It’s strange how sometimes the human brain (or perhaps the human spirit) is able to cordon off the darkest of our fears, creating a pen for them so that we can function. They’re still there with us, never far off – but there are times when we can forget them, if only long enough to get a job done, tuck the kids into bed or be present for a loved one who has needs and fears of her own.
Sometimes, the pen works so well that we forget just how dark our fears actually are – until they erupt, a maelstrom of tears, shouts, pain and violence. And sometimes, there’s a day like today.
For several months I’d worried over the knot in her little abdomen, alternating between quick furtive touches and thoughtful caresses, like someone probing a new cold sore with her tongue. Each time I felt it under her skin, the nerves in my fingers screamed a single fear throughout my consciousness: cancer. Then the memories would flood in: finding the lump on Bartleby for the first time; hearing the vet speak my fear into reality; watching him waste away; after the final decision was made, watching him seize as the drugs worked death through his body; the mournful cries of his playmate as she grieved him each night once he was gone.. Would our Shelby, our fur-child, go out this way too? It hurt too much to think about, so all that fear, all those memories were slowly herded into the pen. Without realizing it, I became numb.
Today, at her annual check up, I finally mustered the guts to ask about the knot. The vet probed the spot, his expression darkening. A few hinges on the pen began to twist and complain. He examined her from multiple angles, following the knot to where it originated on her belly. The pen’s crossbeams splintered. Then, with a smile, he announced two surprisingly beautiful words: umbilical hernia. Like rainwater tearing through a drought-cracked creek bed, relief ripped through the pen, washing all the stored up emotional debris out into the light. With a very confused dog in the passenger seat, I cried most of the way home.
Shelby doesn’t have cancer, she has the canine equivalent of an outie belly button. As I smile about that almost whimsical revelation, I’m also stunned by how much this blessed relief hurts. How numb had I forced myself to become if good news is this painful? At the same time, I marvel at the strength of the spirit within us – that we are able to cope with things like this and things far worse. And in this recuperative wonder, I sit with a sleeping Westie curled beside me, thanking God for every breath she has left.