“What’s the name of your new dog?”
I’ve met with enough book clubs to anticipate the questions readers have about Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. One question that has come up time and time again is, “what’s the name of your new dog?”
A woman at a book club in Stillwater has been the only one to ask the harder question: “why didn’t you tell us his name?” The book included so much detail, she explained, the absence of his name seemed unusual. She didn’t believe it was an oversight. When I learned the woman was a judge, her question made more sense. She may often ponder motives behind people’s actions.
So, I thought it was time to tell you why I didn’t include Watson’s name in the book.
After losing Hoover, we chose not to give him a vacuum-cleaner themed name, though friends and relatives threw out good options: Kirby, Dyson, Eureka. We had Watson for about a week before we settled on the name. Neither Aaron nor I are Sherlock Holmes fanatics, per se. “Watson” just seemed like an appropriate name for an intrepid sidekick. The first year was filled with typical teething, learning, playing, and exponential growth. Once he hit full size, he weighed in at 120 pounds. He is now down a bit. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you will occasionally see me tweet about his antics using the hashtag #110poundpuppy.
One day, when he was about a year old, I was working in my home office when I heard a series of thumps in the kitchen. I casually went to see what had happened, presuming he had gotten into the garbage or had pulled something off the counter.
Instead, I discovered Watson was in the middle of a grand mal seizure. His big body was bucking and thrashing in a puddle of urine. Slimy drool pooled on the tile floor. I had never seen a seizure before, so I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought he was dying.
Within a half hour we were at the vet’s office. Based on my description, the vet affirmed it was likely a seizure, but she couldn’t tell me whether it was a one-time event or if or when he might have another. So, we waited.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have to wait long.
After the second seizure he underwent an MRI to see if he had a brain tumor, or if we could identify other factors. He started anti-siezure medicine, but the seizures continued. In fact, the frequency increased. We examined ingredients in his food. We eliminated smoked treats and made the choice to stop giving him noxious Heartworm prevention medicine. We tracked the times and durations of seizures, and tried to identify any nexus to exercise, anything he consumed, anything that was out of his routine. The record of seizures grew: twenty became thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy…
At one point Watson was having 3, 4, or 5 seizures per week. Sometimes more. Often he recovered within a half hour. Sometimes it would take hours. Sheets and blankets would be thrown into the washer in the middle of the night. Our carpet shampooer was used often enough we began to store it upstairs so it would be nearby. Sometimes he would seek us out right before a seizure, as if he knew what was about to happen and wanted us to stop it. Other times it would happen without any warning. We were exhausted and exasperated.
Aaron and I developed terms for different kinds of seizures. The “full flop” was a grand mal seizure; the “Cujo” was a less-severe but more menacing-looking seizure. During a Cujo, named after the rabid St. Bernard in Stephen King’s book of the same name, Watson rests on all fours and shakes uncontrollably with jaws locked open. His head swings from side to side and foam cascades out of his mouth. He looks terrifying. Regardless of which type of seizure it was, he would eventually regain awareness, look around and sniff, and look at us with disgust as if he was asking, “who peed?”
It was at this point in time I was finishing the book. The seizures were out of control, and to be frank, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I was feeling protective of our poor boy. Logically this might not make sense, but it seemed as if by not naming him I was creating a protective barrier between Watson and the reader. The barrier bought time to figure out what was happening. And if Watson didn’t survive — or if we had to make the heart-breaking decision to put him down — I didn’t want readers to cheerily ask, “how’s Watson?”
We eventually began working with a canine neurologist, Dr. Carpentier, at The Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota. Under her care, Watson takes three seizure meds spaced out four times every day. He’s down to an average of one seizure a month. We consider that a victory, but we still live in a state of vigil. If we hear a thud, we’ll check to see if he rolled off the bed or if he’s having a seizure. If we hear repetitive thumping, we’ll check to see if he’s scratching or if he’s having a seizure. If we hear squeaky whines, we’ll check to see if he’s dreaming or if he’s having a Cujo. If he lays down on the grass or snow, we’ll check to confirm if he’s rolling around in joy or if he’s having a seizure.
When it is a seizure, Aaron and I have a familiar, choreographed response. I’ll be sure doors to the bedroom, bathroom, and basement are closed (after a seizure he doesn’t seem to see well and runs around the house in a way that’s hard to control; we close to doors to contain him to the main living space). Aaron will prepare to administer valium. Then we’ll talk to him until the seizure subsides.
In a few weeks Watson will turn five. It is likely the massive doses of medicine will shorten his life, though we don’t know if it will be shortened by years or months. In the meanwhile, we are comforted by the fact 99% of his life is lived as a normal, happy, otherwise-healthy, spoiled-rotten dog. On a day-to-day basis, the biggest thing he needs to worry about is whether he is going to nap on the floor, the bed, or the couch. And since his meds are folded inside a slice of American cheese, he just might think the sole reason an alarm goes off every six hours is so that we can give him a cheese treat.
Was it the right call to keep Watson’s name out of the book?
His medical condition doesn’t have anything to do with Marcel’s Letters, after all.
I don’t know the answer. It seemed like the right — the best — option at the time.