Lulu-Belle after being admitted to VERG-South.
Before I left for the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital around 3:00 that Sunday afternoon I’d promised my 12-year-old son Kieran that I’d take him to the diner before we headed back to Manhattan. It hadn’t seemed like an extravagant promise at the time.
The Trolley Car Diner.
The Trolley Car Diner, a local favorite and special favorite of ours, boasts a classic deco decor and an authentic trolley car parked permanently beside it. The old #23 hasn’t been active on Germantown Avenue for years except to dispense ice cream, milk shakes, and Italian water ice in the summertime.
Best for Kieran: the diner serves pancakes 24/7.
Best for me: the music played there is non-stop ’80s—retro bliss!
The diner is about a half mile from our Philly house. When we’re feeling like Philadelphians we drive there. When we’re feeling like New Yorkers we walk.
As day gave way to night and I was still stuck at Penn waiting to confer with a veterinarian, dinner at the Trolley Car became less and less likely. On Sundays it closes at 9:00. I started calling Kieran around 8:00 to let him know the bad news. When I still couldn’t reach him an hour later I texted my ex so that he could start trying him, too.
When we both failed I to reach him after another hour of texts and calls, I felt a maternal pang just on the calm side of panic. What were the chances that anything bad had happened to him? I asked myself, trying to remain reasonable and calm. But then what were the chances that within 72 hours of adopting a blind but otherwise healthy rescue dog her condition could have gone this far south? Maybe all my bad luck was turning up at once.
The more my ex and I tried to persuade ourselves and each other that Kieran was okay, the less I was buying it. What if that outside-chance terrible thing had befallen him? How bad might it be? And what kind of mother was I? Deserting my son to get emergency care for a dog I’d adopted only days before. My recriminations picked up with the speed of the traffic after I crawled by that horrendous car accident.
When I got back to my Philly house I found Kieran sleeping on the sofa, mouth agape, face angelically relaxed. I took a picture of him that I can’t share—Kieran insists on approval of any photo of him I want to post on the Internet and he never grants permission—that I texted to my ex. I didn’t need to caption it but if I had I would have written: he’s safe; bullet dodged. Exhale now.
It was almost midnight by the time I got home to my Angel Boy, far too late for me to drive home to New York. My ex is the night owl. I’m a morning person. I would have been asleep at the wheel before Trenton. I set my iPhone alarm for 4:00 am.
We pulled away from the curb by 4:30 the next morning. Kieran was asleep again by the time we passed the Trolley Car Diner. Hazel was napping in my lap. Both were lightly snoring. Lulu-Belle was in a crate in the back of our Subaru. The right side of her face was even more cruelly distended. Overnight she’d developed bloody scrapes on her forehead and her left eye—her “good” one—was swollen shut.
Once we were back in Manhattan I got Kieran off to school as quickly as possible and emailed work to say that something had come up, I wouldn’t be in that morning. I didn’t share details. My rescue puppy may have the plague—or worse seemed a bit hyperbolic, even if possibly true. I tried to suspend all thought and headed for VERG-South.
At first I had Lulu-Belle in the crate in the back just as she’d been on our drive up from Philly. But after I’d gone only a few miles south on the West Side Highway I pulled into Chelsea Piers to move her crate onto the front passenger seat. A few blocks later at a red light I opened the crate and pulled her onto my lap.
She looked like a prizefighter, albeit a losing one. I couldn’t think of any plausible consoling explanation for her transformation.
She didn’t seem to be in any pain. She did seem sleepy. At one point she stretched. All four limbs were stiff and straight and completely extended. Then her whole body went limp. I thought that she had died. I continued to drive—on top of everything else I didn’t need to crash—but I kept stealing looks at her chest. I could detect no movement. Her lungs were utterly still. She couldn’t be breathing. I had a dead dog in my lap. Should I head home? I wondered. Or should I still go to VERG? “Lulu!” I said, as if she could give me the answer. “Oh, Lulu!” Finally she stirred.
VERG-South is on Flatbush Avenue near Avenue R in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn. Lucky for me there’s parking out front. I got a spot within yards of the front door.
From the moment we arrived I started to feel better. Jennifer Brooks, Second Chance Rescue’s president, had called ahead. They were expecting me. More to the point: they were expecting Lulu-Belle. Upon arrival we were put into an examination room and within minutes we met Dr. Fiorenza—our godsend.
Dr. Fiorenza is patient and kind. She took an instant shine to Lulu-Belle. She asked me a lot of questions. Some of my answers prompted more questions. I told her about the distemper theory. She didn’t reject it but she didn’t endorse it either. She would need to run blood work. Maybe take biopsies.
Over the course of the week, Dr. Fiorenza began to remind me of a diamond cutter I’d met years ago. One afternoon, after I’d gotten to know him a little better, my friend Ephraim pulled an uncut diamond from a special leather satchel he had strapped to fit snugly—and discreetly—under his armpit. It was a big stone. Ephraim had drawn two intersecting lines around it—one black, one blue. The diamond had two flaws, he explained. He was trying to determine the best way to cut it: along the blue line or the black. Whenever he had a spare moment he would pull the diamond out to examine it and consider his options. He’d been doing this for about a month by the time he’d shown me the raw gem. Clearly he wasn’t in a hurry. And even given his years of experience he wasn’t afraid to take his time.
Dr. Fiorenza was like that. She wouldn’t be rushed to judgment. She would consider every angle. Take time to think, mull over the possibilities.
One thing was certain: Lulu-Belle would have to be hospitalized; I wouldn’t be taking her home.
I promised myself that I would visit Lulu-Belle every day that she was there. I didn’t want her to think that she was being shunted to yet another temporary home. And she would be spending most of her day in a cage. If I came to visit, I could take her out and play with her.
Another great thing about VERG: I could come to visit Lulu-Belle anytime I wanted and could stay as long as I liked. The clinic is an hour’s drive from my apartment. Each visit wound up being a three-hour adventure: an hour there, an hour with Lulu-Belle, an hour back.
Every morning a technician would text me a photo of Lulu-Belle along with an update of how she was doing. Everyone at the clinic seemed to be rooting for her.
Visiting Lulu-Belle at VERG-South on the night we discovered the Agra King. (I did not get permission to post this portion of Kieran’s leg so please don’t tell him it’s here). Photo credit: my ex.
The first three nights I drove to see her by myself right after work. The fourth night Kieran went with me. The fifth night was a Friday. Traffic would be fierce; I didn’t want to drive there. The staff had told me that there was no subway stop near VERG but with Friday looming my feeling was define “near.” We were runners. Fit. Healthy. With a little research I figured out that the end of the line on the number 2 train—Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College—was 1.4 miles away. Easy walking distance.
My ex had gone to graduate school at Brooklyn College. He’d studied with Allen Ginsberg. Gotten his M.A. in poetry. This was his old stomping ground we were going to. So I told him of my plan. He surprised me by volunteering to join Kieran and me on our subway adventure and for dinner, too.
I was thrilled. He was voluntarily electing to spend a Friday night with me. Wasn’t this a positive sign? Maybe he was having a change of heart; maybe we could get back together.
I had suggested that Kieran choose a restaurant somewhere along Flatbush Avenue on our walk to VERG. I’d spotted a dozen intriguing Caribbean joints along this stretch en route to my nightly Lulu-Belle visits. There were some Indian places, too, and a few Chinese. My ex is vegan; Kieran and I are vegetarian. So plenty of options for us all.
But when it came down to choosing, Kieran’s discriminating taste (a.k.a. his pickiness) prevailed to the degree that VERG was almost in sight and he still hadn’t settled on a place for us. My ex noticed an Indian restaurant on the other side of Flatbush and darted through traffic to check it out. He motioned to us to join him; Agra King—which had all the ambiance of a McDonald’s—had a menu with a special vegan section!
The owner, an elderly Pakistani, seemed quite surprised that we were interested in actually dining in his restaurant, that we didn’t want take-out. He showed us to one of a half dozen Formica-topped tables—it was anchored to the floor, as were the plastic chairs around it—making apologies along the way. Then he vanished. When he reappeared, he had a cloth tablecloth in hand. From the creases I judged that he had just taken it from its package. He spread it out and proceeded to set the table with honest-to-goodness silverware.
There was a television behind the register tuned into cricket. It turned out to be the World Cup quarterfinal match between New Zealand and the West Indies. Rick—the same friend who had inadvertently inspired me to adopt Lulu-Belle—always said that cricket is the most boring sport in the history of the planet. He’d grown up in Australia where his dad had been a big fan. I took him at his word but after just a few minutes of watching, I became utterly absorbed. The players were more athletic looking than I’d expected and the game itself was fast. It was still hard to take it seriously, given the odd, flat bats they used and the unfathomable rules of play. But clearly on that side of the world—New Zealand was hosting—cricket was taken very seriously. That was evident from the knowledgeable, excited banter of the commentators, the huge roar of the fans after every thwack of the bat, and the players’ glamorous, model-hot girlfriends and wives that the cameras homed in on whenever there was a lull in the coverage.
It’s fortunate that the cricket was so engaging. While the Agra King had all the markings of a fast-food joint—laminated images of menu items prominently displayed, steaming trays of food simmering behind a glass case, that plastic furniture that couldn’t be moved—our food took forever to come, easily more than an hour.
I didn’t mind. I wasn’t in a hurry. The three of us were together—as good as family again. If you didn’t know the sorry details you might take us for the picture of happiness. Of course this was not the case, anymore than we were true cricket fans. But sometimes appearances can be consolingly deceiving.
When the food finally did arrive it proved to be beyond worth the wait. Maybe the company influenced my taste buds but that dinner at the Agra King was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.
My spirits were as high as those diehard cricket fans’ until we reached VERG-South. One thing was undeniable: Lulu-Belle’s condition had been worsening through the week. Despite the treatment she was receiving and round-the-clock care, she’d developed more lesions. In a few spots, patches on her face had hardened and then peeled away to reveal what I could only think of as Hellraiser skin: oozy red flesh that looked bubbly and tender. Her tumor had vanished. Now the side of her face looked as though it had been bitten by a very large dog. A generous mouthful of flesh was just gone. Utterly missing. When I leaned in close I could see the roots of her upper teeth.
Between her one chalky white eye, the peeling skin, the wincingly raw flesh, and that gaping hole by her mouth, she looked less and less like a cute puppy and more and more like a zombie dog.
I was prepared to have Dr. Fiorenza tell me that she needed skin grafts. They would be keeping her for weeks.
Instead, Saturday morning I got the call. It was Dr. Fiorenza. Lulu-Belle was good to go. I could pick her up anytime after noon that very day.
At least she would be coming home with a diagnosis. Earlier in the week biopsies indicated that she was suffering from something called vasculitis, a little understood autoimmune response involving the inflammation and destruction of blood vessels due to the proliferation of certain types of white blood cell. This had been triggered by the lepto vaccine. Prognosis: uncertain at best. More likely: grim.
But if Lulu-Belle was on her way out, she hadn’t gotten the memo. She was the same sparky bundle of tail-wagging energy I had picked up in Thornwood a little more than a week before. She may have looked like Zombie Dog but she herself was lively. Her appetite was strong. She was as perky as ever.
This was enough to give me the most I dared hope for just then—for us both.
Quite simply: it was enough to give me hope.