I grew up under the careful watch of a German shepherd. I considered myself a dog person until five years ago, when we got Rocky after my daughter asked for a dog that didn’t bark. An orange tabby cat, Rocky had been plucked from the streets and brought to an animal shelter, where my husband was spending hours ahead of our daughter’s fifth birthday, searching for the right match. Rocky melted in his arms and was just as cuddly when he came home, but as darkness fell, he would wail by the front door, begging to be let outside. After a few sleepless nights, I relented. He showed his gratitude by bringing a field mouse into the house.
Rocky is a great hunter, and for years he brought us gifts: birds (dead and alive), rabbits (dead and alive), lizards (dead) and ground squirrels (alive, always, and so hard to catch). At 19 pounds, Rocky is big enough that a friend once mistook him for a bobcat. Such sightings are not uncommon where we live, on the edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The danger of that terrain jolted me on a recent Friday, when I got a text from a neighbor accompanied by a picture of a baby Western diamondback rattlesnake. “Rocky thinks this is a toy,” she wrote.
I raced out the door, calling his name, my heart thumping, fearful of losing him in a year already marked by too much loss. Rocky emerged from behind a creosote bush and rushed toward me. As I scanned his body, I saw puncture wounds behind his left digits.
We have human health insurance but not pet insurance. I didn’t hesitate to give my credit card number to the animal hospital’s desk attendant, who asked for it as a condition of admitting him that night, when his left paw was already swollen as big as the head of a golf club. Four doses of antivenin, several blood tests to check his clotting time, three nights at the hospital, plus who-knows-what-else-because-I-lost-track brought the total to $6,200.
As of this week, the coronavirus has taken more than 341,000 U.S. lives. By year’s end, more than 47,000 people will have died of pancreatic cancer, the beast that killed my husband in 2017. Love, tears and fervent prayers couldn’t save them. Money couldn’t save them. But it could save Rocky.
Death of a loved one can hollow out those who are left behind, but it also gives us perspective. I don’t regret sacrificing the plenitude of our planned Christmas, canceling plans to replace our rumbling old freezer and reconfiguring my budget for, well, as long as it takes to pay the vet bills. All of that matters less than Rocky. He is part of our family.
Western diamondbacks are intimidatingly beautiful, with a triangular head and a rattle speckled in black and white. They are also among the most venomous snakes in the United States, so the fact that Rocky survived is something to celebrate. When he left the hospital, I said a silent prayer of thanks for a life spared and for my good credit: I got approved for an interest-free credit card moments after applying, on my phone, two days into Rocky’s hospitalization. That’s when it became clear that his treatment costs would exceed the balances of my checking and savings accounts. (Here’s hoping for a year of no unforeseen expenses.)
Usually, this time is a period to reflect and to set intentions for the year that’s about to begin. Many people can’t wait for this year to be over, as though ditching the 2020 calendar would wipe away the pain and sacrifice of the past 12 months. I’m not fond of 2020, but I don’t hope that time would pass any faster than usual. The experience of losing my husband and, eventually, finding myself again after his death taught me how precious time is. I want to spend all of mine wisely.
Looking back on this year, I see myself growing stronger. I see my partner embracing a paternal role without vying to take the place of my daughter’s father. These days, Rocky sleeps on the cat tree by the picture window. He naps close to the place where, a few years ago, I watched my husband die on a hospice bed. From the living room, as I try to focus on teaching over Zoom, I hear my daughter singing in her bedroom. What has time taught me? Her voice is a gift, as are our drives together, which she calls “rides to nowhere,” borrowing from one of our favorite Talking Heads songs. “We’re on a road to paradise,” the song says, “here we go, here we go.”
Okay, 2021, here we go.