The desk chair in the bathroom was the first tipoff that my last day with Samurai might not go as planned. Although come to think of it, there was a preliminary warning the night before when Josh sent a group text message from upstairs: “Would one of you mind coming up here? I threw up a few times.”
After nearly two years together, Samurai was leaving me to go back up to NEADS to prepare for his career as a service dog for therapy. Before I got the news that would be our last day together, I'd agreed to read to little kids at a President's Day event. But after that, I planned to strap on snowshoes and take him for a long walk in the woods. That way, Samurai would sleep well his first night in the kennel, and I’d be too fatigued to throw a toddler-style tantrum when the workers at NEADS led him away.
Instead, we sat in the ER while Josh received fluids through an IV. I phoned the doctor when Josh confirmed that he was responsible for the desk chair in the bathroom. He rolled it in so he’d have a comfortable seat while vomiting. And vomiting. And vomiting all night long “It’s probably a stomach bug,” I told the doctor. It was only after I hung up that I remembered the Greek yogurt from two days earlier. I’d held the container to my nose and assured Josh it was okay to eat, even though it had expired in January.
Josh sat slumped in the passenger seat holding a bucket weakly between his knees while I drove to the hospital. There was a parking spot near the emergency room entrance, but then I found an even closer one flush against a concrete support pillar.
Before long, Josh was in a hospital gown and hooked to an IV. Marty met us at the hospital so I wouldn’t have to cancel the reading, and the two of us settled onto folding chairs while Samurai snoozed on the floor. We were there a couple of hours when it was time for me to leave, but I kept putting it off. I wanted to stay with Josh. Finally, I stood up to go and Samurai popped to his feet, startling the nurse who was checking Josh’s blood pressure. “Oh! You have a dog!” she said, then launched into a long story involving her daughter’s dog.
I shrugged on my parka and grabbed my pocketbook. Her tale took a few unexpected turns. I zipped up and felt around in my pocket for my car keys. There was a part about allergies. And a cat. I edged past her, trying to extract myself politely -- she was saving my son’s life, after all. She described her daughter’s home. I began to worry about my own blood pressure.
Finally, her story wound down and we rushed outside. Samurai paused at the back door of my car. “Jump!” I told him, but he seemed confused because the concrete support post partially blocked his path. By now, the stress hormones were racing so powerfully through my body that I probably could have lifted all 75 pounds of him into the car. Instead, I forced myself to sound cheerful and happy, and eventually coaxed him in. Then I threw myself into the driver’s seat, shifted into reverse and abruptly smashed into the post. Samurai sprung to his feet and ratcheted his ears back, searching with wide eyes for whoever made that horrible screeching sound. Fender bender isn’t an item on his exposure checklist, but I guess there’s no reason we can’t add it.
I stepped out of the car to inspect the damage. It was bad. So bad given the speed of contact that I almost laughed (hysterically). You’d think the concrete post had fallen from a jetliner and landed on the left quarter panel of my car. It was crumpled and bent into wildly pointing, jagged angles. Flakes of dark gray paint littered the pavement. About a thousand thoughts flickered through my head, most of them leading back to that Greek yogurt and how I was being punished many times over for my cavalier regard for sell-by dates.
The car was drivable, at least. I steered it out of the parking lot and into traffic. At first I was embarrassed about the damage, but then a recklessness came over me. By the time I got to the highway, I was wearing the dented fender like a prison tattoo, daring other drivers to mess with me.
The reading was at the kids’ play area of a shopping mall. I found a place to park, far from any structures. Before getting out of the car, I peeked at my face in the rearview mirror. It didn’t look right. Then I realized why. I’d put on only half of my makeup that morning before rushing off to the hospital. In a moment of absolute panic, I looked down at my lap, half expecting that I had forgotten to put my pants on, too. (They were there, zipped and buttoned). I told myself that the kids wouldn’t notice my half made-up face. In fact, I could’ve left my pants at home, and nobody would notice as long as Samurai was there to distract them.
A few deep breaths later, Samurai and I were weaving our way through J.C. Penney when a Sephora store appeared, shimmering like a mirage, just beyond the active wear department. “Sam! Makeup!” I said, probably louder than was warranted. I rushed over and, wildly and without consideration for color or tone, applied cosmetic samples to my eyelashes, cheeks and lips – one-handed because I couldn’t let go of Samurai’s leash. When no facial surface was left uncovered, I headed to the mall where the reading was taking place. Turns out I blended nicely with one 7-year-old girl who had drawn crooked lines on her eyelids with black face crayon.
Samurai basked under a blanket of tiny hands while I sat down to read Clifford the Big Red Dog. He watched my face the whole time, as attentive to the story as any child. Afterward, he posed in a ‘sit’ with one preschooler after another while their parents took pictures. The floor was slippery and Samurai’s back legs slid apart like an easel collapsing in slow motion, yet his eyes stayed on me, waiting for the next command.
When we returned to the hospital emergency department, the security officer lit up, “You’re back!” he said (to Samurai, not me). Now that I wasn’t dragging a sick teenager with me, the admissions clerk and others came from around their desks to say hello to Samurai and to tell me about their own dogs, their sisters’ dogs, their parents’ dogs.
We made it through the gauntlet of dog lovers back to Josh’s room, where we found him sucking on a popsicle and Marty struggling to stay awake. I sent Marty back to work and settled in with Josh to wait for the results from his lab tests. His blood pressure monitor registered 89/40 and his IV bag was empty. He finished the popsicle and dozed in and out of sleep. There was nothing for me to do. I spread Josh’s sweatshirt on the tile floor to make a little bed for Samurai. Before long, I was on the floor next to him, stroking his ears and massaging his scruff. Josh was being taken care of, I hit a support post, not a car – or a person. And I was wearing pants. I felt calm for the first time all day.
Finally, after seven hours in the emergency room, three liters of IV solution, anti-nausea meds and pain relievers, Josh was deemed well enough to go home. The ER doctor blamed a stomach virus, not the yogurt (Yes! Fist pump!). By then, it was too late to return Samurai to NEADS so I got to delay our farewell and keep him one more night.
The next morning, I drove Samurai to NEADS, took a few pictures, kissed him goodbye, and held my tantrum until I was safely back in the car. Soon, Samurai will begin training with a therapist. He’ll help her reach her clients in new and profound ways and he’ll do an amazing job. Increasingly, the medical establishment is realizing that there’s a place for traditional medicine and there’s a place for dogs like Samurai. Last week, my family needed both.