Tag Archives: Pets

Loose Ends: Dangling

I let the day go by without comment.  January 13th — the first anniversary of the day our Big Dog left us. I couldn’t bear to note it or comment. I’d been sick (Christmas flu leftover cough) and various levels of grief were simply too much to tolerate. His picture showed up in my social media feed several times that week. I reposted some of them.

The fourth anniversary of my father’s death was January 12th. The fifth anniversary of my mother’s death is January 29th. June’s anniversary of my sister’s* death will leap out on a Texas summer day and throw its cloud over everything.

Dominoes falling in my heart.

My heart was beaten and bruised with the losses of my parents. My heart was absolutely shattered when Big Dog died. I have never recovered. I keep waiting. We have adopted a new dog and I love the furry monster, but I feel the loss of Big Dog daily.

I have struggled with this constantly; why this sticks in my heart like some sort of parasite chewing away until I have so little to give anymore. I have tried to pull it out by loving Sammy the Mutt as much as I can. I spend a great deal of time with him. I hug and kiss him (he loves it, he’s weird that way), let him sleep on the bed with me when I’m writing, and take him for long walks. When I’m well, I run him alongside my bicycle. Love and spoil him as I do, my heart aches every time I see the large box of ashes on my dresser. Some days, a moment of complete silence in the house without BD snoring next to me is a moment gone dead.

Big Dog the last summer of his life.

Articles on the internet about grief are, by and large, about the loss of our human loved ones. I can’t, for even a moment, imagine the loss of a devoted spouse or a child, nor do I want to. I know that, in the long run, the loss of a pet is not the same. But bear with me, for this loss is still no small loss.

I have avoided this blog entry. It is difficult. It is self-centered. It is self-pitying and self-indulgent.

It is time.

The few articles I’ve seen about the loss of a pet focus on the idea that we miss our pets because of the love they devote to us and how innocent and good they are. The words “unconditional love” are thrown around.

I don’t, honestly, believe in anything called “unconditional love.” My dogs have all, to varying degrees, had conditions: food, water, medical care, attention.

And this is where I think a lot of these articles fail to really understand or address at least one major reason why this loss of a pet is so profound: This little creature we have spent every blooming day feeding, watering, giving treats, loving, walking, seeing to their toilet habits, bathing, doctoring, training, playing with, sleeping with, framing our day around, has died.

This constant presence in our lives, like one of our limbs, is just gone.

Suddenly we are at loose ends.

My days** with Big Dog were completely structured around his needs. I got up at a certain time to give him his meds. I took him up and down in a lift at all hours of the day (we live in a beach house) because his hips were failing. If the lift failed or he simply insisted, we took the stairs and I held onto his harness to take the weight off his hind end. He always handled his blindness well, but in his last months he lost his hearing and suddenly he was getting lost in his own house. Now I was having to help him find his way around the house. Of course, I took him to the vet regularly to monitor his failing heart. Come nighttime, there was the last round of medication for the day, diapering (one of the drugs was a diuretic), and finally settling in. At least, until a 4 a.m. wake-up because he didn’t like using his diaper. Down we’d go in the lift in freezing January or rainy March or mosquito July. He’d shuffle into the grass while I kept my eyes open for coyotes and back up we’d go. We went nowhere without first considering the impact on Big Dog.

The point of all this is not to tell you what a great dog mom I was. I had many failings: missing medication doses, losing my temper at silly stuff and scaring him, forgetting to fill his feeder. The point is, every day was Big Dog day. Every day revolved around this furry little being that had the mind and utter dependence of a toddler. He could not have survived without us.

By extension, I became completely dependent on him. He became my reason for living. My husband can live without me. My child is grown and can survive without me. (technically, I’m not talking emotions, here). There was no one in my life that couldn’t keep moving on without me. Sammy, this big, Shepherd-mix goof sleeping next to me at this moment, is self-sufficient and could survive without me and has done so before.

SammyRoo. Mr. Independent.

Big Dog needed me absolutely. My husband had all the tools to care for him but not the time and BD would not allow a stranger to care for him.

And he’s gone.

Being needed may be the most basic human requirement for existence. Many suicidal people can often justify leaving this world by saying the words I implied above: the people I love will be okay without me. I can go.

When Big Dog died, I felt I’d lost purpose. I still do.

I spend a lot of days at loose ends.

This January 13th my head was filled with the stress of upcoming doctor appointments for both my husband and me, but I’m thankful for those things because I’d probably have simply dangled off those loose ends until I couldn’t breathe. Now I just have to breathe and look toward the next domino on January 29th.

*Elise was my sister-in-law but she was my sister in my heart.

**My husband did this many times as well. As I said, this is a self-indulgent post because I was the primary caretaker.

Busyhead: Anxiety as a symptom of grief

My head is full of bees. Thoughts hum constantly and without direction.

Grief has been the strangest animal for me. Perhaps, in part, because what I am experiencing is a sort of “grief from a distance,” which has a character neither easier nor harder than any other grief, simply different. I lost both my parents after several years of living apart from them and seeing them only once or twice a year. I lost my much-loved sister-in-law who lived in the same general area as my parents, so was also not regularly in her presence.

My Big Dog, he was a daily, all-day presence and utterly dependent on me. With his ashes on my dresser, he remains a daily, all-day presence. I still feel his silken ear on my lap every day.

I am still processing all these losses but I think, some days, I’m getting a handle on my grief. I may think, “oh, I don’t think of Momma as much anymore, perhaps I’m healing” or “I cry less when I see pictures of Big Dog or notices his ashes.”

Then suddenly a day comes that I’m having panic attacks and feeling indescribably lonely and lost and I can’t understand why. I look at my life and it is all well and good. I am healthy and loved and fed and clothed. I lack for nothing really. But something gnaws at me until I can barely breathe and I look for comfort and peace in every corner of my world and fail to find it.

And one morning as I am sifting through the confusion and anxiety I stumble on the answer—I am still grieving .

And in this grief, I have a new enemy—Isolation. No one can grieve with me. Grief, like death, is a lonesome event. It does little good to have someone say, “Yes, I feel that way, too.”

And in this isolation, I find only more panic. Panic itself is isolating and a sort of cycle of terror sets in that can’t be interrupted by simple measures.

I have taken up bicycling.

I focus on training the new dog.

I listen to music as if it is a hard drug to which I am heavily addicted.

I stay away from television as much as possible as it seems to increase the anxiety.

I clean a lot. (Yay! Says the husband)

I have said goodbye too many times the last several years.

I’ll do it again before I get to heal because, well, you never really heal. I know it can’t be helped. It’s part of getting older. I will still rail against it.

I disappear into my head with the bees. I don’t know if the bees will ever leave.

Afscheidswals

Excerpt from a work-in-progress on this National Mutt day for my most beautiful mutt.

April 2019

I hear, tonight, no distant thud-drone of a beach goer’s car stereo.

No shore break. No train.

Seagulls sleep silent in the spring cool.

Your breathing, ended forever, opens a gulf of aching peace.

I want my disturbed sleep back—my dreams punctuated with mumbling monsters that sounded oddly like wet, canine snores. I miss 4 a.m. earthquakes as you threw yourself against the bed to wake me for urgent backyard trips. I want to trip over the dark hulk of you lying curled on the floor next to my bed, your musk gathering on my heaped winter clothes.

It’s a fact that only you can truly fill this dearth of dog. Your grumbling groans. Your dreamy sighs. Your shifts and turns and the tick shish tick shish of claws on tired old limbs as you shuffled to your bowl in the early morning dark for a sloppy drink from crockery.

It’s a fact that though there will be another furred friend, loved, adored even—you are a piece of my soul like no other. There is no Big-Dog shaped peg left in this universe. You were the one and only. I waltz over a shadow in the dark—your pillow, so dense with you—and moments later return and spin, sink into my covers, embrace the silence—and sleep.

Love at First Sniff: Introduction to a Special Character

“I met a dog today.”

Those were the words I used to describe our first encounter with Big Dog in 2006.

My husband and I had gone to the pet store after lunch at our favorite restaurant to get treats for our ailing female Dalamatian. We’d passed the Saturday adoption dogs with a brief glance at two female Chinese Shar Pei mixes in their crates. We couldn’t consider adding a dog since our old girl had become isolating and aggressive (Brain tumor? the vet surmised).

As we waited in the checkout line, a chunky, brown mutt, loose, paddle paws slapping the cold tile, dragged a smiling but out-of-breath brunette across the store and straight toward us. When he reached us, the dog enthusiastically sniffed us with his significant nose—mm, chicken tikka masala—seemed to look into us with his giant, knowing eyes and worried brow, then splayed out on the floor and set about investigating the shelf next to us.

Chunky, brown mutt’s handler said, “He likes you. He’s usually kind of shy.”

“Must be the Indian food,” my husband said.

The woman then told us, “Yao Ming is completely blind. He’s a total sweetie and still a puppy.” We also learned he was a Chinese Shar Pei mix. Momma and sister were sighted and healthy. Yao Ming, however, might be put down if someone didn’t adopt him that day.

We thought he was pretty impressive. How had he navigated the store and made his way to us so unerringly? We left full of regret over our inability to save him.

I cried halfway home. I tried to put the dog out of my mind and could not. I posted on a hobby forum (pre-Facebook days) in the hope that someone in the Houston community would see and take pity on the big guy.

As I said above, I began my post on that forum with, “I met a dog today.” Not, “I saw a dog” or “There was a dog at…”. The distinction is important. I felt as if I’d met an intelligent being. A personality. A character. In those couple of minutes of interaction, I met someONE. That he had fur and paws and a tail didn’t make him any less a character to me than someone on two legs in manufactured clothing. I wrote my post with teary eyes and included a picture that the rescue group emailed me at my request.

A month later, we had to say goodbye to our beautiful Bayta Grace.

Bayta Grace, RIP August 2006

Another month followed.

A month of grief.

Of an empty house.

Of silence and loneliness.

Of guilt and thinking I didn’t do enough for Bayta (because we never think we do enough for them at the end time).

Then an email arrived. The rescue group that had provided the picture of Yao Ming informed me that he still needed a home and asked if were we interested in adopting him.

I don’t recall there being much discussion but maybe there was. Maybe we talked at length about whether we should take the chance adopting a “special needs” dog. Maybe we both had fallen so hard for him that there was no question.

The car ride home. September 2006.

Whether we did or didn’t, Yao Ming (later called Big Dog) was never really a special needs dog, but he was always special from the very first day we met to his very last.

To ease my now dog-less life, I walk dogs at the local SPCA. So far, the pups are all friendly and gentle, if energetic from being locked up much of the time. None, as yet, has tugged at my heart or looked into me with giant, knowing eyes. I tell myself, and it is true, as yet, that I don’t want another dog because there can’t ever be another Big Dog.

But at times there are the tender memories I would relive in perhaps different manifestations. There are the little soft moments of silence and loneliness that ache to be filled. In those briefest moments, I find myself hoping I will someday come home and say to my husband, “I met a dog today.”

BDhead1

It began as slower walks around the block and clumsier hops onto the couch. When the crisis occurred, we had no idea what we were dealing with and I was completely off the mark.

Some history: Blind from birth, our Shar Pei cross has hip dysplasia and at 83 pounds fighting weight, has always been a lumbering boy rather than an athlete. When he was about eighteen months old, he tore his cranial cruciate ligament (similar to a human athlete’s ACL tear). Because of his blindness, he learns lessons only once and what he learned from the sudden pivot that tore his ligament was that he would not do that again (outside, but inside was okay). From the pain of walking on the injured knee, he learned that he would simply not put full weight on it. So, despite high quality surgery, the result was a flimsy right hip muscle and an overused left hip joint and increasingly dysplastic hips over what he might have had due to genetics alone.

So, when he began to slow down at just shy of twelve years old this late summer, we put the lumber-now-more-of-a-shuffle off to the hip pain.

Likewise, when he put on about four pounds, we blamed the reduced exercise. He struggled more to get on the couch and opted to lie on the tile more often instead. At our beach house, some days he cruised up the steps, others he took them carefully and allowed us to help him.

Then, about two weeks prior to turning twelve, he started dragging his hind feet. He also began to cough occasionally and pant heavily after minor effort such as getting excited when one of us came home after having been out for some time. He snored louder. He grumbled louder as he curled up at bedtime. He fell off his hind legs a couple of times. His walks were now glacially slow. All these things we put off to aging and the dysplasia/arthritis.

bdhandsome

A tired old dog on November 14, 2017.

A few days after he turned twelve, he began to cough and wretch several times a day. Now something new was in the mix, but what? A friend suggested perhaps the hacking cough, the wretching, the failing back limbs, were all in line with “GOLPP”or Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis Polyneuropathy. It was true he had many of the symptoms. I even compared his bark of November to his bark earlier in the year and he clearly was straining and had a higher pitch.

However, I didn’t bring up GOLPP with his vet when I took him in. I did show her the video of him hacking and wretching. On that day, November 15th, 2017, he had gained still several more pounds since she had last seen him in late September. Again, we knew he’d been inactive, so while we noted the weight gain, that was the extent of it. As had always been the case, his bloodwork was “unremarkable” and the doctor had always presumed relative health because of his record of utterly normal bloodwork all of his twelve years.

X-rays showed nothing remarkable. His heart was perhaps slightly enlarged but not greatly. He is a large, geriatric dog, so it isn’t unusual for him to have some slight enlargement. His lungs were clear. There were no obvious spots in his belly. His bowels, etc. looked normal. While he looked a bit heavier than normal, he still had a waist. He didn’t look unhealthy, just fatigued, and clearly he was struggling to breathe comfortably. There was some possibility he had a “dense” area on his trachea that might have indicated infection or abnormal cell growth. The doctor prescribed antibiotics to see if this would calm down the cough. If after a few days he had no relief, we would go from there. Ming was cleared for travel to Dallas, approx. 250 miles away, for a 24-hr. stay.

When we left Saturday morning, Ming was reluctant to get into our truck. There have been times when he has hesitated in the past. This was different. He just sat on the driveway and refused. This should have been a giant red flag waving, but again, we assumed his hips were hurting. We lifted him in and I gave him his pain meds. He had a coughing fit halfway to Dallas, but calmed down after a short time.

We had only been in Dallas about seven hours when I saw something odd about Ming. His stomach looked unusually swollen and when he stood, he arched his back slightly.

smallhotelbellyjpg

Potbelly caused by ascites.

He continued to pant heavily with activity. I panicked and thought, “Bloat!” We helped him into a family member’s sedan and rushed him to a nearby 24-hour emergency vet where he was taken back immediately for x-rays.

 

Thankfully, he was not suffering from bloat. Unfortunately, we had only a vague understanding of what was happening. His heart rate was elevated and the distension of his stomach was caused by ascites, or fluid in his abdomen. (We can only guess the fluid “hid” in his tissues for some weeks before filling his abdomen). Once again, x-ray showed that his heart was slightly enlarged but not excessively. X-ray also showed the same slightly dense area of the trachea and some dense areas in the abdomen. More tests would have to be run to determine what was happening in those areas and what was causing the elevated heart rate.

Fast forward through some major worry and heavy decision making to Monday and a trip to first his regular vet where 850 ccs of fluid were drained from his abdomen (leaving still many behind) while we gave him oxygen and got him an appointment with an internist in Houston. The internist did the necessary tests to discover that Ming has a bad mitral valve and atrial fibrillation. It remains true that his heart is not grossly enlarged but only slightly. It also remains true that we are uncertain as to what, if anything, the dense area on his trachea means, if the fluid in his abdomen is solely caused by the heart disease, and how well medication will control his problem.

He hasn’t coughed since he came home Tuesday. He breathes normally for the most part. He is back to sleeping and snoring normally and, while still somewhat weak, is trying more often to get on the couch and is more stable on his feet. He is nine pounds lighter than he was on Sunday. We have a somewhat guarded prognosis at the moment and he sees the cardiologist in a few days.

There are a few suggestions we want to pass on from this experience:

  1. Don’t make assumptions about your pet’s (or a family member’s) health based on given/expected circumstances. I based all my initial decisions regarding Ming’s health on my belief that his behaviors were in response to his hip problems and his age and did not consider he might be otherwise ill until it was almost too late.
  2. Pay attention to their emotional and behavioral changes. Ming was behaving differently in sometimes subtle ways that I saw as quirky when in fact they were signs of distress.
  3. Pay close attention to physical changes even if they seem harmless. When they suddenly gain weight, lose hair, or start breathing/barking/snoring/walking differently, consider that it might be something worth checking into. I could have saved Ming at least two weeks of discomfort, and possibly more, had I realized these things were not “just aging.” I am, however, thankful that I saw the expanding belly when I did.

    dogbod1

    Comparison photos of Ming’s tummy.

  4. My Momma once told me, when I was going through a particularly horrid time in my life, “Make the most you can of the time you have with the ones you love.” Needless to say, we are holding our little, old man close. We are thankful we have him for a little while longer.

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate the holiday.