Runner-Up - Critical Non-Fiction

Do you believe in miracles? Before last year, I would have hesitated before answering that question. It took a little dog in crisis to help me see that wondrous, inexplicable things do happen—even to those who aren’t believers.

It had been a long commute home and all I wanted that late October evening was to be lulled to sleep by canned laughter on my favorite sitcom. Then something unusual happened—my daughter Lauren’s name appeared on my caller ID.

“Mom! Honey just swallowed some ibuprofen.” Lauren’s voice was high pitched and breathy. “She knocked the pills down off my bookcase and then gnawed the container open.” Honeybun, her three-year-old pug, was known for her love of food—any food. At mealtime, she vacuumed up kibble and then searched for more. When Lauren first adopted the dog, we’d had a scary incident when Honey gobbled a mound of peanut M&M’s, which were successfully retrieved from her stomach with a dose of hydrogen peroxide. However, the day I received Lauren’s frantic call was the first time the dog had ingested a toxic nonfood item. Despite being successfully dosed again with hydrogen peroxide, Lauren reported that the pug’s condition continued to worsen. At first her legs were slipping out from beneath her, and then she became completely unable to walk. With that call, my brain shifted from drowsy mode to full alert. I ran out of the house into the cool autumn air and jumped into my car.

Lauren lived about ten minutes away and the animal hospital was at least fifteen minutes more. When I reached Lauren’s street, she was at the curb, cradling her dog. We headed for the Beltway and Honeybun, who has always been energetic and playful, panted and whimpered as she lay wilted in Lauren’s arms.

As I drove, my mind wandered and I thought about the contrast between our tense ride to the animal hospital and the one eighteen months before when we’d first brought the pug home. After the breakup of a long-term relationship, Lauren was then living at home with her father and me for the first time in more than a decade. Snuggling with Daisy Lou, our shih-tzu mix, had been like a tonic for her in her early days of single life, but she was ready to nurture a pet of her own. After pouring over photos on various dog rescue websites, she fell in love with pugs. However, because Lauren didn’t drive, every time a pug became available, it was claimed first by another family. Early one morning, she saw a listing just as it was posted, and she immediately sent me an email with the subject heading, “Pug!” After checking to be certain the dog was still available, I left work and rushed to the rescue center.

When I arrived, I was taken to see a small fawn-colored dog with black mask, pointed ears, and long thin legs that circled the pen like a wild pony. Most pugs have a bit of a paunch but this dog had lean haunches and ribs that could be counted beneath her coat. A staff member led me to a room where I played fetch with the pug while trying to get a better sense of her personality. At first, the dog ran figure eights around the room. Finally, she stopped, sat at my feet, and stared up at me with dark intense eyes. She seemed to be saying, “I like you—let’s go home.”

In less than an hour, the whole family, including Daisy Lou, was at the center. After a thumbs-up from the adoption counselor, the pug had found her “forever home.” Once the papers were signed and an aqua collar was slipped lovingly around her new pet’s neck, Lauren held the shorthaired buddle of wiggles on the ride back to our house and christened her dog, Honeybun. Upon hearing her new name, the dog’s tail, which curled around itself like a sweet breakfast roll, wagged in approval. More than a year later, as we approached the animal hospital, I cursed every stoplight that delayed our rescue mission. When we finally reached the medical center, Lauren took Honey inside while I parked the car. Seeing the little dog in such distress, the hospital staff rushed her to the back, as Lauren signed the registration papers. The receptionist escorted us to a small room where we awaited word on Honeybun’s condition. Meanwhile, we kept in touch with JoAnne, my sister-in-law who is also Honeybun’s veterinarian. She was a voice of reason and experience for us throughout that difficult night.

A vet tech in crisp yellow scrubs instructed us to call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center because they know best how to deal with such situations. Once we paid the required fees, the poison control center counseled the doctors on how to care for Honey.

When the veterinarian came to see us, the news wasn’t good. Honeybun was still lethargic, she said, and resting in an oxygen cage. The doctor told us in an earnest voice that we were playing a waiting game. Honey’s caretakers would dispense intravenous fluids and monitor her closely.

However, the doctor warned us not to expect much. Given ibuprofen’s toxic effect on dogs, Honeybun might not be able to rally. Despite this discouraging prognosis, I asked for a treatment plan with its associated costs. The doctor left and Lauren and I went back to our vigil of despair—pacing the floor, wiping away tears, and searching the internet for any stories of dogs who survived ibuprofen poisoning. Two or three times in the next half hour, the vet tech updated us with the same information—nothing had changed.

I gulped when I reviewed the treatment plan. It would cost $100 for every hour of hospital care. The fee for one night in the facility would be as much as one month of Lauren’s rent. And yet—how could we not spend the money if there was hope? My head ached from this heartbreaking dilemma. Lauren was also a swirling cloud of emotion—angry at herself and desperate for a way to help her suffering pet. I took her hand and asked her to pray with me. I’d describe myself as more spiritual than religious but, at that moment, prayer seemed to be the only way to calm our rising anguish. In the quiet of the waiting room under harsh fluorescent lights, Lauren and I prayed that we would find the strength to accept whatever the night’s outcome would be.

Before committing to treatment, I asked the vet to be real with us—did she think that Honey would or could pull through? She sighed and said that the situation was critical. When Honeybun had first arrived, the doctor watched her walk into a wall, which made the her think that Honey was now blind with major neurological issues. She predicted that, at best, the dog would need special care for the rest of her life. When asked if she’d ever seen a dog recover from such a life-threatening situation, the doctor hesitated for a moment. Then she told us that, while anything was possible, the damage may have been too devastating.

“Ibuprofen turns dogs’ stomachs into hamburger,” she said, “and it can destroy their kidneys.” Her words circled and maimed us like a stream of vicious bees and Lauren and I struggled to regain composure. I requested privacy so that we could figure out what to do.

“We don’t want Honeybun to suffer,” I murmured, mostly to myself. Lauren, nodded in agreement, quiet tears flowing freely. We both felt as though we knew the right thing to do but it was also the hardest. When the vet tech checked in a few minutes later, I asked her to bring us papers to put Honeybun out of her pain. The woman came back, quietly put the euthanasia form on a table, and left without saying a word.

“Before we sign anything, I want to see Honeybun one more time,” I said. Although the situation was grave, I needed to see Honey for myself to be certain we were making the right decision. Lauren shook her head. She couldn’t face seeing her beloved pet suffer so greatly, so I requested that the tech take me to the dog.

While I steeled myself to get ready for one final visit, there was a knock on the door. It opened and the vet tech appeared holding Honeybun, who was loosely wrapped in a soft blue blanket. Before Lauren could protest, the woman put the dog into her arms and then left the room. Honey laid still on Lauren’s lap for a few minutes, her eyes initially closed. Then the dog lifted her head and began to look around. Something remarkable was happening.

“Put her on the floor,” I suggested. Lauren gently set the pup down on the linoleum. Honeybun steadied herself and took one halting step. Then another. Initially she staggered, as her legs seemed too weak to hold her. But by the time she drew closer to my purse, her gait became steadier. Her tail, which moments before had drooped between her legs like a loose rope, slowly curled up into a furry swirl. When the vet tech came back to get her, the little dog tottered over to sniff the woman’s feet. With a look of amazement, the tech gazed at Honey, then at us, and then at the dog again. We witnessed the transformation with wonder.

“Please take the papers away,” I said, pointing to the table, “and bring us that treatment plan.” Without discussing it, Lauren and I knew what we had to do. We had to give Honeybun a fighting chance. “In twelve hours,” I said, as we got into the car to go home, “we’ll either be coming back to pick Honey up, or we’ll be saying goodbye. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.” The evening had given way to a new day. In five hours, we had gone from feeling despondent to experiencing unabandoned joy after seeing the little pug come back to life before our eyes.

A day later, after examining Honeybun and checking her bloodwork, JoAnne gave Honeybun a clean bill of health and new nickname—the Miracle Mutt. And, indeed, it seemed that a miracle had happened at the animal hospital. Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” While there may well be a scientific explanation for Honeybun’s recovery, I now choose the latter way to live.

Honey’s legs were strong and sure as I watched her walk with Lauren down the path to their house. Our night at the animal hospital had brought new strength and gratitude not only to me, but also to the little dog’s elated owner. Before they disappeared out of sight, I could swear I saw Lauren take a small skip of joy as she and her Honeybun made their way home.