The Three-Legged Dog Who Carried Me
The veterinarian knelt over my three-legged Australian shepherd, Patou, in my living room. She had just completed the procedure to end Patou’s life. The first injection was to relax her; my husband and I, holding her, felt her taut back muscles melt into a softness we hadn’t known for years. The second vial sent her off.
“Now she’ll be whole again, reunited with her other leg,” the doctor said.
I knew what she meant about wholeness: it was a belief in an embodied afterlife. Born with four legs yet living the last years of her life with three, Patou must have seemed to some incomplete. But in that moment I had to question that idea.
In the four and a half years after Patou’s initial bone cancer diagnosis (fibrosarcoma) and the amputation of her front leg, she became more herself than ever before — committed to the joy of any small moment, growing less introverted and more trusting with outsiders, and, like most dogs lucky enough to live into their golden years, developing ever deeper bonds with the people who cared for her.
Even more, through our shared experience of disability — she with three legs, I often with my “third leg,” a cane — we grew all the more connected through our interdependence, our unconventional mobility and our asymmetry.
When Patou came into my life, I had lived with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis for almost nine years, which caused periods of numbness, dizzy spells and weakness on my left side that impaired my mobility. I had collected three canes by then. Aware that a flare-up could come at any time without notice, I taught the young, four-legged Patou to help me up stairs.
Aussies are herding dogs and need a job of some kind, and she loved hoisting me up, stairs — actually, any nearby stairway — heaving her whole body for us both through short, rolling bounds. With one hand I would hold the rail and with the other I grasped her collar, and she pulled me up, surging. Like a cane, she took the strain off, but steadied as I went. It strikes me only now, as I write this, how similar that motion on four legs was to her movement years later on three: the absolute effort and drive of that round-backed, full body propulsion.
Couldn’t that be wholeness? Might we store all our past and future ways of moving within us at all times?
I also trained Patou to pull me up in case I fell, and to stand still beside me as I attempted to rise from a seated position, holding her sturdy back for stability.
My potential need became her game.
Many M.S. flares have come and gone since then, leaving their residual effects along the way. A few months before Patou displayed symptoms of bone cancer, my right eye flamed a deep pain with movement and the glare of bright light, and I soon lost the ability to read most text for about a year, the letters rising up out of themselves: M.S.-related optic neuritis. Just as I contemplated a different life of listening more than reading, of possibly needing a larger dog to help me navigate the world, Patou began needing me more.
At an agility class the summer before the cancer diagnosis, she ran up a tall wooden apex structure called an A-frame, and couldn’t make it to the top. She stopped a little higher than my shoulders, unable to gather enough momentum to climb all the way up the steep incline, and she turned to me. This was the moment my dog let me know that she needed me. I stretched out my arms, watching her scramble to gain footing, and she dropped into them, uncharacteristically laying each front paw on either side of my neck.
It felt like wholeness, holding this 45-pound dog like a child, but tentative.
What is wholeness?
All bodies change over time; no one body is ever permanent or completely symmetrical. After her amputation, Patou’s body remolded itself to suit her movement. Her solitary front paw, the left one, angled inward, forming a strong center paw. It grew to nearly twice its original size, eventually capable of holding large compressed rawhide bones upright — formerly held between two paws — as she chewed. Her back hunched more, neck thicker, stronger. She still jumped to catch toys in midair, ran faster than other dogs, as though, my father would say, the other leg just got in the way.
There is beauty in this change, the grace and balance found in asymmetry. In two creatures from different species of vastly different size using three legs to move through life: her lack, my excess, this pairing of three.
Wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic philosophy closely tied to Zen Buddhism, insists upon asymmetry and imperfection, aware that these are signs of life’s impermanence and decay. In wabi sabi, fallen leaves may carry more meaning than those still on the tree; a ceramic bowl is more beautiful by its lack of uniformity; the composition of a painting or photo more deeply felt through its rejection of centering, the subject somewhere near the frame’s edge, amid a field of blankness. Maybe even a disabled, asymmetrical dog with her disabled, asymmetrical human can aspire to such beauty.
Wabi sabi expresses a profound love of life through sorrowfully recognizing its fleeting nature. If there’s anything a dog lover knows and must contend with, it’s the fleeting nature of a dog’s life, the speed with which they age and die relative to our own life spans.
Patou and I both became acquainted with life’s flux far earlier than many of our respective species typically do. I shuffled like my grandmother in my early 20s, periodically experienced urinary incontinence from the age of 17, temporarily lost vision and needed tinted magnifying lenses in my 30s, and now in my 40s experience cognitive challenges that are more typical of a much older person. In the prime of Patou’s life she stopped being able to jump onto furniture, lost her job of pulling me up the stairs, and lost a leg.
Through loss we both gained access to learning what else our bodies could do to persist in this world, how to adapt to the flux and flow of life. Our mobility changes became, for us, the norm. I marvel at the ease with which some people run staircases, as though they’re from outer space, but whenever I spot another tri-paw dog’s movement, a curtain of serene familiarity washes over me. When Patou and I first approached the sliding glass doors of a pet supply store, each on three legs, I caught sight of our reflection and thought, they’re bound to think I’m using my dog to panhandle. I soon came to simply trust and love what I saw in the glass: persistence, trust, grace.
Patou’s movement: unmistakable jazz waltz brushes. My movement: the cane’s bold stomp followed by a soft hitching shuffle. This music must be wholeness.
After her amputation, Patou continued to live cancer-free for nearly four years. When the same cancer returned in the remaining front leg, its growth was slow, and we treated it with palliative radiation. She began to fall, her front paw flopping and buckling under, resembling the M.S. symptom “foot drop.” I saw the dog’s falls through my own experience, and wondered if physical therapy could help her as it had helped me strengthen my leg and relearn, for a while, how to walk. The veterinary physical therapist exercised Patou in water and supplied us with mobility aids: a set of wheels preceded by a string of successive neoprene leg braces to prevent falls, and a harness with long looped handles to support the dog’s front end as she descended stairs.
This dog, who carried me up so many flights, welcomed my hand raising her by those handles, lifting her chest to lighten her descent as I braced against the stair rail. A kind of wholeness through asymmetry and time, the tension between impermanence and ongoingness.
Patou’s new wheels were more like a rolling walker than a wheelchair; the wheels helped her exercise while supporting her chest’s weight. We started using them on quiet sidewalks until she was ready for short jaunts with her wheels at the jogging track of a local park. One day, rounding a turn, we spotted a man using a wheelchair heading toward us. Patou saw him, too, launched into a flat-out run, and rushed straight for him, nearly pulling the leash out of my hand. The man broke into a broad smile and laughed, “No shame in the game, no shame in the game.” The beauty of this moment, which I have yet to comprehend fully, was not lost on me: All creatures who persist are whole.