When I started picking up street dogs in Mexico, I kept using terms I now know to be false. I called Goldie, the first dog I brought home, “the skinniest ever.” Then came Milo, a dog even more emaciated than Goldie. “A dog couldn’t be any thinner than Milo,” I said. But Juno was thinner. She was so starved I could put two fingers in the space between each vertebrae. I couldn’t imagine it could get any worse. Again, I was wrong. I picked up an old Boxer. He was nothing but skin and bones except for an enormous tumor that hung from his belly, oozing pus. Despite his pain, he wagged his tail when I came up to him, and somehow, that made the situation even sadder.
After nearly four years in Mexico, I know a bit better now. There is no “worst.” Each time I think I’ve seen the worst starvation, the worst broken leg or a rope buried deep into the neck of a wandering dog, I find yet another dog that is farther gone, that is alive for some unknown reason when it seems to me, its suffering is too much to bear.
Lilly is a dog like this. Lilly is a small jewel, a petite German shepherd mix with the long thin legs of a deer. She is gentle and wise and painfully trusting. But she is also so frail and thin that sometimes I imagine she could float away. Lilly is moving now between life and death. I cannot say yet where she will stay. I fiercely hope she remains with us, in our world of sun and grass and sweet morning air. But Lilly is weak and her body is tired.
When I found Lilly, she couldn’t walk or eat or drink. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused. She was bone and fur. Nothing more. On the ride to the clinic, her body sagged against mine. She couldn’t hold her head up or stay awake. I was expecting the vet to tell me she was too far gone, that the best we could do for her was to help her die quickly. But he looked at this sad and lifeless dog and said, “I think I can help her.” So I brought Lilly home, pumped up on vitamins and antibiotics. I made her a soft bed and hand-fed her boiled chicken. Lilly tried to regain her strength. She began wagging her tail and walking again, but clumsily. Sometimes, her legs would suddenly collapse under her and she’d fall over. It was hard to watch. Still, she was trying. Lilly was at her finest when my boys pulled out the soccer ball. She is a skilled player, quick and agile and went fast for the ball, despite her fragile condition. But it is hard for a body to come back, to learn to work again. I needed help with Lilly. I needed a quiet place for her to recover. A couple of new friends, Jo Anne and Ken, offered to help. They took her home. They held her for hours at a time in their arms. They covered her with a fleece blanket and urged her to eat. Together, the three of us wrapped this weak and beautiful dog in love. But even love can’t always save a dog who’s been through so much.
Two weeks after Lilly came to us, diarrhea set in and then the vomiting began. By the time we got her to a vet hospital, Lilly was going into shock. We weren’t sure she’d make it through the night.
She did. Like so many of the dogs that live on the streets here, Lilly is a survivor. She reminds me of the lines of a Dylan Thomas poem once quoted to me as I cried over the slow and painful death of a bird I’d found. Thomas writes: “…rage, rage against the dying of the light…do not go gentle into that good night.” The bird fought against death because life is beautiful. Lilly, too, won’t let go without a fight.
Lilly is back home now with Ken and Jo Anne. She’s a little better but her body is damaged and vulnerable. She desperately needs to gain weight if she’s to survive.
I tell you of Lilly because, in the end, hers is a story of hope. Lilly, once starving and alone on a garbage-strewn road, is now deeply loved. She is among friends. Jo Anne told me that Lilly has been a gift. “My heart is full,” she said. And Ken told me, “We don’t want to give up on her.” We don’t and we won’t. We will continue to believe that , for Lilly at least, the worst is finally over.