Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chapter One - Clifford's Bay

For today only, I am offering a $2.00 discount on the new Clifford book: "Clifford's Bay - An Island, a Dog, and a Morgan Horse". Click this link to the page. When you order, use discount code RHNFTP66.

Following is Chapter One. Enjoy!

“Scorch! What a great name! How did he get it?” The young veterinary technician smiled, directing her gaze to the dog sitting at my feet.

I shrugged and grinned. “Well, just look at him!”

He was a mutt. He was half Australian shepherd, half mystery dog. He was sitting on the scrubbed tile floor, his reddish brown paws pointing carefully straight ahead so he didn’t start to slip. His coat was mostly black, streaked with a mixture of ashy burnt splotches here and there. His ears were up and they tipped over in an alert flop, and his brown eyes snapped with intelligence. He was, as always, watching my face. With every word I spoke, his head tilted this way and that. He had greeted the tech politely, but now ignored her as if she did not exist. He knew we were in the vet clinic. He didn’t mind seeing the vet. He had walked in through the lobby, off leash, and hopped on the scale without bidding. He weighed 40 lbs. He’d had a cough for a couple of days and was not acting right. I was thinking maybe he needed antibiotics.

The tech was standing with a clipboard. “Okay, if you want to just wait here in the exam room, Dr. Woody will be right in.”

She left the room. I noticed a canister of semi-moist liver treats on the counter, and pulled off the lid. Scorch’s eyes brightened and he stood up and started panting happily.

“Give me a big smile,” I whispered. His nose wrinkled, lips peeling back to reveal rows of bright teeth, baring a huge ugly grin. I tossed him a treat, which he caught deftly.

Everyone asked me why he was called Scorch. But from the first time I saw him in 1996, with his black coat and sooty grey markings, I knew his name. For nine years, he had shadowed me, always watchful. If I glanced down he was generally just a few feet away, and usually staring at me. I often wondered what it was about me that he found so interesting. But it was perhaps this vigilance that has created our effective communication. I might speak a few soft words, and he would go and immediately do as I asked. “Lie down.” “Get your Kong.” “Go tell Cajun it’s time to go.”

He did silly things to make me laugh. The more sophisticated the humor, the harder I laughed. He liked it that I got the joke, and he was constantly trying to upstage himself. He could pull my socks off, gently nibbling around my toes to grasp an edge, and then he pulled. If they were knee socks, or the especially clingy type, he braced himself and tugged full force. He never damaged the sock. When it finally peeled off my foot, he would carry it over and present it to me. He loved pulling socks off so much that sometimes he had to be dissuaded from doing it to others.

He humored his “brother”, my German shepherd, Cajun. He was no match for the big dog’s power and stamina, but took pleasure in tormenting him. We played a game I called, “Ball off the deck,” in which I threw a ball from the deck and it bounced across the lawn. The dogs loved to run down the deck steps to chase the ball. They would take turns if necessary, but I often sent them together.

When I threw the ball, Cajun would shriek and leap after it, but Scorch stood and watched where it fell before running down the steps. Because of this, Scorch usually would be first to find the ball. He had learned that Cajun would bully him if he tried to carry it anywhere, so he didn’t try to bring the ball back. He would pick it up and stand there, holding it while Cajun ran around the yard looking for it. Finally, Cajun would notice, and he’d pounce. Scorch would drop the ball, and when Cajun grabbed it, Scorch would quickly mount him from behind and start humping him ferociously.

Cajun had his mouth full, and he’d stand there snarling and growling. He couldn’t bring the ball back, because then he’d be running away from Scorch, and not “man enough” to face up to this humiliation. He’d have liked to turn around and bite Scorch, but to do that, he’d have to drop the ball. He was not about to drop the ball. Cajun was stuck. Scorch knew this. So he locked on while Cajun snarled guttural, useless threats through his mouthful, just blissfully humping away.

Scorch especially loved doing this when we had company. When this happened in front of an audience, people were mortified. They immediately started yelling at Scorch, “Stop it! What’s he DOING? Isn’t he NEUTERED?”

I would be leaning on the deck rail, gasping for air, wiping away the tears. It killed me every time. “Yes!” I’d gasp, “He’s neutered, he’s been neutered for eight years.” I realized that my hysterical laughter was only egging Scorch on, but I couldn’t help it.

Scorch liked agility class, but he was not a jock. He liked to learn new stuff, but usually in the form of tricks or some type of problem that engaged his mind. He loved Kong toys and Buster Cubes. He was the master of the Kong, the hollow rubber toy that I filled with cheese and bits of liver. I would cram the Kong with biscuits and then pack every nook with smaller bits of bacon or jerky. Scorch could extricate any treat from the Kong, no matter how tightly it fit. If Cajun eventually gave up and left something rattling around in his Kong, Scorch would furtively steal it and clean it out. He was a problem solver.

He didn’t want to fraternize with other dogs. He scorned them, always looking to me instead, to see what our next project might be.

“He’s not like any other dog,” our agility instructor told me, time and again. “Scorch is just not like any other dog.”

Now he sat in the veterinarian’s exam room, enthusiastically grimacing, baring his teeth, sneezing, waving his paw and going through various other acts in his attempt to prompt me to toss him another treat.

The door opened and Dr. Woody came in. She was a serious-faced kid, her red hair pulled back in a no-nonsense pony tail. But when she saw Scorch, she smiled and bent down to pet him. “Hello there.”

“He’s been coughing,” I explained. It was our first time at Kern Road Clinic, which is just a few miles from our house. I didn’t think it was anything serious, and Scorch didn’t like to ride in the car, so I didn’t haul him all the way back to Ann Arbor. It’s an hour from the farm.

“He sure is tuned in to you,” Dr. Woody said.

“I’m thinking about getting a T shirt that says, ‘Scorch TV’,” I quipped.

She laughed.

She ran her hands over Scorch’s throat, and immediately her face became very serious. “I don’t like this. His lymph nodes are swelling.”

She stood up. “I want to do some bloodwork on him. But this isn’t good. I can tell you right now that he has cancer.”

The words came at me like a hammer. I stood there silently, while Dr. Woody explained that they would schedule surgery to remove one of the swollen nodes and confirm the diagnosis. It was a flood of confusing information: Lymphoma. Biopsy. Surgery. Alternatives. Chemotherapy. Life expectancy. Scorch watched me carefully. As I nodded my head while Dr. Woody spoke, Scorch nodded his head too, so vigorously that his ears flipped.

“I’ll take him in back and we’ll do an X ray.” Dr. Woody took a leash that hung on the wall and draped it around his neck. Scorch continued to watch me.

“Go ahead,” I told him. He turned immediately and followed Dr. Woody out of the exam room.

As soon as he was gone, I felt myself beginning to panic. I was breathing hard. I grasped the cold metal edge of the exam table and stood there, hyperventilating. This news was totally unexpected. If he saw me like this, he would feel it too. I had to get this under control. I walked out of the exam room into the main lobby. It was large, sterile and empty, except for one receptionist behind the desk around the corner. There was a basket of dog toys by the window, and some benches lining the wall, and a movie playing on the TV.

I saw that the movie was "Babe", the sheep-herding pig story. It was one of my favorites, so I decided it would be a good idea to distract myself by watching for a moment.

That was a big mistake.

It was near the end, where the farmer and pig are finishing up the sheep herding trial and Babe goes and sits by his side. The farmer has that understated little grin, and soft praise, "That'll do, Pig. That'll do." And the look passes between them.

I was nearing total meltdown. I ran out to the truck, where Cajun waited, and let him out. I brought him into the clinic so he could wait with me.

All my anxiety transferred to him instantly. I was much calmer, but he whimpered and whined, sniffing Scorch all over when they brought him back. And then, when they took Scorch out again for yet more x rays, Cajun lay with his nose by the bottom of the door and started to wail.

"He's coming back," I said calmly. Cajun looked up at me, and then he relaxed.

And so did I. I had a few more emotional breakdowns over the next few days, but never in front of Scorch. The week that followed was all about Cancer. I couldn't think about anything else, and I am sure anyone who tried to talk to me was getting a vacant response, if any. By this time, I’d been divorced for four years. It was just me and the critters. Scorch had many friends, mostly through the internet, thanks to the relative notoriety of his “brother”, Clifford the Morgan horse. I appreciated their support and empathetic comments about the diagnosis.

Scorch tested positive for lymphoma at Michigan State University the following Wednesday and had his first chemotherapy treatment. They kept him overnight for observation, just to be sure he wasn't going to have a bad reaction.

I opted for an aggressive form of treatment and he would be receiving chemotherapy over the next five months. Statistically there is a 95% success rate of remission. The tricky part is, they can’t predict how long the remission will last.

The treatment was horrendously expensive, but I decided early on that money was not going to be an object. Scorch was nine years old, and that is way too young to lose a dog, especially a mixed breed dog that is supposed to have hybrid vigor. I began thinking about how to raise funds for his treatment. I opened an online store in Scorch’s name, with products featuring my art work, thinking it might help.

I once had a friend tell me that for someone who has so much bad luck, I have really good luck. And in this case, it was true. Scorch came through his chemo with flying colors and was back home again the next day. He ate a big dinner. He was only too happy to come out and help me feed the horses. It was dark and the snow was falling softly. Scorch gobbled up huge bites of snow, just like always, and Cajun looked for sticks.

It was so good to have him back, behaving like his old self! My friend Debi Boies had suggested that I give him lots of encouraging pats and praise, just to show him I was okay with everything. I agreed with her, and I took it a step further. I threw my hands up in the air and started jumping up and down, shouting, "We did it! WE DID IT! We're ALIVE!! YAAAYYY!!!!" and the dogs jumped around too and bark excitedly. We all spent a few minutes together that evening, dancing and cavorting in the snow.

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