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The Yankee Express

Lincoln knows best

Getting through together.

AbnOrmallY lArge. EighT centiMeters, inOperable, Vascular System, ThyrOid, 

One to three months. 

The words pass through the speaker of my iPhone, falling like shovels and shovels of cold dirt over my head and shoulders. They crush and bury me.  

We are seated in my husband’s Infinity at the curbside of the Westford Animal Hospital when the internal medicine specialist tells us the news. His voice is matter-of-fact, scientific, careful. His job is to detect what he sees and convey it with knowledge of research, data, and thoughtful analysis. Due to COVID restrictions we are not allowed any contact with the person who has known our almost-ten-year-old dog for almost twenty minutes. Since I cannot see Lincoln with my own eyes, I imagine him two floors above; he’ll already have wiggled playfully across the floor, a towel hanging from his big mouth. He’ll have lifted his chin patiently so that the doctor can shave off part of his mane. He’ll have offered the doctor a paw in exchange for quiet hands that touch the screen to show his assistant what he sees. He’ll trust the doctor completely, sensing that he is a person who cares in the way he’s meant to care. 

Dogs do not judge. They accept people exactly as they are. Lincoln will relish the throat massage, unaware of the reason for it. His gift—to live completely in the present moment, and appreciate the human touch—will supersede the report. He’s a Golden Retriever: social, affectionate, and regal, the largest male of the litter. Like his Dog Mom, he’s also an optimist. 

Though aspiration and a biopsy (with a full diagnostic test and consult with the oncologist, should we decide on radiation therapy) are the only way to be completely sure, according to the internal medicine therapist, the growth does not appear to be benign. “There’s a ten percent chance it’s benign, but does not appear likely,” he said. 

Lincoln will have no idea that the hand he’s just licked has just whacked his parents across the mouth. 

“Can’t he beat the odds?” My voice is fragile and foolish, spoken through tears that defy a voice that simply states what is seen and known and studied. 

“Of course he can.” 

The phrase becomes our mantra, a tattoo to mark Lincoln’s new chapter. We cry, my husband and I. We are broken and wronged and so very vulnerable. We are sick with sickness. We’re also about to learn that science, try as it might, will fail to exact a dog’s thirst to go on living and loving life. Here, data will fail miserably. 

The news hit hard. Lincoln’s ultrasound indicated two large masses (abnormally sized) on both his thyroid glands, the left being worse. Hence, the heavy “exhales” and grumbling noises we’ve detected at home. Surgery was not an option due to the location of tumors that, reportedly, were attached to his vascular system and, likely, about to spread. Lincoln’s best chance of living more than an estimated three months was “radiation therapy.”

Life seemed to split in half then. Only minutes ago we were casually sipping coffee, unaware, discussing parking. The news felt unbearably awkward, like having to take a bath with a stranger. Lincoln appeared at the front entrance of the building, pulling a compassionate Christina, the doctor’s assistant, to reach us. “I’ll go get him,” my husband said. “I’ll come, too.” I trotted behind, unable to hold back a fresh round of tears.

Lincoln was the same. He stared up at me and broke into smile while waiting for us to finish a pitiful conversation. Then he hopped back up onto the back seat of the Infinity, avoided the makeshift car cover, a shoddy towel, and lied down on the leather.  Chin over his paws, he rested the way he always does during rides home. He was the same, and yet he was not. I couldn’t bear to look at my dog.

“We’re not doing radiation or chemo,” I spat.

The report reduced my life to two syllables. Three months. The thought of Lincoln lying on the ground sideways, sick with medicine he doesn’t understand, caved in on my every move. I broke down while washing dishes, having my nails manicured, and while in the shower washing my hair. Meanwhile Lincoln continued to be Lincoln. He sauntered around the kitchen, ball in mouth, and perked to the sight of me, per usual. “You okay? Want to go for a ride?”

The journalist in me, the people-person at heart, needed to talk to friends, namely the Dog People in my circle. I reached out to my network via text, Facebook and phone calls. I listened carefully to advice from Golden lovers who have lived through this report. I read countless stories written to me about dogs given similar “death sentences”—grim news outlived by three, five, even seven years. I spoke at length with Lincoln’s local vet (Dr. Beamis of Boston Road Animal Clinic, Sutton, was amazingly thoughtful and called me on a Saturday night to talk), hiked the woods of Sutton and, finally, regained composure. My Golden circle, a halo of angels, became a ring of fire surrounding me. I’m not sure if they will ever quite know the depth of their support. Every single word, comment, and piece of advice, gave me hope. 

My spirit lifted. 

Gaging a dog’s life by an isolated ultrasound reading is like discerning the main idea of a story via a single sentence read. The noted “mass” on the screen is not Lincoln’s full story. His column needs work. There are too many chapters yet to be written. There is work to be done. I snapped upright in bed one night, sweating and struck by these very thoughts. Living with Lincoln means “living” with Lincoln. I needed to snap out of melancholy. 

Lincoln is my partner in crime. We are a team. If we were going to go on living, we needed to do it in a way that supports the very best of healthy living. Amy Janowski, who has cared for him during our vacations since he was a puppy, came to mind immediately. Amy is a farmer, an educator, and an advocate who has fed her dogs a “raw” diet for twenty years. She lives modestly in Burrillville, Rhode Island, amongst a happy community of goats, chickens, and dogs who live natural, ageless lives.  Due to her desire for optimum pet care, she only cares for a few pets at a time, Lincoln being one. Sturdy and practical, Amy became a trusted confidante; my voice of reason, while the year 2020 flipped out with more bad news. 

“Would you eat that?”

Sarcasm aside, Amy was absolutely right. Incidentally, so wasn’t Lincoln. He had been sniffing his dry food with suspicion for the past few weeks, and for good reason. Dogs sense what they need and don’t need. The galloping Goldens pictured on the cover of his packaged dry food looked halfway decent. Still, at this life stage, Lincoln wasn’t feelin’ thekibbles. They weren’t helpful to his health. He needed to go back to the start, to the way it’s always been. He needed to go back to an era when food was a source of nourishment, not a means to support a rushed lifestyle. 

Mother Earth, like the Statue of Liberty, lifted a victorious fist for Lincoln while Amy and I collaborated. We met at halfway locations between our homes like a pair of drug dealers, exchanging jars of goat’s milk for cash. We discussed ingredients that support healthy living and the potential to “starve” possible cancer. Lincoln stuck his head out the window and smiled about his new health plan. He embraced his diet, first, with pleasant surprise—“that hamburg stew is really for me?” and, later, with newfound enthusiasm for eating. He gobbled down colorful meals of chicken soup, zucchini and eggs, blueberries and tasty beef stews like a starving puppy, never knowing that the dishes had been laced with turkey tail mushroom powders (for thyroid support) and turmeric.

My husband and I became Dog Chefs, planning meals and considering Lincoln while dining out. “Let’s order a side of Broccoli Parmesan and take half home for Lincoln.” The simple decision to change the way we viewed and prepared meals (often sharing our own with him) led to magnificent gains in Lincoln’s physical health. Lapses of heavy breathing faded with the moist aroma of chicken broth. He no longer grumbled while napping during the day. Tired mornings became playful opportunities to walk, play fetch, hide-and-seek and sit patiently in front of the refrigerator door. “No rush. Just waiting on some more goat’s milk when you get a chance.”  

A protein diet slimmed his waist, while eggs made his golden coat even shinier. He lapped up fresh bowls of goat’s milk and kefir like a Persian cat. Perhaps even more remarkable, there were days when we could no longer find the lumps at his throat. We were living with Lincoln again and our dog mirrored our love for him.

“Hey Everyone! How have you all been?” I’ll never forget the day he galloped across the grass where my outdoor Zumba class had been held, grabbed the handle of his favorite person’s pocketbook, and wiggled joyfully while she rubbed his belly. “Sorry I haven’t been to class, Auntie Jo. My Mom has had some issues these days.” 

A part of me still longs for a second opinion to receive a “recheck” ultrasound to expose the miracle I suspect may be evident, a disappearance of the morbid mass. But a larger part of me doesn’t need to know. We enjoy each day as though it’s our last now, and appreciate the small miracles that unfold naturally beneath the warm, setting sun. Together, we notice the dances of crisp oak leaves while they whirl across the lawn, coaxed by a gentle breeze. We smile at the sight of the occasional bunny. I remember chasing the bunnies when I was a puppy. 

I’m grateful for the October 19th report because it brought forth enlightenment, and the need for faith. I don’t need to cry anymore. I trust that Lincoln knows best. He’ll tell me what he knows, what he needs, and when he’s ready to let go. Until then, Living with Lincoln is going to be extraordinary, a miracle as predictable as the rising sun. 

Stay tuned for more on Lincoln.

Tell me your dog story. Write to me at [email protected] Contact Amy Janowski for questions about her healthy eating practices at [email protected]