About an hour into our first date, this guy, I’ll call him Matt since that is his name, told me that he likes dogs, but couldn’t handle the responsibility of actually having one, like I do. He went on: “I couldn’t deal with that kind of obligation. Have you ever thought about how you’re going to have that dog for like the next fifteen years of your life? I mean, think about how much will change during that time, and your dog will be around for all of it – your wedding, your first house. That dog could meet your kids. Have you ever considered what a huge commitment that is?” I blurted the truth: “Actually, she won’t be around for any of that. My dog has cancer.”
“Oh.” Yeah, I dropped the C-bomb. Sure, it’s maybe not the sexiest move on a first date, but with his obvious commitment issues, it wasn’t going to work out with Matt anyway.
This is certainly not my first brush with the Big C. My mom had cancer, my grandma who practically raised me died of cancer, and my dad has cancer. I’m beginning to wonder if scientists should research if I, in fact, cause cancer. Because it appears that like a morbid King Midas, everything I touch turns to some form of the disease.
When the biopsy came back and I discovered that my dog, Monkey, tested positive for a somewhat aggressive form of breast cancer, the vet told me to decide how much I wanted to spend. In effect, I should put a price tag on her. I began to scan everything in my life and tried to picture a numerical value, like I was suddenly living in a Mastercard commercial. Laptop: $1200, couch: $30 from Craigslist, Dog: well, in theory, “priceless,” but in reality, that’s a much tougher call.
I adopted Monkey, or in more self-aggrandizing terms, I rescued her only a year before her diagnosis. I had always been a “dog person,” but in my late 20s, many of my friends began adopting dogs and suddenly my desire to get a dog “someday” became almost a biological imperative to get one NOW. I can’t wait for the return of the same nasty unrelenting voice when all of my friends have babies in a few years.
So, with literally no choice over the demands in my head, I moved out of my apartment with a strict no dog policy and ditched my roommate to find my very own place where I could have my very own dog. Enter Monkey. Despite being a scared rescue dog, she took to me immediately. It was like she could tell that I deserved her unconditional love more than anyone else in the world. That, and I gave her bacon treats.
I wondered how anyone could have possibly given up such a well-trained, sweet dog, and then I remembered that humans have proven themselves throughout history to be monsters. Monkey took to going on walks immediately, largely because they provided her ample opportunity to eat trash on the streets. One time she even lucked out and discovered a rotting whole roast chicken nearly the size she is, which she carried for a good mile. It shocks me how much disgusting garbage there is on the streets of Hollywood, but it shouldn’t, because after all, humans are horrible.
Of course, Monkey’s quirks proved to not always be cute and charming. When I had my sketch comedy group over for rehearsal, Monkey, for some reason, was unable to grasp the difference between a skit and real life and began barking the moment anyone raised their voice in a threatening manner. And then there was the little issue of gentleman callers. Monkey had become so protective of me that when I began to, ahem, get intimate with a man, Monkey assumed I was being attacked and so she barked, scratched and whined to alert the neighbors of my assault. That little c**kblocker.
Very quickly I realized there was a huge difference between having a family dog as a kid and owning your own dog as an adult – which is more akin to giving birth to a drunk, insane baby who never grows up. If I didn’t feed Monkey or take her out, there was no one to pick up my slack. This cute little creature’s life depended solely on me. Well, me and her cancerous tumors, but let’s keep it light and stick with “me.”
I had her first four tumors removed while the doctor was spaying her (mysteriously she had never been fixed despite her papers to the contrary). But then I had to choose how many more tests and procedures I wanted to do. The reality of the situation was that I could spend thousands of dollars in X-rays and tissue biopsies and chemotherapy, but it would only slightly prolong her life – perhaps only by months – not make her immortal. I was tortured by this decision, though. Should I remove all of her mammary glands? Get an X-ray of her lungs to see if the cancer had spread there? And what if it had? How are you supposed to explain to a dog the idea of chemo? “Monkey, I’m going to take you to the vet for several months to give you harsh chemicals that will make you very sick and possibly make your hair fall out, but I will buy you some Erika Badu head scarves that will make you look fashionably cancer chic and everyone will applaud your strength for overcoming such an obstacle. Cool?”
I knew I couldn’t make Monkey suffer through chemo and eventually I decided to stop torturing myself and simply let nature run its course. It’s entirely possible I chose this path because it was the easiest thing to do and I couldn’t handle the emotional toll of constant trips to the vet. I told myself: “As soon as she has trouble breathing or appears to be in pain, then I will do the humane thing and put her to sleep. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy her while I can and forget about the ticking death clock that has now appeared above her head, like some sick version of 24.”
However, I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of losing her. I’m not a crier – in fact, I used to be able to count the number of times I’ve cried since my grandma’s death when I was a child (it’s sixteen times). I’ve even been told I’m a robot with no soul for being the only person who didn’t get the sniffles while watching Toy Story 3, but suddenly at the thought of my dog dying, I found myself bursting into tears almost constantly, like a hysterical woman from a Tennessee Williams play.
As much as I wanted to “focus on the moment” and “be present” like the yoga guru I pretend to be, I’m just not that f**king enlightened. My mind wandered to how long I should wait to get another dog after Monkey dies. Is it rude to “replace her” immediately? Or maybe I should get one now to ease the transition? Would Monkey resent that? Would they fight? What if they fell in love?!
As her bag of dog food ran low, I wondered if I should bother buying another big bag or if it’d be safer to buy a small one. How depressing would it be to have a giant bag of dog food that I’d have to stare at and no dog?
I even figured out the perfect post to put on Facebook when she dies: A link to the Pixies’ “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” with the caption: “#MonkeyRIP.” Imagine how many likes that would get. I mean, you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to like that.
Once I answered every possible question in my head about what I was going to do when Monkey died, I was able to come to peace with it. And eventually I was able to look at her without thinking: Is this the last time I’m going to hold you? while my eyes welled up with tears, immediately followed by my own self-judgment that I’ve become a terrible cliché of a single woman whose pet has become an obvious substitute for a baby/boyfriend.
Then, the months passed and suddenly, as time occasionally passes when you’re not looking, it was a year after Monkey’s cancer diagnosis and she was miraculously alive.
As I write this, she is still running, hiking, whining for attention when I work on the computer for too long and waking me up at 6am to play. I know that some day soon Monkey won’t be around, but every moment that I do have with her is a bonus, a gift. And now, when she vomits next to my pillow in the middle of the night, I think: “I’m so lucky that she’s still alive.” I wish I could cherish everything else in my life with such genuine appreciation – my friends, my family, my career – but frankly, I’m not that evolved. And then I turn to Monkey and think: “You little sh*thead, why did you barf on my bed?! You. Are. The. Worst!” Because despite everything I’ve said, I’m not a f**king lunatic.
Julie Whitesell is a TV writer currently writing for “Melissa & Joey” on ABC Family. She also does a monthly sketch show with her group, Oh Brother!, at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in LA. In her free time, she enjoys dancing poorly, partying like an animal and talking about herself.
All images via the author