I Don't Have Much Money, But I Just Spent it All on My Dog

My oldest dog, Toby. | Photo: Erin Aubry Kaplan

I've been claiming working-poor status for a while now, one of millions of Americans who not only are earning below their capabilities, but who are becoming more convinced every month that they'll never have full-time employment again. Full-time employment is not the only road to success or security, of course -- there are screenwriters and actors and other creative sorts who do more than okay for themselves, and they're happy to boot. They actually have a vocation, not just a job or work.

But these people have a certain social status, and more importantly, they have unions. As a writer -- not screenwriter, alas -- I have neither. On good days I feel reasonably allied with the Hollywood scribes -- we're all freelancers with good ideas, drinking post-breakfast coffee at noon -- but most often I feel part of the black middle class that had a brief moment of upward mobility, unraveled a few stitches in a bad economy, and have not knit back together. I might never. If it wasn't for my husband, a full-time public high school teacher with 37 years in the business and counting, I hate to think how much I would have unraveled by now.

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There are moments when you realize how wealthy you are, and aren't, at the same time. I had such a moment recently. I have several dogs that I walk daily, one of the things I cling to as proof of still being middle class and upwardly mobile, finances notwithstanding. The oldest one, Toby, starting walking strangely one day. He's a golden retriever-setter-spaniel-shepherd mix with pretty bad arthritis, but this walk was a new development; one of his back legs seemed completely shut down, and a front paw dragged where it used to lift. It was if he'd had a stroke. I wasn't far off the mark. A Torrance vet who deals with doggie arthritis sent me along to a doggie neurologist in Tustin. The surgeon, a very upbeat and competent young woman, watched Toby walk -- or try to -- and theorized it was a brain tumor or spinal meningitis. That was most likely in a dog this size and age, she explained. Both things were terribly serious, but we wouldn't know until he had an MRI.

The MRI was around $3,000. My husband and I agreed to it immediately. We had the money, though it wasn't exactly meant for this sort of thing. But it was an emergency; we had to know what was wrong with Toby in order to proceed. We owed Toby that much, we figured, this creature who had given us so much happiness the last eight years. Of course we told ourselves what certain pet owners do: we don't have children. Dogs are it. And who needs a vacation, anyway? This was more essential for our peace of mind. We ordered the MRI.

The good news came back that Toby had neither brian tumor nor meningitis, but a herniated disc. This sort of thing is common in small dogs, the surgeon said, but very rare in a dog Toby's size. She had never seen this before. He was lucky. The further good news was that surgery would fix it. The other news -- neither good or bad, medically speaking -- was that it would cost an additional $4,000. Saving Toby was going to cost us nearly $7,000.

We had the money. We don't have it anymore. It will take time to save it up again, if indeed we do. Toby has made a miraculous recovery, at least in my eyes. He walks normally, meaning he is back to being merely arthritic; more importantly, he has regained the small movements that define him -- the little circle dance he does when he gets a meal, the mock charge at a tennis ball. Before the surgery he had simply given up on those things, and though he still ate eagerly and caught a tennis ball in his mouth when it was thrown his way, he was losing himself. The rogue disc was paralyzing him, and he was accepting it, adapting as dogs always do. But I couldn't adapt. I wouldn't, if I could help it.

It turns out that I could help. It cost me and my husband dearly. We're living more on the edge than ever, which means that since the procedure I've indulged in zero retail therapy. I'm even wary of buying eye makeup remover. Our house in Inglewood is not appreciating in value at a pace that makes me believe that it'll ever be worth what we bought it for. But I feel incredibly rich to have been able to do what I did, to make that kind of choice. I live poorer for it, but the choice itself was a luxury that I'm glad I had. Though I've told the other dogs -- I won't say how many -- they had better stay healthy. The reality, as many working poor/part-timers/freelancers know, is that you can only pay once.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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