Fear is a particularly poignant topic for me, because I recently had a really intense session with the fear of death. It was after 10 p.m.—and my much beloved little dog Ginger had been fine all day—when she jumped down from her couch bed, staggered toward the hallway and vomited violently. She was very weak and groggy, so I called for my mom to come stay with her while I went down to tell my niece that we were heading for the emergency vet’s office. By the time I got back upstairs Ginger was unconscious. I remember patting her frantically, calling her name and getting no response, and the sick trembling terror that she’d never wake up…
The next morning, after the abdominal ultrasound, the vet diagnosed acute pancreatitis with an unknown amount of liver damage. She told us as kindly as possible that Ginger’s chances were “low,” we were looking at thousands of dollars to try to save her, and that not to try was a perfectly legitimate choice. I steeled my nerves and asked her to put a number on “low,” and was told that Ginger’s odds of survival were somewhere between 20 and 30%.
We talked it over, but Ginger wasn’t in pain and if she did survive her quality of life would be normal. And the idea of losing that tiny scrap of warmth and joy from our lives was utterly intolerable, so we decided to try.
I spent the next three days drenched in fear, but the worst moment came very early on the second morning Ginger was in intensive care. I dreamed that I was walking down the hall and Ginger was sitting there, wagging her tail and looking up at me. My sister-in-law said something about loving dogs, “even if they’re only amusing.” I put my hands on my hips and told Ginger, “She thinks you’re just amusing.” Ginger jumped up and put her paws on my knee, the way she does. I reached down and boosted her up, and she wiggled up and lay against my chest as if she were giving me a hug. Her abdomen felt kind of odd, slooshy and squishy, but that didn’t matter, because I could feel her sending me the most amazing wave of pure love. It was incredibly warm and sweet and joyous, and I loved her back with all my heart…and woke up, heart pounding, convinced that she had just died and come to me to say goodbye.
I lasted 20 minutes, crying madly, before I gave up on telling myself not to be silly and called the vet to beg someone to go back and check that she was still breathing. The desk clerk very kindly sent someone, and yes, Ginger was sound asleep and still hanging on.
We’re 9 days past that morning as I write this, and though she looses energy too quickly, and sleeps a bit more than usual, Ginger is not only alive, she’s been home for 6 days now. And even more miraculous, although she’s feeling a bit insecure, she’s the same bright, active, loving little dog she’s always been. She may spend the rest of her life on special diet that supports her liver—we won’t know that for a while—but she’s come back to us and she’s going to be fine.
And my fear is finally beginning to fade. I’ve almost stopped waking her up when she drops off to sleep, to be sure she’s still alert. I’ve begun to stop thinking that she’s choking when she sneezes, or that her digestion’s shutting down if she burps. (And forget the panic my mom went into when her eyes rolled up so you could only see the whites—she was probably looking at a bug on the ceiling.) But Ginger is fine. And I’m almost beginning to believe that with my heart instead of my head.
However, that brings me to the place where Hilari-the-writer kicks in—and writers can be amazingly ruthless about their own emotions. Not in terms of not feeling them, but in terms of using them. Of making objective notes about them, if not in the midst of the emergency, at least very soon afterward. I really don’t recommend this experience to anyone…but I’m going to remember the way that intense fear lingers after the emergency is past, making you twitch at the smallest dog burp, irrationally terrified that your happiness will be suddenly snatched away. Like an ache in a broken arm, even after the bone has knit. (Line clearly destined to show up in a book someday.) And in the last book of my Knight & Rogue series, which I’m planning to start pre-writing soon, the bounty hunter that the bad guys send after Michael is going to have a dream where his murdered sister came to him—and that loving dream, and the grief it left behind, will be a large part of why he’s dedicated his life to tracking down unredeemed men and killing them.
I don’t think we writers are actually cold, calculating monsters…but when you’re a writer everything in life eventually turns into grist for your stories. Even things as deeply important as the near death of your dog.
Hilari Writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and you’ll be glad to know that Ginger is doing just fine.