Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Moviegoing Break

It's been seven weeks since I saw a movie in a theater.  It's just about the longest I've ever gone without seeing a movie.

We saw Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, a movie about a woman whose life undergoes a sudden, catastrophic change, and the trouble she has coping with it.  The movie is played like a nervous comedy (imagine, Woody Allen with a nervous comedy!), and I imagined after seeing it that it might be my last film for a few weeks.  There was a birthday to contend with, a ramp-up in work, and my partner and I were heading to Germany on vacation.  My life was filled with the minor distractions and fluctuations that are so commonplace, we take them to be our lives, and give them more weight than they probably need.

To save some money during our splurge of a European vacation, we decided to have our two dogs stay with my parents in the San Diego suburbs.

Our oldest dog, Edward, is about to turn 13, and earlier this year knocked the wind out of us when he developed a sudden (there is no other kind) case of idiopathic vestibular disease -- an unhappy kind of illness that creates intense, continuous dizziness for a dog, to the point that he can't walk and can hardly open his eyes.  As the vets explained, "idiopathic" sounds like "idiotic" for a reason: there's no way to explain it, and doctors are made to feel a little foolish by having to say "it just is."  They shouldn't feel that way at all; life just is.  Woody Allen's Jasmine has trouble with this concept -- it's a good thing she doesn't have dogs.

At any rate, we had let almost every potential bad-news scenario play out in our minds when making the decision to send the dogs somewhere we knew to be safe.  Our biggest concern was that they would not be able to handle Edward's recovery, which was ongoing and significant.

For seven days in Germany, we called San Diego every night, and for seven days we were reminded we were doting canine parents, too attached and too worried about every little thing.  "They are happier here than you could ever even imagine," my mom said. "They won't want to go home!"  We received photos, and if dogs can smile, these dogs were doing it.  We might have been enjoying our vacation, but theirs cost them nothing and they didn't have to worry about airport security, three-minute train connections, or how to convert Euros to dollars.

So, we were all enjoying our time away from each other, and on our second Friday night in Germany, after a particularly long day of train and car travel, we didn't call home.  We didn't feel badly about it, because we had been asked over and over, "Why are you bothering to call?  Everything's fine!"

Since mobile-phone data packages are almost as inscrutable as pre-Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics, we were relying on wifi to keep in touch, which meant my family had no way to call us directly.  So, after one impossibly glorious, unforgettably wonderful day in which we drove to the Czech Republic and back, we called home.

"Something is very wrong with Lucy," we heard. My 77-year-old mother was doing her best to stay calm and upbeat.  Maybe it was just a bee sting, or a small spider bite, but in any event, the vet wasn't too worried -- one look at the photo she sent through had our hearts jumping out of their chests.  There was normally vivacious, irrepressible Lucy laying on her side, her neck swollen to three times its normal size.  Lucy was going to the vet later that day for a follow-up visit, and he expected everything to be fine.

But it wasn't.

The nine-hour time difference wasn't working in our favor.  It was after midnight when we learned that Lucy had been transfered to an emergency clinic; whatever was wrong with her was too much for the local vet to handle.

Our wonderful German friends who were hosting us were being remarkably patient.  They went off to bed, hiding the situation from their small children, and we spent three frantic hours on the phone with vets, with airlines, with credit-card companies and with our family hoping for answers, for solutions, for updates and, most of all, for causes.

No one knew what was wrong with Lucy.  My parents swore she had never been out of their sight for long.  But here is one of life's awful secrets: A moment is always too long, and a moment is almost always unavoidable.

We'll never know exactly what happened.  Maybe it was under a woodpile in the back yard.  Perhaps it was under a tree.  Feasibly, while out on a walk, tight and controlled on a leash, Lucy could have put her nose into a bush, filled with typical curiosity.  In any event, blood tests tell us this happened:

A rattlesnake bit her.

A rattlesnake bite, it turns out, is frequently survivable, both by humans and by dogs.  But what happens after the initial survival is harrowing.

It's even worse when you're 5,000 miles away.  When the airlines tell you the best they can offer is a change of travel that will cost $2,000.  When veterinarians, family and friends all say: "What could you do, even if you flew there right now?"

The worst part is, they're absolutely right.

There are few sentences you never want to hear when you are thousands of miles away, and near the top of the list of those sentences is, "We're doing everything we can."

My family performed heroically.  Not knowing what was wrong with her, they acted as swiftly as they could, but the venom was already doing what it was created to do: to pre-digest the skin and get the victim ready to eat.  Who can blame the snake for doing what snakes do?

The veterinarian staffs at the animal hospitals have been remarkable; caring and patient with two frantic people calling at all hours from thousands of miles away, they never failed to tell us what was happening.  And what was happening was not pretty.  Skin was dying all around the bite area, Lucy's temperature was soaring past 105ยบ F, and her blood was failing to clot in sufficient time to allow manageable healing; the number of blood platelets, which are the cells that rush to the site of an injury, were critically low and falling perilously fast.

And we were being told to just try to enjoy ourselves.

It was the best advice, in retrospect.  Lucy was getting the care she needed, plenty of people -- including total strangers she had never before met -- were worrying about her, and she had her own track record to fall back on:

When she was just three months old, Lucy contracted the canine parvovirus, which has an astonishing 80 percent mortality rate -- but after four days in isolation, IVs attached to every one of her tiny little limbs, she pulled through.  Lucy has been in fights with raccoons, getting herself sliced unpleasantly; she's chased cats through rose bushes, tearing her face enough to require stitches; she's caught her leg in a fence, tearing one of her rear claws almost off.

She is scrappy, she is fearless, she's a troublemaker -- and she is a fighter.

Lucy has also learned not to complain when she's hurt, one of the reasons no one knew there was a problem until the venom had already had critical time to fill her neck.  Though we arrived home within four days of the bite, by that time Lucy could barely rise to greet us.  She had been through days of medical procedures to try to help her, she had endured two nights in critical care, and the worst wasn't yet over.

When we arrived back in L.A., bleary-eyed and filled with anxiety that had prevented us from sleeping for more than 20 hours, we still had to get to San Diego to bring her home.  When we arrived, an infection had started tearing at the skin under Lucy's neck, which had begun to blacken and die.  Normally vocal and excited in a car, Lucy slept all the way home, and the local vet admitted she was beyond his help; she had to go to a specialist.

"We're going to get her through this," our surgeon, Nicole Buote, promised.  "She's made it this far, and we're not going to stop."  Lucy was rushed into surgery.  Two skin-flap procedures were required to close the wound.  Not once, we were told over and over, did Lucy whine, cry or complain.

Though she's made a recovery we would consider nothing short of miraculous -- fueled by the enormous goodwill and assistance of our friends, people who have no reason to help us other than that they are wonderful, kind-hearted and irreplaceable -- Lucy still faces hurdles.

She has developed a skin infection, though it fortunately is not affecting her wound site; an infection, we're told, is not a surprise considering the stress her little body has been through.  Simultaneously, a section of the skin that was used to cover the wound is not quite healing as the vets might like, but they remain optimistic.

"Lucy's healing is my No. 1 priority," Dr. Buote wrote in an email just tonight. Veterinarians, like most doctors, I suppose, do not get the credit they deserve; they help preserve our happiness, and in that sense are some of the most wonderful people in the world.

Lucy wags her tail and gives us kisses, she has a healthy appetite and maintains a quiet dignity and even, if it's possible for a dog, sense of humor. At night, when she breathes heavy or seems in the slightest pain, we turn into middle-aged gay versions of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, desperately worried something might be wrong, comically so, no doubt.

We get little sleep.  We spend too much time looking things up on the Internet, fueling our fears (but also, at times, buoying our hopes, as we read about pets who have made it through equally difficult challenges). We focus on Lucy's healing, and fret that Edward is feeling neglected.

We focus on work, because we need to pay the mounting bills which are, at best, significant.  And we stay out of movie theaters, because we have made a commitment to be with Lucy at every step of the way out of her injury and back to health.

Personally and professionally, movies have been a constant source of enjoyment, sustaining us through happiness and sadness.  We know too much about how they are made, but we surrender ourselves to them regularly.

Except lately.  We've remarked how much we miss them, but then look down at our feet and see Lucy sleeping or eating, we feel her wet tongue slide across our cheek and think how precious she is, and we remember how fragile and tenuous our bonds to this life really are -- for anyone, on four legs or two.

Lucy is sleeping now.  She is at my feet, and she looks serene.  I cannot imagine what she has been through.  When I consider my own fear and occasional despair, my own struggle to remain optimistic, my heart both leaps and falls when I think about her own journey, which must be filled with confusion and fright.  We hope we are successful in our efforts to console her.

She is only a foot and a half tall.  And yet she's bigger, more important, more wonderful than the biggest blockbuster on the biggest screen in the world.  She fills my heart with more gladness than E.T., The Poseidon Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Sound of Music and Defending Your Life put together -- and that's saying something.

I love the movies, but I love this little dog even more.  So, I probably won't be sitting in the darkness of a movie theater for a while yet, and that's OK.  In my life, at least, Lucy, Edward and my indomitable partner Jeff are the three biggest, brightest, most memorable stars of all.