With a terminally ill husband and a two-year-old daughter at home last year, I found myself seeking ways to make extra money to support their care. Flexibility was critical, so I opened up shop as a Rover.com dog sitter, caring for pups in my own home.
At first, it was a brilliant enterprise. I trekked around the snow with my eager companions and cuddled with them in front of our fireplace. Six weeks after accepting my first client, however, I was blindsided by yet another blow: a cancer diagnosis of my own.
“How’s this going to work?” I asked my husband tearfully. “How am I going to take care of all three of us if I’m sick too?” I could feel the panic mounting.
My canine guest at the time, a gentle American bulldog named Louie, curled up alongside me on the couch. He lowered his head onto my lap, sweetly oblivious to the world that was going up in flames all around me.
In a matter of weeks, my husband and I were hurled into a landscape colored with back-to-back chemo sessions and cabinets brimming with anti-nausea pills.
I had a part-time gig slinging Asian food from my friend’s new food truck, but it was no match for the medical bills stuffing our mailbox. And, frankly, the crushing fatigue that followed treatment (on top of attending to the needs of my sick husband and demanding toddler) dampened my resolve to pursue full-time employment. But the bills kept pouring in.
“I think I’m going to post a Rover ad on Craigslist. You know, to attract more doggo clients. We could use the money.”
“Sure, love. Go for it.”
Once my ad went live, requests for dog-boarding flooded my inbox. I was equal parts thrilled and petrified.
Before meeting with new clients, I stood in front of the mirror adjusting my tie-dye headscarf self-consciously. I wondered what people would think when they saw that my eyebrow-less face and bald head didn’t quite match the photo I had posted in my dog-sitter profile.
Until I met Jenny.
Jenny was a rail-thin poodle with a kinky mop of black curls on top of her head. Her owner, Barbara, showed me pictures of her granddaughter on her iPhone while chatting good-naturedly about the art exhibit they had just attended. I immediately recognized her as a kindred spirit: sophisticated, yet warm.
“She’s got a lot of spirit in her, but she’s rather frail, I’m afraid,” Barbara informed me as Jenny skipped around the front lawn with my daughter. “She was the runt of the litter, and she’s just recovered from a broken back leg.”
I’m in recovery mode too, I thought to myself. “We’ll get along nicely,” I said.
Jenny was unlike any of my other clients. She was lovely and personable, but she was a finicky eater and required more care than the other dogs.
“I’m worried she’s not eating enough. She’s already so skinny,” I remarked to my husband who was convalescing on the La-Z-Boy. “She’s not interested in her food. You are a silly girl, aren’t you?”
I scooped a handful of cooked chicken from her bowl and offered it to Jenny. She sniffed apprehensively, and then to my surprise she took a nibble from my fingers. And then another. And another. I sat on the kitchen floor with Jenny feeding her out of my hands until she had consumed her entire meal.
“Looks like we have a princess on our hands,” I said.
Night after night, I fed Jenny from my hands. But I didn’t mind. This little ritual was a much-needed reminder that I was not put on this planet to serve myself. In the midst of cancer treatment, it can become easy to lose sight of that fact.
I was often so caught up in my own suffering, my own exhaustion, and my own ghostly chemo-skin that I failed to remember I was still needed by others. And to be needed is a wonderful gift.
Barbara and Jenny have remained an integral part of my family’s life. When I finished chemo and my husband was taking a break from treatment, we enjoyed lunch at their home. When my husband entered hospice care, Barbara mailed out a miniature stuffed “Jenny Poodle” doll to comfort my daughter. And when my husband died this past spring, Barbara attended his funeral.
Self-doubt is a constant struggle for me, but opening up my home to Jenny and a host of other doggy companions has been one thing I’ve not once regretted.
In the end, it was never about the money. Not really. It was about serving my family by doing something I loved. It was about connecting with beautiful new souls. And it was about learning how to demonstrate trust and compassion in a way that is uniquely canine: with love that is unquestioning and abundant.