Sick as a Dog |
by Mark Barkawitz

Back when I was really sick—down to 122 lbs., scrunched over with a broken back, and using a four-wheeled walker with hand brakes to get around—my dogs still wanted to be walked. And I wanted to walk, too. Hell, I wasn’t dead. Not yet anyway. So one day, I got the bright idea of tying Summa—the larger but more docile and controllable of my two golden retrievers—with her leash to the front of my walker. I put the buds of my iPod in my ears, sucked down a tube of energy gel, and we strolled slowly up the driveway of our Paloma Street home onto the sidewalk. When she pulled too hard or fast, I partially-applied both hand brakes and told her: “Slow down, Summa.”

We headed east and made it to the corner without any hitches. I can only imagine what my neighbors must’ve thought. I’d been a distance runner the entire twenty years that we’d lived on the block. Lifted weights, too, in my garage. Until one day while training for a half-marathon I was to race with my mostly-grown son, a vertebrae in my lower back suddenly broke. Hurt like hell. At first, it was diagnosed as the result of a birth defect in my spine. Birth defect? At my age? That was ridiculous and I pretty much told my orthopedist as much. Because he was closed to any other possibilities that I might suggest in subsequent office visits, our relationship and my health spiraled downward from there. Seven doctors and nine months later—keeled-over with an-all-over-body-pain in my primary-care physician’s office—Dr. Gomez explained:

“You have multiple myeloma, Mark.”

I lifted my head and asked: “Is that a gum disease or cancer?” I’m kind of a smart ass. Sometimes. But I really didn’t know.

“It’s cancer of the blood and bone marrow. I’m sorry.”

I must’ve sighed deeply. Because all the air left my being. As a lifelong athlete, I knew my body well and it had been telling me for a long time that something—not only my wrecked spine—was wrong. But this? This was my worst fear. “Am I going to die?”

“Fifty/fifty.” Then he quickly recalculated: “With you—make it sixty/forty. Better than Vegas odds.” He had been my doctor for years and knew me pretty well.

I pretended to laugh.

“The cancer has shut down your kidneys. Our primary concern right now is to get them functioning again. Otherwise, you’re going to be dead in two days.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Better make plans—just in case.”

Forty-five minutes later, I sat in a recliner at Urgent-Care with an IV needle in the large, bluish vein in the crook of my arm, contemplating my mortality.

We turned south at the corner, Summa still leading the way, the wheeled walker and I following a few feet behind. It was the middle of the day in the middle of the week, so there was only an occasional car on Sierra Bonita Avenue. I knew which houses had dogs. On this side of the block, another golden retriever named Finicce (Italian for Phoenix, the mythological bird reborn from ashes) was sometimes loose on the front lawn while Justin read the newspaper in the redwood chair on his porch. Summa didn’t like other big dogs, especially males. And sensing my weakened condition, she had become aggressively defensive of me. But fortunately, Finicce wasn’t outside today. I was relieved. My most immediate fear right now was not the cancer coursing through my veins but a loose dog or cat or Summa’s favorite—squirrels—which inhabited our neighborhood plethora of trees. Charging or chasing was no longer within my physical ability. Slow was my only speed. As we were going downhill, I braked slightly. I had a limp now, too—left leg—from the cancer in my hip. X-rays had revealed that it had spread to every bone in my body, even my freakin’ skull! Yep, I was sick as a dog, all right. Funny expression. Dogs aren’t necessarily sick at all. Probably Shakespearean in origin. From a time when God’s creatures were believed to exist on different levels: the angels above us, the beasts below us. So when a man became out of sorts—afflicted with melancholy—his level was thus lowered to that of a dog. I think. But it’s a long time since college. And I had chemo-brain now—short term memory loss as a result of chemotherapy—which was only temporary. But then—so was I.

At the southeast corner of our block, we made another right turn at the STOP sign onto Orange Grove Boulevard. The mid-day street traffic was light. Two Latino gardeners mowed-n-blowed a front yard across the street. It was warm for early December. But Southern California was often like that. So I’d put on sunscreen, a baseball cap, and sunglasses with my T-shirt and nylon track pants. Most of my clothes now hung loosely on me like a hanger. As the cars and trucks whizzed past us on the left, I felt oddly out of place and time, like an old jockey harnessed behind his horse in a seat-less sulky. I tried to pick up the pace. But that didn’t last long. The cancer—and chemo—sucked all the energy from me daily. Hell, I just wanted to make it around the damn block! That was all. I hit the brakes again slightly.

“Slow down, Summa.”

About the middle of this side of the block, lived a large, male Rottweiler, who patrolled his property behind a wrought iron fence and electronically-controlled gates. As we approached, Summa started pulling harder—she knew where he lived, too.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said just above a whisper, braking harder. I didn’t want my voice alerting the Rottie either. But Summa continued to pull, her chest heaving, her breathing rasped by the linked-chain collar pulled tighter around her neck. I continued to apply the brakes but the back wheels slid and skid instead of stopping. And sure enough, as we got to the corner of the neighbor’s block wall, the big-headed Rottie lay in wait. Summa jerked us forward the last few feet until both dogs were at each other face-to-face with the wrought iron’s mesh between them, making lots of loud, vicious noises but unable to do each other any harm. I pulled back on the walker.

“Summa! Stop!” I pulled again—harder. “Sto-op!”

She continued to snarl her teeth at the Rottie but backed off.

“Go. Go!”

As soon as she stepped away from the east gate, the Rottie stopped barking, raced behind the fence to the western end of his property, and stood panting, waiting for our next encounter. I tried to steer us closer to the parkway grass, but at 90 lbs. and with four-footed drive, Summa’s strength easily out-matched mine. They went at it again with the west gate between them until I could cajole Summa into passing. The row of honey-colored fur on her back stood–up straight like a warning to others—DON’T MESS WITH ME! That Rottie would’ve kicked her butt. But she remained fearless, defiant. I had to laugh. And wished that I had her courage to likewise face my foe.

We both knew there were no more dogs on this part of Orange Grove. If there were, the large condo complex that occupied the south-western corner of the block hid its mandatedly-small canines and felines behind closed doors. The pressure was off for awhile. I remembered my iPod in my pocket and turned it on. The Wallflowers sang about driving home “with o-one headlight.” Partially-impaired. Physically and metaphorically. The objective correlative—something which stands by itself while mutually representing something else in the story. But my four-wheeled walker had no-o headlights at all. So where in hell did that leave me?

We turned north—right turn number three—at the corner up Hamilton Avenue with the purplish-green San Gabriel Mountains now in the background serrated below an intensely blue sky. We were more than halfway home. Thank God. My legs, which had carried me well over ten-thousand miles in my distance-running past, were already tired. The bone pain from the cancer in my feet, legs, back, and hips was sometimes mind-blowing. But today—so far—it was bearable. (The two Vicodin I’d popped earlier helped greatly.) But this block was uphill. I held the handgrips tightly and let Summa pull me behind her.

“Good girl, Summa. Go, baby.” About halfway up the block, I steered us down a driveway—there was a pit bull up at the corner house on this side of our block. But as I strained to look over my left shoulder—twisting was painful with my unstable spine—a work truck with ladders atop sped closely past us in the street. I squeezed the brakes hard, “Whoa!” to stop Summa in front of me. With Amy Winehouse mellifluously refusing to “go to rehab” in my ear buds (and we know how that turned out), I hadn’t heard the truck either. I took a deep breath and sighed. Summa looked back at me.

“Close one. My bad.”

But she didn’t seem to mind my tunnel-vision. Cancer had a way of doing that to a guy—narrowing one’s vision. Or to a gal. It certainly wasn’t sexist. Or racist. Or even classist. No, cancer was an equal opportunity killer. I looked both ways and we walked across the street to the other sidewalk where there were no dogs behind fences or gates all the way to the corner. My hip ached. Just make it to flat ground at the corner.

We did—eventually—and negotiated a wide, right-turn-number-four out into the street around the corner house on Paloma from where the pit bull barked at us. Summa looked over, as did I, but he was hidden behind the cinder block wall. Sometimes the scariest things of all were unseen.

I steered us up a driveway onto the sidewalk. Half-a-block. I was gonna make it. Cool. A pleasant, little ditty—“Birdhouse in Your Soul“—came on. I took out my iPod to turn up the volume. And so I didn’t see the squirrel ahead of us on the parkway grass. But Summa did. And because I had the iPod in one hand, I only held the walker with the other, which suddenly yanked me forward, face-first onto the sidewalk—“Umph!”—and out of my grasp. Once again, all the air collapsed from my being. When I could breath in again, I looked up from the sidewalk at Summa with my four-wheeled walker bouncing in hot pursuit of the squirrel, who barely beat her to the base of a jacaranda, the trunk of which it scaled as if shot from a canon. Summa leapt teeth-first—she had tasted squirrel before—just missing its bushy tail. Then she jumped up against the tree as if on tiptoes, staring up, the leashed walked lying idly behind her on its side—one wheel still spinning.

Looking back on that episode in my recovery, I’d be hard-pressed to call it a wholly-successful leap forward in physical therapy. (Face-forward maybe?) But after six-or-so months of chemotherapy (I didn’t keep track), a stem cell transplant at our good neighbors the City of Hope, and neurosurgery to implant a titanium rod in my spine, Summa and I—reborn like the Phoenix from ashes—are now up to three-miles-a-day when we walk together. Without the walker. Or the limp. Or the cancer. I’m a light-welterweight again. Resumed bench-pressing (carefully) in my garage. I walk my other dog again now, too, even though she’s wildly exuberant, even at the end of a leash. And now that yours truly is no longer sick as a dog, I’m pretty damn exuberant, too.

Mark Barkawitz has earned local and national awards for his fiction, poetry, essay, and screenwriting. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals & anthologies, ‘zines, and on dozens of websites. He has IMDb feature film credits as screenwriter, actor, & associate producer for“Turn of the Blade” (NorthStar Ent.) and as supporting actor in“The Killing Time” (New World Pictures). He’s taught creative writing classes, coached a championship track team of student/athletes, and ran the 2001 L.A. Marathon in 3:44:42. He lives with his wife and has two kids in Pasadena, CA.