I hadn’t planned to be anybody’s superhero, but the moment I spotted Barney something changed in me.
The poor dog had been locked in a small cage at the local shelter. He had patiently watched the sights and smelled the scents. Through the bars he had seen other fur babies released to forever homes but he was not one of them.
What was I thinking? I had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My future was uncertain, and I barely had enough money to feed myself, let alone a pet! I filled out adoption paperwork anyway and lied to the manager about my financial status. I handed over a check that would bounce before noon, then stumbled out of the shelter with Barney. We stood on the corner, breathing.
Barney made several pee stops before we arrived at my apartment. I spread out an old blanket in the room and encouraged my new friend to sit. I searched the kitchen for a clean bowl, filled it with water, and set down a dish of Rice Chex.
“A growing boy has gotta eat.” I reached over to stroke his back.
It was a newbie dog owner no-no. Sweet Barney chomped down hard on my finger, and I felt twinges in my toes. Blood dripped onto the kitchen tile.
“Damn you, dog!” I rinsed off my wound, and thoughts spun in my head of typhoid and rabies. My oncologist warned me to be careful and avoid infections risks. I scoured my medicine cabinet for an antiseptic.
I heard a whimper. There stood Barney, his ears flat against his skull, trembling, gazing up at me with fearful eyes.
“Why?” I asked. “I was just trying to be nice to you.” He tilted his head.
The weeks went by. Barney and I became closer. I enjoyed our walks, watching his little nose twitching at every odor. He allowed me to cuddle him.
During my chemo treatments, I barely left the couch. As the cuckoo clock ticked away the hours, Barney kept me warm through those chilly nights. In the mornings, he woke me by licking my face. At breakfast time, he raced around the kitchen in anticipation until I set down his bowl. Then he would thank me with a happy howl. On my better days, we played fetch. I loved watching his champagne fur blowing in the wind.
After two months sharing my couch, I knew time was precious. Barney and I went for a hike in the woods. As soon as I let him off of his lead, he ran around, spinning like a whirlwind. Every cell of his body was relishing this long-awaited freedom. A warm sensation came over me as I watched him. I felt happiness for the first time in ages. Was this fifteen-pound fur ball giving me hope for the future? I choked back tears. My latest CT Scan results proved hope was futile.
We skipped down the trail towards a picturesque pond. Barney spotted the swans and he went charging into the water. He doggy paddled in circles. The swans paid little attention to him, but they honked at me because I was laughing so loudly. When Barney seemed tired, I whistled for him to come ashore. He trotted towards me. His fur now soaked and matted, had caused his legs to appear half their size. He rolled around in the grass.
That night as I snuggled under the covers, I took one last glance at my boy. His eyes were twitching back and forth under his eyelids. I dreamt of swans and fresh air. We slept soundly.
As my cuckoo clock chimed each hour, my body was failing at an alarming rate. With each tick and step, I was lurching toward my fate. I no longer felt hungry, so I gave my food to Barney. My frequent and painful trips to the bathroom were taking a huge toll, and not just for me. Some days I had to rely on doggie pads, since I had little energy to walk Barney.
One day I noticed my pup dragging his left rear foot. He was no longer holding his head up. His eyes were distant. Knowing he was already twelve years old, I managed to scrape up enough change for a taxi to get him to the vet.
She said, “Your dog was infected by a parasite, most likely acquired from pond water. The infection may have reached his brain. I’m afraid there’s no cure. Take him home, and watch for signs of deterioration.”
I heard every word, but my heart refused to believe. Barney had survived those lonely years in a shelter. Was this his reward? A fatal parasite from his first ever romp in the woods?
That evening I made six trips to the bathroom, and I couldn’t stand straight due to the pain. My chemo treatments were not working. It was only a matter of time. Barney gazed up at me. He nuzzled into my side. I stroked my finger through his fur. “It’s okay, boy. We’ve got each other.”
As I dozed off, I thought I heard music. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but the beautiful sound lulled me into a deep slumber. I felt my hand on Barney’s soft fur. Then I heard a whisper:
“I was waiting for you my whole life. Whenever anyone looked at me, it was always no, not him. I lay in that cage for so long, dreaming of the moment when a loving human would appreciate my champagne fur, hold me and make me feel wanted. We had fun paddling around the cool pond water. Those swans were beautiful. I love you Devin, but I am feeling so sleepy. It hurts to stay awake.”
Was this all just a fuzzy dream? The clock stopped ticking. I felt Barney’s paw receding. Then I saw a light off in the distance. Barney and I were running free in a beautiful field.