Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dog Despair

Neurotic and self-obsessed as I am, minor physical problems can throw me into a tizz. I metaphorically shake my fist at the sky and am haunted by dark imaginings of future health nightmares: rosacea will scar my face horribly; tinnitus will sound like a crazed pizza deliverer who keeps knocking at the front door, never realising he's come to the wrong place; I'll get permanent brain damage from the black mould on the kitchen ceiling. And then I pick myself up and gradually learn to manage and adjust to the latest issue that life and ageing have imposed.

When other people in my life show signs of ill-health it’s even more dire. These people are not supposed to get sick. They are there to support me, aren’t they? (Well actually no, but that’s what I believe deep down.) When family members acquire conditions much more serious than whatever I’ve had to put up with physically speaking, it feels as if the universe is making a direct attack on my fragile support systems. Forget the people themselves.

The people may not necessarily be human.

So far I’ve taken three paragraphs to get around to the point of this blog entry: Jordan, the 99-per-cent-cocker-spaniel-one-per-cent-cute dog that belongs to the family of one my sisters and that I used to walk in the park twice a week, has a slipped disc.

As soon as I write this, it starts to sound trivial. Anything to do with dogs ultimately does. Their status is infinitely limited compared with humans. The ones who are truly cosseted are derided by society with the label ‘pooch’.

As with all non-human animals, part of the reason we trivialise their suffering is because they can’t tell us how they’re feeling. So we take the easy way out and assume they put up with suffering more easily than we do. We tell ourselves that animals are hardy creatures who live and die in the wild without doctors, artificial heating, or guarantees of a regular food source, and that with us as their carers they have it made. I wish that as a society we could start to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Jordan has his own chair in the lounge room because the family don’t like him sitting on their large modular couch. His old chair – a black swivel leather chair – was fine. But they didn’t like the look of it so they got him a new one and that’s when the trouble started. The new chair was too high for him and he slipped a disc when trying to jump up onto it.

I went around to my sister’s place last Friday to say hello to Jordan and sit with him for a while. I kind of invited myself, something I normally don't do, but I was anxious to see that he was okay and give him some time. My sister agreed to me dropping over at 4.30 that day, and I promised her she wouldn't have to stop and entertain me. The self-invitation turned out to be a perfectly predictable mistake. 

I found him worse than I’d wanted to believe. He greeted me at the front door so excited he was shivering compulsively, but when placed back in his previous position he lay there listlessly. He can walk around slowly but should be resting. Watching his attempt to simply sit on his haunches was pitiful: tentatively moving his bum towards the floor, then giving up; obviously too painful. He is, to put it bluntly, temporarily disabled. Someone who didn’t know what was wrong might assume he was an elderly dog with a terrible case of arthritis.

My sister has taken him to the vet and he is now on painkillers and will go back for a further check-up next week, with x-rays a possibility if he makes no progress. He is obviously in some pain even when still, but it is not so extreme that he is yelping, as he was before the painkillers. ‘It could be months ...’ I said to my sister, who is a nurse and understands the travails of recovery. She nodded. ‘I know,’ she said in her irritable way. When she lets herself stop and focus on Jordan, she has a reservoir of affection for him, calling him puppy even though he's now five years old, and insisting that he uses his long ginger-coloured eyelashes to communicate: 'Look, see how he blinks to tell you how he's feeling!'

But the spigot of her empathy is easily turned off. Since the onset of the condition Jordan is allowed to sit on the couch with a towel underneath, but apparently only during the day when my sister is not at work. ‘We need the couch to ourselves,’ she explained as she relegated him to a corner next to the television at around 5.30 pm. In this alternative position he lies on a doubled-over rug where he can’t see the television screen; not that he seems much interested in it, but it means he’s cut off from what the rest of the family is doing when they’re all sitting down together to watch it. Jordan’s haunted, unhappy eyes shone darkly from this lowly (and probably colder) position; I imagine this alternative spot is because my sister’s husband doesn’t like him being on the couch, and was due home any minute.

There's no one to blame for this mishap, and it wasn't foreseeable. But I can't help seeing a kind of metaphoric correlation between the family's lack of care and Jordan's current state. They seem obscurely to blame for not watching over him more closely. And assuming Jordan’s new chair was higher than the couch, the family’s subtle distancing of him (not allowing him on the couch in the first place) has inadvertently contributed. My sister is cosseting him somewhat, but not enough.

My tenuous relationship with him has become even more fragile, because I can only see him within the confines of the house, where I am soon made to feel unwelcome – ‘of course you can stay, sorry, could you get off the couch? I have to tidy up, I’m always like this on a Friday afternoon’ – and I am shooed out along with the dirt my sister is sweeping up from the living room floor in preparation for her husband’s return from work.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Dog Days.

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