The Love That Loss Can Show Us

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a trip to Fort Funston with bella

I wrote this piece last year and have been with it for that time, occasionally reading and editing it. Tomorrow will be one year since little Bella’s passing, and it came to mind.

I love that it was written when Bella was here, physically and in present tense. I love that I have felt so many emotions in the short-and-long year since––loss and being lost, hope and purpose, and love and self-love…and that I still feel her energy around me always, spiritually and in present tense.

I share this today to remember Bella, my Mom, and the journey. Loss isn’t something we may wish for, isn’t a ‘club’ of which we want to be a member––but if it is our truth, we are tasked to accept it. To make sense of it. To find a way to move forward.

I send my good energy to anyone in any stage of loss. We are not alone, we walk together.

Warmly,

Neetal

…….

On a sunny afternoon in late May, Bella is curled up with a pillow and blanket. She had been shivering.

One might think I adopted some designer styling for her, seeing that she has been shaved in half a dozen places over her body.

But I haven’t. For my pup of seven and a half years, they are reminders of six chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. And, oh yes, two from the dog fight she decided to pick yesterday evening with an otherwise friendly neighborhood dog.

A day before we headed to the vet for chemo number seven, we preponed for a special trip to urgent care. The vet drained her wounds and showed me how to do the same at home. She then sent a tired, weary, slightly traumatized pup home with her equally tired, weary guardian.

It has been three-and-half months since Bella’s diagnosis. If you imagine your life with certain walls that are anchored which house the things that are fluid; over the course of a few short months, you can pretty much say all of my anchored walls have become unhinged and everything is now floating in zero gravity.

On a busy morning before work in late February, I was petting Bella during our usual morning tête-à-tête, where she walks up to my side of the bed and stares at me with her beautiful brown eyes to let me know that it is definitely time for her morning walk. I noticed that her left side below her jawline felt different than her right. I cupped her jaw in my hands to better compare each side with my fingers and palms. There was definitely a difference.

It roused a memory I hadn’t thought about in awhile of when my mom was having a hysterectomy after her uterine cancer diagnosis. “If it hasn’t reached the lymph nodes,” the doctor explained before surgery, “it will be a good sign.”

I remembered the doctor describing where the lymph nodes are, including at the throat below the jaw.

Things moved quickly with Bella. I called her vet who was booked for over a week. Then I called the next morning and the morning after to see if they could squeeze us in on standby. I am not generally this organized or this persistent, but something had me on autopilot. Without luck, I finally went ahead and made an appointment for Sunday with a new vet. As if on cue, Bella’s vet called back to let us know there was an opening and it was in a half hour. “We’ll be there,” I answered immediately.

I haven’t been the kind of pet guardian who regularly puts Bella in costumes or hosts birthday parties with invites for her dog friends. I even feel uncomfortable calling myself her “mom” — because I think our relationship is so many things — sometimes child-parent where she is the child, and sometimes where she is the unconditionally loving mother. She is also a confidante, and many times she is my conscience. She doesn’t love me in the loyal and devoted ways I note of some pets and their guardians, where they might follow them obediently or watch carefully for their signal for the next command. She loves me in her fiercely unique and independent way. And she trusts me unconditionally. I was reminded of this when she limped toward me after the recent dog tussle. I was the only one she wanted in that moment, and she was the only one on my mind, as she fell into my arms and I carried her home.

I have loved her from the day I met her. She is my longest live-in relationship and the one that has affirmed that love at first sight is not only possible, but real, and in its truest form, deepens over time.

Bella’s trusted vet who handled her teeth cleaning about a year prior, examined her. She was quiet at first as she felt Bella’s various lymph nodes and checked her usual vitals. “It looks like multiple lymph nodes are enlarged,” was all she had to say before I completely broke down.

In that instant, I was back on a hot Southern California day in July just a few weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday. I had breezed into our family home probably from some errand in preparation for my last year at a local law school. My mom was sitting in one of her favorite spots on the swing she had specially made for our home. In India, broad swings like this are somewhat typical and — in a style especially classic to my mom — she had ordered the “Rolls Royce” of swings and coordinated the look with rest of the living room. This was a high quality, industrial-grade swing; long enough that my siblings or I often fell asleep for the night, and sturdy and quiet enough that you couldn’t hear a single sound from its smooth movement.

I looked over at my mom waiting for a funny remark or question. We had a special banter and these days I nearly expected her to call exactly timed to correspond to when I was walking to my car or driving home from my law clerk role at a nearby law firm.

“They think it might be cancer,” she said, as though she had been thinking of how to preface it and then opted for direct and unambiguous. I eased next to her on the swing, joining her cadence of movement. I think I held her hand or that we hugged. It’s been over a decade now, so the memory is a little hazy around the edges, but I remember there were silences as our minds tried to catch up to the words.

“I’m sorry I’m so emotional” was about all I could say to Bella’s vet as she gave me tissues and empathetically let me take in the gravity. “Do you think it is cancer?” My steady flow of tears and uneven voice were making it hard to speak clearly so I just wanted to get the important words out first. “It could be, we will do a needle aspiration to check. But I suggest you call the oncologist.”

We talked for a little longer about treatments and life expectancy for dogs with lymphoma. She was patient while I asked a litany of questions. I felt alone there and a future and past screened through my mind while a part of me started grieving Bella in that exam room.

My mom was a force of nature. I used to gaze at her hands and think of how incredibly talented she was. As a homemaker, she was often called the “Indian Martha Stewart” for her ingenuity with recipes, home design, hospitality, and any household project. The great big tool chest on wheels, complete with power tools, was hers. She painted the entire downstairs of our home by herself and also managed our dozen-plus moves across the country and world throughout my dad’s career as a civil engineer. I remembered that as we dressed and prepared her for her final goodbye, and in thinking of the great potential of her skills, the not-yet-designed new projects that she would never have the chance to master, I held her hands in mine one final time before letting go.

Bella’s results came out all on the side of “most serious” and “most grave”. She was diagnosed with high-grade cell lymphoma, acute T-cell variety, and life expectancy without any treatment was targeted at 30 days. She is middle-aged, at seven-and-a-half, but not too old for treatment, the vet and oncologist assured. Seven and a half, in dog years, puts her in her early fifties or so in human time.

My mom was fifty-two when she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. I have learned that women, and especially moms, in their fifties can be a lot of fun. They become more friends than matriarchs and can have a close crew of other women friends to pass the time. I would jokingly call her “roomie” as I took her to most of her chemo sessions and then radiation sessions that year as my dad was traveling a great deal for work, my sister had relocated a few hours away, and my brother was finishing up college on the east coast.

That year I also began to understand cancer and its treatment in a very personal way. I understood how the day of chemo was actually okay, and how my mom could eat just about anything and often felt emotionally and physically strong enough to cook a favorite meal for dinner. Then the day after, and the day after that, the symptoms would begin setting in. Tiredness, nausea, weakness. The hardest part was eating. What might she eat, what might she tolerate today — shifted with each round and became something that was always on our minds.

Bella has been through six rounds of chemo, with two more to go. She doesn’t like the administration of the chemo, as evidenced by her physical reaction to entering the doors of the medical facility. I pick her up after her sessions and she is relieved, bouncy, and bubbly and we often make the most of the afternoon by going to a local park near the oncologist’s office. Sometimes, the day after chemo is a nice one too. And then, inevitably, the chemo fully settles in and each round has elicited different responses ranging from mild lack of appetite to full-blown weakness and vomiting.

The good news is that it is working. Bella is in complete remission. So it’s kind of funny that as we are rounding out this course of treatment, she had to get herself all banged up in a completely different way. She didn’t whimper or cry from chemo, but in the last 24 hours I can see that moving suddenly can cause that kind of pain for her. She’s hanging in there.

And, in some ways, getting laid off a few weeks off after Bella’s diagnosis has brought a measure of peace. I had been feeling guilty for leaving her by herself for up to twelve hours a day. Now, as I work on my social enterprise, I see her as my silent co-founder, my “why” for waking up and finding new ways to make this business work. She sleeps at my feet, even enjoys special new privileges of sleeping on the bed, or sometimes scuttles to the other room if I am making too much noise on phone calls or webinars.

I studied abroad the summer before my mother’s diagnosis. In addition to being an amazing experience, it also afforded me the extra credits that enabled me to essentially be a ‘part-time’ student my last year which gave me a lot more time with her. The exciting or simple things we did together form some of my favorite memories that year and I would like to think, helped her feel comfortable. When she was given a clean bill of health in the spring, our family rejoiced and celebrated; and when the cancer came back with ferocity in June — I remember sharing a poignant, open conversation of how we might even fathom a future without her. I listened quietly when she said she hoped we as siblings would stay close and that she knew my sister and I would be fine and could be there for our younger brother. I read between the lines when she said what a good man my dad is and how social he is, that he might meet someone who could be a companion in those special years my parents had been looking forward to. I think about that conversation often, and it gives me peace and strength.

I wonder now sometimes, was there a reason that I have borne witness to cancer care of a close loved one twice? These mirrored experiences of my mom and Bella form a constant reminder of the brevity of life and the importance of doing the things that really matter. I see resemblances between these two strong females in my life. Their ability to live boldly, unapologetically, and in the present, and to love unconditionally in their own ways. It has helped give me the courage to take a non-conventional path of not practicing law, foraying into social entrepreneurship, writing a book, hosting a podcast, charting my own path. And yet, the heaviness of loss often makes me feel different in the world, moving in a self-navigated direction, and also always just a little lost.

It’s just about time for Bella’s walk this evening, which means that she will be sidling up to me momentarily with eager anticipation and those silent questions, “Is it time? Are you ready?” I try to remind myself that she is with me right now, by my side, sharing moments and teaching me about life — including this latest and unexpected detour.

I am trying to live the lessons of my mom and Bella, who have had to navigate a treatment that rivals the severity of the illness they face and make the most of every single moment. With Bella, I know something I didn’t know during my mom’s time. It’s the love that stays.

founder, writer, person of many places. a motto: in all good things, #goanddo

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