You get the call, the email, or the text. The request to foster is always somewhat of a plea, and you understand this because you have been on the other side 98 percent of the time. Having been in rescue for under a year, still you already know far too well the moral injury felt every time you cannot help a dog in need. Their faces haunt you and though you’d like to think someone else has stepped up, it is often not the case. You might donate, or repost, or offer to transport. But, without a committed foster, there is usually nothing a rescue can do, not even the incredibly amazing one, 4LifeRescue, who has helped you so much in the past. If there is no foster, often the dog is not heard about again, despite being in your camera reel or facebook feed. The post often updated at the top to “no longer listed”. And, its no ones fault, at least not the those who help. The ones who help have houses packed with dogs of every special need. Every last bit of room and energy is already spent- and spent forward far into the future. Yet, they will think endlessly of that one dog, the one they couldn’t take and try to push the guilt aside for the benefit of those who need them next.
So, when you finally can foster again (literally days after your move), you think why let issues such as “timing”, a new pack that isn’t cohesive yet, not being technically allowed to have that amount of dogs, not being allowed to have anything that resembles that breed, a move an hour further away from the rescue’s vet, and personal struggles, etc, get in the way. In all honesty you actually live way out here to have your dogs and not be bothered, rules aren’t strictly enforced to say the least. The drugs and gangs on the street are of much greater concern than an extra dog in a well kept and secure property.
You have already met this dog, this giantess while springing a different dog free from that shelter, and she has two more days before being euthanized to make room for the mess (for shelters and dogs) that is the Fourth of July. You can remember her sitting there patiently, watching as you visited and walked the senior pit bull in the cage next to her. Her squat broad body and fiercely cropped ears were in sharp contrast to her demeanor. Her name is TurtleDove they tell you. She often gets stuck on her back. You laugh, not a real laugh, who can in a shelter full of sadness? But, you find her cute, endearing, and you know you will have your eye on her. You, however, have no idea that you will be her foster mom.
The call comes in from your rescue and the founder who you love and trust. You say “yes”. So, she comes into your house, your pack, your life, with ease and graciousness. You later look back with gratitude, something could have gone wrong as you have a grumpy senior terrier, a sassy chi mix, and a very old independent street dog. If this new foster wanted to cause harm, it wouldn’t have been that hard to do. But, the opposite happens. You watch her be patient with your pack, quietly and calmly waiting to be accepted. She endears the pack leader first, and earns her trust. This dog is obviously very intelligent. The rest falls easily into place…..
You have a lot of changes in your life. So much newness. A great deal of sadness, with a giant serving of loss. But, this giant pittie mama is already making you smile and shake your head in disbelief. How is it possible that TurtleDove is this good, already? How is she so happy? How does this kind of joy exist? She literally wags her tail through eating and even when she drinks water. She only has one potty accident inside before she figures out where to go, and like a seam, she’s invisible to those outside your fortress- unless someone of danger is lurking around the fence. Paisley and Patty busy themselves barking at Japanese beetles, Lova chases squirrels, and somehow TurtleDove is already watching out for you, deciphering who she doesn’t want lingering near by. Her bark is one to be reckoned with and she is loving you and her pack already with her protectiveness.
You have done this foster thing before, and while yes, you do have a reputation for falling head over heels for your fosters (taking about a thousand pictures of your first foster Piper, for example), and certainly you did “foster fail” on the blonde chi mix that you have (she got returned after being adopted! You did technically “let her go”), and your senior- well you couldn’t put her through more loss. You have ushered many fosters into adoptive homes. You think that since you aren’t new at this, “green” per say, those difficulties of letting go wont apply to you. You will love her, and squeeze her and call her George, er, I mean TurtleDove. Actually, you asked about her name, you love finding names that fit just perfectly and have a penchant for P names and selecting middle names too. But, understandably, the rescue wanted to keep her unique name and her familiar and present to those who have already supported her thus far. Later on, you realize just how perfect TurtleDove’s name is.
TurtleDove has been cruely overbred and neglected. You hear comments about how she’s the most overbred dog they have seen. Her back is sway from all the weight she carried in pregnancies and her hips are arthritic. Her nipples hang low with excess skin as well. You cannot wait to have her spayed and explain to her the whole way there how her life will never be as it was. She will not be used as a money maker. Next, a few more surgeries are needed. Her eyelids roll in, creating scar tissue from constant contact with her eyelashes, a painful medical issue often seen in her breed. You wonder, how is she not irritable? The vet corrects this and you feel relief for her relief.
You take TurtleDove to events. She even gets to see the old pit bull named Jenkins who used to be her “cell mate neighbor”, the pittie in the cage next to her. They greet each other with glee, it is one of those moments you feel so lucky to witness. TD is wonderful with all she meets, men, women, elderly, and children. Applications roll in for her, after all she’s #beautiful.
So, every night you deal with the same thing. Your senior little terrier Patrick growling at TD in this guttural devil sounding way as you help escort TD to her sleeping spot on the bed with all of you. She looks at you for confirmation that he is all growl and no bite. Moments later he scoots over and the ritual of bathing her head to toe begins. Sweet TD accepts this without complaint while the other two dogs shoo him away- Lova with an authoritative “air snap”, and Paisley with a snappy bite. You even can’t stand his incessant licking on your shoulder and have rough patch of dry skin there. One night Patrick obsesses over a spot on TurtleDove’s tummy. You feel annoyed on her behalf. She has already had countless numbers of puppies suckling that area. You gently move him away, he forcibly moves back. This repeats a few times. Finally after ordering him off the bed you pet her and casually check her tummy. There is a lump, and, it is the size of a squished tennis ball. You freeze in disbelief. Is this related to her spay? Giant scar tissue to match her giant body? But deep down inside you know it is not that. This is something serious. Patrick. He has found cancer before.
You rush TurtleDove to the vet in the early hours of the morning. She is thrilled. She loves car rides and is spinning in elliptical circles in the garage before she gets in the car with you. In the car ride she is rainbows and hot breath from her gigantic smiling mouth wafts over your shoulder. This dog, her happiness, it never has ceases to brighten you. So you start to hope, imagine hearing all is ok.
But, that is not the case. TurtleDove has mammary carcinoma. Breast cancer. A disease you have seen inflicted on your loved ones, and, in the last decade learned that the Brca 1 gene is in the family. For TD they will operate. But, a cure is unlikely.
TurtleDove goes through the painful and massive operation of losing the entire row of nipples, losing large amounts of tissue, and her skin being stretched and stapled. She is very out of it when you pick her up. You drive home in a daze, in tears, but with determination for the fighter (not at all in the way associated with a pitbull) and precious cargo in your back seat. At home you grapple with how to get her out of the car. Of course you are alone, and she weighs 80 pounds, which is hard enough when she is awake, but this medicated and groggy state makes her uncoordinated and floppy. You use boxes as makeshift steps and you finagle her out hoping you didn’t damage any of the staples. It is critical that one area, especially, heals right.
Your pack welcomes her back with much curiosity and TurtleDove stands there confused as they sniff her. Because of her giant neck, the only cone that fits her is one for a much taller dog and she refuses to walk or maybe even cant walk. She stands there, head down, cone stuck. You take it off of her, she can barely reach her front paws, there is no way she can disrupt her staples. As she heals, she is a sweet patient, easily taking her medications and spending most of her time sleeping. She shows no irritability towards her curious pack and the sniffs and cuddles they give her. Patrick stays close, lays with her at night. We wait for the news. Did this cure her?
No. We learn that TurtleDove is terminal. And, she is yours until she crosses that infamous rainbow bridge. You will usher her out of this life. You will be the family and pack that is hers. You will be saying goodbye, but not because she will leave you to go to an adoptive family and a whole new future. You and her pack are her future.
You think, I can do this, I can be all that she needs, and when I have to, I can say goodbye. You watch Patrick grooming her feet. TurtleDove licks him back, a big lick with her big tongue that encompasses his entire little white chest. She is knowing love, and giving love. She is caretaken and caretaker. She knows how to be silly and hams it up while Paisley is the “fun police”. This bemuses TD and makes her even more outrageous. Recently TurtleDove celebrated her “birthday” with abandon and rolled down the grassy hill with her birthday hat on sideways and a huge smile on her face. Tonite she barks with protectiveness at the thunder, she eats grass with gusto, she hikes and plays and we often forget that she is sick.
You and the rescue and your friends talk about how much you love her, and even about denial, and how love might cure her, or, how her diagnosis might just be wrong. But you know different. You have watched cancer firsthand and its an enemy you fiercely hate but also respect. You desire to believe, but you just lost your beloved Saige to lymphoma, and your Mother. Well, your Mother. No words…You absolutely know, if love could save someone from this disease, your Mother would still be here with you and she’d be sitting with Saige.
So you watch. You start to notice every little thing. Was that a cough, or did TurtleDove just swallow a bug (yes, even bugs are super fun). TD is panting. Oh no. But, it is 97 degrees and you just got back from a walk and she has the type of nose that makes it harder to catch her breath. Besides, the whole pack is panting. Uh oh, Patty is licking her (healed) tummy, did he find something again? No. No new lumps, it’s only their nightly ritual.
TurtleDove crawls next to you in bed as you watch Netflix. She leans her body against you and sighs with content. You realize at that moment that you have fallen in love. You love this big bundle who smells of tumbleweeds and dandelions. The best things come in small packages, or diamonds are a girls best friend? Naw. Not even close. At least not for you. Here is in the dark in the glow of watching Glow, this dog, your larger than life TurtleDove, is a girl’s best friend, well actually she is family. You are teary over this, and, despite the dark and her eyes being clouded with cataracts, she notices and they search yours, you with your 20/200 vision, eye mask over one eye so you can see the screen. But, you see each other perfectly, for exactly who you are. What a gift. How did I ever get this lucky? You pull her in for a hug, she’s substantial and solid, her weight is so comforting.
Later, when you are awake with many of the nightmares you are facing, you are eased by the sound of her gently snoring and reach out to hold TurtleDove’s chubby calloused paw. Hibernating with your pack has been the salve, the barrier, to all you have been facing. Maybe it will all be ok. Maybe life had to happen the way it has to get TurtleDove to you, to her pack, to her family.
Life moves on. Insensitively, it always does. A silent grace enshrouds TurtleDove. Life (well, rotten humans) handed her many ugly and unjust things without apology, and, no one has been held accountable for the wrongs that have happened to her. Still, TurtleDove’s forgiveness, trust, gratitude, and happiness exists wholly. It is hers. This inspires you, connects you, and somehow makes what you are facing so much less daunting. For she has made the impossible happen, just as you are losing so much, you have also fallen in love, with a love that will never let you down, and in this you have gained tremendously.
Now it has been 6 months since TurtleDove’s diagnosis. You had been told she had anywhere from 4 to 12 months. TD continues to be the daily and ongoing dose of joy and silliness in your home. She is the sunshine, the stars, and the moonlight all in a bodacious doggy form.
Its not about you Erin, you say to yourself daily, but gosh darn it you do not want to lose TurtleDove. You’ve got her paws memorized, know which teeth she still has, which had been filed down, which she lost (her biggest k9 is in your dresser drawer). You know the haze in her eyes and each mole on her body. You have the healing of her incision, the massive one down her tummy, memorized too.
But she is not just yours. She has her rescue and her committed aunties. She has your family and has walked on the beach with your father, sat with him on the couch as he read the paper, and has covered your nieces and nephews in kisses as they giggled. TurtleDove is so loved and known by others. Many friends follow her, and strangers notice her in public having seen her on Facebook and approach her to say “hello”. TurtleDove has even helped people understand better her misunderstood breed. Those who can, have donated to her medical care. They love her close up, or from afar. You think, no matter what, this love reaches TD. She is intuitive this way. Love. This is how it is supposed to be. Life affirming. A privilege. An honor. You are blessed. But you are scared, and, sad. But deeply honored to be her mama and her pack and you will be here together, the five of you, with and for her until the end. Or, rather, until her new beginning…..