How Getting a Puppy Helped My Terminally Ill Teen

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My daughter sits with 5-month-old Roo in a park — Photo my own

he puppy was 10 weeks old and a little over a pound the day we brought him home. He was a fancy mutt, a combination miniature poodle and Yorkshire terrier (yorkie-poo) that will likely grow no larger than five or six pounds.

My 14-year-old daughter was in Manhattan getting radiation for tumors in her lungs the day I picked him up — he was a surprise that would be waiting for her that night.

I’d originally told her we would get a dog when radiation treatments were over — something for her to look forward to after three weeks of daily trips to the hospital (a six-hour round trip from our home in the Hudson Valley).

I kept my younger daughter home from school the day we got him, mostly because I was terrified of being alone with a dog, even one so small. I’ve been a cat person all my life.

“I don’t know about this,” I’d said as we drove away from the kennel.

“This is the best day of my life,” my daughter had responded. The puppy was curled up in her lap, looking a bit uncertain himself.

named him Roo (after the Winnie the Poo character) because he hopped around so much. He was my responsibility for the first month.

My husband needed to focus on getting enough rest for the daily drives, and my older daughter, exhausted from the commute and double dose of radiation, barely had enough energy to greet him each evening before going upstairs to rest.

“He smells,” she said the first day. So I gave him a bath.

Roo slept in a crate each night without complaint. He was very receptive to potty training and at first we used “pee pads” but he soon showed a preference for going outdoors (even though it was absolutely freezing in February). Two inches of snow came up to his chest.

The only one who was totally comfortable with Roo at first was my younger daughter. She is outgoing and gregarious, a loving child who spends extra time with all of our animals. She didn’t mind that he smelled, or constantly nipped her fingers, or seemed to have an obsessive need to lick everything. He also ate rocks.

I took him to a puppy training class for six weeks in an attempt to learn about dogs, and how to teach him some rules, but he was so small (just two pounds at 15 weeks) that it was difficult for the trainer to work with him. Socializing him with other puppies was a challenge — even the small breed puppies towered over him.

My daughter began feeling better a few weeks after radiation ended. She brought Roo into her room at night where he slept beside her bed in his crate. I retrieved him each morning so she wouldn’t have to take him outside in the cold to walk him, but this was a start.

He spent most of his time downstairs in our living room/dining room which is gated off from the rest of the house. We noticed she was emerging from her room more and more so she could come down and visit him.

“He still smells,” she said often. I took him to get groomed for the first time and the dog smell vanished for a day.

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My daughter meets Roo for the first time — Photo my own

April, two months after we adopted Roo, my daughter got a CT scan. It was the first scan since her radiation treatment and also the first since she’d had extensive surgery to remove multiple tumors from her pelvis in December. It was a bad scan.

Her pelvis was once again filled with tumors. The lung tumors that were radiated were stable, but other tumors in her lungs were growing. After years of treatment (including a liver transplant in 2012), she was now considered terminal.

Her oncologist started her on a combination of oral chemotherapy that to try and slow her cancer progression down enough for her to enjoy the summer.

Something shifted in my daughter after that scan. She let many things go, including her drive to go to school each day, get homework assignments done, worry about tests.

We worked it out with her school that she could stay home whenever she wanted — no questions asked. She’s been home more often since then, spending time with Roo, getting to know him. She comes downstairs often to play with him, comes outside to sit with him in the yard.

he tells Roo she loves him every day and he sits by her feet, content to be loved. Roo doesn’t care that she’s terminal. He still nips her fingers, but he’s learning to stop when she tells him no.

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Roo waits patiently for my daughter’s bus to arrive — Photo my own

Her school is about 15 miles away and sometimes she takes the bus home, but often I’ll pick her up. I bring Roo with me, and we wait in the parking lot for her to appear. He stands on my lap, head poking out the window, and he watches for her. When she comes walking down the path towards the car, his tail wags frantically.

“I love you!” She says to him when she sees him.

“He loves you too,” I tell her.

Roo was a complete surprise to me. I got my daughter a puppy because, quite frankly, I’ll do anything I can for her right now — anything within my power that allows her to fully experience life. I realize this could’ve gone either way — Roo could’ve added a lot more stress to our already stressed household than joy — but we got lucky. (Or maybe it was more than luck. Maybe the universe finally threw us a bone.)

The other day my daughter came downstairs, picked Roo up, and kissed his head. “He smells so good,” she said (he hasn’t had a bath in two weeks).

“I know,” I agreed.

Addendum: My daughter died thirteen months after we got Roo. Now, he is a singular joy in my life, always with me, always exuberant — a reminder that it’s possible to find solace in simple (and sometimes unexpected) places.

This story was originally published on HuffPost on 5/30/16

Jacqueline Dooley is a writer and entrepreneur living in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting a child with cancer and parental grief have been published in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss, Pulse, The Wisdom Daily and more. Find her on Twitter at jackie510.

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Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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