Walking the Family Dog I Never Wanted Got Me Through My Husband’s Cancer

In the midst of her husband's fight with leukemia, Jill Smolowe's walks with Misty reminded her that life goes on.

petting dogChristopher Silas Neal for Reader's DigestIn 2004, when my daughter Becky was ten, she and my husband, Joe, were united in their desire for a dog. As for me, I shared none of their canine lust.

But why, they pleaded. “Because I don’t have time to take care of a dog.” But we’ll do it. “Really? You’re going to walk the dog? Feed the dog? Bathe the dog?” Yes, yes, and yes. “I don’t believe you.” We will. We swear.

They didn’t. From day two (everyone wanted to walk the cute Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy that first day), neither thought to walk the dog. While I was slow to accept that I would be the one to keep track of her shots, to schedule her vet appointments, to feed and groom her, Misty knew this on day one. As she peered up at the three new humans in her life (small, medium, and large), she calculated, “The medium one is the sucker in the pack.”

Quickly, she and I developed something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. She’d look at me with those doleful brown eyes of hers, beam her need, and then wait, trusting I would understand—which, bizarrely, I almost always did. In no time, she became my fifth appendage, snoring on my home-office couch as I worked, cradling against my feet as I read, and splaying across my stomach as I watched television.

Even so, part of me continued to resent walking duty. Joe and Becky had sworn. They’d promised. Not fair, I’d balk silently as she and I walked. “Not fair,” I’d loudly remind anyone within earshot upon our return home.

Then one day—January 1, 2007, to be exact—my husband’s hematologist uttered an unthinkable word: leukemia. With that, my walk-and-balk tirades evaporated, my head too filled with worry to leave room for petty resentments. I spent eight to ten hours a day with Joe in the hospital, doing anything and everything I could to ease his discomfort as he withstood chemo, surgery, and then a stem cell transplant. During those six months of hospitalizations, Becky, 12 at the time, adjusted to other adults being in the house when she returned from school. My work colleagues adjusted to my taking off at a moment’s notice for medical emergencies. Every part of my life shifted; no part of my old routine remained.

Save one: Misty still needed walking. Initially, when friends offered to take her through her paces, I declined because I knew they had their own households to deal with.

As the months went by, I began to realize that I actually wanted to walk Misty. The walk in the morning before I headed to the hospital was a quiet, peaceful time to gather my thoughts or to just be before the day’s medical drama unfolded. The evening walk was a time to shake off the day’s upsets and let the worry tracks in my head go to white noise.

When dire illness visits your household, it’s not just your daily routine and your assumptions about the future that are no longer familiar. Pretty much everyone you know acts differently.

Not Misty. Take her for a walk, and she had no interest in Joe’s blood counts, chemo concoctions, or bone marrow test results. On the street or in the park, she had only one thing on her mind: squirrels! If we crossed paths with another pooch, she had a different agenda: Sniff that dog’s butt! She was so joyous that even on the worst days, she could make me smile. On a daily basis, she reminded me that life goes on. The power of these brave dogs will inspire you. 

After Joe died in 2009, Misty slept on his pillow.

When a new human named Bob entered the picture, she quickly trained him to take her on walks.

I’m grateful—to a point. The truth is, after years of balking, I’ve come to savor my walks with Misty. As I watch her chase after a squirrel, throwing her whole being into the here-and-now of an exercise that has never once ended in victory, she reminds me, too, that no matter how harsh the present or unpredictable the future, there’s almost always some measure of joy to be extracted from the moment.

Jill Smolowe is the author of the memoir Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief

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