The illness of a beloved dog can take you straight into the heart of darkness.
The late Barbara Stanwyck once said, “No matter how horrible things are, they can always get worse.” They can, and will. “In the meantime, keep busy,” my grandmother, Mimi, used to say. In good times and bad, my dogs have always been my joy and my touchstone.
However, in the autumn of 2014, one of my Yorkies, Mister, was diagnosed with liver cancer. The vet didn’t think our boy would last the weekend, but I firmly believe that “where there’s life, there’s hope.” I have a BS in Nursing, and my husband is an MD. With the help of our son, we set up an ICU in the den. We took turns going to the grocery and running errands, so that one of us was always home. [I won’t go anywhere unless my dogs can go, too. My motto hasn’t always been well-received, but it was, and is, the only option for me.]
My son and I gave Mister round-the-clock care, from cooking special foods (anything to tempt his appetite) to twice daily IV infusions. When I was in the kitchen, he sat in his stroller, looking at me with an alert, “feed me” expression, waiting for a little taste. The vet was amazed that Mister stayed with us this long. But I could see him starting to fade. Then one icy February night, he gave us a long, loving look, as if to say, “Love you forever…and remember, I’ll see you on the other side.” Then he slipped away in our arms. Thank you, Lord, for letting him go swiftly, peaceably.
He was my heart.
Mister’s photo appeared on the dust jacket of my 6th book. When I’d leave for a book tour, he would bite my ankles and try to keep me in the house. And while I was gone (I always arranged tours so I wouldn’t be gone for more than 2 consecutive days–and in past years, I would drive hours so I could be home that same night), Tyler said that Mister sat by the door, his head on his paws, waiting for mom.
You can try to mentally prepare for a loss, but you’re never ready for it.
Mister Big West
Our Sweet Boy
December 21, 2003 – February 15, 2015
“Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light–
Good-night, dear heart, good-night,good-night.”
— Mark Twain, Epitaph for his daughter.
Barbara Stanwyck was right. More trouble was on the way. After a bitter winter,the spring of 2015 finally arrived. The irises bloom defiantly, as if to say, “It’ll take more than sub-zero temperatures to subdue us.” I liked their attitude. It was a reminder to never lose hope, that ordinary miracles were possible.
Instead, I was about to pass through another heart of darkness. Mister’s brother, Zap, had been diagnosed with diabetes four years earlier, and even though his eyesight had failed, he’d held his own . . . until now.
Never a picky eater, he began to hesitate when I brought his food (a prescription diet). This hesitation made my chest tighten. Because he also suffered from chronic kidney failure, we whisked him straightaway to the vet. The prognosis was grim. Despite daily IV infusions for over a year, Z’s blood tests showed a high BUN and Creatinine levels, which meant his kidneys were failing. Our vet said it was time to think about making a hard choice, and soon. Time to say good bye to our boy.
“Better to make that decision a week early than a day late,” he said.
My heart made a cracking noise, like a branch snapping in half.
We were facing the long weekend, which meant the vet’s office would be closed. 24-hour emergency clinics were an hour away. The hours between Friday and Monday seemed unknowable and threatening. But I could not think about the world of hurt–my impending loss– that lay ahead. All that mattered was Zap’s immediate comfort .
The vet warned that my little fellow did not have long, and the family needed to say goodbye over the weekend. To enjoy every moment that we’d been granted. He gave me instructions to continue supportive measures, including twice-daily insulin injections, his special diet, and subcutaneous fluid therapy. On my way out of the office, he gently made an appointment for the following Monday, when we would discuss euthanasia.
Then I stepped into an abyss.
That night, Zap was still jumping off the sofa and following me around the house, but wouldn’t eat. After nursing two ill dogs, I had learned that an appetite–positive or negative–can show health or decline. But Zap accepted a little distilled water, which I offered by a dropper. In the morning, we went outside and sat in the sunshine, soaking up Vitamin D.
By God’s grace, he made it through the next 24 hours.
With Z by my side, I set my alarm and got up every hour to give oral fluids. Every two hours, I tested his blood glucose. It was high, the kind of high that can easily slide into diabetic ketoacidosis. And he’d received his insulin. My husband just shook his head and told me to give him another unit of NPH and to keep pushing fluids.
A time or two, Zap got up and found his piddle pads, then returned to me. So, he was still ambulatory, still voiding, and he continued to accept the water.
In the morning, my eyes were swollen shut from crying, but we took Zap to Home Depot, thinking it might be his last trip. He had always loved the garden area of Home Depot, and today was no exception. He barked at a Shih Tzu, played with a small child, and smelled everything.
By Monday, Zap was still with us–and he’d improved. His appetite had returned, and he was eating organic brown rice and 99% fat free ground turkey.
We had an 11 a.m. appointment, at which time we would see Zap to the rainbow bridge; but look, he was rolling on his back, growling at imaginary beasts. Even though he was blind, he found his ball and brought it to me.
Surely he wasn’t ready to leave us. What if the lab values had been wrong? I’m a nurse, but when it comes to the heart, a medical professional can slide into denial. Yet Zap was active, eating and drinking. When Bandwidth picked up his car keys, Zap spun around and barked.
Much better, right? Or was I seeing what I wanted to see?
After we arrived at the vet’s office, I told him that I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye–and Z didn’t seem ready to leave us. He sat on my lap, licking my hand. I looked up at the vet. Couldn’t he do something? Anything?
It behooved us to wait and see what the chemistry panel showed. As it happened, Z’s blood values were normal, except for his BUN (which had dropped 50%) and liver enzymes (they had come way down, too). His phosphorous level was normal. The vet said he’d never seen anything like it. He told us to keep doing what we were doing–and to pray.
Ordinary miracles can seem quite extraordinary. How long would his recovery hold? I wondered. I knew the answer. Some things are unknowable. We aren’t meant to know.
We are meant to focus on the here and now, so we won’t miss a thing.
Zap stayed with us five more months.
I don’t even remember leaving the vet’s office. Days later, I could not find consolation, yet everyone kept telling me that he was free from all discomfort. He didn’t need twice daily insulin injections, and he was free from IV therapy.
But I could not find peace. I had endured losses, but not like this. Not ever like this.
Summer melted into autumn. Then one night I dreamed that I was walking in a meadow, surrounded by all of the dogs I’d known in my life. There was Cindy, the blue Weimerainer, who, my mother claimed, had raised me. This 60 pound beauty would gently prop her nose into my crib and make sure I was breathing. If I cried, Cindy would race out of my nursery and find my mother, who was usually hanging clothes on the line. Cindy would bite a corner of Mom’s blouse and pull her into the house.
I saw Scout and Scarlet, my beloved Scotties. Those darling girls had been at the rainbow bridge for a decade, but in the dream they were young again. They raced into my open arms. The love between humans and dogs is a powerful thing, crossing space and time. This love may be the only thing that endures.
Scout and Scarlett trotted away. They met up with a little black and tan Yorkie who was chasing every butterfly and smelling every flower. He could run and jump. He wasn’t blind.
I knew this was his way of telling me not to worry, that he’d made it to the other side. The Scotties joined him, then looked back at me, as if to say, “We already love him. We’ll take him to Mister–and we’ll be there for you.”
Mister and Zap were buried in our butterfly garden.
When a butterfly rests on a blossom, my heart fills.
“You think dogs will not be in heaven?
I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson
Through photography and words, it is my hope that this website, Scout + Scarlett, will make a difference in the longevity and good health of all dogs.
(Disclaimer: Please consult a veterinarian about treating your pet’s diabetes, kidney disease, or any other ailment.)