’t always tell you what they need, and puppies have an even more limited range of expressions. Is that whine telling me you need to pee? Telling me you are thirsty? Telling me you need to hear a heartbeat? 

The hardest part is overnight crate training, getting him comfortable with sleeping on his own in a safe, protective environment, with a goal of minimizing accidents. But how do you know what he is trying to say? 

The first night, there was one progression of sounds that went from a whimper to a desperate bark in a matter of seconds that I later understood to mean, “I’m so sorry to bother you, ma’am and it was so kind of you to think to give me a soft thing that smells like you to cuddle in the middle of the night, but somehow, I think I peed on it and it is wet and now I am wet and I get hysterical when I am wet and now I am getting hysterical and you have to get me out of here. Now please. Right now. Help! HELP!”

I know I felt a similar sense of isolation and inability to communicate when I was diagnosed with cancer. Facing cancer, we are alone in our fears, our questions about the future, the unknown of the disease. And while others may be nearby and wanting to help, they don’t always know what we are really saying, what we really need by way of support. We want our loving caregivers to intuit what we mean, to pay attention when we want attention, and not to be left alone with the nightmares. Sometimes you just need to feel a beating heart.

The Power of Love

And the power of a hug is impressive. After cleaning him up and ensuring a dry and cuddly crate once again, I held Orsino against my chest, giving him the comfort of a beating heart for a minute or two while his own heart rate returned to normal. Then, I slipped him back into his crate where he slept the rest of the night. Having been comforted, he was able to cope with his fears. And when I was most fearful of my cancer, it was my husband’s reassuring hug, a long, slow, embrace that held me in his love, that allowed me to relax and feel, if only for a moment, that we would get through it.

But it’s hard to deliver a hug during a pandemic. In the absence of personal contact, I speak with patients on the phone, interpreting comments and questions and offhand remarks and guessing what kind of support might be needed. I listen, provide experiential wisdom when asked, and a reassuring warmth. I’d like to deliver an in-person hug, but for now, the best I can do is offer support from a distance—an understanding of the fear and promise to be there to help them through—and hope that they feel the power of love and a beating heart. 

Ten days after Orsino came into our lives, he died in a freak accident. You can read more about that and our grief here.

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