Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog
BY: Ann M. Sheridan
Better to lose count while naming your blessings than to lose your blessings when counting your troubles.
~Maltbie D. Babcock
My friend Terri, who worked as a volunteer at our county animal shelter, told me about the white pup with brindled markings that included a patch around one eye and who reminded her of Petey, the dog that appeared on The Little Rascals show. I can still recall the sadness in her voice as she relayed how a policeman had found the eight-week-old puppy, sealed in a cardboard box that had been tossed into a snow bank. The puppy was trapped, alone and shivering in below-freezing temperatures. The box had been abandoned late on a Saturday night in the parking lot of a large mall, one that would not open again until Monday. If that policeman had been less observant, the dog could not have survived those thirty hours. He took the pup to the animal shelter where she was checked over, warmed up, fed, and placed in a cage for the night.
When Terri reported for duty on Sunday morning she immediately fell in love with the tiny pup. Her markings identified her as an American Staffordshire Terrier, a breed that fell under the Pit Bull classification. At the time, shelter regulations prohibited families with no prior shelter relationship from adopting Pit Bulls, because those breeds were under attack by anti-"vicious dog" activists and this was the shelter's way of preventing their adoption by unsavory characters.
"If someone we know doesn't take her, she'll have to be put down," Terri sobbed.
I had heard Terri's refrain about other animals she had tried to place, but this time was the right time. My husband and I had recently purchased our first home, and were anxious to adopt a dog. Terri pulled some strings, we signed affidavits and waivers of liability, agreed to participate in obedience training, and the puppy was ours. The paperwork stated she was an American Staffordshire Terrier and would grow to approximately forty pounds as a medium-sized, adult dog.
That small bundle of love immediately brought joy to our new home and, after several days during which she remained nameless, we eventually settled on the name Bimbo, because she resembled an animated character from Betty Boop cartoons with that same name. Her antics never failed to entertain us, and over the years she grew into a gentle ninety-pound giant. Bimbo was the first dog I'd ever owned, and she turned me into a dog person almost overnight. She taught me all the usual things that dogs teach their owners: unconditional love, go for the gusto, and live each moment to the fullest, but those lessons are not what this story is about.
After more than ten years during which Bimbo continually proved that you can't judge a "Pit Bull" according to the stereotype, our beloved Bimbo was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. While still reeling from the shock of her diagnosis, we faced an overwhelming decision -- either put her down or try a few rounds of chemotherapy to see if she would go into remission. I researched the potential side effects of the foreign-sounding drugs, and became adept at navigating the world of veterinary oncology as Bimbo's advocate. We opted for chemo and Bimbo was the perfect patient. She enjoyed the weekly car ride to the animal hospital, wagged her tail with enthusiasm as we entered the clinic, and spread her good nature and love to all members of the veterinary staff the entire time we were there. I realized that Bimbo remained fearless and optimistic because she had no preconceived notions about the meaning of the word cancer. She accepted whatever each new day brought to the table. If she felt tired or ill, she rested. If she felt good, she played with her toys and lived that day to its fullest.
Mere months after we learned of Bimbo's illness, I discovered a small lump in my breast that turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer. I sat in the office of my new oncologist, listening to him rattle off the names of the chemotherapy drugs I was certain I'd be blasted with in the upcoming months. I became almost giddy, because my drugs were some of the same drugs that were being given to Bimbo. Suddenly I was navigating familiar terrain, because I had witnessed how Bimbo had tolerated the side effects that are so common with these toxic but necessary treatments. And if Bimbo could do it, so would I!
Bimbo and I journeyed through our chemotherapy side by side. By following her example, I learned to rest when I was tired, eat when I was hungry, and take advantage of every energetic moment I was granted. When my compromised immune system caused chills and fever, Bimbo crawled under my blankets to provide additional warmth. And after Bimbo's third remission failed, I was there to comfort her with my love as she rested her head in my lap and took her last breath.
During the remainder of my treatments and recovery, I was inspired to share what I learned from my chemo hero. If chemo is so hard for me, I thought, how do little kids do it? Many young children do not understand the word cancer. When confronted with cancer, children may sense the fears of their siblings, parents, or grandparents. They may feel guilty for causing their families to be upset. I wanted to share Bimbo with those littlest cancer patients, who must fight a huge daily battle with this grown-up disease. I wrote a story called Dogs Get Cancer Too, in which Bimbo teaches children to discuss their fears while enabling them to realize that cancer sometimes can have a positive side. It invites children to identify with Bimbo while encouraging them to express their feelings and reassuring them that they are not alone.
I then formed an organization called Bimbo's Buddies so I could communicate her message of hope and courage to all pediatric cancer patients. Dogs Get Cancer Too has evolved into an illustrated picture book, and our mission is to provide these kids with free copies of the book and a companion plush toy created in Bimbo's likeness. In this way, Bimbo will live on and continue to be the model she was for my own journey with cancer, by teaching children how to navigate their illness.
I have often wondered whether that dedicated policeman knew what a special pup he found on that snowy night, and how, by saving Bimbo, he played a role in her being able to help so many others.