People will spend a lot of time telling you about the trials and tribulations of life with a new puppy. Poke around Google and the internet is littered with Twitter and Instagram accounts dedicated to the foibles of puppy ownership.
You’ve got to dig a little deeper to find the blogs and message boards that talk about what it’s like to live with an elderly or ailing dog. It’s not the wide-eyed adorableness and puppy breath side of having pets. It’s the astronomical vet bills, fists full of medications, and a body slowly wearing out even when the spirit is still more than willing.
Old pets are heartbreaking not just because we can sense that our time together is growing short, but also because their compressed life cycle points us inexorably towards our own fate at some point in the future. It’s one of the reasons I’m always a little bit perplexed by people who give up and give away their old pets. They have no sense of the broader context of life.
My dear sweet Maggie had a bad morning today. After years of perfect behavior, I knew she was embarrassed and upset. I could read it all over her face – and especially in her eyes. Climbing out of bed to scrub the bedroom carpet wasn’t exactly on my list of things to do today, but looking at those cloudy brown eyes I couldn’t even bring myself to scold her. Going on 11 years together she’s earned the benefit of a few hundred doubts.
Maybe this morning was a one off. Maybe it’s a warning sign of things to come. I’m trying not to let the first thoughts of my sleep addled brain read too much into it. I hope beyond measure this isn’t something that will become the new normal… but if it does, we’ll cope. Maggie is the grand dame of the family I got to pick for myself. She’s entitled to expect that level of effort in her golden years.
I wrote most of this before seeing the bloody urine this evening that set my alarm bells clanging – and before I took off to the local emergency vet to have my girl checked over. Maybe I’m paranoid or at least a bit too cautious. I’ve also seen how fast things can go bad and when warning signs start stacking up, it’s not the moment to prioritize time or money.
I’ve known for a while now that being a one dog household wasn’t going to suit me in the long run. I wanted to give some of the raw nerves time to settle, to adjust to life without Winston, and understand Maggie’s new health issues before charging off to fill that particular void. That was the right decision, of course. Bringing home a new dog in these few weeks of the year when work is at its most exhausting and when I’ve been a lot more emotionally fragile than I’d like to admit was a recipe for nothing good. For a moment in my life I’m exercising a rare modicum of patience.
I’m watching, though. Researching. Finding rescue organizations that sound like they won’t be too overbearing and intrusive to deal with. Weighing the pros and cons of puppies versus older dogs and trying to determine what might be the right fit when the time comes. I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t also admit to seeking out the bulldog breeders, too – even after swearing long ago that I’d never consider having another one. Despite the litany of known problems, the wrinkly little bastards have an undeniable charm to them.
I’m not quite ready yet. I want to get over the hump with the current Very Big Event so I’m going home closer to my baseline level of aggravated and annoyed rather than at an ampped up, spontaneous nose bleed level of seething rage with which I currently contend. I’m almost there – assuming I avoid having a stroke between now and the first Friday in May.
That’s the objective date I’ve set for myself to start looking in earnest – going beyond flicking through thumbnails on websites. Truth be told, knowing that the search for the next member of the pack is just over the horizon is probably what’s let me keep plugging away the last few weeks without completely slipping off the rails. As it turns out, even dogs that aren’t yours yet, purely notional dogs, are good for the soul.
Over the years I’d grown so accustomed to having one sick dog and one well that last month I even noted my budget had gone wonky from the unusual lack of vet bills. You’d think by now I’d know better than to open my electronic mouth and temp drawing the wrath of whatever from high atop the thing. If you thought that, of course, you would be wrong. My mouth has been, is, and seems likely to continue to be my worst enemy.
After a few incidents and observations over the last week or two, what I seem to have now is just one sick dog. Not falling over, edge of the mortal coil sick, but sufficiently sick that we’ve already run two diagnostic panels in as many days and scheduled the next – which promises to be an all day affair for my sweet brown dog later this week.
It’s one of those times when I’m ill served by having a professional and personal bent towards research and analysis – particularly as there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the situation until we strike on a test that does something more than confirm some of the possibilities. Just now we’re tracking it as potentially a kidney issue or a liver issue or the wildcard diagnosis of Cushings disease.
I’m told by those in a position to know such things that all of these are treatable – at least in the sense that it’s often possible to slow down the degenerative processes involved. Time, however, is a remorseless bitch and treatable does not mean “curative.” That at some point everything that’s alive will eventually be not alive is pretty much just one of the rules of nature. Even the best care simply prolongs the inevitable for all of us.
Maggie isn’t in pain. She’s her normal, happy labrador self. That’s something. Personally I’ll feel better when we have an enemy I can fight on her behalf, but for now I’m trying to be calm and contented in giving her endless chin rubs and maximum attention.
I can’t say enough good things about the people who helped facilitate the post mortem “care and feeding” for my boy over the last few weeks. From the staff at VCA Glasgow to the Delaware Pet Crematorium, the were absolutely professionals who went above and beyond to treat a simple dog like the entirely beloved member of the family that he was.
I’ve never intended to have human children. I still don’t. Despite enormous societal pressure to the contrary, these furry creatures who share my home are in many ways the family I’ve selected for myself. In life, and in death, I begrudge them nothing.
I was able to bring Winston’s ashes almost two weeks ago. They were returned in a cloth covered box that for most things would have been entirely fitting. After living with it for a few days, though, I knew there needed to be something more substantial – something more in keeping with Winston’s room sized personality. This good and loyal dog needed a more fitting monument.
Although I couldn’t raise a Lincoln-sized memorial, I was able to find what I feel like is a fitting final vessel. This past Friday evening I made the transfer from one to the other, adding in a few small tokens that rather laughingly made me feel like I was interring a pharaoh rather than “just a dog.” That, too, felt fitting.
So now, Winston’s earthly remains rest in the only place I could think of as fitting for him – among and alongside my most treasured possessions, my books. We’re all slowly getting use to the new normal here, but it’s been awfully nice to have this final detail sorted and in place to help mark that change.
Under any normal circumstance, Thursdays are sacrosanct and reserved exclusively for What Annoys Jeff this Week. This week, of course, has been filled with what I can only charitably describe as abnormal circumstances that cast any of the usual annoyances far into the shadows.
Instead of phoning something in, I want to use this generally largest audience of the week to say thank you to everyone who has called, emailed, sent a text, a tweet, or Facebook message over the last few days. I know I haven’t gotten back to many of you personally – the truth is, I haven’t even read the bulk of the messages yet. The last couple of days all my mental energy has been flowing deep into the reptilian section of my brain and focused on self preservation and generating emotional scar tissue. I promise I’m going to read every one of them just as soon as they don’t threaten to send me off the rails into ugly crying territory.
Winston was one of the very few creatures on earth that I loved without reservation. Based on your responses, you noticed . Please know that I was and continue to be touched beyond words by your kindness. You all helped lighten the burden of an incredibly hard day and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Yesterday was darkness, overcast and dreary. Then, as if the universe has some semblance of a sense of humor, just as dusk was coming on, it snowed for a while. Winston hated the snow. Given the arthritis and metric ton of metal in his leg, a natural aversion to the cold isn’t exactly shocking.
This morning, on the day after, was as bright and sunny a winter morning as you could hope to see. I won’t pretend that everything is ok or that I’ve even started adjusting to the new reality. There are still moments when loss is a deep, yawning chasm. Even with the rest of us in it, the house feels unnaturally empty for his absence. In the sunshine today, though, there were also moments of glimpsing what’s beyond all that. At least the big, manly, ugly cry sobbing has given way to a more manageable leaking about the eyes.
There’s not one second of the day I haven’t missed Winston’s slobbering, or the ponderous thump of his steps coming down the hall. Hell, I even started making breakfast for him today before catching myself and very nearly coming unglued.
Today I am immensely thankful for the long Anglo-Saxon tradition of quashing all the bad feelings and getting on with it – stiff upper lip and all that. The rest of my now diminished pack needs the best of me and the gods know that just now I need them more than ever.
One day a living, breathing bundle of floof comes into your life, helpless, with his puppy breath and needle teeth and need to pee every 37 seconds. If you’re doing it right, you end up hopelessly enmeshed in each other’s lives – which seems patently unfair given that you know going in to it that theirs is likely to be so much shorter than yours. Still, if you’re very lucky you get to have a decade’s worth of good years – of way more good days than bad ones.
The good ones are the days you mostly remember. That’s the way it should be. The bad days, though, those can be brutal even if they are less individually memorable. They’re filled with self doubt and unanswerable questions about what a dog thinks or feels or needs you to do that they can’t do for themselves. The worst are the moments when you’re tempted to heroic measures – the phrase people like to use to justify prolonging a pet’s pain to spare their own. God knows I was tempted and tempted badly to buy another few weeks, but not with full knowledge of the price that he’d pay for my momentary cowardice.
The last few weeks have been a lot of raw skin, itching, limping, falling, yelps, and crying as he couldn’t command his body to move as it should have – as he knew it was supposed to. Even at the end, his eyes lit up just from my laying there with him on the vet’s floor, rubbing that spot just between his ears that always got the best reaction. I got one last lick on the back of the hand and I got to bury my face nose to nose with him and remind him one more time that he was the very best good boy. I was lucky to have been able to share a part of my life with such a dog. My last living memory of him will be of soft snoring and a few last sonorous bulldog snorts before his mighty heart finally went quiet.
If it were an option I’d have gladly slashed years off my own life to have one more good day with Winston. The best I can manage just know is acknowledging the mercy that he’s no longer in pain and struggling with every step just to please me. The truth is, all he ever had to do to make me happy was be there when I got home.
Today wasn’t one of the good days, but it was the price paid for so many that were.