Pets have a way of making the holidays unforgettable.
There was our long-ago cat Twinkle, for example, who discovered the joys of Christmas-tree tinsel. She not only lived, she shared the results in glorious Technicolor behind the television for all the family to see.
There’s our mighty Big Blake, the English Labrador who has spun entire trees like a propeller in his eagerness to charge past them and greet a guest.
And of course, any time Duchess the Wonder Dog has met a new-fallen snow, the result has been somewhere between the Dance of Joy and a high-powered Indy 500 winner.
Well, this time around, Duchess is at the center of another holiday memory – this one a little less high-adrenaline and a little more painful.
This Christmas, Duchess appears to have cancer.
We discovered it by accident. Having the genius of a border collie and the curiosity of a Lab, Duch had figured out long ago how to break into our pedal trash can. She hadn’t been looking too well after her latest garbage raid, so we brought her into the vet to be looked at.
The tummy upset proved to be none too serious. But while looking at her gut, the doctor happened to notice some nodules in Duchess’s chest. That glance and a follow-up soon brought the M-word – metastasis.
This wasn’t necessarily the end of the road, the first vet hastened to explain. Depending on what an oncologist saw or didn’t see, it could be possible to drive things back, to beat this. Still, the shadow of the word had entered the conversation. And it’s a hard one to evict.
I hate the word. I hate even typing it, like pressing the keys might somehow make it more real. Cancer has already made too many marks on people I love. My Mom survived it. One of my grandmothers didn’t. Nor did Heather’s grandma, or her 40-year-old uncle, or … well, the list is too long. At one name, it would be too long.
I hate the thought that, with one bad turn, every Christmas memory of Duchess might become final.
Even before this, we’d been trying to steel ourselves against that possibility. At 13 years and almost eight months, Duchess has been slowing down. Her step is a little more careful, her hearing not quite so sharp – though all bets are still off when food is involved. Her heart is still as big as ever, but the body that houses it has some miles on it.
But she keeps going. And we get used to that. The mind doesn’t like to acknowledge change and especially painful change. Not until it’s forced to.
Even now, I don’t know if we’re there yet.
It’s not the most comfortable thought for the holidays. But then, none of us is assured a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Sometimes “the most wonderful time of the year” carries pain, or anxiety, or uncertainty. Much as we might wish otherwise, the bad stuff doesn’t take a vacation for the holidays.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to something more.
I refuse to let fear for Duchess’s future poison her present. Whatever the doctors finally say, she’s still our dog, well-loved and cherished by us for over 10 years. Those chances for love aren’t going away yet. And we are going to continue to seize every one of them, whether it’s for one year, or three, or enough to make a canine Methuselah.
We will not let fear drive out joy.
Duchess has amazed us many times over the years. Maybe the Wonder Dog has another miracle left.
But whatever lies ahead, her love is here now.