The "Sugar" Rush That Got Me Through Cancer

No. 20

Hi there:

I hope this email finds you and your loved ones well, both mentally and physically.

Up to this point, Gushi has spotlighted the lives of ordinary people and their daily struggles. To switch things up, here's the story of a dog—and its therapeutic effect on two young women weathering turbulent times.

The source material was first published in Chinese by The Story Plan on March 22.

Enjoy and see you soon.

ML


The Golden Retriever That Helped Two Friends Through Cancer, Divorce

By Jin Shian

Edited by Pu Moshi

1.

July 2012. I was spending a bit of time at home after undergoing surgery for intestinal cancer, ahead of my first course of chemo. I was mainly homebound during that period except for the occasional post-dinner stroll, which entailed walking back and forth on the only pedestrian path inside the staff quarters compound where my family lived. On one such occasion, a person and a dog suddenly burst through a nearby door and planted themselves in front of me.

I was so startled I shivered. Judging from the person's looks, I quickly concluded she was Ji Xiaoyang, a childhood friend who lived in the same compound. Our parents being colleagues, both of us had buttressed ourselves here before venturing afar like growing branches when we came of age. I moved to Guangzhou for work, while Ji Xiaoyang moved to a new home in Wuhan after getting married. We had barely seen each other in years, despite my annual trips back for Lunar New Year.

As a youngster, Xiaoyang had a round face and round eyes while boasting natural yellowish curls. Her face and her body had since expanded significantly. What gave me the chills was the golden dog seemed restless. It had its long, red tongue out, blowing hot air toward my knees, while its two front legs shuffled, kicking up dust. The posture suggested a pounce was imminent.

In an attempt to comfort the dog, Ji Xiaoyang bent over to fondle his head, also assuring me: "Don't be afraid. She's a golden retriever. Her name is Sugar. She belongs to Auntie Liu. She's barely a year old. You can touch her."

I nodded, although staying put. Making up for a frozen expression with an enthusiastic tone, I said: "Hey Xiaoyang! Long time no see." My dad had just mentioned her during dinner. She showed up out of the blue two days ago, all sorts of luggage in tow, suggesting a long stay.

The nosier of our neighbors who were always on the lookout speculated she was dealing with marital issues.

Ji Xiaoyang invited me to walk Sugar with her along the Wuchang waterfront. In a housing complex whose demographics were quickly aging, it had been some time since I came across a contemporary.

I agreed spontaneously. July meant we were approaching the height of summer in Wuhan and days were getting longer. The dusk sky was still bright while muggy hot air circulated. Only Sugar danced without a single worry, her four limbs still somewhat wobbly. Sugar's leash was constantly taut, as was Xiaoyang's hand, which sent the short curls behind her ear flying. I also developed a slight sweat for the first time in a while.

Xiaoyang yelled Sugar's name periodically, to no avail, struggling to keep pace with the golden. In between pants, she said: "Good thing I'm the one holding the leash. If it were you, you'd be flying." After surgery, I weighed a meager 82 kilograms. A recent eating binge sent Xiaoyang's weight soaring to about 130 kilograms.

We had nothing left to talk about, so Xiaoyang gave me the lowdown on Sugar.

She was adopted the Christmas prior. Xiaoyang's family and Auntie Liu had a mahjong date. Sugar rolled over to Xiaoyang's feet, then clad in furry UGG slippers. The two similarly sized and colored clumps merged into one. Xiaoyang picked Sugar up. Her toasty ball of a body resembled a hand warmer.

From then on the two were inseparable. Sugar also picked up on Xiaoyang's scent. Whenever my childhood friend visited, she wagged her tail vigorously.

I took all this in absent-mindedly, volunteering the occasional nod and "uh huh."

Xiaoyang added tentatively: "Goldens are often used as therapy dogs. You can play with her. She's quite smart and has the intelligence of a 6-year-old."

We stopped before a zebra crossing, waiting for the light to change. A neighboring woman squealed and darted aside on discovering a dog by her feet. At that point, Ji Xiaoyang was waving her hands to show me how tiny Sugar was when he first arrived. Sugar's butt sat on the edge of the crossing. Spooked by the squeal, her ears flopped. As I took in her current size, I thought to myself, "Pity you aren't as cute as you used to be."

2.

It's only a 15-minute walk from home to the waterfront. The coast was quite crowded when we got there. Some stood, while others splashed their feet with river water to cool down. Another group was swimming.

The waterfront has drawn a steady stream of visitors since early summer. It dawned on me during that particular visit that the area also attracted a large number and wide range of dogs. A Samoyed sauntered by to give Sugar a sniff before going about its own business. A teddy leapt, raising its front legs in a belligerent gesture and letting out two half-hearted barks, only to be removed by its owner. A Husky circled Sugar, quickly intertwining their two leashes. Ji Xiaoyang and the Husky's owner proceeded to untangle. Xiaoyang then whispered to me: "You can see how Sugar is the best-behaved dog in comparison."

"Such is the power of parental pride," I thought to myself.

We sat on the steps of the pier under Yangtze River Bridge. The wind was fierce but warm, mixed with the fishy smell of the river water.

Neither Ji Xiaoyang nor I spoke. We squinted our eyes, consumed by our own thoughts. I gazed at the horizon and the swimmers bobbing up and down and felt the sweat on my back consolidate into individual droplets that dripped downward. It felt as if the tension in my chest was gradually easing. Sugar took two steps down, which landed her feet in the water. She took in the white foam created by the lapping waves and the gentle force of the tide.

A middle-aged man walking another golden retriever approached, asking: "Hey, how old is your golden?" His golden was bigger and had thicker limbs. That's when I realized what Ji Xiaoyang meant when she said Sugar was just a puppy. A picture of aggression, the other golden sported darkish hair and two deep creases between his brows.

Xiaoyang told the man Sugar was less than a year old. That seemed to hit a button, prompting a roar of a laugh that rocked the man's shoulders. "It looks too tame," the man said. Any adjective supplemented by "too" just doesn't sound nice. Xiaoyang and I exchanged glances and stood up in unison.

The man jerked his leash, which sent the bigger golden pouncing on top of Sugar in a predatory position. Ji Xiaoyang tugged her leash, hoping to extricate Sugar, but she was pinned hard to the ground.

The middle-aged man seemed like he got a real kick out of the scene.

I screamed and yelled at the man: "What the hell are you doing? Didn't we tell you she's still a puppy?" My voice startled others in the vicinity and drew curious glances. A few concerned (or nosy) onlookers slowly approached. The man spat, narrowly missing my face, and blurted: "What are you doing scaring the shit out of me?" He then jolted his leash with the force of a whip. Only then did the older golden dismount and stumble away from Sugar.

We headed home with Sugar with a new sense of urgency, taking a direct route and sticking to brightly lit paths. Sugar wagged her tail in a carefree but unsteady gait. Ji Xiaoyang lectured her: "You can't let others take advantage of you, do you hear me? You're not even fully grown. What if you get pregnant?" She then turned her attention to me. "How about that? You barely spoke during the entire walk. Who knew you could be so fierce?"

I was still quite unsettled, but I managed to respond that I was quiet because I was sick.

Ji Xiaoyang seemed to be caught off guard. She clutched me arm and said: "Sugar will protect you. When I first started walking her, I was fearless because I felt she's a worldly dog."

The comment was problematic on so many levels, but I didn't want to say a thing.

3.

At that point, I still didn't see the wits in Sugar.

But she did seem to have an extremely acute sense of smell.

One morning, she picked up the scent of the takeout my dad had just bought—a steaming bowl of dried noodles. Sugar followed him from the slope by the main entrance to our compound all the way to our building. My dad was forced to lift the takeout above his head, which prompted Sugar to leap. Ignoring the matter of comprehension, my dad repeated: "It's not for you. No!"

She was also able to smell discarded watermelon skin through the plastic of garbage bags. She'd lean against the garbage can, stretch her head and remove the plastic bag before diving into its contents. Then she'd munch away, making for a crunchy, watery sound. Ji Xiaoyang would scold: "Filthy dog! You're gonna get sick!" The warning fell on deaf ears. Soon Sugar discovered what a treasure trove trash cans were and sifting through them became her main pastime.

Our compound being mainly populated by the elderly, Sugar's behavior drew complaints. Auntie Liu defended Sugar by saying she was a good dog who hadn't bitten anyone. She was just a bit lively by nature.

One day, Auntie Qiu in Block 4 tripped over Sugar and took a nasty fall as she left her apartment. Sugar had parked herself in front of Auntie Qiu's door. Neighbors who hung out in the building's reception room carried her over and urged her to get a rabies shot. They also called Auntie Liu and told her to remove the "troublemaker."

Auntie Qiu rolled up her pants, which revealed a red bruise by one of her ankles. "I'm fine. It's not a bite. I don't need a shot," she said. The crowd then directed its anger at Auntie Liu, who had just arrived, saying Sugar posed a safety risk to the entire elderly population in the compound. They threatened to kick Sugar out unless she was kept on a leash at all times.

Thus Sugar's leash was permanently tied to the tree by the bicycle shed. Passing sparrows would spark instinctive pursuit—only Sugar would quickly find her leash tugging away at the neck. All she could do was shuffle her front legs in the air and whimper in defeat. The meanest opponent was our security guard's cat, named Little Kitty Chen. She loved toying with Sugar to begin with. After Sugar was tied to the tree, she became downright reckless. She'd crouch by Sugar quietly, scratch quickly, then scramble up the tree before Sugar could react.

Gradually, Sugar seemed to be able to figure out who liked her and who didn't.

When I passed by, she would wag her tail. Whenever I approached, she would get up and snuggle my feet. When I offered her a hand and said "handshake," she would oblige. When I switched hands and said, "other paw," she'd follow suit. Sometimes I'd leave her an empty water bottle as a makeshift toy. She'd chew it until it was completely disfigured. But few people bothered to spend time with her. Most of her time was spent lying by her lonesome self under the tree, tongue stuck out, as she gazed at passersby.

The waterfront walk became a routine for Sugar, Xiaoyang and I. Every time we left the metal gate to our compound, Sugar would leap wildly, howl to the sky and dash in a snake pattern. Ji Xiaoyang would struggle to rein her in, call her a lunatic and break into a smile. I was also in better shape by then and could manage a brisk trot.

We'd walk along the waterfront from Wuhan Shipyard to Zhonghua Road, then turn back when we reached the Simenkou area. Sometimes Xiaoyang and I would chat. On other occasions we walked silently side-by-side while taking in Sugar's exaggerated pants.

4.

During one of our walks, Ji Xiaoyang told me her current marital status was "pre-divorce." She said she never mentioned it before because she didn't want to answer follow-up questions.

She continued: "You can also save the questions. Let me give you the basics. The bottom line is my husband hooked up with a divorcee a few years older than him during a business trip to Changsha. She even has a kid. Before I left home, I vandalized all the furniture I bought. Not like I can take it with me. He owns the apartment. It has nothing to do with me. When he gets back, we just need to handle the paperwork, then it's a done deal."

Even though the revelation came as no surprise, I still marveled: "You guys did such a great job keeping it a secret. No matter how neighbors probed, your mom's lips were sealed. Every time I saw your mom she had a smile on her face, as if she didn't have a care in the world."

Ji Xiaoyang was unimpressed. "That's her front for outsiders. She keeps nagging at me at home, saying how she thought he was a dubious character at the outset."

I told her not to hold her emotions in—even though that was my common practice—because it was bad for her health. Ji Xiaoyang leaned against a railing, her hair disheveled by the breeze. She lifted her head and said clearly in the Wuhan dialect: "On a night just like this after I found out, I stormed out of our apartment and wandered the streets in tears. I ended up spending the night at a 24-hour KFC outlet."

Then her tone shifted dramatically. "Still, I think about the good times. It was during a summer like this, on a mosquito-filled night, that he urged me to use repellant and refused it for himself. He said he wanted to use himself as bait. Now I think we were indeed good together. It wasn't as bad as my mom makes it out to be."

Taking in Xiaoyang's silhouette, it struck me how philosophical my childhood friend had become. Relationships have an expiry date, as does everything else in the world. When the time comes repairs are inevitable.

The peaceful days went by in a flash. Soon it was time for my first session of chemo at the hospital. Beds were in tight supply. I ended up on an extra bed placed in the corridor. During the day, I'd be feverish and throwing up so intensely it tore at my freshly healed surgical wounds. At night, I had to cope with the moaning of patients, the chitchat between visiting relatives, all sorts of beeping from various medical devices and the sound of the bell going off at the nurses' station. I struggled to fall asleep. When I did, it felt like a coma that left me light-headed when I woke up.

Going to the toilet meant an extended trek through the long corridor to the public bathroom at the other end. There was bound to be a soiled toilet opening that disgusted me.

Still, I enjoyed squatting and admiring the night sky beyond the toilet window that eluded me from my bed. Even on a pitch black and starless night, I took comfort in the fact that it was the same night sky I adored from our walks along the Wuchang waterfront. It reminded me that the outside world was still a pleasure. It was worth enduring the pain for.

Ji Xiaoyang came to visit, bringing a copy of the fashion magazine Rayli and a bag of Lay's potato chips.

My dad accepted the gifts with a skeptical look. "As for these..." I knew what he left unsaid—that they were unhealthy items. But the objects being gifts, he stuck them in my bedside drawer after twitching his mouth briefly. In fact, I had requested those two items specifically by WeChat.

Ji Xiaoyang said Sugar had been grounded recently, landing her in a similar situation mine. I thought Sugar got into trouble again.

Ji Xiaoyang shook her head. Her family had gotten into an argument with Auntie Liu.

Xiaoyang had been more social of late in the hope of finding a new partner. Between my absence and her barista classes at Starbucks and badminton dates, no one was available to walk Sugar anymore.

Auntie Liu alleged: "You never follow through. When you need Sugar, she's the center of your attention. When you don't, you cast her aside." Xiaoyang's mom responded: "She's not our dog, after all. Despite the fact Xiaoyang is a bit of a cleanliness freak, my daughter has been picking up Sugar's poop, bathing her and removing ticks from her fur without a single complaint. Meanwhile, you're just busy playing mahjong." Auntie Liu said: "Fine, she's off-limits to you from now on." And she proceeded to keep Sugar at home the entire day.

Sugar could only resort to nudging the curtains that shielded Auntie Liu's apartment with her muzzle and peeking through the tinted windows. Ji Xiaoyang would wave at her furtively if she happened to walk by. Sugar would bark and jump up and down, her head bobbing up and down behind the window in what resembled a plea for help.

Ji Xiaoyang hadn't calmed down enough to make peace with Auntie Liu, but I couldn't wait much longer. "I'll be discharged in two days. I'll rescue Sugar as soon as I get home."

The prospect invigorated me instantly. I got up, grabbed my phone and launched the 58.com app, which has a pet matching function. I started searching for good-looking and even-tempered friends for Sugar. Ideally their owners were young women who lived close to us. Ji Xiaoyang hovered nearby, commenting on the dogs as if she were judging a beauty pageant. "The eyes aren't round enough." "This one's too old. They won't get along."

We also started planning a birthday party for Sugar. We resolved to order her a doggie birthday cake and dress her in a red collar and a birthday hat as we sang her Happy Birthday.

Before we knew it, Ji Xiaoyang blurted: "Hey, you finished your drip!" I turned my head to confirm, then asked Xiaoyang to have a nurse swap in a fresh drip. It was the first time I hadn't paid attention to the speed of my drip. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of Sugar. I felt an immense responsibility. There was much to do after I left the hospital.

5.

We actually ended up meeting up with a few other dogs on the Wuchang waterfront.

The pretext of a play date for Sugar afforded us the indulgence of a brief party. We even gave Sugar a bath so she would look more presentable.

But the gathering didn't go smoothly. Still smelling of fresh shampoo, Sugar cowered in the presence of bigger dogs. She only felt comfortable hanging out with smaller dogs like a Pomeranian. But the Pomeranian kept barking at her and even nibbled her ears.

Eventually, Sugar decided to stay close to us.

Ji Xiaoyang lamented Sugar's lack of enthusiasm like an aging mother eager to marry off her daughter. "Oh well. I guess Sugar won't be able to find her own match. We'll have to set her up."

But my take was that Sugar resembled me in personality. She was a bit lazy and enjoyed her peace and quiet. It's not that she isn't curious about the world. There's a bit of curiosity—but the slightest discomfort sent her packing.

Even though she was tied to a leash, Sugar started to take on the persona of a watchdog. She was bound to bark when she spotted a new delivery person or another stranger in the compound.

Still, she remained her silly old self. Every time I returned from a weeklong session of chemo, my parents and I would be carrying a few pieces of luggage, which contained my clothes, toiletries and medical records. Sugar would always welcome us with a leap, a friendly bark and a wagging tail. But my reading of the gesture was that she was wondering if we had any food for her. Despite Sugar's insatiable appetite, at a juncture when time seemed frozen and the summer heat was unbearable, seeing her gave me an instant bolt of energy.

6.

Toward the end of my chemo, my dad's range of concerns kept expanding, from my recovery to my career, marriage and future prospects in general. Probably influenced by others, he kept correcting my habits whatever I was doing—eating, sleeping, reading or using my phone—as if all my routines were wrong. During one argument, I stomped my feet and fumed: "Did you have me just so you could torture me?"

If I were in my teens, I might have reacted by breaking things or running away, but alas, I wasn't. I staggered out of the apartment, even wondering which household supplies we were short on. I think we're running out of toilet paper. Still, the tears and snot flowed and I sniffed away, not having any tissue paper on me. I stepped aside and discreetly wiped my eyes and nose with my sleeves.

At this point, Ji Xiaoyang kept an increasingly busy schedule. I barely saw her.

I was reduced to early evening walks with Sugar to avoid the tension at home. No one bothered to look at me in the dimly lit streets. Sugar swam cautiously near the waterfront, immersing herself in flickering waves that resembled sparkling scales. Unlike more adventurous dogs, Sugar never swam to the heart of the river, also constantly swiveling her head to check on my location.

Just a tad bit cool, November marks the most comfortable weather Wuhan has to offer. On an early evening that November, Xiaoyang and I shared tea and watermelon seeds in the compound's reception room. Sugar knelt next to me. Oblivious to decorum, she kept cozying up to me while a long drool formed.

I fed her a bone that our security guard had left behind from a finished meal. Sugar seemed content. She stopped chewing after a while and laid down by my feet, grunting like a piglet. Suddenly, she weaved through the smaller metal gate within our main gate and started howling. We followed and saw Sugar circling a tall, skinny man. The man froze, maintaining an erect posture. Ji Xiaoyang stepped aside, an embarrassed look on her face, before attempting to pull Sugar back by collaring her neck. A crowd took in the scene with curious gazes.

After Ji Xiaoyang went back to her apartment, the crowd convened. First, someone confirmed the man wasn't Xiaoyang husband. The man who showed up at the compound to pick up his bride wasn't this tall. Another opined that Xiaoyang must have divorced by then, having spent more than four months at home.

Auntie Liu pointed at me and said: "She must know." I waved frantically. In the interest of friendship, I refused to state the obvious. Auntie Liu responded with a knowing glance and said: "Xiaoyang is quick to move on, just like a typical Wuhan girl."

There were indeed signs that the quick-moving Xiaoyang was falling in love again. After the episode, she told me: "Did you see that? Sugar likes him." I said politely that I couldn't tell, adding: "Maybe Sugar rushed toward him to protect you." A frustrated Xiaoyang grabbed Sugar and lifted her by circling her beneath her front legs. "Check out his gaze. She makes her preferences crystal clear," she said. I could see Sugar's face clearly, although I thought to myself while her eyes could be described as perfectly round, clear and watery, coupled with her teeth-baring muzzle, silliness is what came to mind.

I promised Xiaoyang I'd pay attention the next time Sugar and her boyfriend interacted.

The man visited frequently. Sometimes they took Sugar with them on dates, which perhaps served as a catalyst.

In private, Ji Xiaoyang always wanted a second opinion. "Give me your thoughts on his character," she said. I gave her my undivided attention.

Xiaoyang continued in a serious tone: "When Sugar cries, he wipes her tears, but the wiping extends to her mouth. She ends up eating her own eye wax. He doesn't seem very meticulous. Also, Sugar refused to budge when we passed the barbecue stalls on Hubu Alley. She just knelt there. So he went to a convenience store and bought her a ham sausage. He insisted the barbecue stands aren't clean. Is that being fussy? Will he be difficult to live with?"

I was angered by the line of questioning. "Are you flaunting your happiness?"

Ji Xiaoyang blushed. "But I'm talking about how he behaves toward Sugar, not me!"

7.

After completing chemo, I rested for another two months.

In April 2013, I returned to work in Guangzhou.

Before I left, I put on a confident and carefree act for family and friends, telling them I had a disciplined and full life in Guangzhou. There was no point in twiddling my thumbs at home. The truth was I felt like an ill-prepared soldier drafted into battle. I was worried about being a burden and being looked down on.

I told Ji Xiaoyang: "I'm looking forward to good news from you." Ji Xiaoyang responded: "Focus on yourself first. Let me know if you need anything. He and I are taking a cautious approach because we are both divorced."

Two months later, I got word they registered their marriage.

Ji Xiaoyang's original plan was to have Sugar wear a giant red flower made of silk and join the wedding party, but Xiaoyang's mom vetoed the idea, warning that Sugar would lose control at the wedding. Plus no hotel would let her in. So Xiaoyang had to pass.

Still, Xiaoyang borrowed Sugar for a day to show her their new apartment. After another period, Auntie Liu moved to a new apartment building equipped with elevators near Fruit Lake.

Xiaoyang, Sugar and I crossed paths most fleetingly in our old compound before slowly going our separate ways. But Xiaoyang and I always felt that Sugar was a rock during our toughest and most helpless days.

Last year, Auntie Liu moved back to her old apartment and ended up staying for good.

I was home for the National Day break in early October. The security guard said Sugar rarely ventures out these days. At 8 years old, she was an old dog.

Xiaoyang and I visited Sugar in Auntie Liu's apartment. She was lying sullenly in a corner of the living room, her face slender and fur heavily gray. She stayed put at first, but when we called her name, a grunt grew into a howl as she lifted her head and trotted to us.

It had been seven years, but she still remembered us. My heart swelled, creating a sensation I hadn't felt in a long time.

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