Fifteen years ago, I brought home my Daisy girl.
She, a 6-month old bichon poodle, stole my heart the moment she waddled over to me and greeted me by lifting her tush into the air for a salutary scratch. That second, Daisy ceased to be “just a cute dog,” and became my best friend, soul mate, darling… All the things I have been reluctant to name any human.
Daisy has lived up to the reputation of “poodle” in many ways. She is aloof. She has never enjoyed being held for longer than a minute or two. She does not take kindly to uninvited impositions on her personal space–even by me.
She liked taunting her younger brother Billy (the black puggle we brought home the day after we took home Daisy) by snatching his toys and jumping up onto the living room couch–a feat Billy was unable to master until he was several months old. Daisy has never been overly friendly with other dogs and in some cases, she has been just short of hostile. Whether she is the largest or the smallest of a group canines, her entitlement to the first and tastiest morsel of food or treat is sacrosanct–in her mind, at least, and she has the scars to prove it.
Daisy is greedy. I once made the mistake of leaving a box of petit fours on the floor of our living room. We were a mile into our drive to a dinner party before I remembered and turned back. I rushed into the house hoping I’d beaten the dogs, but the damage was done. Our hardwood floors were strewn with wrappers with not so much as a smudge of chocolate in sight. We made a mad dash to the emergency room with both Daisy and Billy and both went through the unpleasantness of charcoal and the Pump. And…surprise surprise: my Billy, a 35 lb overweight puggle had nothing but dog food inside him; whereas, my tiny little 13 lb bichon poodle was stuffed to the gills with French pastries.
Daisy is also a bit of a drama queen. She yelps at the slightest discomfort, often refuses food for emotional reasons, and regularly comes down with mysterious illnesses that miraculously disappear as soon as we drive up to the animal hospital parking lot. There was, however, one instance very early on in our lives together that Daisy wasn’t being just a drama queen. When she was about two years old, all of a sudden, she stopped eating. For the first day, I let it be, assuming she was just on one of her random hunger strikes. But when she went two days without eating…and started chewing instead on the tallest blades of grass in our front yard…and depositing small puddles of vomit in the nooks and crannies of our home, I started to panic. We carted her over to the animal hospital and were told we’d have to leave her there overnight for IV fluids and monitoring. I left my Daisy girl in that sterile clinic devoid of love or warmth for two whole nights. And during those two agonizing nights, I wrestled with my comforter alone, praying when I could not sleep, dreaming when I did, and ultimately concluding that whether or not Daisy lived through this bout of illness, I would never ever forgive God for doing this to the both of us.
After four whole days of no solid food, I was beginning to lose all hope that my Daisy would recover. I trudged through the parking lot of a now all-too familiar animal hospital, said “hello” to the staff that knew me as “Daisy’s mom,” and tiptoed into the back area with Daisy’s vet towards Daisy’s “quarters”–a tiny little kennel. There, I watched with dread as Daisy once again turned her head–with as much disdain as her weak little body could muster–from the small thimbleful of food the vet waved around on a wooden tongue depressor.
I whispered, “Can… Can I try?” The vet handed me the tongue depressor. I stretched out my hand, my heart a grapefruit in my throat, throbbing as though I’d just run a mile. Slowly, I brought the food closer to her chin, praying for just a quick lick or a nibble. But, before I’d even gotten to her nose, she scarfed down the entire dab of canned food I’d offered, sending a jolt right up and through my arm and into that grapefruit lodged in my throat until it landed back safely in my chest.
…as my greedy little Daisy licked the food off my fingers.
Even when I lived with my parents, Daisy was considered “Joanne’s dog.” It went without saying, then, that she came with me when I got married and moved into my husband’s home. However much she loved my husband (and she truly did adore him in some ways), Daisy was mine, in body and soul. She was with me on the day I moved into my husband’s 3 bedroom townhouse. She slept on my side of our California King sized bed. She was with me when I woke up during the wee hours, while the sun was still cavorting behind the darkness, to write my little poems and vignettes. She shadowed me as I traveled from room to room of our house, as she never liked me out of her sight or smell.
Daisy also came with me the night I slipped out the front door of our townhouse and ran back to my parents. July 7, 2011.
I will remember two things for as long as I live:
The sound of my bare feet slapping against the pavement that night as the stars overhead peered rather coldly down at us.
And… the thumping of Daisy’s heart, beating right into my own, as I pressed her ever closer to my ribs and carried us away.
I have grown very familiar with the sound of my Daisy’s heart.
Three years ago, just after my divorce–when Daisy and I were living together in a high-rise apartment in the city–my Daisy went into heart failure. Her four beautiful long ballerina legs folded abruptly beneath her and she fell to the floor like a poorly designed table. She not only lost control of her legs, but within a few seconds, she was sitting in a puddle of her own urine.
And she wouldn’t get up.
According to the vet, my Daisy’s heart was big–too big for her little body–and eventually, her heart would fail again. I was told it was only a matter of time–“time” meaning 6-9 months that I had with my Daisy. I would soon grow overly acquainted with terms like “syncope” and “mitochondrial valve.” I downloaded an app to count her breathing, watched for signs of distress, listened for the dreaded “crunching leaves” in her lungs. What started out as one vial of pills would eventually grow into a cadre of pharmaceuticals that I would have to assemble each morning and night.
Too often, I found myself in the crowded dusty “office” of my Daisy’s vet. The walls were lined with big fat books, charts and medical records were hastily stashed into corners and then forgotten, a sinfully outdated computer wheezed almost as loudly as my Daisy did. Dr. A. would shut off the lights as soon as we walked in (if they weren’t already turned off) and he would launch immediately into an analysis of Daisy’s ultrasound. With a circling motion, his hand would zero in on what was visibly the largest organ in Daisy’s small body:
“You see here, her heart–well, it’s gotten quite a bit larger than it was the last time.”
And sure enough, there it was, in black and white: Daisy’s heart, truly the size and shape of a large grapefruit lodged uncomfortably between the two delicate wings of her ribcage.
“She’s a fighter, but in time, her heart will fail. Or her kidneys. Or liver. It’s only a matter of time.” And as if on cue, when asked just how much “time,” he would reply, “About 6-9 months.”
For two years, I administered her medication, walked her 5-6 times a day so that she wouldn’t have accidents in the house, stocked up on doggie diapers and pee pads, hired a “pet taxi” to drive me back and forth to the vet for quarterly checkups (I didn’t have a car). I won’t put a brave face on it:
It all sucked. Big time.
But it was a drop in the bucket compared to the work it took to keep the panic from crawling up the deep, smelly well I would bury it in each morning. At night, I would listen to her struggle for breath and wonder at how she ever managed to sleep. There were times when the ugliness of it all would get the best of me. One morning, after spending nearly an hour attempting–and failing–to get Daisy to take her medications, I sat in the middle of my kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and started sobbing, “But you’ll DIE if you don’t take these!” I wailed at my Daisy’s big round eyes. She’d sat prettily enough, waiting for me to offer her another “Pill Pocket,” which she would swallow, expertly spitting out their contents without so much as an iota of remorse.
If you’ve been through this before–and I daresay that many of you have–I felt like I was going through all the stages of mourning, right then and there, on the cold slick and horrifically unsympathetic floor of my kitchen, even though Daisy was still alive enough to be a snot-nosed brat about her medication.
And that’s what it was: living in a perpetual state of psuedo-grief, as if my heart were running through a dress-rehearsal for the real thing every single day.
But Daisy had been with me through every large moment in my life. She was there when I graduated law school, when I landed a job with a large law firm, when I got married, when I bought my first home, when I made partner. She was there, right by my side, during all the worst times in my life–she came with me to the city when I finally moved out of our home in the suburbs. She was right by my side as I leafed through divorce papers and tried not to think about how my life was in shambles. Through it all, Daisy has been the only constant in a life that could be mercurial and cruel.
And I promised her, day and day out, that I would not quit on her.
At the suggestion of my boyfriend (with whom I moved in after two years), I spoke to my mother about having Daisy move in with her. There was no question that Daisy preferred the bright, sunny, and warm home in the suburbs, surrounded by rolling green grass and filled with all the familiar smells of her childhood. My mother readily agreed and Daisy settled into her old stomping grounds with ease. At first, I sparred almost daily with a guilt that threatened to knock me out flat; but, with each call from my mother who assured me, “Oh, Daisy is fine, she is better than fine! She is eating so much and her stool is perfect [I’ve developed a healthy obsession with dog stool since becoming a dog owner]! Her breathing is fine and she follows me everywhere!”–I grew more certain that my decision had been for the best.
Weeks and even months slipped by without so much as a hiccup from my Daisy’s grapefruit heart, and I started to think to myself, “Maybe she’s got another 2 or 3 years left in the tank… The doctors were wrong. All she needed was to get out of the damn city and back into a home where she could be fat and lazy and spoiled all day long.” Without her labored breathing as a constant refrain of my subconscious, life started to get back to “normal”–Daisy was my Daisy, a little rounder under my mother’s care (grandmothers are licensed with a perennial right to overfeed, I’ve been told) and I would only get to see her a few times a month, but it was well worth it to hear my mother crow with pride into the phone, “Daisy is fine! She is perfect!”
A few weeks ago, my mom texted me the following:
“All doggies are doing just fine! Time went by so fast, Daisy has been with us almost one year! She came to me last year July! She does not want to walk and it concerning me b/c she gains weight but I can’t force her either! She still loves to eat!!! Otherwise she’s doing fine!”
A few days later, I left for New Hampshire. My boyfriend’s family had rented a house on the lake, and we would be staying there for 8 days. My mother provided regular updates and we talked on the phone–not so much about dogs, but regarding my discomfort around large bodies of water. A few days into the trip, while on the pontoon for an evening glide along the lake, my phone rang. “Omma,” it said. And I thought for a split second about sending it to voicemail, but instantly changed my mind, thinking, “I can just tell her I’ll call her back once we get back to the house.”
“Hi Omma, what can I do for ya?” I answered.
And that’s about all she was able to get out before devolving into one of the most wrenching sounds a person can ever be forced to hear:
Your mom crying.
Daisy stopped eating. She stopped moving. It seems she had an infection in her kidney. But she wasn’t responding well to the medication.
The remaining days of my “vacation” consisted of marathon texting sessions with my mother and phone calls with Daisy’s cardiologist. I would wake up each morning and wind up the coil of emotions–fear, resentment, grief–that had loosened in my dreams. I spent hours in the kitchen, cooking as much food as I could for my boyfriend’s family, because it was the only thing that provided me with something to do–something that didn’t take up too much of my brain to be taxing, but just enough to keep me from diving head-first into the self-piteous well that had erected itself in a matter of minutes after that excruciating call with my mom.
My mother sent a pic of my sick little Daisy to me and my brother, to which my brother responded, “She’s a Fighter.” And the name stuck.
My mother would repeat
under her breath, and every time, it was like a dart shot into my chest. My little mother, still unfamiliar with American parlance and with her habit of omitting articles, reminded me that at some point in the past few years,
I had become the adult in our relationship.
That I couldn’t bring to mommy my puppy with a broken heart and kidney and have her fix them for me. In fact, what had been particularly painful about the call from my mother was how evident it was that she was coming to me to fix everything.
Daisy is a Fighter.
But, I realized that in the days to come, Daisy–and all those who loved her–would need me to be a Fighter, too.
I have always respected those who have fought on behalf of neglected, abused, and homeless dogs and been secretly ashamed of how weak I am–too weak to be the activist I so admire. To be honest, I’ve been too afraid to be a foster parent, to volunteer at a dog shelter, because doing so would require me to come face to face with the illness of this world in a way that I didn’t think I could handle. I would always end this train of thinking by telling myself, “Joanne, the most important thing you can do for animals is to love and care for your own dogs to the best of your ability.”
And for many many years of Daisy’s life, that was good enough.
And then one day, I decided to follow my boyfriend’s advice and try going vegan.
Unlike many of you, I didn’t go vegan for the animals. I went vegan because I knew my boyfriend well enough to know that he would break up with me (despite his protestations) were I not to join him. I also figured that it couldn’t hurt my never-ending quest to lose some weight. Going vegan did a lot of things–many of which I welcomed. First and foremost, my boyfriend didn’t break up with me. Adopting a plant-based diet together brought us closer than I could have ever imagined. Second, while I didn’t lose any weight, my cholesterol plummeted, rendering me virtually immune from heart disease. Third, I started this blog that you are reading right now–amassing tons of recipes that I actually like to eat on a daily basis and that others apparently do as well.
But something happened that I never ever expected.
I started to become the activist I’d always wanted to be.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not some undercover agent for PETA taking illegal footage of slaughterhouses or anything. And I still haven’t worked up the nerve to volunteer at an animal shelter because I’m terrified of how many dogs I’ll end up bringing home on a weekly basis. But once the shackles of cognitive dissonance came off, I was free–free to love animals as deeply as I wanted, without slamming headfirst into my own hypocrisy. Because here’s the thing:
I knew that however much I loved animals, some portion of my heart had been cordoned off and saved for hamburgers.
That piece of my heart was a piece I couldn’t give to Daisy.
But that changed once I went vegan. All the mental resources I was channeling towards maintaining the piece of fiction I’d inherited–that I could love animals while still being totally ok with their needless slaughter just so I could eat my fried chicken sandwich and samgyupsahl–were now available to actually do something about my love for dogs and cats and horses and elephants. The vast majority of us grew up with this wall erected around our hearts–each brick of that wall a lie that they told us, at first, and that we told ourselves, after, only because it allowed us to eat bacon with impunity.
I’ve been dismantling that wall for over a year now, and have confirmed something I always sorta suspected:
Compassion is stronger than desire.
And I am so relieved I could love Daisy with every last square centimeter of my heart during her final days.
I took Daisy back to my home after returning from vacation, as my parents were off to Mexico for a vacation of their own. I would have her for nearly a week. At first, I thought that my role would be similar to the one I’d executed earlier–make sure she takes all her medications, take her out for frequent walks, monitor her breathing and lungs.
Don’t let her die.
So, I made all the little preparations around my house to provide for Daisy’s care. I bought all kinds of food to tempt her with, brought home syringes to help me force-feed her medication, dusted off a couple of sealed bags of Pill Pockets, and gave my dog walker the heads up that he would be on double duty for the next several days.
But, Daisy was too weak to do much more than rest. She didn’t want to eat anything or walk much, either. We took her to the hospital and admitted her for two nights–something I know she hated–but when her doctors were as mystified as we were about her unwillingness to eat, we took her back home.
At home, I curled up next to Daisy, pressed my ear against her chest. I recalled the sharp thumping that synced with my own heart that night I ran away from home with her. Now, Daisy’s heart sounded as though it were adrift–still beating, but inside of an ocean.
I finally realized that being a “fighter” was much more about what I shouldn’t do:
Don’t force feed her medication.
Don’t shove syringes of food down her throat.
Don’t take her out for walks she can’t handle.
Don’t subject her to a battery of tests that would only hurt her.
In other words, finally, after three years of telling her I wouldn’t quit, I would have to fight my own anxiety and grief and let Daisy be.
Daisy took her last breath on the morning of July 26, 2017. She was loved, fully.