Lulu-Belle in my vet’s waiting room the morning after I brought her home.
I picked Lulu-Belle up in Westchester on Thursday, March 19th—an in between day with the bright blue, cloudless sky suggesting spring but the nip in the air saying winter.
Lulu-Belle had spent the last month in Margaret’s home. Margaret is a Second Chance Rescue volunteer—a fosterer extraordinaire. She has three rescue cats of her own—one blind in one eye—and two rescue dogs. In addition to her menagerie she always provides temporary refuge for one of Second Chance’s rescues—usually a dog. But her volunteerism is versatile: on the way back from a recent vacation she and her husband transported a dozen rescue kittens from the South to the Northeast.
Although tempted to emulate her, I know myself too well. If I fostered dogs and cats, I’d never be able to give a single one up. In rescue lingo: foster fail! In my case: epic foster fail! My apartment would become even more of a land-locked Noah’s Ark than it already is.
Lulu-Belle was even tinier than I’d imagined. She weighed eight pounds. Margaret had sent me videos of her but it was hard to gain a sense of scale even as I’d repeatedly watched her gobbling up food, frolicking in the snow, and—best of all—determinedly climbing the two stairs up to Margaret’s front porch. The stairs were clearly too steep for her but that didn’t stop her from eventually mounting them through a sort of full-body bobbing action that reminded me of a dolphin. It was that unstoppable determination that sealed the deal for me. Lulu-Belle possessed exactly the kind of against-all-odds determination I wanted myself. I admired it in her and hoped it would be catchy.
Even though I’d seen the photos and video clips it was a minor shock to see Lulu-Belle in the flesh. She existed! I realized that until this moment she’d been more of an idea than a reality. A concept. A daily item on my to-do list. Get the vet reference in. Schedule the home visit. But here she was at my feet: a lively, tail-wagging puppy who didn’t seem to appreciate that she was tragically blind.
Suddenly it became time to beat rush-hour traffic. Margaret gave me a bit of kibble and the stuffed elephant that had accompanied Lulu-Belle all the way from San Antonio ever since Cira, another Second Chance angel, had pulled her from that high-kill shelter there. Cira was on the front lines, snatching dogs from death row on nearly a daily basis.
Margaret walked me to my car. I carried Lulu-Belle in my arms. Living in Westchester in a house with a big yard, she wasn’t much of a leash walker yet. I opened the hatch and gently tucked her in the crate I had readied for this occasion. A pristinely white, doubled-over towel lined its base.
I already had Hazel, my Frenchie, but as I pulled out of Margaret’s driveway I felt the way I did when I first took my infant son home from Roosevelt-St. Luke’s. What have I gotten myself into? Will I be up to this? “C’mon.” I told myself. “She’s a dog. How hard can it be?” A few deep breaths later I felt capable again. Later, when I was nearly home pulling off the West Side Highway it occurred to me: I had her; Lulu-Belle was truly mine.
The very next morning I took her to my vet. I wanted to be a responsible owner. Lulu-Belle had already had some routine puppy vaccinations and was due for another round; I wanted to be sure that she got them ASAP. I also wanted to be sure that she didn’t have anything bad that she might pass on to Hazel.
My vet was surprised by my choice of puppy. To her eye Lulu-Belle seemed unsteady on the examination table. She might have balance issues. The blindness could be related to a deeper problem. Something neurological. She pronounced her hind legs slightly bow-legged. A lump of nearly maternal defensiveness congealed in my chest.
That morning Lulu-Belle got the lepto vaccine, another dhpp shot, and something for parvo that she took orally. I was to bring her back in a couple weeks for more boosters.
I walked her back to my apartment where I planned to edit for a few hours before heading to the office for the afternoon. Then it began to snow. When it became clear that we were in for more than some aberrant flurries I decided to take Lulu-Belle and Hazel for a walk in Central Park before we got any serious accumulation. I went to the kitchen and bent down to attach a leash to Lulu-Belle’s collar. She was utterly transformed. Her face, pure pit only an hour ago, looked as scrunchy and wrinkled as a Sharpei’s. I knew instantly that this must be related to the vaccines she’d received. My vet had mentioned something about rare but possible allergic reactions. I was upset but calm. I scooped Lulu-Belle up in my arms and ran the three short blocks back to my vet’s.
My vet didn’t seem too alarmed. “This kind of thing happens,” she said. “We’ll give her something akin to Benadryl. That should take the swelling down.” We agreed that Lulu-Belle would stay with her for the afternoon since I would be at the office.
Lulu-Belle in my vet’s arms about two hours after she received the lepto vaccine.
When I picked Lulu-Belle up that night her face was still swollen. “If she’s still bad by noon tomorrow bring her back,” my vet said. But I returned with Lulu-Belle by 10:00 am the next day. Her face was still quite swollen; it didn’t look like it would be going down in the next couple of hours. So I thought: Why wait?
My vet gave Lulu-Belle a shot this time and kept her for four hours. When I went to pick her up the vet tech carried her to me in her arms. “See,” she said, “she’s starting to look better.” I didn’t think so and said as much, but took Lulu-Belle home. We were headed to Philly.
Sunday morning I went for a 10-mile run on the dirt trail in the heavily wooded Fairmount Park. It was perfect running weather and I felt great. I ran faster than I had in weeks. I stopped at my sister Colette’s house on the way home to take a shower. I was still having that crazy water problem where my meter would spin wildly even when the water was running at a trickle. I figured that a two-minute shower was costing me fifty bucks. Colette and I had a chance to catch up over coffee, and then I headed home to walk my dogs. Between the endorphins and the caffeine and my happiness at having such a terrific sister only a block away and two great dogs to come home to, I felt physically and emotionally ebullient in a way I hadn’t since my break-up.
I bent down to attach Lulu-Belle’s leash. Her face was still as swollen as before and there was something new: a golf-ball-sized bulge on the right side of her face. It looked just like the growths that had killed my two Burmese cats—Kronk and Miette—only weeks apart back in the fall.
I tried to examine Lulu-Belle’s tumor more closely. On the inside of her mouth it was white. I thought it could be an infection. Trying to remain calm, I called my vet’s emergency number. The vet on call told me to go to the Animal Medical Center or Blue Pearl—highly respected 24-hour specialty veterinary hospitals in Manhattan. “But I’m in Philadelphia,” I said.
“Even better. Go to Penn. I went to vet school there.”
I knew that the University of Pennsylvania had a highly regarded veterinary school and hospital. “Okay,” I said.
Penn’s veterinary hospital is a teaching facility. I was first interviewed by two veterinary students who nervously asked me a lot of questions about Lulu-Belle before examining her briefly. Then Lulu-Belle and I were sent back to the waiting area until an actual vet could take her case. As I waited, I befriended other anxious owners: two sisters from New Jersey with a very old, scrawny Airedale; a young couple with a sick cat; a whole family with an ill Maltese. One by one these patients were attended to by earnest-looking veterinarians, who said a few words of consolation, then outlined proposed medical plans.
Finally, Lulu-Belle and I were the only two left in the waiting room. It was starting to get dark. After about an hour, I approached the front desk. Apparently there had been a change in shifts; Lulu-Belle and I had been lost in that shuffle.
About twenty minutes later a vet tech came to collect her. I waited another twenty minutes and then a young female veterinarian came out to speak with me. Lulu-Belle was still in the back. The vet’s eyes looked fatigued even though she’d only started her shift. “It’s hard to say what’s going on,” she said. “We need to admit her.”
“Could be distemper. We don’t see a lot of that.”
“What’s the prognosis?”
“We had a litter of six here with it a few months ago. One survived.”
Maybe I was grumpy from waiting for so long. Probably I was distraught. But the vet’s dead eyes and attitude seemed to be saying to me: What did you expect, getting a mongrel like this? She continued, all business: “It will be thirty-five hundred for three days. You’ll need to put down seventeen fifty as a deposit.”
“Okay,” I said, but my brain was only beginning to absorb the situation. Thirty-five hundred dollars for a dog that probably wouldn’t survive? Thirty-five hundred dollars for a dog that I’d had less than 72 hours? Was this dog even mine?
My equivocation was brief. My ex could quit on me. I wasn’t quitting on this dog. My dog. Three days, three years. What was the difference? It was settled. Lulu-Belle was my dog just as much as Hazel was.
The vet was already gone. I went to the front desk and put the deposit on my credit card. “May I see Lulu-Belle before I leave?” I asked. The kind receptionist nodded. After a short delay a vet tech brought her out to me. “You’ll be okay, Sweetie,” I told her even though I wondered if this was true. Her tail was wagging. She was still all puppy joy. I kissed her one last time. Then the vet tech whisked her away.
I went out through the automatic doors. Night had fallen since I’d arrived. I checked my phone. It was past ten o’clock. I realized I was crying. This all felt so wrong. Not that Lulu-Belle was probably deathly ill. Not the money. Although neither was great. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave her there. Not with that stone cold vet. And not so far away from my real home in Manhattan. I came to Philadelphia only on weekends. I didn’t want Lulu-Belle to be a two-hour drive away. I went back inside and headed for reception.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I’ve changed my mind. I’d like my dog back.”
I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that I had to get Lulu-Belle out of there.
The receptionist didn’t seem the least chagrinned. She placed a call asking for Lulu-Belle to be brought out again and then started to refund my credit card.
I would take Lulu-Belle back to Manhattan. The Animal Medical Center. Blue Pearl. They probably charged even more than Penn but at least Lulu-Belle would be local. And maybe in kinder hands.
At long last she was brought out again. I kissed her and hugged her tight. Then I took her to my car.
While I was waiting I’d texted everyone I could think of at Second Chance Rescue asking for advice. But it was late, maybe too late to hear back from anyone. It was just like that night I’d gotten the form rejection—a rejection that was suddenly seeming like a blessing in disguise. A blessing I’d fought tooth and nail to overturn.
My phone rang. It was Jennifer Brooks, Second Chance Rescue’s president. Someone I’d contacted had gotten in touch with her. She was instantly sympathetic. She couldn’t imagine what was wrong with Lulu-Belle. She’d been fine at Margaret’s for the past month. She didn’t think that it could be distemper. “Take her to VERG-South in Brooklyn,” she told me. “That’s where we take all of our rescues. They’re fabulous.”
I wanted fabulous. Now I had a real plan. I thanked Jennifer. I would take Lulu-Belle to VERG-South first thing Monday. (VERG, I would soon find out, stood for Veterinary Emergency Referral Group. There was also a VERG-North in Cobble Hill. VERG-South was in Flatbush).
I got on the Schuylkill Expressway to get back to my Philly house. Instantly I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. At eleven o’clock on a Sunday night. Can’t I ever catch a break?
I was completely at a standstill. At least I had a view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Parthenon on the Parkway. With spotlights on it, it positively glowed at night. I thought of all the college friends I’d taken jogging up its stairs my freshman year; Rocky had come out when we were still high school seniors.
Finally I started to inch forward. I did this for miles. At last the cause of it all came into view. It was a horrendous crash. Two smashed vehicles. All air bags deployed. Windshields shattered. Glass strewn everywhere. By the time I pulled alongside it, any dead or survivors had been taken from the scene.
Okay. Reality check: somebody else was having a worse day than mine.
I said a quick prayer for the accident victim or victims and added a prayer of thanks. I hadn’t been in a crash and—at least for today—Lulu-Belle was still above ground and kicking. And, despite everything, so was I.