On Responsibility

Caring for two loves
By Ann Patchett, November 2009

I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.

Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.

My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.

“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”

But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.

My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.

“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.

“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”

“My leg is fine,” she said.

“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”

“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.

Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.

If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.

“Where are we?’ she asked.

“In the hospital.”

“Are you sick?”

“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”

“I’ve been here before.”

“A long time ago.”

“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Where are we now?”

“Still in the hospital.”

“Do you feel sick?”

And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.

I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”

I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”

“Where are we?” she asked.

Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”

My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.

Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.

“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.

“What?”

“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”

“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”

My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.

Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.

Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.

Ann Patchett is the author of five novels: The Patron Saint of Liars; Taft; The Magician's Assistant; Bel Canto, which was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction; and Run.