Act 3, episode 8: Elli Lessons

Cancer has a smell.


When I was twenty, I worked as a Nurse's Aide

at Sheridan Nursing Home in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

I had seven aging and ailing residents that I was responsible for.

I changed bedding, diapers, gave showers and bed baths,

fed and clothed and shaved.


My first stop on every round was Mrs. Tenuta,

the matriarch of the Tenuta family in town.

Most Sundays, her room was filled with people of all ages, talking and sharing their lives

with each other, as she lay on her bed curled in a ball.

She never spoke.

When I started working there, she weighed 50 pounds.

She was dying of a cancer that slowly

ate away at her insides,

evidenced in the diapers I changed almost every hour.


There was a smell.

And I had forgotten about it, until this week.

Her room smelled of it so strongly. No cleaning efforts could mask it.

Our family dog, Elli, now has that smell.


I took Elli on Wednesday for a routine dental cleaning and extractions, involving anesthesia.

This yearly practice had been tabled,

waiting for a tumor in her bladder to chillax with CBD oil,

and again while I sold the house and moved into this apartment.

The CBD shrunk the tumor to skin tag size, and it is still stable, unchanged.


The doctor found all of her lymph nodes enlarged.

As we waited for the lab results,

Elli declined rapidly.


The adult kids are coming (to my) home this weekend,

and also my soon-to-be ex-husband, to be with Elli and each other

and to say our goodbyes.


I'm tired.

My mindset is clear and I believe I am responsible and brave and

all will work out for Elli's best good. Of course.

No Limbic drama, which makes all of this easier.

Emotions are coming in waves.

I journal in the mornings to clear my head.


At twenty years old, I was afraid of death and pain.

I had plenty of experience with suffering and was afraid of it.


I am no longer afraid of death.


My third major in college (of five) was Child Development.

Psychologist Jean Piaget discovered the concept of Object Permanence,

a vital stage of baby brain development.

It's the reason why the game peek-a-boo is so fun for them.


Object Permanence means that items or people still exist

even if you can't see or hear them.


Our culture's traditions around death are not as healthy as they could be.

Mrs. Tenuta suffered, hour after hour in that bed, 20-24 diaper changes a day,

until she reached 42 pounds and finally passed.

I worked by her side for 14 months, the time it took for her to lose those last eight pounds.


I came in one morning in March, always attending to her first,

and her bed was empty.

I looked for someone to answer my questions,

"Where is she? What happened?"


Within a week, two more of my patients passed.

Which strengthens that Appalachian, and old European, superstition

of people dying in threes,

an extension of such strong belief in the Trinity.


I could not handle the deaths.

I guess I hadn't learned my Object Permanence lesson yet.


Today's Deep Breath: a practical juju nugget, a collective Next Best Decision.


I cannot control or plan for death. Though it would be convenient.

Thankfully, with our pets, we can use medicine to help ease the suffering.

In some states today, a Mrs. Tenuta could die at 100 pounds, or even sooner,

with much less suffering.


Elli is a white Maltese, a true Princess breed, and weighs eight pounds.

Interesting how her body feels much heavier when it is limp.


She pants as if exerting herself on a hot day and she has that smell.

She is compulsive about not leaving my side. Like she is afraid.

Don't leave me.

Her eyes tell me on our walks, I can't go any further. Pick me up.

Or, Let's keep walking, it's so beautiful outside.

She needs assistance getting up on my lap.


But otherwise, she's still herself. And I love her.

I have loved her for twelve years.

She has been a great comfort to me these last seven months.

I couldn't be more grateful to have called her mine.


So, I will stay with her, and hold her,

while she falls asleep,

and while they give her the medicine to stop her heart.

So she can hear and smell me until the last.


I know she will be completely blissed out

when she is free from her ailing body.

And I will get to the work of living a great life without her.


The biggest lesson I have learned from Elli is this:

love everyone.

Every human she has ever come upon received love and kisses.

Even now, though she is confused and lethargic,

she kisses the feet and hands of all who cross her path.

She looks for them now on our last walks, where are my people?


I'll miss her hugs, wrapping her head into me, as I drive or sit,

or carry her back up the elevator.


Always, loving.