That first weekend, we weren’t sure we were keeping him. It was a trial placement.
As we drove the excited little Terrier away from his foster home—the two foster dads waving fondly from their front step—he dashed frantically around our car’s interior, clambering over everyone, scratching our legs, trying desperately to reach an open window—not to escape, it turned out, but so he could experience head-on the full 45 mph smash of wind in the face. In the front passenger seat, the scruffy brown mutt perched on my husband’s right thigh, curled his front paws over the lowered window, angled himself toward the side mirror, and stretched his torso and neck into the gale. The airstream peeled back the fur from his face, the lips from his teeth and the unshorn bangs from his eyes until the wild-eyed dog with airborne ears looked like a demon flying beside the car.
At our house, the little demon—a knee-high, wire-haired Terrier mix (something like a Cairn, I thought, though the foster dads thought Yorkie), two or three years old—streaked up the hardwood staircase and stumbled back down and flew back up and tripped back down. He flushed the two cats from their hiding places and chased them until they vaulted to furniture above his reach; he nosed the two elderly, bewildered dogs as they lay curled together in a dog bed; then he ran upstairs and downstairs some more. He’d been captured by Southern Animal Rescue at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where he’d lived and foraged as a stray. Evidently, neither the Wal- Mart parking lot nor the foster home had included stairs, for his interest in them was boundless. I was down there! Now I am … wait for it … up here! Bark bark bark! Watch out—I’m coming down! Bark bark bark!
He was enthusiastic about everything. He yapped at a peeved cat sitting on top of the piano and then pursued the other cat up the stairs lickety-split. He was getting good at stairs! The two elderly dogs, rousing themselves from their autumnal haze, raised their heads and knitted their eyebrows in looks of concern. Theo, an 11-year-old miniature Wire- Haired Dachshund, had pursued a lifetime career as first lieutenant to Franny, the stout, freckled, 13-year-old Rat Terrier. Now, imagining he needed to put a stop to these shenanigans (though Franny likely felt no such thing), Theo sprang into aggressive action and hurried to the bottom of the stairs where the new pup was playing Chutes & Ladders with himself. Teeth bared, Theo tried to take a snarling bite out of the young Terrier’s leg on his next trip to the bottom. The new guy yelped and ran back up. A few of the humans suddenly couldn’t remember why anyone had thought getting a new dog was a good plan.
In the fall of 2012, we had five teenagers living at home (ages 15, 16, 17, 18 and 18), two elderly dogs and two amiable cats. Our 24-year-old son Lee—the third oldest of our nine children (four by birth and five by adoption at older ages from Bulgaria and Ethiopia)—had just been diagnosed, to everyone’s astonishment, with a late Stage III colon cancer, so he had moved home. His beautiful girlfriend, Maya Selber, flew down from Philadelphia to join us on the surreal Long March into cancer treatment. This made for seven young people, two middle-aged people, three frequently visiting young adults and four animals under one roof. There was also the deadline (for me) of a book contract, and the pressure (on both my husband and me) of trying to keep everything and everyone afloat financially and emotionally.
“Stay away from the Internet,” the cancer survivors among our friends warned us. “The projections, the statistics, won’t do you any good. They won’t apply to your son anyway.” Our son was a statistical outlier—a 24-year-old with a disease that typically appeared among people in late middle age.
I had no trouble avoiding cancer websites. But I did have trouble working. It wasn’t just the demands of medical tests, consultations and hospital visits, as Lee bravely and compliantly began chemotherapy, radiation and daily self-injections, and faced two surgeries in the not-distant future. It was the fact that, even if I found a free hour, I couldn’t think about anything other than cancer. And the fact that, as a family, we were sliding into a group depression.