Dr. Kent had prepared me for side effects, saying they would get worse before they got better and that the symptoms would wax and wane. But I wasn’t prepared for quite how gruesome the side effects would become, or how severely they would affect Jazzy, both physically and emotionally. Though she remained her usual, stoic self, at night she would whimper, and her breathing was labored. Instead of sleeping on the bed in her usual princess position (anywhere she wants and hogging most of it), she preferred to sleep on her dog bed, alone. Because I knew how uncomfortable she was, I barely slept, arising every few hours to dab her wounds and try to clear her nasal passages with a gauze pad soaked in saline solution. Jazzy seemed to know I was trying to help her, and though she would flinch at first, as long as I spoke softly, she reluctantly stayed still. “It’s going to be OK,” I would coo at her, fighting back tears and trying to remain strong for her because I knew that’s what she needed.
I didn’t think it could get any worse, but it did. By the second week of October, patches of fur had fallen out around the radiation site near her nose and her left eye, her breathing was more labored, and her right eye also became goopy. I continued the regimen of gently dabbing the wounds and clearing the gunk with saline, I gave her pain pills, steroids and antibiotics crushed up in soft food that I handfed to her a few bites at a time. The steroids increased her appetite, but she couldn’t have her favorite treats – chicken and duck breast jerky – because they were too hard for her to chew.
Besides the physical side effects, the radiation also took an emotional toll on Jazzy. Instead of greeting people at the door with a stuffed toy (a “gift” for them, which she would then refuse to give), she stayed downstairs, lying on her dog bed near the garden door, not even interested in the squirrels that came to the glass begging for peanuts (I’ve always kept a stash for them, and they’ve gotten spoiled). Normally when I went for her leash, Jazzy would grab a stuffed toy and wiggle in circles around me – head down so I couldn’t get the toy or put on her collar – in her unique, quirky display of understated enthusiasm. As frustrating as it was to be unable to put a pink, sparkly collar on a moving target, the habit was so endearing I always wound up laughing, and eventually she would sit, toy still in mouth, and patiently wait as I prepared her for our daily walks at Stow Lake, the beach or Buena Vista Park.
Now when I brought out her collar, Jazzy would remain on her bed, only the white tip of her tail wagging as if to say she appreciated the thought, but no thanks. After nearly three weeks, the farthest she wanted to go was our garden to lie in the sun. But I kept trying, bringing out the collar every day. “Do you want to go see the ‘squirrellies’?” I would ask, a phrase that usually got her whole body wiggling. “Let’s go see the Steller’s jays at Stow Lake – come on, Jazzy!”
All the encouragement must have worked, or else we were in one of those “wax” phases, because one crisp fall day, she got up and slowly walked toward me. There was no endearing ritual, no stuffed toy gift of gratitude; no sweet, gentle circles around my legs; no wagging butt or wiggling body – just a slight twitch from the white tip of her tail. She allowed me to put on her collar and leash, and we headed out the door toward my car, where she balked. She simply didn’t have the energy to get into the car, and I wasn’t going to force her. Instead, we crossed the street to Buena Vista Park, the place I first discovered the squirrelly side of Ms. Blue. Today, though, I could tell she was doing this walk more to please me; squirrels scampered up to beg for peanuts, and Jazzy barely noticed. After just a few minutes, I realized it was too much for her and we headed home. As we walked under the canopy of eucalyptus trees, a young man and his girlfriend approached. He looked down at Jazzy and grimaced, and when Jazzy went toward him for that human attention she craved no matter how bad she felt, he winced and jumped back. “Damn! Freddy Krueger!” he blurted. Thankfully, Jazzy had no clue what he was saying or who Freddy Krueger is, but I certainly did – Freddy Krueger is the crazed killer with the deformed, hideous face from Wes Craven’s classic horror film series A Nightmare on Elm Street. The couple hurried away, and I shouted, “She has CANCER!” but they were already too far away to hear it.
Since the day I adopted Jazzy, everyone has commented on how beautiful she is – auburn brown and white fur in a perfect pattern; two little white marks on either side of her butt (a stoner in Golden Gate Park once said, “You should call her ‘Monarch,’ dude ...”); the cartoon-like brown patch on the left side of her face; black Cleopatra eyeliner around each eye so precise that a supermodel would be jealous ... and those eyes, bluer than the Adriatic sea. And now, because of the radiation treatments, she was being looked at as some kind of horror-movie monster.
When we arrived home, Jazzy went straight to her bed by the garden door, and I brought out the gauze, sat on the floor beside her, and gently dabbed her wounds. I had been so strong the last several weeks, but I couldn’t contain my heartache anymore, and I began weeping uncontrollably. Jazzy took all the energy she had left to sit up, and as I dabbed the saline onto her eyes, she licked the saline away from mine. “I don’t care if you look like Freddy Krueger,” I said, “You’re still beautiful to me.”
Even though Jazzy had no idea what I was saying, she seemed to take comfort in the fact I had stopped crying; she laid back down on her bed, put her head in my lap, and let out a deep sigh. Then we sat there for a long time together, quietly watching as the squirrels came to the glass begging for peanuts.