This column is about cancer, but this week, I’m writing about my dog who died a few days ago. She didn’t die from cancer, but she was my constant companion during my cancer experience.
Ellie came to live with me thirteen years ago when she was already about three years old. Her previous owner had abused her and then abandoned her in the woods when she was pregnant. When she was found, Ellie was skin and bones, but had somehow managed to keep all eight of her puppies alive until they could be rescued.
When Ellie first came home with me, she discovered that I had a fondness for flannel sheets. She took this as a positive sign and never left. Her favorite time of the week was when I took the flannel sheets out of the drier and dumped them on my bed before putting them away. Ellie would jump into the middle of those still warm sheets and literally coo with joy. It made me laugh every single time.
About a year after Ellie came to live with me, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It takes some time to get your head around the concept of having cancer. Ellie and I would go for long walks so I could sort things out and come to terms with the fact that life was suddenly different.
I often use this column to suggest ways of helping someone with cancer. I always recommend listening, not giving unsolicited advice, and simply being present. Bless her heart, that’s what Ellie did for me.
During chemotherapy, I’d take naps every day. I’d stretch out on the couch and Ellie would curl up in the crook behind my knees and not stir until I was ready. She also gave me a reason to get out of the house and take walks three times a day, even when the weather was dreary and my body was achy.
The end of treatment is often an unexpectedly difficult time. “Now what?” is the question that everyone struggles with. Ellie was always there to listen, walk, and let me heal at my own pace.
Eventually, my life returned to normal and Ellie enjoyed her own life of leisure. Her one trick was to stick her snout under a blanket and fling it into the air like a hand-tossed pizza so it would gently parachute over her tightly curled, soon-to-be-napping body.
This winter, Ellie became frail and I knew the end was approaching. During the last month, I did my best to create kind of an informal hospice for her with her favorite foods and plenty of flannel sheets strewn about. It was obvious that she was comforted by human touch, even during her final night.
She died in her sleep on the floor beside my bed. I wrapped her in flannel and buried her in the backyard where we continue to look after one another.
From the Ithaca Journal, April 17, 2008
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