I rushed into the emergency room, panic in my voice. My daughter was coaxing the patient, on a leash, across the parking lot.
At home, our dog's eyes had suddenly gone opaque, covered by a milky white film. He didn't seem sick, bounding around the waiting room as I chronicled his condition. But I'd already been on the Internet, where there's always something to be scared of.
"Glaucoma comes immediately to mind," the veterinary website said, when I Googled Rio's symptoms. "In many cases owners delay treatment of glaucoma until it is far too late." That wasn't going to be me.
A nurse took off with Rio and left us with forms to complete. The hospital was so crowded, she warned, he might not be examined for hours. We took seats in the waiting room, next to a tree bright with holiday lights, in a row of silent, sad-faced people.
It was 8:30 p.m. Saturday, two days after Christmas. The holiday season is ripe for pet calamities, it seems. Too many guests, too much temptation, too little supervision.
Beside me was a nervous woman who'd been cat-sitting for a friend. The cat had stopped eating and begun vomiting, just as the owner was due to return. Across from me a young man paced the floor, fielding frantic calls from home. His dog had been attacked by a neighbor's German shepherd and would need stitches to close the gash.
The waiting room had magazines, a coffee maker and a big-screen TV. But what occupied us most was our communal sense of misery.
No one asked questions or shared stories, as pet lovers are wont to do. We seemed afraid even to voice our fears — as if that might make them come true.
Some pet owners were lucky that night, like the woman who rushed in just before midnight, wearing slippers and a sweater over her pajamas. She was holding a leash decorated with peace signs, attached to a trembling golden retriever. The dog had gotten into a vial of homeopathic pills.
"From Whole Foods," she said. "It's poison." I'd never heard that juxtaposition before. She knew the substance was toxic for animals because she'd looked it up on the Internet.
The vet suggested she call the poison control center instead. She called and found that only the plants, not the pills, were hazardous to dogs. The dog was already being examined; two hours and $70 later, they were on their way home.
Some were not so lucky, like the group that showed up to say goodbye to their dog in a private room down the hall from where we were all waiting for our pets. For the next three hours, I watched the procession come and go:
A little girl went in holding her mother's hand and came out in her father's arms. A young man brushed past me, furiously wiping his eyes. An older couple walked out holding on to each other, eyes red, heads down. A pair of grim-faced teenagers strode in with a set of paints and pieces of thick cardboard.
When their vigil was done, the teenagers filed out carrying cardboard canvasses bearing watercolor paw prints. The father followed, nodding his thanks to the staff and clutching a plastic bag to his chest. Inside was a collar, faded from wear, with a leash coiled neatly around it.
I stared, then stumbled to the counter, heart racing and breaking at once. "Please, can somebody tell me what is going on with my dog?"
It's never a good sign when the doctor requests a private room to discuss what's wrong with the patient. So I panicked when the vet summoned me to his office. He ticked off what could be causing my 4-year-old dog's eye problems: cancerous tumors, kidney failure, liver disease. Those were the typical culprits.
But Rio's blood work showed no signs of those ailments, just a few abnormalities. The verdict? Something bad is happening to him, and we have no idea what it is.
So six hours after we arrived, I left with a referral and a fragile sense of relief.
Two days later I was in the office of a canine eye specialist. I'd mentally calculated what I'd go without to pay for whatever treatments Rio needed. I'd thanked my animal rescue friends for persuading me to buy pet insurance.
I was prepared for just about anything, except what the eye doctor said: Rio's problem is me.
I've been giving him so many treats and table scraps, that fat is clogging his blood vessels, leaking into his eyes and threatening to steal his sight.
That might not be the technical explanation, but it's what I heard her say. She tried to make me feel not-so-bad; overfeeding is a hazard of the holidays, she said.
She doesn't know that I have an entire drawer in my new kitchen devoted to doggie treats. Or that my two dogs won't eat dog food unless it's laced with leftovers from people's plates.
Detoxing means low-fat kibble meals and no more edges of syrup-soaked waffles or chunks of Havarti cheese. That will be as sobering for me as it will be for Rio.
He's always been a mama's boy; sleeps under my desk when I work at home and on my bed when I sleep. He mopes when I'm gone and gets crazy happy when he hears my car pull in the garage.
Now he's taken to following me around, staring at my empty hands, confused and disbelieving. I guess it won't be long until I find out if what my little mutt really loves most is Mom or her endless supply of treats.