The first appointment available for Jasmine Blue at the UC Davis Department of Dentistry was Aug. 18, a full two weeks after her cancer diagnosis. They were the longest two weeks of my life. Even the surgery option was not ideal – because the fibrosarcoma was aggressive, it had already grown twice the size it had been on July 7, the fateful day that I first discovered the bump on her nose.
During her dental consultation at Pets Unlimited, Dr. Lommer informed me that getting a “clean margin” (removing all the cancer cells as well as some healthy tissue) might involve removing Jazzy’s upper jaw. At the beginning of our meeting, I was worried she might lose a tooth – the thought of removing her jaw seemed unbelievably barbaric. “I’ve seen dogs go on to live normal, healthy lives without a jaw,” Dr. Lommer said reassuringly, but it didn’t reassure me at all.
As the day in Davis grew nearer, I grew more worried, but I was careful to keep our routine. We still went for our long walks at Stow Lake to feed Popeye, the one-eyed squirrel, and the numerous loud but stunning Stellar’s jays, with their iridescent blue feathers and sassy Mohawks.
I tried not to treat her differently, but I know I did. As she slept beside me at night, if she didn’t snore for more than a few minutes (highly unusual for Jazzy, who snores like a truck driver), I checked to be sure she was still breathing. At times I became overwhelmed, and I would go upstairs, hoping she wouldn’t miss me. Over the years I’ve gone upstairs hundreds of times to get her nightly marrowbone or a snack for myself in the kitchen. The first few times I did this after moving to our new house, she followed me upstairs and waited on the sofa, but as she became more comfortable in our new surroundings, she began staying on the comfy bed downstairs. As I descended the stairs, I would hear the thump, thump, thump of her tail.
And so, when I felt overwhelmed, I would wait until she was sleeping soundly and tiptoe upstairs to the front room at the other end of the house, where I would curl up on the chaise lounge and quietly sob. Within minutes, Jazzy was there, stuffed pink pig in mouth, big pittie butt tentatively wagging. She would put her front paws on the chaise next to me and then her back left leg and try to pull herself up. I would help her get her right leg, and thus, her big pittie butt, onto the chaise lounge, much as I had done the very first time I met her at the foster home in Hayward when she couldn’t make it onto the swing in the gazebo. She would, as she always does when I cry, offer her big, muscular neck for me to wrap my arms around, and her short, coarse fur for me to cry into. She would try to give me the pink pig by pushing it from her mouth into mine, and as soon as I started laughing, she would drop the pig and start licking the tears from my face relentlessly, big pittie butt wagging in full force. She had no idea that this time, she was the reason I was crying. But even if she did know, I don’t think it would have mattered. That’s one of the greatest things about dogs’ love – it is pure and selfless; they just want you to be OK.
When the day for Davis finally arrived, my assistant and dear friend, Steve Russell, came along to help calm my nerves. Since Jazzy would be staying overnight for the surgery, I booked a motel called the Stone Villa that was just a few minutes from the campus. Normally when Steve drives, Jazzy tries to climb into my lap in the passenger seat; when I protest she tries harder, then licks my face until I forget I have a 75-pound pit bull in my lap. She is always excited to go on another one of our great adventures, but because she is an incredibly sensitive dog (as pit bulls tend to be), she was completely tuned into my energy, which no doubt read “scared and uncertain.”
About 15 minutes from Davis, I could tell that she needed to do her business (the tell-tale “pittie poots” that cause Steve to roll down the windows and gasp for air), so we pulled over by a large, empty field. There, in the stifling 90-degree heat, Jazzy found something she’d never seen before – ground squirrels – bigger versions of Popeye who lived in holes and emitted ear-piercing squeaks to taunt her as she ran from hole to hole, digging furiously. For the first time in ages I felt at peace, watching her get so much joy out of something so simple. Every now and then she would glance up, her huge tongue hanging from the left side of her smiling face, and Steve and I would laugh, which made her dig even harder. Somewhere in between holes, she found a spot behind a bush to do her business. I went to pick it up. “What are you doing?” Steve called out. “We’re not in the City – no one is going to step in that here!” But I picked it up anyway, and when we got to the campus, I tossed in a trashcan as Steve lit a cigarette and shook his head with a grin.
We were only in the waiting room a few minutes when someone came to get us. “Hi Jasmine, my name is Jeffrey Schmidt,” he said as he kneeled down to scratch behind her ears. “I’m a senior student here, and I’ll be taking care of you.” Then he led us down a long hallway to a big, white room with bright, fluorescent lights. As Steve, Jazzy, Jeffrey, and I entered, a team of five or six somber doctors in lab coats were waiting, and I got the ominous feeling that there was something wrong.
Dr. Frank Verstraete, the chief of dental surgery, asked me to have a seat on one of the stools, and he rolled his stool next to mine and turned on a computer. Jazzy made the rounds, trying to plant stealth kisses on the other doctors as Dr. Verstraete and one of his residents, Dr. Ana Nemec, brought the image of Jazzy’s skull up on the screen. “After studying the film more thoroughly, we can see that there is bone destruction, and that because the tumor is so aggressive, it has already started to infiltrate the nasal cavity,” Dr. Verstraete said, pointing to the CT scan. “It extends along the entire left maxilla, from her nose to the back of her skull. With this level of tumor involvement, she is not a candidate for surgery.”
I felt as if I were going to pass out, and I began to sob uncontrollably. Jazzy came quickly from across the room, put her front paws on my stool and began licking my tears. “What does this mean?” I asked. The room was silent for what seemed an eternity and then Dr. Nemec said, “Possibly radiation is an option, but the tumor is malignant. If we were to attempt surgery, we couldn’t get a clean margin, and because it has grown so large, it would mean removing so much of her face that it simply is not an option.”
Even the idea of removing part of her upper jaw had been haunting me, so obviously removing most of her face, even if they could get a clean margin, was not something I would ever do to her. Gathering all the courage I had, I finally asked the question: “How long does she have?” Dr. Nemec turned from the computer and took a deep breath. “Perhaps six to eight months …”
The next 20 minutes were a blur. Dr. Verstraete called in Dr. Alain Theon, chief of oncology, a robust Frenchman who resembled a burly Inspector Clouseau. He glanced at the film. “We’ll need to keep her overnight and do more tests to see if it has metastasized – meaning it has spread to other organs, to her chest, her lungs. If it hasn’t spread, she would be a candidate for radiation.”
At that point they whisked Jazzy away, and Steve held me as I tried to stand on my weakened knees.
“If you don’t hear from us by 10:30 tomorrow morning, that’s a good thing,” Jeffrey, the senior student, said as he walked Steve and me out. “That means it hasn’t spread. Then you can meet with Dr. Theon tomorrow afternoon and talk about the options …”
Still in shock, I headed to the Stone Villa motel with Steve for what would surely one of the longest nights of my life.