Sadie, my dog is in her usual position at the end of our king-sized bed. She’s stretched across the entire width in a diagonal angle which makes it tricky for me to find my own niche. I haven’t figured out how a medium sized dog can turn into one very long dog at bedtime.
The first night I brought Sadie out of her crate to sleep with me, she was too little to jump up on the bed so I picked her up. She was timid as she sniffed out her new quarters turning around a few times before lying down. Fascinated by the television she scootched on her stomach to watch it and fell asleep. I think she couldn’t believe her good luck at not having to sleep in her crate in the basement, but it had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with that I simply couldn’t stand her barking anymore at night. That was nine years ago and Sadie has slept with me almost every night since then.
There’s something so peaceful about watching Sadie sleeping…almost tangible. Her presence fills our bedroom with serenity. Sadie goes into a deep and quiet place transcending the room and the house. Wherever she goes in her sleep…it must be a good place.
This particular night as I watch her sleeping…she is tranquil as usual, but I am uneasy listening to her soft breathing. What seems like years ago now, Sadie had been diagnosed with a heart condition. She took medication for almost three years and was pronounced better. No more pills…no more worries…until today.
We’d left very early this morning and made the familiar trip to Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital. We hadn’t been there since she’d gotten better, but her allergies had gotten the best of both of us so I’d decided to consult an allergy specialist vet. Sadie turned nine this year, so I’d have her cardiologist check her out as well.
I knew something wasn’t right when the cardiologist took the longest time to listen to her heart. She kept moving the stethoscope over Sadie’s body and stroking her back to keep her from moving. When she finished I knew what she was going to say. The unhealthy sound of Sadie’s heart was back…the arrhythmia…and it could mean a valve wasn’t shutting properly allowing blood to leak into her heart.
Nine years ago, Sadie’s tests revealed she had an arrhythmia in her heart…sort of like pistons misfiring when an engine malfunctions. I wanted to know everything including why and what caused it. There were few answers and even those were speculative. She’d take atenolol, a human medication prescribed for a number of uses, but in Sadie’s case; to hopefully regulate her heartbeat and prevent heart failure. The vet cardiologist told me that she’d possibly outgrow this as she got older. Then he told me if Sadie had a heart attack which was a possibility, there would be nothing I could do. I took my little puppy and went home. Every morning for three years she stopped by our kitchen sink and waited for her pill.
Thinking all this over on the drive home today exhausted me. Sadie slept the entire three-hour drive curled up on the passenger seat. I didn’t tell her about the leaking heart valve. I look at Sadie as she starts to drift off to sleep and her forehead is furrowed in thought. I trace the rows of black hair above her beautiful eyes and smooth the wrinkles in her forehead. I long to know what she is thinking and I ask…did she hear what her cardiologist said? Is she worrying about her heart? Does she wish I would stop holding her tightly and go to sleep? My guess would be that if she is troubled…it is for me that she wrinkles her brow. She’d handled the initial diagnosis of her heart condition much better than I did…continuing to explore her puppy world without hesitation. And when she was pronounced better, for months she’d still stop at the kitchen counter waiting for her pill.
There is no medication this time. I have to watch her and see if she tires easily or doesn’t have the energy to walk as long as usual. Things that required no thought, like playing with Mr. Surfer dog or chasing after tennis balls will now be measurements of how her heart is working. I have to tell her vet if she sleeps more than usual, if she gets tired on our walks or doesn’t want to walk as long as we usually do. If we’re to keep this heart disease predator at bay, these things have to be noticed.
I stayed up all night once watching Sadie sleep when she was sick from eating something inedible as puppies do. The weekend vet wanted me to leave her at the emergency hospital overnight, but I wouldn’t. I’d taken her home and as she slept, I watched her all night. Was our future to be one long extension of that horrible night when I kept putting my face close to her nose to feel her breathing and my ear on her side to hear her heart beating??
It’s been a month since the new diagnosis. I watch her sleep. She sleeps often…in front of the fireplace…on the cool kitchen floor tiles…in the car…on the deck…under my desk. I ask myself, “Is she sleeping more? Should I call her cardiologist?” I feel like I’m spying on her…betraying her. Her Dad tells me I’m imagining things…dogs sleep a lot…I only notice it more now. I love him for saying it even if I don’t really believe it.
In the business park where we like to walk, I won’t let her off the leash to possibly get lost. I protect her from things I can see and anticipate, but there’s nothing I can do to protect her from harm lurking in her own body. I can make sure she doesn’t go into the path of a car, but am helpless at regulating the beats of her heart. I can’t keep her heart valve from leaking or mine from breaking.
Watching her sleep at night is still soothing. It’s the one time I know she should be sleeping. The deer have triggered the motion lights and they shine through our window. The light allows me to see Sadie’s ears fanned out on the pillow bringing to mind a passage from a book by D.H. Lawrence.
In the book a man watches his young wife sleeping and realizes she is going to leave him. The man reaches out to touch her hair and realized that “he could no more touch her hair than he could her soul. She had crossed the threshold and he was neither able to pull her back or follow her through.” I reach out like I’ve done on thousands of nights and I stroke Sadie’s ears destroying the image of letters already sent. I’m not ready for her to cross any thresholds. I don’t know where Sadie goes when she sleeps; I only know that I will be here every morning when she returns and even on that morning that will change my life forever…when she does not.
Note: SHE SLEEPS was published in PET CITY for the Charleston Daily Mail…Nominee in DWAA 2012 Writing Contest.