“Why does a dog get sick?” writes poet Marvin Bell in a poem called “One of the Animals” and he replies the only way we know how, saying: “You tell me.” The question is both central and unanswerable as are all unfair mysteries. Now my beloved guide dog Nira is sick and her suffering reminds me I’m one of the animals and I better not forget it. I don’t know why a dog gets sick–don’t know the purpose of my life save that I’m caring for a Yellow Labrador who has given everything for me. I am alive because she’s made the right decisions on the streets of New York. She’s watched out for me in a hundred cities. And so my job is to resist the thick, Kierkegaardian questions about suffering and fate. Why does a dog get sick? So we can be loyal.
In my thirties I saw that if I wanted to travel and live a larger life I needed a reliable partner who would always be up for adventure, who didn’t have a conflicting appointment or a better social occasion on tap. And yes, this companion would have to be affectionate but also focused, would have to be without hysteria, would have to be capable of preventing me from stepping into harm’s way. Imagine the personals ad you could place in the Village Voice. Wanted: nearly but not totally selfless reliable life companion with enthusiasm, judgement, occasional disobedience when it’s in the interest of the partnership; able to guide blind person in strange places day and night, unflappable in fierce traffic, ability to problem solve in crises; ignores squirrels and dropped pizza slices, can handle escalators, revolving doors, subways, airplanes, helicopters, sailboats, oh, and must have cold nose, floppy ears, and possess mucho hilarity when off duty.
Nira is my third guide dog. All three have been Yellow Labs from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the nation’s premier guide dog training programs located just north of New York City. My dogs have done much more than save me from cars or prevent me from falling down stairs–they’ve reminded me hourly, and often minute by minute that I must resist the seasickness of my inner life and get moving.
I was unprepared emotionally when Nira was diagnosed with cancer. The shock of her diagnosis and the unfairness of the news caused me to swerve between tears and distraught pragmatism. I arranged to have her tumors removed right away. Action would be crucial. Her growths were removed and I learned Nira had mast cell level one–the least dangerous kind. Then her stitches tore and our vet decided slow healing with an open wound would be preferable to stitching her up again. Nira and I are united in a period of duress and inaction. Her recovery could take as much as a month. My wife and I tend to her with syringes of warm water and salve. We button her up in my old shirts. She sports an oversized plastic cone on her head. My job is to sit beside her and keep her calm.
Our roles are now reversed. I must be the calm one alongside her. I’m trying to be still and reassuring. I lie down on the floor beside her and whisper and she wags her tail. I say whatever comes to mind. I quote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “life is on the sides of the mountain and not at the top” and tell her we’re both on a splendid journey.