A key character in Dana Jennings’ weekly blog in the New York Times about his treatment for an aggressive prostate cancer was his 12-year-old miniature poodle, Bijou.
In the popular blog, and now in this uplifting and delightful book, “What a Difference a Dog Makes,” Jennings recounts how the 23-pound ball of black fur became a healing presence while he endured the physical and mental ravages of cancer treatment and when his younger son, Owen, faced a medical crisis of his own. Bijou would leap on Jennings’ sickbed and snuggle beside him, teaching her master to live in the present, not fret over past mistakes and embrace each moment as a miracle.
“Her simple presence brought me pleasure. Whenever she strolled into the room it was as if she were giving me a transfusion of her doggish energy,” he writes. When Bijou would stand by the bed, Jennings would reach down to her, “seeking her very essence, the healing powers of dog flesh.” He also learned that cancer, like a dog, operates on its own timetable and there is no point in trying to defy it. Consequently, he learned to take his cues from Bijou, eating when hungry, drinking when dry and napping when sleepy.
Jennings, a Times editor and author of books about country music and hardscrabble life in rural New Hampshire where he grew up, is an engaging writer who can laugh while in the grip of the grim realities of cancer. After all, one of the favorite jokes during his recuperation was to tell family members, “You take the dog out. I have cancer.”Interspersed throughout Jennings’ narrative are one- or two-sentence philosophical tidbits as delivered by Bijou, who is given the title of Canine Zen Master. “A long walk is more calming than a glass of fine cabernet,” according to Bijou, and Jennings serves as proof to that nostrum when his 5-mile neighborhood walks at dusk enhance his convalescence.
The reader follows Jennings through his diagnosis, surgery, radiation and hormone surgery. As a parallel between father and son, Owen has recovered from the autoimmune liver disease that struck him as a high school senior and his father’s cancer is in remission. Old age, however, has taken its toll on Bijou, and watching her health decline offers a lesson on understanding the inevitability of death.
Like a doggie treat that’s meant to be consumed in a single bite, Jennings’ book is small in size and can be devoured in one sitting. But it’s delicious and packed with goodness. It’s sure to be a hit with dog lovers, readers who have faced serious illness and anyone in search of evidence of the wisdom and joy that pets can deliver.
“What a Difference a Dog Makes: Big Lessons on Life, Love, and Healing From a Small Pooch” by Dana Jennings (Doubleday, 176 pages, $21)