Ten years ago, shortly after we married, I gave my husband an ultimatum: I wanted either a baby or a puppy – and soon.
The following week he arrived home with a chihuahua so small she could sit on my palm. The runt of the litter, she had blonde fur, deep green-gold eyes, and weighed less than a kilogram. We named her Coco. We bonded immediately and became inseparable: Louis and I took her to the theatre, to the pub, to parties, and on holidays. I had staircase built for her against our high bed so she could sleep curled up in my arms at night.
So last July, when the vet told us that Coco had cancer, and was not expected to survive, I could not contemplate life without her.
Her health and personality had always been robust: as a puppy she loved to run off the leash through inner-city parks and lick the faces of comatose drunks to wake them up.
Louis taught her a few tricks, and she first demonstrated one of them at an outdoor restaurant, when we looked around and discovered her on a table, between the plates of two diners, begging for them to share their Vienna Schnitzels.
"I could not contemplate life without her."
She also loved performing in public, and could shut a crying child up by merely pirouetting on her hind legs, or the offering of a high-five.
She interacted so well with humans that in 2012 she was cast as herself in the ABC drama series, The Straits.
The lead actor, Brian Cox, made a fuss of her on the last day of the shoot, gathering her into his arms and gazing into her eyes: “For the past forty years I’ve worked with apes, bears, chimps, and lots of other dogs. But you, Coco – you’re the best.”
But now that she was ill, warned the vet, life would change dramatically.
No more daily trips to the pub; no more running off-leash through the park; certainly no more film work.
Coco’s immune system was now so compromised that she could easily contract an infection from another dog. I transformed a corner of the kitchen into a nurse’s station, where I would store medication, halve tablets, and prepare her nightly meals. I’d cared for my father when he was dying of cancer in 1999, and this process with Coco was just as heartbreaking – perhaps even more so, because I couldn’t explain to her what was happening, why she was losing weight, vomiting, and had so little energy.
The first part of her program was to have her spleen removed, because the cancer had spread from her lymph nodes and tests had revealed that the organ was about to implode, which would have resulted in a painful death.
She came home from hospital even thinner, shaky on her legs, with six stitches bisecting her stomach. That night she lay in my arms, trembling, while I stroked her and talked to her in a quiet voice. She recognises the word “beautiful” – because that is what admiring strangers often tell her. And soon I realised that also saying, “You’re so beautiful, Coco,” over and over again, was the only phrase that would calm her down.
"He would pay the astronomical vet bills and, because she [Coco] could no longer go out, I would stay at home, day and night, to keep her company."
Once she’d recovered from the surgery, the course of chemotherapy began, which entailed several hours a week at the vet, hooked up to an IV. Coco weighs only three-and-half kilos, so the vet had a challenging task in estimating the exact amount of toxic chemicals to pump into her system – enough to kill the cancer, without also killing Coco.
Even so, her prognosis was not good; there was no guarantee the chemo would work. If the statistics were correct, her chance of survival was only 15 per cent.
Louis and I fell immediately into a military-type regime: he would take her to the surgery in the mornings for either blood tests or chemo; I would pick her up in the afternoons. He would pay the astronomical vet bills and, because she could no longer go out, I would stay at home, day and night, to keep her company.
I didn’t think it was possible that she and I could grow any closer, but during last winter, we did. And as the weather grew colder, we’d snuggle under a blanket on the couch and comfort one another. She could always tell when I was about to start bawling because she’d sniff at the air and lick my cheek. And whenever Bondi Vet came on the TV, she’d sit up and watch, recognising the howls of other sick dogs.
The email came through last Christmas Eve. I am not a religious woman, and I don't celebrate the birth of Christ, but the timing is kind of spooky: “Coco’s blood test this week is VERY good. The cancer is in full remission. Success!”
"Whenever Bondi Vet came on the TV, she’d sit up and watch, recognising the howls of other sick dogs."
For the first time in six months, Louis and I walked her down to her favourite place: the local pub, where she is considered an unofficial mascot. She twirled through the door on her hind legs, beneath the Christmas lights, like a diva returning to the stage after a lengthy absence. Then the applause from the other patrons began.
A plate of steak and chips arrived for a guy sitting alone at a table. But before he had a chance to pick up his fork, Coco had leapt onto his lap and was already begging for a bite.