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  • Writer's pictureemitcheldoc

Three Feet at a Time

I let Isabelle out into the front yard with its fresh confetti covering of white snow. She is just three weeks out from having her front leg amputated and it has been a rough ride. But this morning she seems excited almost, to get outside, so I let her out and she hops down the stairs and stands there for a few minutes enjoying the feel of the cold air on her face. She leans down and licks the snow. I watch her, the large swath of shaved pink skin where her foreleg used to be looking naked in the winter’s cold glare. The enormous scar, still caked with old blood now looks like a fold in her skin. I’m looking forward to her fur growing back and covering that wound. I turn away knowing she won’t go anywhere.

It isn’t much later that I look out to check on her and find that there is no sign of her in the yard. I throw on my boots and coat and set off around the sides and back of our rambling Cape Cod yard, certain she can’t have gone far. Our house sits on a small hill in front of a large pond surrounded by oaks, pines, and maples, and a back yard with root and moss covered ground full of tripping hazards. There’s also a pretty good drop down to the pond from the house, so I am surprised when I see her. She is in the water. Or at least part of her is. She is still unsteady on her tripod legs, but there she is, standing with her remaining front leg in the pond, her backside on the hill, happily drinking pond water.

She is a wonder of stubbornness and stoicism. After her surgery she was barely able to move. We had to carry her in and out and keep her upright with a towel placed under her body held up on 2 sides like a sling. She had to be fed by hand, barely eating or drinking. The hardwood floors in our house, impossible for her to navigate, once she was more upright, had to be covered with thin rugs, yoga mats, bath mats, and dog beds, creating a maze of places for her to step on or stop and rest. As she slowly recovered she made it clear she didn’t like being carried, despite being unable to manage stairs. She would lay down and refuse to help in the process of picking her up. But this also ultimately motivated her. As Ned would get close to her she would get up and move away, a hop at a time. At the stairs she would stand, her foreleg on the first step, gauging how she was going to do this. She rocked back and forth trying to gain momentum. Even when she fell she got up again and tried to work it out. She wasn’t always successful, and still needed to be carried the few stairs to the house, but she never stopped working at it, until finally she figured it out.

As I get closer to her, standing half in and half out of the pond, I wonder how she is going to get out of there. She has a hard time backing up and she’s heading down hill with the weight of the water on her front side and the hill on her back side. But she does it, pulling herself up onto the ground as soon as she sees me approaching, and then promptly falls, landing on her legless left side. In seconds she rights herself and stands. No way she’s going to let me help her. She is one stubborn dog.

I agonized over the decision to have Isabelle’s leg amputated. She is twelve and half. Old for a Golden Retriever. The choices were all bad, her cancer diagnosis giving her somewhere between four months with an amputation and a year with chemo. It’s already been four months and she has made it abundantly clear that she isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet, so we are continuing down the path and she’s showing me the way. I am learning to move forward the same way she does. One little step or hop at a time.

For now things are ok. Isabelle’s enjoying a less painful world, learning a new way to move, and eating plenty of roast chicken and scrambled eggs. She still loves to sit outside in every kind of weather, feel the earth beneath her three feet, and fingers crossed, she’ll get to swim in the pond once the water warms up a bit.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dogs have taught me over the years and Isabelle is no exception. Her bravery, resilience, stoicism and pure tenacity have been a lesson in how to meet a challenge gracefully and thrive with the tools you are given. We could all learn a thing or two from these beautiful loving creatures.

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