A Courageous Heart Like Molly’s

She thought she had rescued the little dog, but it was the other way around.

- Posted on Dec 2, 2013

A Courageous Heart Like Molly’s

It was the first time I let myself cry since the diagnosis. Aggressive reproductive cancer. That was what exploratory surgery and biopsies had revealed two months earlier. The treatment had to be as aggressive as the cancer.

My mom came from Alabama to stay with me in Dallas through the eight rounds of chemotherapy and the doses of external radiation, 40 in eight weeks. Through it all–the tidal waves of nausea, the crushing fatigue–I hadn’t cried. I was afraid if I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on how I’d been robbed of ever bearing my own children, to give in to my fears. God, I know you’re with me. I’ll fight through this, I vowed, no matter how bad things get. For a while, I’d succeeded.

Then, today, the last, most barbaric part of my treatment began–the first of four megadoses of internal radiation. The physical pain was beyond horrific. It was the stuff of nightmares, the kind where you wake up soaked with sweat, your heart pounding. Only I couldn’t wake up from this nightmare.

Even worse was the pain that seared my soul. Because the radiation was so intense, Mom couldn’t sit with me. I was shut in a cold, lead-lined room by myself, the doctors monitoring me through the observation window. It was like I was in a cage. I’d never felt so isolated, so utterly alone.

That finally broke me down. At home I collapsed on the couch. All the tears I’d been holding back came pouring out. What made me think I could get through this hell? No one could possibly understand what I was going through, not my mom, not even God.

I felt a light weight settle on the couch next to me. I blinked through my tears and saw my little affenpinscher. “Oh, Molly, you didn’t know what you were getting into when you came to live here, did you?” I murmured.

I’d met Molly six months before my diagnosis. It started with a phone call from Linda, a volunteer at a local rescue center. “We have a dog who desperately needs a home,” she said. “I’ve tried everyone and no one will take her on. Can you foster her? Please?”

My heart sank. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. I’d raised Sadie, my miniature schnauzer, from puppyhood, and having her in my life was what inspired me to work with animal shelters. But I was so busy with my career as a regional manager for a medical company. One dog was plenty!

“Molly is a three-year-old affenpinscher,” Linda said. “She was saved from a puppy mill.” Her entire life, Molly had been confined to a cage and forced to birth litter after litter.

She walked in circles no bigger than the few feet of space she’d inhabited, her legs weak from never having been allowed outside her cage to run and play. She’d never been given a bath. Never known love. And now that no one had a use for her, she would be put down.

Unless I took her in. I’ll foster her, I thought, but only until Linda finds the right home for her.

At the shelter Linda was waiting, cradling a small gray dog. At least I thought she was gray–it was hard to tell what was fur and what was filth. Walking closer, I caught my breath. Molly smelled as bad as she looked, and that was saying something.

She was skin and bones, her fur matted. But it was her eyes that shocked me the most. There was no spark in them. No fight.

Linda set the dog in my arms. Molly looked up at me, trembling. The expression in her eyes grew even bleaker, as if she was asking, “What kind of pain are you going to inflict on me?”

“It’s okay, girl,” I said softly. “I’m not going to hurt you.” No response. She’s probably deaf, I thought.

I took Molly straight to the animal clinic. “She might not be deaf,” the vet said, examining her. “I’ve never seen a dog’s ears so full of waste. Leave her here overnight. We’ll give her a bath and get a better look at her.”

When I picked Molly up the next day she looked better and the vet said she could hear. But she was still terrified of human contact. Getting her to trust me would take a long time...maybe more time than I had before Linda found her a permanent home.

I was a little worried at how Sadie and Molly would react to each other. But they politely sniffed noses and fell into a companionable harmony. Sadie seemed to sense that Molly was too weak to be a threat, and Molly seemed grateful to share Sadie’s space.

Molly took to trailing Sadie, trying to do whatever she did. Soon Molly gained enough strength in her legs that she was able to follow Sadie through the doggy door to go outside.

The only thing that Molly wouldn’t do–or maybe she couldn’t–was show and receive affection. Sadie would run to greet me when I got home from work, her stubby tail wagging wildly while I petted her and tugged at whatever toy she’d brought me.

Molly hung back. When I tried to touch her, she cowered. It was as if she didn’t realize she deserved the kind of love Sadie got.

I’d have to take it slow. I got on the floor so I was at her level, put out my hand and let her approach me. I started with ever-so-gently rubbing her paws while I spoke softly to her. Once she got comfortable with that, I moved on to scratching her ears, then stroking her back and head. Sometimes she’d still tense when I reached my hand out, and I’d remind her, “It’s okay, Molly. You’re safe now.”

I knew I’d broken through when she started sleeping at the foot of my bed. It was her way of telling me, I feel safe with you. I trust you.

You can probably guess what happened next. I called Linda at the rescue center and told her I was keeping Molly. I loved her, and even if she might never be affectionate with me the way Sadie was, I could tell she was learning to love me. I could see that flicker in her eyes.

That must have been the reason God brought us together.

We’d settled into a happy routine together, my dogs and I, when my gynecologist noticed some irregularities during my annual exam. Then came the surgery and the diagnosis.

Adenocarcinoma, a complex reproductivesystem cancer. Survivable if my body responded to treatment, but I’d never be able to have children, and the intensive chemo and radiation meant that I’d need someone to take care of me.

Mom moved in. “Do you want me to find someone to take the dogs for a while?” she asked. She had a point. Taking care of two dogs when I needed help to take care of myself probably wasn’t the smartest idea.

Sadie would be fine with someone else. But Molly...if I sent her away, she’d go back to feeling like she didn’t deserve love. I couldn’t do that. “The dogs are staying,” I said. “They’ll be a comfort.”

And they were. When I came home from chemo feeling too sick to move, the girls were there to cuddle with me. Or they’d make me laugh with their antics, and I’d forget about cancer for a little while.

Now, though, as my body, my whole being, clenched with pain from the internal radiation, my tears soaking the couch cushions, I felt like I would never stop crying, never escape this agony. Had God forsaken me?

A wet nose touched mine. I opened my eyes. Molly.

“Hey, girl,” I said wearily. “What is it?”

She looked at me intently. Love in her soft brown eyes. And something else. Something I hadn’t noticed before.

“You understand, don’t you?” I whispered.

Molly knew what it was like to be alone, afraid, in terrible pain. Maybe more than anyone, she knew what it was like to be trapped in a hell not of your own making.

“But you’re here,” I said, stroking her wiry gray fur. “You’re strong. You survived.”

Molly licked my cheek, and I knew that I would survive too, the treatment and the cancer. I may never understand why I got sick, but I know why Molly and I were brought together.


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