Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What I Have Learned in the Past 72 Hours from My Old Sick Dog

My dog is a little bit sideways.

Anyone who knows my dog will argue that she's always been a little bit sideways, but it's for real this time. Her head is cocked to the right at a permanently inquisitive angle, and in order to walk a straight line she has to cross her feet like a dressage horse in travers.

She's not moving fast, but, dammit, she's moving, and I am moving beside her in the cool damp morning air, choking on my own delight.


Approximately 60 hours ago:

"I don't . . . I don't mean this the wrong way, but . . ."

I look over at my dog, my 14-year-old very sick dog, who is crouched in a shivering heap on the floor.

It's mid-morning on a Sunday at the veterinarian's office. My dog's doctor is here, I am here, my dog is here (barely), and nobody else is here.  It's silent except for the swish of the air conditioning. There's a stunning fall morning in full swing outside, but I'm sitting on the floor, in here, with my dog, because standing up really hasn't occurred to me.

I came here to have my dog put to sleep. At least, I thought that's what I was doing.

"Are we talking about a quality life?"

"I've seen it hundreds of times," the doctor assures me, "and only once did a dog fail to pull out of this.  Within 72 hours, you're very likely to see a completely different picture. Although the decision is certainly yours, I absolutely could not recommend euthanasia at this time."

I can't even get my head around a completely different picture, because I haven't taken my eyes off the current picture. Kira's face is matted with chocolate tears. Her hind-end fur is sticky with fluids. Her limbs twitch, and her hipbones sharply extrude. Her legs are splayed in nearly four directions when she can manage a crablike stagger. Her short tail is tucked under her body.  And her eyes, her gentle begging golden-brown eyes, are showing white all the way around and madly jittering from side to side. It's horrifying.

We've been up all night together, me curled up on the floor while Kira frantically blundered around the room vomiting.  I've been crying all night, and that's not just an expression: it's been all night, nonstop, with a grief I haven't known since half a lifetime ago. I spent all night saying goodbye to my sweet companion. I said all that I needed to say, and I talked to the children, dropped them with their grandparents, and drove my dog here. So sad, yes, horribly sad, but all prepared to say goodbye.

And now my veterinarian, a geriatric specialist, has taken a single decisive look into my dog's spastic eyes and told me that this pitiful creature may fully recover and live on, well, indefinitely.

"The first 24 hours are dreadful," she assures me, "and then you'll see a vast improvement."

She is so firm that, even if I had two brain cells left to rub together, I wouldn't consider arguing. It feels truly surreal to hand her a credit card, stuff my purse with a bottle and a box of pills, carry my living dog back to the car, and point the nose of the car toward home.

As two overjoyed little girls build fluffy pillow piles all over the house, I gently lay down my twitching, damp, urine-stained dog and stroke her head, wondering, "Oh, lordy, is my vet fully sane, and how long have I caused this sad death to drag on?"

But Kira lay in her fluffy kid-built pillow-bed all day, and she slept that night. And the next morning, after I carried her downstairs, she sniffed . . . and ate . . . a little bite of waffle. From there, upward.


I carry the dog down the stairs. I carry the dog up the stairs. I clean up the dog's hind end with a soft cloth. I wash towels again, then again.  I mix and mince a full buffet of bland foods in hopes that one of them might tempt a few calories into her. I crush big pills. I dose her with little pills. I pry open her jaws. I rub her throat. She is gentle and mild throughout, though, as her eyes begin to steady, she starts to suspiciously focus on me as I approach with yet another pill.

A friend of mine cares for the elderly. She'll sometimes text me photos of her companions.  I have to confess -- this is not to my credit, I know -- that it's uncomfortable flip open my phone and be confronted with people who are struggling, are diminished, are fragile. They are strangers to me.

But they're not strangers to my friend.  She hasn't seen these elderly people interact with her children, nor wish her goodbye at the door every morning, nor greet her arrival every night. She didn't choose them, and she hasn't lived with them for years. Yet she cares for these people with all her heart, with all her good wishes, seeing the strong souls inside the frail bodies, willing these people to be gently treated and highly valued.

My friend is a pretty special person, and I think about this as I'm taking care of my struggling, diminished, and fragile dog. I've learned something.


On this morning, glory of glories, Kira asked to go out on her usual walk.

Well . . . I'm using the word "walk" with some generosity. Every five or six feet, Kira veers to the right at a 30-degree angle. The vet said to stay on her right, where she can better see me. So I stop and let Kira slew crosswise in front of me, which puts me on her left. Then I backtrack and loop around behind to reclaim her right side.

Five steps later, she diagonally careens again and we again orbit each other. And again. And again. She's weaving, and I'm bobbing, but we're making progress down the driveway toward her beloved strip of piney woods.

Once there, she sniffs something. Then something else. She bends a leg to do some business. She gingerly lowers her hind end to do a bit more. She gazes out into the woods while she takes care of these necessaries, somber and self-contained as Whistler's Mother.   She's rocking back and forth on her feet, still far from steady. But she's doing what a dog does, and she looks surprisingly orderly about it.

Then she's done, and back we go, up the driveway: weave, cross, dodge, stop, circle back. She might be a bit, well, less from now on. She might not gulp down her meals and look around for more. She might take tiny steps in her world from now on, hummingbird sips of contentment instead of great gulps of ecstasy, but the quality will be there. Fragile, maybe, diminished, maybe, but still very much present.  I've learned something there, too, something that at last seems appropriate for this year's Days of Awe.

Weave, cross, dodge, stop, circle back.  We are two shuttles crossing on a loom. Her threads are thinning, yes. Her edges are a little frayed. But my girl's still here. She is still tracing her own bright path in the Great Tapestry.

We weave our way back to the house, this good small soul and I, quietly entwined and lurching along side-by-side indefinitely, for as long as indefinitely may be.