Friday, August 20, 2010

The day my dog died

[Note: I am posting this because I will not remember if I do not write it down, and I will lose it if I write it down on paper. I have turned off comments, because I would prefer not to have any comments. I would appreciate it if you would not leave any comments elsewhere.]

I came home and found her lying on the ground in the backyard, facing away from me. "That's an odd place for her to be lying down," I thought. I noted that her legs were moving, as if she were dreaming of chasing cats, and decided not to go out to the back yard and disturb her. I went off to run an errand.

An hour later, I came back and found her lying in the same location, only this time she was facing me. I went out and spoke to her, but she didn't thump her tail or get up. Her ears were perked up, and her eyes were alert and following my movements, but she didn't show any interest in treats when I tried to bribe her into getting up. (I thought she was reluctant to move; sometimes in the past few months she'd found it an effort to get to her feet.)

Finally, I tried to pick her up and set her on her feet. For the first time, she made a sound of distress. I stopped trying to raise her, and felt her legs to see if there was some kind of injury. That was my first sign that something was seriously wrong. Her legs were cool to the touch, not actually cold, but unnaturally chilled.

I tried to help her onto a padded cushion, so she'd be more comfortable. No response. I tried dragging her onto the cushion. That was when I noticed that she was lying in her own feces. Around her muzzle, there was a thick, sticky kind of drool. And she wasn't moving.

Now I knew there was no doubt of a problem. I called the vet. Even though it was after hours, I knew -- thank God -- that this vet's office had evening hours with a night staff. The receptionist told me she'd have people waiting.

I ended up dragging the poor dog onto a sleeping bag, and dragging that out the back gate and up to the car. Then I was stymied. I couldn't lift her without causing her distress. In the end, I called my neighbor to help me lift my dog into the car. She actually managed to lift the dog entirely into the car without the dog making any sounds of pain.

On the way to the vet's office, I kept talking to the dog. It was if I were carrying on a conversation on two levels: on one level, I was trying to behave as if this were a temporary setback. Really, considering how little she'd been suffering, just taking a slow decline into old age, it should have been just a setback. But underneath, there was the certainty that there was something seriously wrong, and it wouldn't be just a temporary problem.

I talked to the dog the whole way there. I reviewed her past, told her how I'd always appreciated how intelligent she was, how concerned she'd been with being a Good Dog, how stable and gentle her temperament had been. She listened: her ears were perked up, and her eyes were fixed on me whenever I looked back. She kept her legs straight out stiffly in front of her.

Once at the vet's office, I found I didn't need to worry about dealing with things. I asked the receptionist if she could prop the door open when I carried the dog in, and she responded by summoning a team of vet techs with a gurney. They smoothly and swiftly carried Tanji into the back and shut the door behind her. I was left outside in the waiting room. I don't know what showed in my face, but another customer took one look at me and then brought over a box of kleenex. It was the first time that I'd realized vet's offices had kleenex boxes handy.

In a few seconds, I was called into an exam room. After about five minutes, a vet came in to meet me. He was kind and sympathetic, but he was also quite direct. "I haven't run any tests yet, but I can tell you that it's bad." The dog's breathing was labored, her heart was having trouble, and her gums were very pale. He surmised some kind of internal bleeding.

I asked if I could take her home for the night, and bring her back tomorrow. He responded that he didn't think she was going to make it through the night, certainly not without some kind of treatment, and he couldn't determine a treatment until he'd run tests.

I authorized the tests, since I simply could not accept the alternative. It was too soon, too sudden. The trouble with my life is that I keep wanting the universe to behave in a rational manner. I want to know why thing happen the way they do, and I want the explanation to make some kind of sense. The vet disappeared and I was left waiting.

Not for long.

It was not more than five minutes before he came back. "I've run just one test, but I think I've already got an answer to what's going on," he said. "The ultrasound showed a problem with her heart."

Turns out that the dog had been cleverly concealing a problem where her heart muscle got thicker and thicker to the point where the volume of blood being pumped through the heart was reduced drastically. Plus, the dog had a "pleural effusion" around the heart; the pericardium was severely swollen with liquid. The vet surmised that these symptoms were most often caused by a tumor, though he had no evidence of this in the case of my dog. These two problems were making her breathing labored and were making it hard for her heart to circulate blood through her body.

I asked what we could do.

He responded that the most logical treatment would be to drain the pleural effusion, and that even that would at best give the dog another day or two to live.

They left me alone in the exam room with the dog so I could have time to decide what to do. Honestly, they made it clear that they didn't think there was much to decide, but they were decent and wanted to give me some space to absorb the situation.

There didn't seem any feasible options. I kept wanting to wait a few days, or at least until the morning, when my regular vet would be available, but I was forced to believe the vet's prognosis. It was unnatural for any dog to have legs that cold -- it was truly sickening to touch her legs, they felt so wrong. And the other deciding factor was the dog's behavior.

I thought being left alone like this would give me a chance to talk to the dog, to reassure her about how I was going to take care of her, but it didn't work like that. The dog herself wasn't stressed and didn't need to be reassured. She -- for the first time in the twelve years I've known her -- didn't want me to tell her what was going to happen, or what job she was expected to perform. She wasn't stressed and she wasn't in pain, but she seemed curiously detached, removed from all the proceedings. When I stroked her fur, it didn't hurt her, but neither did she seem affected by it.

It's not that she didn't know I was there. She was alert and aware of her surroundings. While the vet and the vet tech had moved around, poking and prodding her, her eyes followed them and her ears were perked to catch every word. She didn't once look at me, but when I laid my hand down on the bed, she picked up her head and laid it on top of my hand, using it as a pillow.

When I tried to say good-bye, I got the strongest impression that she was simply waiting. She had no expectations, no hopes, no fears. She was merely waiting for me to get through this part so that she could go. I wanted to pet her and talk to her and spin the time together out a little longer -- that was when it hit me how selfish I was being. She used to run for an hour at a time, and now she couldn't even sit up. It was her life, and it was her decision. The only decision left to me was how to help her through this last part with the least amount of pain.

I called the vet back in. Her blood pressure was so low that it took the vet three tries with the needle to get enough anesthesia to release her from the prison her body had become. But very soon, she was gone.

I am so lucky that I had a vet whose office was open until late in the evening. That meant that Tanji ended up in an emergency situation with people who knew her well. (Hell, they knew her better than they knew me. I used to walk in with her, and the staff would say "Hello, Tanji! Um... [to me] what's your name again?") It eased her passing that she had people around that she was familiar with and trusted.

Also, I must say that I'm impressed with how the people there managed to combine compassion and smooth efficiency. They handled everything so that I didn't even have to go back out through the waiting room, with all the staring people. That helps a lot when you're trying to cope with a sudden loss.

I cannot begin to describe how wrong it felt to drive home alone and know there was no dog waiting to greet me.