when I picked the pug up from the animal hospital
September 21, 2011
I’m not sure who I was trying to impress with all that lipstick — the dog? She’d just had eye surgery. We didn’t think she could make out the side of a barn, much less the nuances of lip color. The surgeon who’d sewn her eye back together? I didn’t have to charm him; he’d done his job. Besides, he and his interns were under the impression that I was a nut case. I blame the veterinarian for that. Right before the operation, the vet’s office faxed a letter to the animal hospital. I happened to read this letter. The first two paragraphs discussed the pug’s condition; the third paragraph discussed me. It said, and I quote, “the dog’s owner seems very concerned. She fainted over the examining table and is jet lagged.”
These comments struck me as judgmental. Of course I was concerned. The pug was bleeding from her eye. She reminded me of the bad guy in Casino Royale, the Le Chiffre character who cries red tears at the poker table. The blood, great splotches of it, is why I fainted. At least I didn’t do it over the dog, collapse on top of her. Instead, I slithered down the wall, which was conveniently at my back. As for the jet lag, well, okay, I’d just gotten back from New York the day before, but, really, what did my lack of sleep have to do with any of it? I wasn’t the one performing the operation.
I waited for her in the reception area. There was the occasional howl from behind the swinging doors, and every now and then a three-legged Labrador stumped by, but the overall atmosphere was calm.
The animal hospital is part of the university vet school, set about a mile from the center of town. Cambridge is a construction site these days – cranes and diggers and lots of important architecture funded by Saudi princes and Chinese billionaires – but the hospital has been left alone. It’s an old-fashioned brick building, squat and plain, surrounded by fields. There are animals grazing in the fields, and driving in you think, O, it’s a farm, and then you realize the cows and horses are patients, convalescing in the open air.
Eventually, the pug wandered into the reception area, wobbly on her legs. Her eye was red and pitted, like a child’s model of the planet Mercury. She was snuffling, and when I picked her up, she trembled under my hand. For an animal, a hospital procedure must be the equivalent of an alien abduction: You are taken from your known world and placed in an overly bright chamber. There, masked figures tie you down, shave off your hair and invade you with cruel and shining implements. You wake in pain. Later, you are made to eat strange food.
The surgeon let me hold her for a while and then he took us into an examining room. He told me about the operation and her recovery, and what I would have to do: eye drops and painkillers, moderate exercise. I took notes, not very well because the dog was on my lap, and also because I was distracted by one of his interns.
In a teaching hospital there are always interns around, looking young and uncertain in their polyester tunics. This lot – there were four of them – introduced themselves to me, but the one who held my attention was the one who didn’t say anything after that, who hung back and was shy about answering the surgeon’s teaching questions. She was Somalian, with fine features and a dark hijab covering her hair.
Looking at her, I started thinking about what it might be like to be a Muslim woman in East Africa, and then I thought about Islamic terrorists and Somalian pirates, and about the famine in her part of the world. Children are starving to death in her country – it’s the worst drought in 60 years — and it was hard not to wonder what she made of the money we spend on our pets in the West, the way we dote on them. It was hard not to wonder what she made of me, in my pink Capri’s and matching lipstick, weeping over a non-productive domestic animal.
A part of me wanted to say, look, I know there’s real suffering in the world, wars and children in pain. I have some perspective, I know it’s a dog. But the truth is – and maybe this is a by-product of being a mother– you get hooked on a certain brand of need-based, unconditional love. It’s what babies and toddlers give you, and then they grow up. I’m still gooey-eyed over my daughter, but it’s not mutual (and quite right, too). She’s nice to me, but she’s a teenager and for her, I’m beside the point. I’m parent as vestigial organ – attached, but basically useless.
The dog is the only member of my household who still thinks I’m completely wonderful, who’s always thrilled when I walk into the room. I’d hate not to have that.
It was a little much to explain to a student intern.
A few years ago I had to go into the hospital – the human hospital. I didn’t know how long I’d have to stay, and neither did the doctors. It was one of those situations where no one seemed to have any control. I was unhappy about it, but what I particularly remember is how much I wanted my lipstick with me. I made my husband go home and get it. Chanel London Bus Red. That’s what I was wearing that year. I wanted it next to me on the little bedside table. It wasn’t about control; it was more like a flag, a means of staking my territory.