I am watching Cassie dream. She is in her chair, her head hanging off the side at such a funny angle that it looks like it should hurt, except she does it on purpose all the time. First she thumps her tail, slowly then with more force. Then she whimpers and yips and her feet start to run in place. Her entire body shakes and shivers in her sleep the same way it does when she spies a squirrel on the fence in the backyard.
In the past, every time this would happen, my husband and I would watch with indulgent doggy-parent smiles, imagining Cassie chasing squirrels in wild open places.
That was before.
A couple of weeks ago Cassie begin having seizures. Watching an animal you love (or a person) have a seizure is one of the most terrifying things you can imagine. It is like a scene out of The Exorcist and the helplessness you feel is all-consuming. The first one sent us racing to the ER to have Cassie checked out. Between the ER and assorted friends and research we learned how very common canine seizures were and how some dogs were able to live a long and happy life without medication and others needed the help of some kind of drug. The ER vet said she would have another seizure, there was just no idea when that might be. It could be a few days, a few months, a few years.
For the next week my emotions ran full spectrum. First I cried. My writer’s imagination was unable to break free from the thought of my life without Cassie in it. I had not had enoguh time with her yet. Later, as the seizure-free days began to add up, I let myself think that we were one of the lucky ones, that it was a freak thing that wouldn’t change our lives and more importantly, wouldn’t change or threaten Cassie’s life very much at all.
I was wrong.
Last weekend Cassie had a cluster of Grand Mal seizures that sent us back to the ER and had her in the hospital overnight. After meeting with her regular vet and discussing options, she is now on anti-seizure medication. Just like that, our lives and Cassie’s life, has changed. Having a dog in our home is no longer an easy thing to do. There is medicine to take at the same time of day, twice a day, every day, for the rest of her life. That means if we are going to be out late, we need to make arrangements for Cassie. There are blood tests to monitor the drug levels and her liver functions. There is the month-long adjustment to the medication, during which time Cassie is constantly whining for food because her body thinks she is starving. There is the ataxia, the wobbly back end that has her walking drunk. We need to monitor her going up and down the stairs of our two-story house. There is incontinence.
There are some books that are easier to write than others. I wrote a picture book (that sold and stayed in print for many years) across a single weekend. Granted, it had simmered beneath the surface for years but the first draft was very close to the final draft. Hugging the Rock wasn’t easy to write (many times my husband would find me crying while I was drafting poems) but once I found the form for the book, it came out pretty fast. Flyboy is a novel I worked on for over twenty years before putting it away and deciding that maybe I didn’t need to finish it or if I did, it would be later, down the road.
The book I am writing at the moment isn’t easy. It isn’t my story of my relationship with my dad (or lack of one) but it is inspired by it. It isn’t the story of me and my newly-found sister, but it is inspired by that as well. When I began the book the ideas came fast and furious, like one of Cassie’s dreams, and I filled my virtual index cards (aka, Scrivener) with the ideas as quickly as they came. For the first time in my life I had an outline before I had a finished book. I gave myself a bit of a break and then settled into writing the first draft. I thought the outline would make it easy – I just had to pull up the next card and write the next poem. Repeat again and again until the book was done.
But of course it didn’t work out that way. I would write a few poems and I would lose the voice which made me think I had never had the right voice for the character to begin with. I would add a new character or a plot point and suddenly I would have to revise the outline to make everything fit. Another day I would pull up a card and have absolutely no idea what I was talking about and what my intentions had been at that place in the plot. And of course on those days I convinced myself that I had no business writing this book at all. That my best writing was behind me. That I couldn’t do it again, had lost my touch, you name the self-abuse, I heaped it on myself.
But there were also those days when I pulled up a card thinking it was just a snippet of what I should write next and I would discover a poem nearly fully done and filled with such vividness that it made me gasp or cry. The ones that are filled with characters so real that I am sure if I saw them walking down the street I could call out their name and they would turn around. Those are the days, the poems, I hold onto when the writing gets tough.
As I am typing this, Cassie is sitting beside me whining for the mini-meal I have promised her in another ten minutes. I fear she is going to go hoarse with the constant whining but I know she will survive. We are adjusting on many levels. We are breaking her meals into smaller ones through-out the day. We are taking her outside for potty breaks more frequently rather than waiting for her to ring the bells. We are walking with her up and down the stairs and blocking her from them when we have to leave her home alone. We are making lists of people who could help us if we need to be gone at a time when she needs her medication. We are revising our lives around this very special dog we love.
At the same time, we still do the same things we have always done with her, play ball, wrestle with her big orange gorilla, and go for walks
When you make a decision to bring a dog into your home and make it a part of your family, there’s no guarantee that it will be a perfect fit. There are always adjustments to be made of one kind or another. Cassie’s first year with us was filled with a different kind of medical concern as we worked to diagnose the auto-immune disease she had and then, eventually, find the correct medication to keep that under control. We made that work. We will make this work too.
When you commit to writing a novel there is no guarantee that the story you first start to tell will be the same story when you finally type “the end” and close the book. You have to be willing to make adjustments along the way as your characters come into their personalities and begin to take over, as mine always do. You have to be willing to fight your way through the multiple garbage drafts and revision and spend a lot of time gazing at the screen or the blank pages of your notebook and asking yourself, okay, what happens next and how can I make it work?
Some days are easier than others.
You don’t give up on dog or the book just because things get tough. A mountain in your path just means you need to find another way to get to where you want to go, whether that’s to the end of the book or to a happy dog chasing squirrels in the backyard.