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What I Learned While Caring For My Dog With Terminal Cancer

By Bharati Chaturvedi:

Last week, the air-conditioner in my room caught fire. We could sense there was a fire, because of the smell emitted when plastic coated wires burn. We couldn’t find a singular origin point to the smoke, but we figured out it was the AC because the transparent, invisible smoke was most acrid on that side. We put the fire out after the plastic case of the AC began melting, because we then knew where to attack. The fire brigade officials told us throwing mud from our dead plants department was the smartest thing we did, because usually, such electric fires spread fast and char houses in under an hour.

After all the drama, the options were to repair the 8-year-old AC or buy a new one. Everyone suggested not repairing it, because it could catch fire again. It seemed doomed. I was warned about the dangers to my dog if the AC caught fire again – so much toxic gas inside my vulnerable quadruped, not to mention my own asthma.

I had it repaired, because it made sense to. It was hard to switch it on again, but with the encouragement of my housekeeper, I summoned the guts. We now use what looks like a heavily repaired AC. As I flipped the switch, Le Chauffeur had me speaking to the electrician on a conference call, where I kept silent and he asked the pertinent questions.

All said and done, this was a moment of personal triumph. During the last one year, I had often been guilted for my un-green acts. I consoled myself by reminding myself it had been a particularly stressful year, but to be honest, I never could make myself feel better, because I knew people who managed anyway. Still, better repair than new.

This one moment didn’t help undo my 6-month-long composting glitch or the accompanying guilt.

I could blame it all on adenocarcinoma, or aggressive terminal cancer that took over Carbon’s 6-year-old, muscular, furry body last June. Carbon, a puppy from the street born in the era of climate change, was originally tasked with reducing stress at the Chintan office.

But he needed way too much running, care and conversation to live in the office. He needed a good old-fashioned home, with tangible things to chew on, and home food to beg for. I shared this housing responsibility with a colleague and finally adopted him full time when he was 6 months old. Thereafter, he became my dog, and I, his human. Jointly, we tried to live a green life, although somewhere in the middle, I turned vegan and he gave up munching on the salads with garlic he once relished.

Carbon didn’t notice his own illness once we began his heavy medication, including a formulation of truth serum. “To relax him”, said the vet, although he never gave up barking at every waste picker who walked into our office. We never tried to cure him but making his life comfortable meant disguising in his daily food several steroids, cardiac meds, thyroid meds, liver enhancing formulae in all shapes and sizes. Only his homoeopathic pills were easy – we rolled them into any food he had.

These days,  almost a year on, he’s a fussy eater. He wastes some of his food. He doesn’t eat for days. The vet suggests I feed him anything he likes (a euphemism for being too terminally ill to deserve to be disciplined), so I’m letting him have crunchy murukkus, orange coloured chicken tikka, my own dal-chawal, buttery laccha parantha and a rather humble home-cooked porridge. Most of this is spiked with meds, and he wastes some each time.

Here’s my challenge. We compost. Or rather, we composted till we became full-time caregivers to our Jokush Bokush.  In the initial months, I pushed for separating our wet waste from Carbon’s food waste, so that we could still compost without the burden of medicines.

But the stress of nurturing a seriously ill (and large) dog, comes in the way. My housekeeper explains that after a six-hour shift of cooking for Carbon, feeding him, powdering and mixing his medicines, he can barely wait for me to come home and take over. Keeping his food waste in a separate bin is a hard task at this point, he says. He is exhausted, and often, tearful and sad.

When I come back, I can barely think of separating Carbon’s food waste. My duties are to massage him, chat with him, clean up the odd goo he may have gathered during the day, monitor his tumour and find new tricks to pop his homoeopathic pills into his 30-kilo body, armed as he is with sharp teeth and a stubborn mind. Most often, I work and hang around him, gleaning the comfort of his loving presence and delighting him with my midnight hunger pangs, which result in a small treat for him to at least smell and reject.

It’s harder when I take him to work, because I am rarely able to handle his food waste myself. We bring it home in his tiffin box, offering it to him re-heated and re-garnished. Then he leaves at least some of it uneaten.

My housekeeper, Le Chauffeur and I have tacitly agreed we are unable to compost without contaminating the entire batch of compost. We will have fuzzy days with pharma contamination, we know.

In the worst periods of Carbon’s yo-yoing condition, I had no will to compost or garden, my housekeeper no energy, and Le Chauffeur, too upset to be asked to learn a new skill. Our team of three could not keep every half-eaten morsel out of the wet waste steam. We had produced compost likely rich in meds and chemicals. It was like buying those chicken pumped with antibiotics – sick and miserable and not what food is supposed to be. We knew we weren’t putting it into our plants, so we trashed it in the municipal system. Then we stopped composting.

This was the dreadful flashback to hit me as I over-thought about my damaged AC. Fortunately, I also had another, more constructive thought: how do we drive ourselves to stay green in bad times?

I found that although I couldn’t compost, I had become much more careful about other kinds of consumption, as if I was unconsciously compensating. We bought nothing new for our dog, and reused stuff he needed to rest on. I began sleeping the in the living room,  because Carbon liked spending the night there. Since he needed a fan, and later, an AC to control his insane panting, we could save electricity if I shifted over. We began fiercely returning even the paper bags the chemist delivered the meds in, and stopped ordering food online because of the disgusting packaging. Khana Khazana, our neighbourhood dhaba and chief supplier of Carbon’s chicken tikkas/pill poppers, fell in love with us.  In 2016, I bought no new clothes, although I was gifted some. I bought a cycle as a form of exercise and local travel, in lieu of driving to the gym I hoped to join. I haven’t used it as much as my housekeeper but still. My household staff, who used to buy chicken and meat once a week for themselves from the household budget, cut back drastically, and quietly, despite my suggestions that they eat better. To an outsider, it would seem as if we cut down our expenses to afford the dog’s new needs. We were doing that, but we were also determined to live a different life by the same old principles. Le Chauffeur came up with the idea of my working out of home at least once a week, so Carbon could enjoy all our company and, as he put it, “We would save petrol and 40 minutes each way.

I wasn’t composting but I was looking out for greener opportunities.

Some days after the AC episode, I wondered why it was still in my mind. Basically, it had begun to symbolise a kind of Diwali – a triumph of right over wrong. It helped me figure out my own ways of staying green when stressed:

First, it’s easier to take one-time decisions than act on a hard task day after day. My case suggests this, because I re-jigged the AC but failed to cycle around each morning.

Second, no matter how routine it is to do something, whether composting or going for a run, during an emergency, you will pare down to your minimum self, with a very strong focus. You cannot blame yourself for this, but if what you do is dear to you, then there will be compensations to be green in other ways. You need to acknowledge those. Some of them are stupid, like sleeping curled on a couch for days on end, but they need to be embraced as part of one’s own process.

Third, you have to speak to people who share your green belief systems, as well as your economic pressures. Not only do they have ideas, but they help to make sense of your failings and successes, and push you impatiently, to move on and get going. A friend reminded me that the thin towel I use instead of the thick, cotton one shouldn’t even be washed more than once a week. “Keep it in the sun for disinfecting,” I was reminded, “it’s so easy.

Lots of others – people who manage both time and misery better – would have gotten more done. They would have continued to work out and compost – my two biggest challenges. I didn’t, although I spent time cuddling my giant Jokush Bokush and feeling somewhat guilty at my lack of discipline. But in the end, I find I have bought much less, shared a lot of material stuff with others. If I could ignore the environmental cost of chicken for the dog and the non-bio-degradable tissues and paper towels I use for his various needs, then I could claim I’ve reduced my own footprint. I don’t claim it will reduce the misery of climate change, but it is a sop to myself.

Carbon has gone off all medicines for 10 weeks now, and we are reluctantly letting him take this fatal path instead of dragging him to spend time under a drip. I am returning to composting, although the rest of me feels too anxious to exercise in any form. I haven’t been my own ideal, but on balance, I am relieved I haven’t turned into an endlessly consuming monster-of-misery, sister of a stress eater. A part of me is pleased I’ve found ways to walk the talk, if imperfectly. There’s certainly a thin green path amidst this gristly jungle.

Images are representational.