The Long Say

Bringing back the long-form essay before it’s too late.


I’ve always been mistrustful of happiness.  Nothing terrifies me more than when nothing’s wrong.  In a way, Molly vindicated my entire outlook on life: you can go on vacation, and have graduations, and put your kids in snowsuits but eventually you’ll be in Bay City watching your surname go on another headstone, and there’s just no way to pull that card out of the deck.

But I should back up.  I only want to tell it once, and I want to do it right.  I need to go back seven years ago, before the brown pair of cargo pants, before moving, before college. Before the vet said ‘sarcoma’ and I stopped breathing.

I never had a dog before, but it was a year of firsts: I had just been dumped by my first real boyfriend. This led to my first credit card, as the nice college student listened patiently at the end of the line, agreeing in all the right places as I told her how he didn’t really love me, and yes, that was my correct address.  I needed to fill the gaping wound in my chest, and looking for sympathy from strangers—especially ones whose only interest was to open a line of credit—was pathetic.  Unconditional love was the job of a pet.

I had wanted a beagle for years, and my sister’s relentless Googling in service of my broken heart had found one locally, about four months old.  The shelter did not typically take dogs, although it was full to bursting with cats and one 12-year-old Lab that sadly couldn’t come with us.  We were led to a smaller room in the back that housed the newborn kittens, and something energetic in the corner kennel.  The cage was opened and something strong ran out, sat on me, and began licking my face.  That was pretty much it: I couldn’t leave her there.

As they gave her shots, tagged her, and generally wound her into a panic, I took stock of what I was in for.  This “beagle” was already fifteen pounds, with long gangly legs, flopped-over ears and a pointed snout.  This is when we learned the importance of the word “mix” in an animal adoption listing: Beagle Mix. Which is a polite way of saying a lady beagle was particularly slow in outrunning a German Shepherd.

What should have been a crime against genetics was actually quite beautiful in its own right.  As she grew, Molly took on the stately appearance of a jackal, standing beside the sofa like a hound at Tutakhamen’s throne (except for the ears, which remained hilariously flopped over even into adulthood, the beagle not willing to be denied).  Shepherd in size and shape but beagle in temperament, Molly circled the backyard going for speed around the track, a blackish blur with a long pink flag waving backward over her face in the wind.  In the winter, she galloped over snowbanks and fallen limbs like a deer, barking a strange, bastardized howl at squirrels that refused to fall on her side of the fence.

She stole sandwiches.  She would wait until I had left the room before destroying a pair of high heels, hardback book, and tote bag full of knitting.  She had an unfortunate habit of leaping onto counters to steal cinnamon rolls.  She would only obey me, and even then infrequently.  She wasn’t a perfect dog.

When I went away to school, Molly stayed at my parent’s house.  I would hear frequent updates on how she was doing—more accurately, what she was doing—as if I could teleport home to scold her.  I more than once lectured her through the phone on her behavior at my mother’s insistence (and my roommates’ enjoyment). It seemed to be the only thing she responded to, her ears lowering as she heard my mother relate the tale of the stolen chicken leg to the disembodied dog parent on the other end.  “Wait until Sarah gets home,” my mother warned.  She waited two years.

Two years ago, my sister found a bump on one of Molly’s legs.  The dog wasn’t acting any differently, but I might want to get her checked out, because it could be cancer.  Such alarmist claims were typical in my family: our cat hadn’t eaten that morning, she might have kidney failure; if my father had a headache, it was obviously diabetes.  I sighed and saddled her up for the vet, a dubious enterprise since my dog also has a history of carsickness.

I expected to walk out of there $50 lighter and annoyed.

The vet came back into the room.

The crazy thing is how fast it all happened.  Ninety-five percent chance of osteosarcoma.  Might be something else, but probably not. Spreads quickly.  Probably already in her lungs.  Two months, max.  The words just swirled around me, two or three at a time.  I don’t think I said anything.  My eyebrows stayed up, my eyes went from my vet to the dog, back to the vet, then up at the x-ray on the board.  I thought he was putting me on.  All the time I thought, “She’s fine. Look at her, she’s fine.”

I got in the car. I started crying.

I was $160 lighter, but I wasn’t annoyed.  I walked next door to the grocery store and bought a steak.  I drove home in a fog, Molly drooling on the dash as usual.  I brought her into the house and she immediately stole a rawhide from our other dog.

“Molly!” my mother yelled. “That’s not yours!”

“Yes,” I said.  “It is.”

I flatly related what I had heard.  I felt empty, like I was paying a bill.  My mother did not receive the news well.  After I had finished, I walked into the kitchen, pulled out a pan, and began preparing the steak for my dog.

“Molly doesn’t eat dog food anymore,” I called back to my mother.  I heard her dial the phone.

I’ve always been mistrustful of happiness.  Being able to see the big picture means you’re always right, but never happy.

I didn’t have any kids.  I thought I was safe.

For the next month, Molly must have thought she was having an extended birthday.  My mother made a pan of cinnamon rolls every day, for the express purpose of feeding them to a dog.  Molly sat where she wanted, slept where she wanted, rolled around in the garden and was permitted under the table when we ate.  My mother sat and watched movies with her on the couch, played with her, told her she was pretty.  My mother wanted me to spend more time with Molly.  I refused.

I couldn’t.  Why would I? So I could love her more? Why would I do that?  She wouldn’t remember. I would.  I was the one who had to live.

We waited.  Waited for Molly to lose weight, to stop eating, to not want to move.  We waited six weeks, ten weeks, twelve.  She obstinately refused to go even slightly downhill.  Aside from a bump on her ankle, she was the same old dog—although confused as to why all the people around her were crying and giving her treats.  The vet called every week, gently reminding that I needed to make her final appointment, that it would be kinder.  I told him that she would have to at least look sick before I brought her in—I couldn’t walk in with a dog and come out with a collar when she didn’t have so much as a limp.

At three months, we were baffled.  I brought her to the vet, threatening him not to come near my dog with a needle.

Her labs came back fine.  Lungs looked fine.  It was still cancer, he warned, but there’s a 5% chance it’s localized.  In which case, we can treat it, with a 100% cure rate.

If we remove her leg.

Basically, we could take off the leg and do a biopsy.  If it spread, she would die anyway, and die a quicker and much more painful death.  If it worked, she would be fine.  There was no way to do the biopsy without removing the leg.  The surgery would cost $2000.  Surgery: might live, might not. No surgery: eventual death.  And if we were going to operate, we needed to do it as soon as possible.

I didn’t cry.  I hurt.  I felt like every time I stood up I was being pushed down again, and I was too stupid to stay down.

She wasn’t the perfect dog. She was my dog.

I scheduled the surgery.

She came home with a horrific trail of Frankenstein stitching down her side.  The right shoulder blade had been removed along with the leg, and the skin had yet to shrink back to cover the loss.  The staples were mottled with blood, her fur had been completely shaved on her right side, the skin puffy and bruised from opening and sewing.

My mother took one look at her and began to cry.  “She’s fine,” I said. Look at her.”  Molly licked my mother’s face, hoping to calm her down from whatever was wrong.  I went into the bathroom and cried on the toilet.

The next morning my brother, a nursing student, came by to visit.  Molly stood up on the couch to hug him, and turning sideways, he got a chance to look at the wound.  “Oh, it’s not bad at all,” he said, rubbing her ears. “That’ll heal just fine.”  I will forever love him for that.

It did heal. She was the same relentless beggar and unabashed thief she had ever been.  I took her running with me, though she could only go about a mile, her three-legged lollop making her ears flop Dumbo-like against the wind.  We did it. We were the survivors.

Last summer, Molly started coughing.

The vet didn’t have to say much.  It was always a risk.  We had bought her a year.  He seemed afraid to say more than that.  Her esophagus was enlarged, and each time she took a breath she coughed as she let it out.  She sat on the bench next to me.  I didn’t look up; I just nodded and waved my hand.

My brother left the room, but my sister stayed.  I thought, “How Steel Magnolias.”

The tech went over the arrangements with my sister.  They offered me a clay imprint of Molly’s paw as a memento.  A clay imprint, taken from my dead dog’s foot.  For $50.  I have never come so close to punching a human.

They gave Molly a sedative.  She became quiet and, very obviously, high.  Her tongue lolled out of her mouth, drooling a huge patch on my brown cargoes.  It was all suddenly hilarious; my sister and I laughed, rubbing her head.  I was covered in half-white, half-black hairs, just as I had been seven years ago on the floor of the Dundee animal shelter.

The vet came back in.  He cried.

She wasn’t a perfect dog.  She was my dog.

Filed under: Essay

2 Responses

  1. serialanna says:

    Sarah, I’m glad you wrote this.

  2. Dann Rafferty says:

    I thought Molly was such a trooper after having that leg taken off. She needed some encouragement.

    She looked happy as ever, and I intended to give her the hug she always needed when I came in the door.

    She was a great dog, Sarah.

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