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  • Ode to Coco

    I had spent the last nine months living in my childhood home in Westchester, my mother hovering over me like an anxious hen. She drove me back and forth from the hospital, meticulously wrapped my pic line in plastic so I could shower, and spent countless hours at the stove, often bringing my (very specific) meals to me in bed when I was too weak to come down the stairs. I felt so lucky to have her, but I was restless, through with being a patient, and anxious to get back to my old life. I missed my boyfriend, our apartment, our routine. And so, a few weeks after Christmas in 2009, I decided to move back home to West 3rd Street, where I planned to step back into my apartment and the life I had missed these past nine months.  

    Unfortunately, shortly after arriving at said apartment, I realized my old life had left the building. In my closet hung the clothes I used to wear, now too tight from all the steroid bloating, the rows of beautiful shoes, organized by color, that I knew my ankles were too weak to run around in, my state-of-the-art hair-dryer, a remnant of a happier, hairier time.  

    I unpacked all of my pills, and lined them up in their bright orange plastic containers like soldiers standing guard. Each night before bed, I would methodically unscrew each cap, and begin the long process of swallowing all of my medication: three to five chemotherapy pills, five to ten steroids pills, an antibiotic, an antiviral medication, and antifungal medication, a medication to coat the lining of my stomach. Once a week, I would drag myself to the hospital for lab checks or chemo, wincing as the taxi jerked over every pothole on the FDR Drive, my face buried in my scarf to dilute whatever stale smell wafted back from the front seat. I was exhausted, and feeling terrible a lot of the time, with no mother hen to look after me. Coming home hadn’t changed a thing – I was still a patient in need of care.

    Each morning, as soon as Nicolas left for work, I would sink back into bed, my muscles groaning, my body as heavy as lead. On bad days, I would stay bundled up under the covers, with the heavy curtains closed, until he called to say he was on his way home. As soon as I hung up, I would hurry into the shower (how could I confess I’d been in bed all day??), calculating how many minutes I had before he arrived. Then I would run around like a frantic chicken, flipping on the lights in the apartment, fluffing the pillows, rinsing out my cereal bowl in the sink before he got home.

    Some nights, despite my best efforts to sneak out of bed unnoticed, Nicolas would find me pacing up and down the hall in the dark, revved up on steroids, my nightgown wet from night sweats, shivering. It was not an easy time for us, and I hated myself for being the source of the problem.  

    Then one day, a ray of light broke through the dark cloud that had settled over me since coming home. A tiny creature caught my attention, her black eyes shining out at me from behind a dirty pet-shop window. Some invisible force propelled me forward. I flung open the door, and desperately summoned the sluggish teenager hunched over the counter. “Please!” I shouted, “can I hold that one?” The smell of dog treats and wee wee pads permeated the place, a layer of grime covered every surface, and yet, without a moment’s hesitation, I collapsed onto the floor, hugging this 3-lb Pomeranian puppy to my chest, feeling the warmth of her little body, her strong heartbeat as quick as the seconds hand on a clock. I was completely and inexplicably in love.

    That night after Nicolas came home, I talked animatedly about the puppy on 6th Avenue and 12th street. I shoved all sorts of interesting and relevant information about the breed across the dinner table. Smart, easy to train, clean, loving, the perfect companion – this was the dog for me! I was completely energized, and happy for the first time in weeks. But Nicolas did not share my enthusiasm. He didn’t think we were ready for a dog (I was still immuno-suppressed and in no condition to care for a small animal), and, more importantly, it was wrong to support pet stores when one should adopt an animal from a shelter, or buy from a reputable breeder. Men are so reasonable.

    Although I knew Nicolas was right, I couldn’t shake the sadness that settled over me. That Saturday I woke up crying for no reason. I wished I could do something to pull myself together, but the tears kept coming. Nicolas looked exhausted, and desperate to help – I was not making this easy. I finally managed to convince him that a good old pity-party, hosted by yours truly, would surely lift my spirits, and I settled into a hot bath to shed a few more tears. Sometimes a good cry is all one needs, I told him. He seemed reassured, and went out to run a few errands.

    Four hours later, he still hadn’t returned. After his cell went straight to voicemail, I launched into panic mode. What if my tears had driven him to do something reckless? What if he had inadvertently wandered into oncoming traffic? Or, worse, what if he had done it on purpose?? Just when I was about to call local authorities to report a missing person, the elevator doors heaved open.

    At first, all I saw was an old cardboard box, the tops flapping open hap hazardously, shredded newspaper spilling out onto the floor. “I brought you something,” Nicolas said, his voice muffled from behind the gargantuan box. I peered inside, and two familiar black eyes peered back at me.

    I burst into tears. Again. And this time, Nicolas did too.

    We (I) decided to call her Coco Puff Papadopoulos, after Cocoa Puffs the cereal, because as a puppy she was a rice puff, perfectly fat and round, four little pink paws poking out from underneath her belly. That night, as we set up Coco’s new home, deliberating over where to put her bed, her blanket, and her water bowl, I asked Nicolas what had made him change his mind. “If I were sick, and feeling awful, and there was something, anything, to make me feel better, I hope that someone would make that happen for me,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time today, and I realized that thing for you is Coco.”

    My reasonable man had reasoned his way to the best possible conclusion! Coco did make me feel better. She gave me purpose. “Coco needs breakfast!” I would say to myself, as I leapt out of bed each morning, full of responsibility and determination. It wasn’t always easy, but it was just what I needed to pull me back into a routine. We went for walks in the park, to the hardware store, to the bank. We found a coffee shop that would have Coco as a patron, and the two of us lingered over my latte for hours, watching the passers-by on Sullivan Street as they headed to the park. Coco kept me company while Nicolas was away at work, circling my feet as I prepared dinner in the kitchen, waiting for me to drop a leaf of lettuce (to play with), or a piece of cheese (much more exciting), or a shred of chicken (absolute heaven). On days when I was feeling too sick to get out of bed, she curled up at my feet, occasionally rolling her eyes, but never leaving my side.

    Coco turned us into a family, of sorts. There were now three of us at West 3rd Street, and life felt more complete. For the first time in a long time, I felt progress, like our lives were moving forward, and in the right direction.

    _________

    In February, when I found out I would be traveling to Houston’s MD Anderson, I knew Coco wouldn’t be allowed to accompany me. Dogs and cats, most animals, and babies of course, are big no-no’s for immune-suppressed patients, as they carry all sorts of bacteria. But knowing I would have to leave her didn’t make it any easier. It’s been over two months since Coco watched Nicolas and I drag our bags into the elevator to make our way to the airport. “Stay,” we told her as the doors closed. She blinked at us, her head tilted to one side, and I wondered, as I often do, what she was thinking at that moment. I miss her all the time. She however, seems to be doing very well. I get frequent updates from my husband when he is at home in New York, and photos and videos from her many adoring puppy-sitters when Nico is here with me in Houston.

    Despite the fact that Coco finds it pretty boring, I always insist that we skype when Nicolas is home with her. Although her ears perk up when I call her name, the person she is looking at, is Nicolas. Adoringly, might I add. And the feeling is mutual. I have seen how his face lights up at the end of a long day as she gallops over to greet him at the elevator, and how he talks to her as they watch the news on the sofa, and how he sneaks her into our bed (“just so she can spend some time with us before she has to go to her bed!”) and my heart swells to think of the two of them keeping each other company while I am away.

    Coco has become the glue that holds our little family together. And for me, sitting over here in Texas fretting while my husband and life are all the way back in New York, I feel better knowing the (now 7-lb) Pomeranian is there to hold down the fort.

    And since I know you are all dying to see the wondrous and magical Coco... A little collage. Enjoy!