Chris and the Black Dog

March 31, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

She was fun. Chris had vigorous, curly brown hair and the kind of blue eyes that have flecks of other colors in them. She loved animals and the outdoors. She was an artist—people, animals, and flowers usually adorned her paintings. Sometimes she hand painted her sneakers and threaded bright ribbons instead of laces.

A lumpy little scar at the base of her throat showed where she had surgery for thyroid cancer when she was a young girl. She survived, but she had another serious health problem: diabetes. Chris worked hard to manage her illness. She exercised and carefully monitored her blood sugar. After she received an insulin pump, her quality of life got better.

We used to go hiking together, and sometimes took less-ambitious walks through the urban jungle. We were confidantes. 

One day, a friend brought me a big black stray dog thinking I would like to take him in, since he looked like my previous pet. He seemed a tad feisty, but we had an OK few days. The Monks of New Skete say a dog will calm down if he sleeps in your room, so I tried it. 

In the middle of the night the dog lunged at me, snarling. Just as my dear old karate teacher had promised, martial arts had become second nature. I executed a perfect rising block and knocked him away when he was inches from my face. I sprang out of bed and pinned him.

Chris loved this story. She painted me in a fairy tale: a smiling, sleeping princess with golden locks spread around her head, delicate hands folded on a pink coverlet, and a big open-mouthed beast in midair, about to get a surprise. Calligraphy across the bottom explained it all.

Over time, her verve and sense of humor began to fade. Sometimes she would call me and weep. She worked as a secretary, and she hated it. It was a soulless, corporate environment, she said. At her core, she was the opposite of soulless and corporate. 

She could not leave her job, she said, because she could not get health insurance on her own. She really could not. As a cancer survivor she could not have gotten health insurance. As a diabetic, she could not have lived without it. Even if an insurance company had been willing to cover her pre-existing conditions, it would have cost a fortune. She was trapped. 

If Chris had lived to see 2014, she would have been freed from that trap. 

She could have been a freelance artist and bought insurance that paid for her diabetes care. The Affordable Care Act forbids insurance companies from charging more or denying coverage to people like her. According to the White House, “Before the law, many Americans with pre-existing conditions were locked or priced out of the health insurance market. More than 50,000 Americans with pre-existing conditions have gained coverage through the new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan.” 

When the law was enacted in 2010, I thought of her. I wonder if she might have built a good life if she had more choices.

Chris killed herself by taking a bottle of acetaminophen. Someone found her, and she spent days in a coma. She woke up before she died. If suicide is a sin, I hope it counts in her favor that she regretted it. I hope a merciful heaven would understand that she was clinically depressed. 

She said, “That was the dumbest thing I ever did.”

I helped her sister to pack up her apartment, and there was the painting of me as a princess about to fend off the black dog. I wish I could have fended off her black dog of despair.

(*Image of woman in field via Shutterstock)