Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reflections on Dogs

2008 ended up being a strange year. Not all bad of course, but today I'm feeling maudlin. I'm thinking a lot about my dogs today because we've had more bad news. Sure, don't post for six months and then depress everyone, right? Well, I hope not. Our dogs have brought us a lot of joy and I hope I can share some of that too.

Anyone who knows us knows we've spent a ridiculous amount of time and money the last several years keeping our dog Charlie from succumbing to Valley Fever and its aftermath. He's got a file at the vet 4 inches thick. I would rather not know that our vets will tend to emergencies 24/7, but I'm grateful to them all the same. So he's been our miracle dog, since he keeps pulling out of crisis after crisis, but you always know in the back of your mind that someday that last crisis is going to come. You hate it, but at the same time you work around to accepting that it's coming.

Then around June last year we found out that the strange bump on our dog Kerrie's head was the bad kind of strange bump. Oh no, no, not our funny Kerrie girl! She's never been sick, never had a thing wrong with her! I sat there in shock while the veterinary oncologist gave us the diagnosis, and I finally blurted out "I'm just not processing this. She's always been healthy and Charlie's been the sick one. Now we're going to lose them around the same time." The minute the words were out of my mouth I wanted to take them back. After all, Kerrie really wasn't acting sick yet and Charlie had been doing pretty well. There were still options, and if I didn't say the words out loud, then what I knew in my heart wouldn't really be true, right?

There were options for treating Kerrie's cancer. She could have gone away from us for a month or more to have a terribly disfiguring surgery and painful treatments, all while she was scared and not understanding why her people abandoned her. Incidentally, this is fantastically expensive and although it might have killed the cancer, there were certainly no guarantees. We could have treated her here, but not cured her here. We might have bought some more time, but she most likely would have been sick through most of it. In the end, we decided to make her as comfortable as we could and let her go when she was ready.

Kerrie came into our lives as a 10 month old puppy almost 12 years ago. She was a funny looking little thing, never did figure out what she was. Some kind of terrier mix. We adopted her after losing our dog Molly to kidney failure, and Kerrie did her best to cheer us up. She could go anywhere. She went right over the kitchen counter. Nothing was safe. Periodically I had to go out in the back yard and collect all the kitchen utensils she'd stolen, usually from right behind my back. She greeted us at the door one evening with a knife in her mouth. Thankfully, she didn't seem to want to use it on us, but we did have to turn the knife block backwards for many years to avoid a repeat. She used to chase her tail, until one night she caught it. That remains one of the funniest things I've ever seen, watching her stand there in obvious confusion, "Now what? I'm stuck!" She was never really a cuddly dog, but she did have an incredible sense about when someone needed "dog love". She loved people and playing and was just a funny, happy part of our lives.

Last October Kerrie let us know that she was ready to go. I guess I will always feel some guilt for not pursuing treatment, but we had a happy six months or so and I believe she was not in too much pain until the very end. Kerrie, we miss you so much.

Last night we found out that Charlie's liver is probably failing. Again, we can perhaps put him through more poking and prodding and scary visits to the vet, but in my heart I know there's no point. It's been in his eyes for awhile now, even if he's not quite ready to go yet. Frankly, I'm amazed he's lasted as long as he has, it's been so hard for him to even get around for a long time now. Still, he sure hasn't quit trying. He's had an incredible drive to keep going.

Charlie came home with us when he was two months old and too small to get through the doggie door without falling. Not that it slowed him down. Much hilarity was had coaxing this little ball of fluff into tumbling through the door at a high rate of speed. We were victims of puppy breath, we sure didn't need another dog at the time. Early on, the vet told us Charlie appeared to be the product of a number of neighborhood indiscretions, but the German Sheppard stood out, so he's officially a Sheppard mix. Charlie was... not everyone's favorite dog. Whatever happened to him in the short time before we brought him home left him with some deep insecurities. He bonded with me in particular and, depending on his mood, pretty much everyone else could go jump in a lake. He was destructo-pup. The list of things he tore up as a puppy is too long for me to even remember completely. I'm not sure if my favorite was the library books he tore up or the first couch or the second couch or, well, the day he tore up the linoleum floor in the kitchen really stands out... you get the picture. Obedience training took the edge off a lot of the misbehavior, but it really took age and illness to turn him into something like a good citizen. Charlie is the most challenging dog I've ever owned and I guess that's how he got to be so special for me.

Charlie doesn't have much time left with us. Every time I start thinking I'm getting used to the idea, it bites me again. I hope we can keep him comfortable until he's ready. Thank you Charlie for bringing so much laughter and life into our lives. Rest easy, buddy, pretty soon all the hurts will be behind you.

Everyone grieves in their own way, of course, but one thing that has helped us is adopting a dog shortly after losing one. It's pretty counter-intuitive. There's really no time where you realize more fully that dogs do not live as long as we do and you will end up taking that awful last drive to the vet at some point. That pain is pretty bad, and never worse than when it's fresh and there's still a big hole in your heart and home where your dog used to be. There are so many dogs out there, though, that need homes and that big hole doesn't seem so big when there's a new life demanding your attention. You cannot replace a dog. You can give a home to another dog that needs it badly and, for us at least, the reward is new life and laughter and a faster transition to remembering that the good times are worth more than the pain.

This is Sarah. She is a two year old lab/border collie mix and she is a real gem. After months of bittersweet tending to geriatric and dying dogs, she reminds us that there is so much joy in sharing your life with dogs. She's quite simply thrilled with whatever it is she happens to be doing at the moment. She loves to share that joy with anyone who happens to be nearby. We needed that. It's been a bit of an adjustment remembering that many more things are within reach of a younger dog. She's fine with our lapses, as it has meant such treats as nearly a half a package of turkey bacon while we were looking the other way.

Life goes on. Somewhere out there is a new "brother" or "sister" for Sarah that is hoping for a loving family and home, instead of a scary cage and an uncertain future. Today I'm trying to look forward to meeting that new member of our family, whenever that time comes. It's hard. Looking forward to a new dog means saying goodbye to an old friend. The goodbyes are really, really hard. But the hellos have always been worth saying.

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