Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I moved.

I am now blogging at Alec's Story, Part 2.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Me without Alec.

Christmas Eve, 2009, Mt. Tabor Park

I put Alec to sleep on Saturday, July 31. He breathed his last breath at about 6pm, at home, with me holding him. I struggled with this for days but I had to let him go. I know he did not want to leave me. It broke my heart to do this. I can barely type these words without being blinded by tears. There were multiple things happening at the end, all of which suggested his body was shutting down. He had deteriorated and was having trouble breathing. The vet said he probably had fluid in his lungs. He didn't want to, or couldn't, go outside anymore. I had to support his hind end with the harness I used when he was paralyzed to get him out at all. The cancer might have spread to his bones or it could have been a slipped disc. I will never know. It didn't matter because there were so many other things happening related to the cancer. But I could only get him out to go potty about once every 12 hours, he was so weak, and his urine was dark and minimal compared to the amount of water he was drinking. The water was going somewhere else, which means he was dehydrated. He was pale and anemic. His abdomen was distended, likely filling with fluid. Basically, his insides were leaking and his organs were shutting down. He barely moved except to sit up and watch me, and occasionally change positions. The smallest movements exhausted him at the end.

Throughout these days, he rested in his little house (his comfy kennel that he loved and insisted on staying in, despite my wish to cuddle closer), intermittently dozing and raising his head to watch me walk around the apartment, or to smile at me when I sang to him or acted silly. I sat by his bed during the day and wrote in my journal, watching him, talking to him. At night I slept with my head outside his little house, where he wanted to be. Each day I wondered, is this it? Do I make the call? I agonized and talked it over and over with my vet, my friends, a pet loss grief specialist, and even animal communicators. I talked to Alec a lot, too. Everyone said I would be sure when the time was right - that I would know.

The truth is, I was never sure. Rationally, I knew it was time. Logically, I do not think I waited too long, nor acted too soon. But emotionally was a completely different matter. I am a very logical person but my emotions are strong and not easily controlled. They complicate everything. I always thought I'd be able to put my emotions aside, be reasonably objective, and make the right decisions for Alec. With help from an amazing vet and a couple of good friends, I think I ultimately did that. But it doesn't make it easier to live with. As I sobbed and sobbed after he was gone, my vet said something that resonated. She said, "You took on his suffering. Now you are suffering so he doesn't have to." I think maybe she got that just right.

Making things harder than I ever could have imagined was the fact that while his body was so sick, his mind was alert - he still looked cheerful, for god's sake. I thought it would be like previous bleeding episodes when he was so weak he could not lift his head. I thought the end would come when he had one of those bleeds but did not recover. He would be "flat out" and I would know. But it happened more slowly than that. I wasn't prepared for him to still be watching me with his usual smile. I expected to see that look in his eyes saying he wanted help, wanted to go. I never did. But his body was dying, and there was nothing I could do about that.

July 19, 2010. I walked in the door after running out to pick up his meds and found Alec had moved himself to my makeshift bed. This was the last time he came out of his little house without my coaxing and assistance.

The vet said Alec might pass away peacefully on his own eventually...or he might drown (from the fluid in his lungs). She said he could also go into cardiac arrest. I asked if this meant his heart would just stop and she said no, he would feel like he could no longer breathe. He would gasp for breath. Those images are what did it. He would be scared and in pain for his last moments. This might not have happened, but no one could guarantee it wouldn't. I could not risk that. And what possible payoff would there be for that risk? I realized there was no reward for him in it. It would just be for me. I would have some more time with him and also avoid the emotional pain of making this decision. What would Alec gain? Nothing. I believe he already had hung on this long for me. The "quality of life" scale had clearly tipped. He could no longer do the activities he enjoyed. He had basically stopped eating the last few days (he would still obligingly take a treat from me, but would only hold it in his mouth for a moment before dropping it, untouched - this was heartbreaking), and although he was drinking plenty, he was clearly dehydrated. He could not go on walks, could not swim, was too weak and uncomfortable to move around. It had been days since he even wanted to hang out on the stoop. The only thing remaining was our relationship.

July 18, 2010

The enjoyment of a relationship with their guardian might be higher or lower on some dogs' quality of life scales but I knew it was high on Ali's. A different dog might not have held on for that, but I could tell Ali genuinely liked being with me, even if we were just sitting around. I started to realize as his condition deteriorated that he was probably not going to willingly leave me, that he was going to continue to put on a brave front, acting like he was "okay" even when he was not. He was fighting for me. It was not fair to make him keep fighting. Not when he would never get better. Not when he would only get worse and worse. Like I said, logically it was obvious. So why are tears streaming down my face as I type this? Why do I feel like I made a mistake? Because I made the call to separate us forever - that is how a friend described the feeling of making the euthanasia decision for her dog with whom she shared an uncommonly deep bond: separating them forever. That really hit home with me. And of course that is why I hoped Alec would choose the right time, to somehow be able to leave his body on his own...to spare me this. But I started to think that was not going to happen, and it was not fair. I had always put his best interests first and it was my responsibility to end this. It became increasingly clear that he would suffer for me, to stay with me. How could I allow that? I was all he had left in this world. His only joy. Why did he keep smiling?? God, that made it so hard.

July 20, 2010

He might have lasted another few hours, maybe days, maybe longer. I don't know. He was a fighter and as much as I wished with all my heart he would peacefully and painlessly pass away on his own, I came to realize the chances of that were slim. One evening after the vet left, after another agonizing conversation about what to do, my friend Mike stayed behind for a minute helping me evaluate Alec's condition, and he said, "I hate to say this, but it might be better if he just goes in his sleep." I said, "Are you kidding? I have been praying for that every night!" Then the reality - the awful, awful reality - hit me and I suddenly burst into tears. "I can't believe I am praying for Alec to die in his sleep," I sobbed. How did this happen? How did we get here? Spinning, spinning.

Even as Alec deteriorated over the last couple weeks I never got any "release me" signs whatsoever (and I was watching - believe me I was watching), and there became no doubt in my mind at the end that he wanted to stay with me, which made it so hard. However, as the vet pointed out to me, dogs, like children, do not always act in their best interests (for example, running into traffic, eating objects that will have to be surgically extracted, or, in Ali's case that one time, jumping over a cliff), so just because Ali did not want to leave me did not mean this was best for him. As much as I wanted to honor his wishes, as much as I hoped he would know it was "his time" to go, he never stopped watching me with his big brown eyes (still so bright!) as I walked around the apartment, with his usual interest and gentle smile. I started to think he would never stop watching me, would never willingly leave me.

July 28, 2010. I was tossing him the ball and this time he sort of caught it with his cheek. He was so tired.

Even though so many people assured me I would "know," I probably would never have been 100% sure. But I did know he was dying and was not going to get better. In fact, he would only continue to get worse. If I was waiting for a sign that it was the right time, I realized that sign would be that his condition had worsened so much that it would be undeniable. That would be my "sign." Would it be fair to him to let him get sicker and feel worse just so I would have a sense of certainty? Of course not. I never had a problem with the logical side of things, although I had to talk it out over and over and over again until I had examined every angle and still would come back to the same place. He was not going to get better.

As obvious as this seemed, as I have told others, I think in my case it was particularly hard, having seen Alec beat the odds once before, having nursed him when I had to express his bladder, when he could not even stand up on his own. Here we were again. Me bringing him water, helping him outside. But this was different. This was terminal cancer. But because we had been through such an intense (and for me, scary) experience when he became paralyzed, and then made it so far in two years - together! - it was extremely difficult for me to "give up" on him. And of course everyone assured me I was not doing that, but I would be lying if I did not say that is exactly what it felt like in some ways. But medical options were exhausted, I had waited and prayed for a miracle, and it was to the point where making him wait while he got sicker was simply not the right thing to do.

Saturday, July 31, came and it was not the first day I had thought about doing this. Almost every day the previous week I had my vet on call. Every night I thought, "One more night. It doesn't feel like the right time." On Saturday morning, he seemed worse, his breathing more labored, his eyes - usually so bright - starting to half-close at times, even when his head was up. He had steadily declined over the last couple weeks, and more quickly over the last 48 hours. This was only going to end one way. He was not going to get better. I prayed, oh how I prayed, for a miracle, but I could not make him hold on when he was going to die from this awful disease anyway (and soon), knowing the dying process could be painful and that he might panic. I had to take responsibility.

I always vowed to take care of him and I had to do that now, even if it meant ending his life. This is extremely hard for me to write. I have told other people that a peaceful death is the last gift we can give our beloved animals who are dependent on us for everything. But these words felt hollow when it came to me and Alec. Our story was not supposed to end this way. Maybe in a few years, but not now, before he even reached his tenth birthday. Not when he had only recently started walking again. While this is difficult to write, it is even harder for me to think about. I forced myself to sit down and update this because I am avoiding thinking about it. My journal, into which I recorded the last few weeks in great detail, has stood blank except for a couple occasions where I have scrawled into it like a crazy person following hysterical fits that scared even me. They scared me so much, I have been afraid to go near this bottomless pit of grief that is staring me in the face. Maybe if I don't look it won't be real. Or it will be real, but in a more abstract way. I don't even know what I mean by that.

After it was done, my friend Mike and I sat with his body for a few hours and drank a bottle of champagne I had left over from the celebratory "benign hematoma" period (April to mid-May). I didn't know if I would want his body taken away immediately or if I would want to spend time. I was glad we spent time, even though I knew it was just a shell. Mike had been apprehensive, but as I cried and we talked over Ali's body still on the bed and pillows where he had lain the last few weeks, he said, "this is bizarrely not creepy." And it wasn't. There is a full-service funeral home for pets outside Portland, and they have a 24-hour pick-up service or you can transport the body yourself. I decided to make that decision in the morning but knew I did not want to stay in my apartment alone, so I said good-bye to Alec's body again and went to Mike's house to sleep on his couch.

Once he went to sleep and I was alone, my grief opened up and threatened to swallow me. I sat on the couch desolate, crying and sobbing as quietly as I could (I did not want to wake his housemates) for hours. I began to feel frantic and like I needed to be back in my apartment, closer to Ali, even though it was only his shell. I woke up Mike and he drove me home against his better judgment ("I think this is a horrible idea," he said more than once, but drove me anyway). After he dropped me off and I was alone again I became even more hysterical. When my crying turned into a bizarre urge to break things - something I have never experienced before - I realized I had made a mistake. I drove myself back across town in the middle of the night and have only returned to my apartment once since, to pick up a few things before leaving town. Mike took care of meeting the pet hearse the next day. I had said my good-byes to his body the night before and I knew the next day it would only be stiffer, colder. It was not him. He was gone. I told myself this over and over.

Although I had put away his toys a few days before (except for a couple), and Mike was kind enough to remove and clean up some things afterward, Alec is obviously still everywhere. His chemo pills in the fridge, his beds and little house (even though Mike folded it up and propped it against the wall), my detailed notes on the coffee table recording the last time he took each medication and what time he last went out to pee, the vet bills on my desk, his leash and jaunty bandana hanging on the hook, a partially eaten greenie, a pile of treats, and on and on and on....a heart wrenching reminder everywhere I look in the small apartment we shared.

July 18, 2010

My best friend Kristine, whom I have known since I was seven, flew me back east to stay with her and her boyfriend Ryan. Being here, in a completely new context (I had never even seen their new house), has been a lifesaving distraction. In fact I'd like to not leave, to not have to go back to my apartment, ever. Of course I am going to move. I can't be there without him. I already gave my 30-day notice. But I have to go back to clean, pack, and deal with all of Alec's things. Since I can't even face that right now, I am focusing on one day at a time. But I am going to have to deal with reality very soon.

I am working from here, but it is difficult. I feel like I need a leave of absence. Unfortunately I already took a lot of time off to care for Ali while he in hospice. Kristine and her boyfriend took me to Vermont last weekend, which was another welcome distraction. As long as I keep moving I am okay.

This feeling reminds me of a lyric from my favorite songwriter, Chris McCaughan:

I'm momentum, in transit
alive in the rhythms of movement
it's when I stop and start thinking
that I realize all the people I'm missing.

In my case there is just one "person," but the sentiment of safety in momentum rings true. When I stop and start thinking, things threaten to fall apart. This has only happened a few times over the last week but each time has been so bad I have backed off from trying to process this. In our hotel room in Vermont on Saturday night, after Kristine and Ryan had gone to sleep, I don't know what happened, but I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor hysterically crying for hours (good thing they are heavy sleepers). The pain was so gigantic and suddenly I could not stop the images and flashbacks of Alec's last days, of me finally (after pondering and putting it off many times over the previous days) authorizing the euthanasia, of our last minutes and hours together...of how he never stopped smiling at me even though he was clearly so sick and weak...of him even sitting up and barking with all the energy he could muster when the vet and her tech entered our home that last day...of him watching us smiling as we sat around his little house discussing this decision, while I went over and over and over everything again with them, all the stuff I knew and just had to say out loud and be reassured of one more time...of him willingly eating the baby food I gave him that had the sedative in it (so trusting), which set the death process inexorably in motion...of me holding him, forehead to forehead, as his heart beat for the last time...of coming back that same night and finding his body colder and starting to stiffen but holding him anyway and sobbing hysterically into his fur, "I'm sorry...come back...I'm sorry...come back." I felt like bashing my head against the bathtub to make the images and thoughts stop. I didn't, but I guess I might be a little worried about myself. It's deceiving because I am not like that all the time. I have been able to put up a brick wall between me and the fact that he is really, truly gone and not just waiting for me back in Portland. It's momentum and distraction. I know I can't keep the wall up forever. I am afraid of what's on the other side. I am afraid of never seeing him again.

But two weeks later, the wall is starting to crack. Writing this, sitting here and crying while I try to think of how to tell people I have put Alec to sleep, is part of it. I have begun crying...and crying...letting some images come. But I have to keep backing off. The way I felt in the bathroom in Vermont was scary and I know if I am at that place again I may need to get help. We'll see. I am analytical enough to see myself, to know when I should be worried and when I am just feeling what I have to feel - intense sadness, longing, aching, denial, disbelief, and anger that my sweet baby shepherd had to endure so much at the end after having already been through so much. That I could not prevent this. That I looked forward so much to this summer and taking him swimming all the time. But he died instead. Thoughts like this threaten to consume me, as I go from our last minutes together to our last weeks, months, and ever outward until I am viewing our whole relationship in its entirety, which I can do now of course...because it is over. I cannot explain how jarring that is. The simple thought that set me off the other night was merely this: "I can't believe it is all over."

As I was just telling Kristine, Alec was my world. Not only did I spend almost every waking (and sleeping) moment with him, but I was also constantly trying to think of activities to make up for his lingering disability, to keep him happy, stimulated, and fulfilled, and there were countless ways he was woven into the fabric of my daily life, routine, and constant concerns. I logged hours on the internet searching for new shoes for him, ones that wouldn't wear out or get holes right away, investigating new potential swimming spots or hikes that might be flat enough that he could do them, looking for supplements for his back, just general research stuff that took up a lot of my time, my brain space.

Happier times last summer, 2009. We explored a new swimming spot on the Sandy River. Alec had only been out of his wheelchair about a month at this point, but he did great on the longish walk to the river.

There was also this blog and other things I had started to write about Alec, like the little article about doggie wheelchairs for Animal Wellness magazine. I thought that was just the beginning. He inspired me so much. A lot of people said after hearing Alec's story, "wow, you should write a book." I heard that enough times that I was actually planning to do it. I started to take their suggestions and encouragement seriously. I guess what I am trying to say is if my brain is the size of the U.S., I feel like taking away the part that Ali occupied leaves me with some meager area roughly the size of New Jersey. No wonder I feel so lost on a good day, panicky on a bad one.

As I have said before, I never allowed myself to mourn for what was lost when Alec became paralyzed and later due to his lingering disability. I focused on what he could do - walk without his wheelchair, go for long swims that he loved. But now that he is gone, when I start to crack open the window of my grief, sadness pours in and I mourn for all he lost when he became disabled, all the activities he could no longer do. I did my best to make it up to him and I know he had a good life, but still. After his paralysis, there was no more running, no more frolicking, no more games of "stick," no more playing with other dogs.

Before he became paralyzed, Alec loved to play stick with his best friend Usha, my housemate's dog in San Francisco.

It breaks my heart to think it ended this way, with him so sick. He had only been out of his wheelchair for a year. He was so innocent and so sweet. Why did this have to happen to him?? And I know people go through stuff like this all the time, parents lose their children for god's sake, and that makes me sad too. How do they do it?

People have said they hope I can find peace, and I do too. But for now I have only begun to process me without Alec. These last few months have been so stressful, but now the hard part begins. I think of the lonely road stretching before me with reluctance, trepidation, and sorrow. So I try to stay present as much as possible. But it is hard to keep the past and future at bay. I cannot fathom that I will never see him again. That he is gone. When I think of the past, I think of how impossibly happy I was. Or perhaps "content" is a better word. It's hard to walk around in a state of ecstatic happiness every day, although that is exactly what I did for the month and a half after receiving the false benign biopsy results. My euphoria lasted until Alec's second bleeding episode on May 14, which started the hellish and all too short struggle with cancer that ended on Saturday, July 31. I told Alec when I was saying good-bye (and I told him many times before those last moments) that being with him was a dream come true, that I could not possibly love anyone or anything more than I loved him, that he made my life so much better. And I thanked him.

Honestly, the only thing that got me through those terrible last days and weeks without losing my sanity was the belief that Alec would never leave me, that we would never be separated, that our bond was too strong to be broken. I realize to some it will sound like I did lose my sanity after all! But it was like a lifeboat helping me to the other side of what I knew was inevitable, what I could not, despite my trying, stop from happening. He was going to leave me, whether he wanted to or not. I was always skeptical about life after death and spirits and whatnot, but faced with losing Alec, I suddenly had no choice. We could not be separated. Our relationship would continue, albeit in a different form (what with him in spirit and all.) I told him repeatedly we would still be together, our bond cannot be broken, he will just be in spirit now. Our relationship will change, not cease to exist. I told him this was merely the beginning of a new chapter: Alec's Story, Part 2. And I believed it. I had to. But now I am so afraid he is not with me. I have tried to feel him, to see him, to hear him, but I can't. I wonder if I made it all up just to survive his passing. But if so, how will I survive now? I have not given up. I am still trying. I still believe with all my heart that our bond cannot be broken. This is the only thing giving me comfort as I try to keep breathing, keep working, keep living.

And so I keep writing. Alec's story is my story now I suppose. I thought I could never write with him gone, but maybe writing will keep him close to me. Maybe it will feel like that anyway. I don't know. I don't know anything yet. Except that I will always listen for you, Alec. I will always be grateful to you for being my amazing shepherd, my dream come true. I will see your smile everywhere. I will never stop loving you. I will never stop watching for you.

Frustrated by the limitations of language, especially as it pertains to our relationships with friends of a different species, I have always said my love for Alec was beyond words. This remains true now that his physical presence - incredibly, but undeniably - is gone. Now our love is beyond life. At least mine is. I have no idea where he is, if he is anywhere. But I do know that me without Alec feels...wrong. I hope I can find peace, I do. but I feel far from peace right now.

I know this post is over-long and repetitive, but as I read back and see what I am repeating, I realize I need to hear it. I need to understand that I made the right decision and had no choice. I mean, I had other choices, but they would not have been in Alec's best interest. I need to know that just because he did not want to leave me does not mean I did the wrong thing in making him go. It was the cancer, the cancer, the cancer. Not me killing him. So I am leaving this rambling post, because it reflects what my brain needs to process right now and I think writing some of this down has been an important step. Besides, I don't have the mental strength to edit this properly.

I may be half mad with grief, but I am still able to appreciate kindness. Once again, I really sincerely want to thank people who have left supportive comments on our blog, which I started for a completely different purpose, and which of course I never thought would end this way. Many of you have never met Alec or me, yet have taken the time to wrap me in your warm words. Your beautiful and caring sentiments have moved me to tears - the sweet kind. You are wonderful and compassionate and your words have brought me comfort. Thank you for caring about Alec's story and for taking the time to write. How I wish there would be more photos, more updates. Once words could not express my love...now they cannot express my sorrow.


And I don't know what I want, but I know where I want to be
And everywhere I go, I wish you were here with me

Stars hang on tiny strings, my dreams are made of memories
Once everything made sense, now I get so alone that I can't sleep

Will somebody please tell me if this is where I'm supposed to be?


- Mason Jennings

I'm trying to find places to breathe now.

-Chris McCaughan

You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet and hold the earth in place.

-Conor Oberst



April 18, 2010, Wahclella Falls, a hike in the Columbia River Gorge I thought would be flat enough for Alec, until we hit stairs about a half mile in and had to turn around. We still had fun though.

We always had fun. Alec made me so happy. Just his presence, just to be with him. How could I ever describe this feeling, that everything was okay when we were together?

Excerpt from a silly song I wrote for Ali but never finished:

There must be a reason why I love you so much
There must be a reason why I love you so much
We go together, you know that it's true
The molecules between us are sticky, sticky like glue
We go together, you know that it's true
Out of everything and everyone in this whole wide world
I picked you.

I love you, Ali.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shattered.

Some old scanned photos (before the digital revolution):

The beginning of the story, October 2002. This was taken before I adopted Alec, in the kennels of The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J., where I worked as a kennel attendant while writing my dissertation. I knew him for almost a year before I was (finally) able to adopt him.

There were hundreds of dogs at the kennels of the Seeing Eye, and I was fond of many. But Alec and I bonded immediately. Although I was in no position to have more dogs (I already had two, and moved a lot), I decided if he ever was released from the program, I would have to adopt him. Almost from the beginning, I felt he belonged with me. That feeling only grew over time.

Alec was eager and neurotic and lonely, and I felt sorry for him. I petted him once, and from that moment on he was obsessed with me. He would watch for me from the bars of his kennel and go crazy when he saw me. I started staying after work to play with him and I spent my breaks in his kennel, brushing him and talking to him. He would get so excited to see me he would attack my face and give me bloody noses! His loyalty was touching and sad and I wanted to repay it.

At this point, Alec had been in the program (which is normally 3 months) for 8 months. Although some dogs relish the work, Alec was a terrible Seeing Eye dog and only wanted to be someone's companion. As I got to know him my biggest wish was to give him a normal and happy life. My biggest fear was he would be placed with someone who wouldn't care for him properly (unfortunately, it happens).

Alec was finally released from the program in January 2003, not long after I had moved back to Georgia. I adopted him in February, when he was 2 1/2 years old. My parents were planning a visit and so they picked him up and drove him down south for the happiest reunion. Alec got along with my other two dogs, both of whom have since passed away. He is now 3 months short of his tenth birthday.

How can I be shattered all over again? Wasn’t I at this place last week? When I heard there was one more chemo treatment we could try, I allowed myself to hope. I couldn’t help it. I went into research mode again, asking questions not only about the different protocols, possible side effects, and potential outcomes, but also checking in with my intuition – is it the right thing to do? The answer came back loud and clear – yes. He seemed to be feeling better this week and this was our last great hope. Like a last-minute reprieve, maybe we would get our miracle after all. I knew better than to get my hopes up. But really, how could I help it?

But the oncologist decided Alec was not strong enough to do another round of chemotherapy. My very last hope…gone. When she saw him on Thursday she was hoping to determine that his not feeling well was due to an inflammation of his bladder, which can be a side effect of the chemo drug he received three weeks ago. This would be good news, meaning the sickness was not the cancer and that the chemo was working; we would just have to address the side effect. No such luck. After doing a bunch of diagnostics she determined his symptoms were being caused by the cancer, and furthermore his liver doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. She localized the source of his pain (which is being kept under control by pain meds) to his pelvic/lower back area. It could be the cancer having spread to the bone (but this would not show up on x-ray until there is 50% bone loss), or believe it or not, it could be his back – a slipped disc. Either of these would explain the pain and hind leg weakness.

If it were just his back, we could try to address it. But there is much more going on now, all of which can be lumped under the umbrella term, “paraneoplastic syndrome.” It basically refers to symptoms that are caused by the presence of cancer in the body, but are not the cancer itself, for example, inflammation (or auto-immune disease, where the body attacks its own red cells) or the cancer can secrete a factor that stimulates the bone marrow to make lots of white blood cells. Either of these would explain the extremely elevated white blood cells we are seeing and certain abnormalities in his urine (high presence of something called bilirubin).

But the main problem is that Alec’s liver is not functioning properly. Although the masses in his liver have grown slightly in size since the last ultrasound, they had become less fluid-filled and were not obviously bleeding (good). That part is actually relatively stable. The problem is that the ultrasound showed that his liver has very little normal tissue left (bad) and a relatively healthy liver is necessary to process the chemo drugs.

Conclusion: the oncologist said she was very reluctant to administer any more chemotherapy at this point. She said if his liver is not functioning and Alec is not strong enough, then we could cause severe side effects, which could be life threatening. The obvious question is, if we are facing imminent euthanasia (and sooner rather than later), isn’t death an acceptable risk? Well, not once she explained what “chemo death” is like and how sick he would get and that a toxic reaction will not come on gradually but all at once (meaning I would not have time to euthanize him before he began to experience the awful effects). Obviously, I could not take that risk, especially when she said the potential for positive response with his disease at this level of progression is very low. The most we could expect might be a couple more weeks. She summed up by saying with all these factors considered it is probably best if we focus on maintaining his comfort for as long as possible. Shatter.

Obviously this is NOT what I was hoping to hear. I spent the day by the phone waiting for the results of the diagnostics, hoping it was his bladder being inflamed that was causing all this (which seemed entirely possible). They didn’t call back with the results, but rather called at the end of the day to say I could pick him up, and I was hopeful this meant he would be going back for chemo the next day. When I got there I realized I was the last person they had scheduled to pick up their animal. The lobby was empty and everyone was getting ready to go home. I should have known it wouldn’t be good news. The oncologist came out into the lobby and told me the results of the diagnostics and answered all my questions as I tried to process and understand that this is truly the end of the line. She said I should seriously start thinking about euthanasia soon. I cried all the way home. Again.

I think it is particularly hard to hear (and accept) the terrible odds because of my history with Alec. The whole story of him walking again was us beating some pretty bad odds, together. It is hard not to feel like I am “giving up” on him when the odds look bad, which of course I would never do, but still these thoughts come (thank you, stupid brain). It’s like, because he pulled this miraculous recovery once, it’s hard not to think he could do it again….that we could do it again. We’re a team! But rationally I know this is totally different and that there is no coming back from it. But it feels like giving up on our story, which has been so amazing and inspiring so far (at least to me).

True love is supposed to make us capable of super-human feats, of lifting cars and whatnot (or is that adrenaline?). And I have no doubt there is no emotional force in this world stronger than my love for Alec. I could not love anyone or anything more than I love him. It is such an intense, powerful feeling it seems like it should enable me to lift cars, move mountains… cure cancer. Alas, I cannot save him. I cannot save us. What good is love if it has no force? I want those metaphors to be true. If your love is strong enough, anything is possible. I think I used to believe that. Alec's story helped me believe that. It’s a beautiful idea. It’s not true.

I have been driving the oncologist and our regular vet crazy with my incessant questions I am sure. But it is all part of the process for me. I have to understand what is happening inside Alec in order for me to really accept and truly know there is nothing more that can be done. I keep saying “But what about…?” and “Can we try…?” and “Maybe we could…?” and “What if…?” The answers keep coming back the same. Nothing can help him at this point.

So we are back where we were last week: hospice. I have been in constant contact with our wonderful vet (to whom I am eternally grateful for being there for us - especially me as I try to navigate this horrible time without losing my mind) and she said she thinks he may have a week – maybe. We are not sure it will be that long. I am monitoring him for any change, any sign of worsening in his condition. But I am afraid I might be seeing that now. Yesterday after I took him for a ride in the car (he was happy to go, and ate cookies on the drive), he did not want to get out when we got home. We stayed in the van for four hours (him snoozing off and on….not looking distressed but more tired and weak). Then I carried him most of the way into the house. He slept through the night but I am worried. I am afraid this is it. If he worsens, I have to help him. I have to release him, let him go.

My last post was me trying to sound brave, I guess. “I will know what to do, etc." But I am having trouble. I am not okay. I am not strong. I need help. But nothing can help. You see, I know this. I am very familiar with the grief process. I went through it only four years ago with my dog Kobi and at that time I was new to the unique world of grief. So in my typical analytical fashion, I read every book I could find on grief and losing a loved one. I attended a pet loss support group. I created a memorial. I lit candles. I raged and cried and felt numb. I talked it out. I wrote in my journal. I wrote letters to him. I learned that every crazy thing I was thinking and feeling was a normal part of the process that everyone goes through. I feel like an expert now. But you know what? It doesn’t help. I know what grieving is. But I don’t WANT to. I don’t want time to intervene, to make the memory of him fade. When did he become a memory? I can't...I am dizzy. He is watching me from his little house right now. Those brown eyes. He always watches me. I don’t want to move on from this, from him. I don’t want to process this. That is not healthy (I know this even as I have the thought). File under “denial,” this stubborn clinging to a past – so vivid, so recent – now lost.

I love Alec and I do not want to “move on” and away from him. There it is. And nothing I learned in my grief books or heard in my support group can address that. It's a fundamental flaw of mine (along with loving too much and too deeply - what is wrong with me??). It is what exists at the bottom of everything for me. I fall in love infrequently but when I do I get very attached. It is the way of misery to not want to move on. I will have to figure out a way, somehow. And I know that Alec has had a wonderful life. I know we have lived and loved enough in our time together to last several lifetimes. I know I appreciated and cherished him. I know we all die. This is where we are all going, and nobody knows when. None of it helps, somehow.

Making it worse (if possible) is the soaring high that preceded this slow-motion crash. The thanks I gave for nothing hurts my heart. I was so overflowing with joy and gratitude after the benign biopsy results that I was aloft. It felt like flying or some other magical thing too magical to describe. It felt like I could have faith in something. Well friends, it’s a long way down from there.

One of the many things my vet has helped me with has been staying in the present moment. That is the only way I have been keeping myself from going seriously and immediately crazy. When I find myself thinking of what Alec and I should be doing this weekend, swimming, strolling, sharing burritos, just hanging out, it is enough to make me think I will lose my mind. Or the things we will never do again, like go to the office together. Oh now I need to stop that. And breathe. Here’s what it comes down to: this is already so hard. But it has not even begun yet. What will I do without him? To quote a Mountain Goats song I will never listen to again, “Woke up New:”

What do I do?
What do I do?

What do I do?


What do I do without you?


That about sums it up.

P.S. I really regret that what used to be a hopeful, inspiring place has now turned into the most depressing blog on the internet. For anyone still reading, I am sorry. I used to be a happy, positive person. I am mourning her, too.

The grounds of the Seeing Eye are gorgeous but they are not for the dogs. The dogs are confined to the kennel at all times when not out training for their half hour a day (and this only on weekdays). On weekends they are alone among the chaos, noise, and barking of the crowded kennels. Not a happy place for an anxious shepherd.

But I had a trainer friend with keys to the building and we would sneak Ali out on Saturdays for some fresh air and a little walk.

He would show his gratitude by standing on me and attacking me with violent kisses! I would throw my head back to protect my face from his desperate affection.

Who's got your back?

He looked so different then - much blacker! I didn't even think he was that cute then (he was kinda of gawky!), but falling in love with him, as so often happens, made him beautiful.

He was always so happy to be outside on those clandestine weekend jail breaks.

This is where he spent most of his time during that year, a barren cold kennel with a couple chew toys he never played with.

I wanted so badly to bust him out of there and take him on hikes, to the beach, to take him everywhere! To make up for lost time (the first year of his life was spent with a family who neglected him). Another one of the happiest days of my life was when, a year after meeting him, I finally got the call: "He's yours."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Disclaimers.

Not 100%, but still smiling. His happy face makes my world glow. One of my favorite songs to sing to Alec is "You are my sunshine."

Enjoying his cranberry bone while keeping a watchful eye on the toys.

Here is my disclaimer that I am not going to commit suicide. One person was worried by my last post and asked my neighbor to check on me. Luckily that neighbor took my post for what it was: uncensored me pouring my heart out. But it made me realize maybe I worried other people. Sorry. I appreciate the concern (really), but this blog has always been a record of my relationship with Alec and to deny or minimize the pain I am going through now would be to downplay Alec's considerable and immeasurable impact on my life. And I don't wish to do that. Raw outpourings of desperate emotion are not pretty, I know. But they are real. Statements saying I don't know if I can go on without Ali can be taken in several ways. Here are two: 1) as an honest assessment of my feelings and my inability - or unwillingness - to imagine life without Alec (this is how it feels, and no sugarcoating will alleviate that fact). 2) as metaphor (in a real sense the "me" who is here now will not go on; I will be someone different, as we all are when touched by a life event as monumental as finding and then losing a soul mate). But neither is a "cry for help," I promise.

Another disclaimer: to the person who commented on my last post, "poor Alec - please let him go" (and anyone else who might be thinking this but was tactful enough not to say) - I will let him go when the time is right to do that. This is a delicate, difficult time and no one should presume to know our situation, or think what I post here could ever be the whole story. I realize my last post was mostly about me and my feelings and maybe I did not stress enough that Alec is not suffering, despite the fact that his disease has progressed to the point where the end is near. That does not mean the end is HERE. If you doubt my judgment, let me first thank you for your concern for Alec, and then assure you that I have, and have always had, his quality of life and best interests in mind. Saying "I do not want to end this" and "I don't know how to end this" refers not only to our relationship, but also to the previous blog entry.

And saying I don't want to end this does not mean I won't. I will do what Alec needs me to as my last act of love and devotion to his well being. Yes, this is an emotional and gut wrenching time. However, I would not keep Alec around because I cannot let go. Nor will I let him go too soon because I can't handle the pain of imminent separation or the emotional trauma I am slogging through like a slow motion nightmare sequence. There is tremendous pressure to make the right decisions now and I feel it acutely. I know Alec very well. My experience nursing him when he was paralyzed honed my observational skills in terms of his body language, facial expressions, and all the subtle cues that enable one to assess how someone else is feeling. Because I was very anxious that Alec would become depressed, I monitored his mood closely; plus, he depended on me for everything from expressing his bladder to bringing him water when he was thirsty, so I got very good at reading him. This is part of what tightened our bond and brought us closer over the last 2.5 years.

Besides the fact that I know him better than anyone, it is fair to wonder if my judgment is clouded by emotion, denial, and blind tenacious love. Let me reassure anyone who is concerned that since he became sick last week, I have been consulting with Alec's vet regularly on his quality of life and all of the issues surrounding the euthanasia decision. I thought I was going to have to let him go last weekend, but she helped me to see that neither Alec nor I were at that point...yet. This is an hour by hour, minute by minute situation. And it is difficult. But it is my final responsibility to Alec, and as someone who has worked so hard to ensure his happiness, believe me the last thing I would ever want is to see is him suffer. I would kill myself before I willingly let that happen. Disclaimer: I am not planning to kill myself.

Alec remains stable and he even seemed to be feeling a little better this week. I was surprised pleasantly because I anticipated a rapid decline after last week. But there is still not much improvement overall. Alec's oncologist had been out of town, but I spoke with her earlier this week and she said we could try one more chemo protocol. I was wrong that we were totally out of options. She is not optimistic, but she said we can try. Our hope would be to stop/prevent further internal bleeding and possibly shrink the mass(es) so he feels better for a time. This may not happen. But it is truly our last try. I dropped him off this morning and am waiting for the oncologist to call. She needs to analyze his blood work before she can decide if treatment today is a viable option. I would love if I could take Alec swimming again, if he felt strong enough to do that. But this may not happen.

This has been difficult, and it is getting more difficult the longer he does not feel 100%. After dropping him off, I wandered around the grocery store like a forlorn zombie with tears standing in my eyes, staring at the items on the shelves as if they could help me. In front of the dog food aisle, the floor started to sway and I was a sad listing boat, careening in a sea of formerly reassuring normalcy...broken sail, dragging anchor. I cried all the way home in the car. I only stopped when I started typing this. Along with my best friend on the east coast (whose phone I have been monopolizing) and my wonderful vet (who has been doing double duty as a counselor to me during this horrible time, bless her heart), this blog has been like a lifeline of sorts; I'm not sure why. I guess writing helps pull me out of myself to observe and gain some critical distance, if only for a short time. I have been mad journaling too, which seems to serve a similar function of keeping me grounded in the present moment, if only for those moments when I am feverishly scribbling.

I don't know how to end this one either, but how about with some gratitude? Thank you to all who have left supportive comments here. One day I will re-read them and they will bring me some comfort. Thanks to everyone who has left sympathetic Facebook comments too. I don't know how to save those, but I will have to figure out a way. They are too nice to lose. I just learned how to back up this blog after it disappeared recently for a few days and I feared it was gone forever. Apparently someone hacked into my Gmail account and so Google not only disabled my email but took down my blog as well, without telling me why. I didn't realize Google could do that but oh, yes they can. They can take down any blog at any time for any (or no) reason. That was a scary few days, but now I am hoping to eventually move this blog to a different server where it will be safer. It would be piling awful upon horrible to lose this tribute to my wonderful friend.

If you have called or emailed me and I have not gotten back to you, forgive me. It is not always easy to talk. I appreciate you reaching out though, really. Your kindness matters.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has sent prayers, good thoughts, and love to Alec. He will always be my amazing shepherd.

I took Ali to the pool yesterday. He was too tired to do much swimming (although he swam a tiny bit with Diane's and my help), but he sat in the shallow water with his prized ball and he enjoyed the car ride.

Ali loves his "little house" but contemplated moving to the fold-out mattress after I arrayed his toys and bones (which he eventually did, as you can see in the photos at the top of the post). He looked so cute staring at the toys I had to snap a photo. Note the "blue thing," which our friend Maggie gave Ali. This is one of his favorite toys. It appears to be a blue bone with a giant tooth wearing a Santa hat, inexplicably. Because Alec never destroys his toys, they last forever.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vigil

I cannot believe I am writing these words. Alec and I are nearing the end of our time together. Incredibly, unbelievably, tragically, I am saying good-bye to my partner, my best friend, the love of my life: Alec. How can I? Well, I don’t have a choice. My wishes have gone unfulfilled. Our miracle didn’t come.

At the end of my last post, I mentioned Alec’s cancer had come back. Two weeks ago, he had another bleed and the ultrasound showed the cancer had spread through his liver. We immediately tried a new chemo protocol and a little more than one week later, this past Monday, he started feeling badly again, lethargic and intermittently nauseous. I wasn’t sure if it was a reaction to the chemo, perhaps an infection due to lowered white blood count, or the cancer coming back. I fervently hoped for the former and that the antibiotic would help. It did not. Late Thursday night our wonderful vet came over to see him and although she did not see immediate evidence of bleeding (which was our first concern), while she was examining him he gave a little growl when she touched his tummy, which surprised us both. Upon further, very gentle, examination, she found a large mass in his abdomen. Not a bleed but a new tumor - she estimated it was the size of a round watermelon - which means the end of the road.

She said it is pressing against his tummy which is why he was nauseous and the tumor is secreting hormones that are making him feel weak and maybe like he has the flu. Also the fact that his abdomen is painful made him not want to move much. Although she said she didn’t think the pain was too bad because his heart rate was so regular, that made me feel terrible because I could not tell he was in pain. I know dogs are good at hiding this, but still…ugh. I had some tramadol (painkiller) on hand from his surgeries and we gave him those right away along with a stronger anti-nausea medication, which seemed to make him feel better and he drifted off while we talked about options, or rather lack thereof.

A third surgery is not an option (we can’t remove his liver like we did his spleen), nor is more chemotherapy. The cancer already resisted the first protocol, and now has come back despite using a second “rescue protocol” with a new drug. If you know anything about cancer – and I am happy for you if you don’t – the cancer cells come back stronger every time. He is not going to get better from this. It is hospice now, meaning I make him as comfortable as possible until the time comes, which can be anytime. It will be soon. Of course, I will help him with his transition if need be (although my fervent last wish is that he painlessly and peacefully drift off…don’t we all wish that; don’t worry, I know it rarely happens that way), but I want it to be done at home. He does not want to move and the thought of trying to get him to the emergency hospital where he has not had happy times, with doctors he doesn’t know, and all those horrible fluorescent lights…that is not where I want it to happen.

I tried to make a plan a few weeks ago, just so I was prepared, and both his vets agreed to be on call after hours should I need them. But as bad luck would have it, they are both out of town this weekend. His oncologist is also out of town. His vet gave me the numbers of two mobile vets who do home euthanasia, but one of them is out of the country on a family emergency and the other is especially busy this weekend and can’t promise anything. I am hoping he stays stable until Sunday (or longer) when his vet, whom I love, is back. But I need to be prepared for anything. If his condition worsens I will not let him linger. There is another wonderful vet filling in for my two regular vets this weekend and she gave me her number and said I could call if I need her. I hope I don’t have to call before tomorrow, but thank goodness I have an option. Although she did say her car is in the shop so it could be tricky for her to get here. What is up with this weekend?? Even my closest friend in Portland left town a couple days ago. Can you say ALONE? I don’t mind being alone with Alec. This is the purpose of these last few hours, minutes, days, however long we have left together. But the scary part is everyone on our veterinary support team being gone at once. Hopefully he will stay stable until at least tomorrow. After everything, I can’t believe this is good-bye.

Alec has a big kennel with a bed and pillows called his “little house,” which is his safe spot where he loves to rest. This is where he has been hanging out. He is eating some snacks here and there but is not much interested in food (believe me, I have tried everything), he is drinking lots of water, and sleeping and dreaming intermittently. He is not flat-out or anything. He sits up occasionally and when I leave his side he turns his head and follows me around the room with his eyes, which are bright and alert. I am camped out next to him as I type this. He is napping. I have been alternately journaling and crying into his fur (I gave up the trying to act positive stuff) and telling him how much I love him and how being with him has been a dream come true and how sorry I am I can’t fix this. I have thanked him for making my life so good these last seven years. I have let him know I have never loved anything or anyone the way that I love him. I have been saying a lot of things. I also smile and laugh. There has been some music and singing. It is not all dirge-like. He is still smiling at me, too.

But the end is near. And as my vet put it Friday morning, I am holding vigil at his death bed. There is nothing beautiful about this. I want so badly to wrench meaning out of it, but it is nothing but sadness. It hurts so much. There aren’t words to describe the awfulness of my heart breaking, of the air slowly being sucked out of the world. No, it’s not my heart breaking…it’s ME breaking. I can’t think too deeply about what is happening beyond the immediate or I will go crazy.

I know I did my best, but nothing helped. The oncologist told me she was seeing remissions of 2-3 months to a year with this chemo protocol, in dogs with Alec’s cancer who were sicker than he was when they started. How I hoped Alec would be at the long end of the average remission! How I hoped the fact that it took so long to find it (43 sections!) meant something optimistic. The news of the cancer, of the multiple false biopsies, was crushing, but still I kept relentlessly hoping for the best. It seemed too unfair after everything Alec had been through. And here he barely made it to the lowest point in the range: 2 months. I have tried to keep positive, but knowing I lost 1.5 months of treatment time because of the false “benign hematoma” results just hurts so badly, even though I know there was nothing I could have done. Two additional benign biopsies followed. The cancer was hiding. It seems this cancer was determined to take him.

This all feels so familiar. Caring for Alec and tending to him. He is even wearing his Walkabout Harness again to help me get him outside, just like when he was paralyzed and recovering from his spinal surgeries. He is a good and sweet patient. I know this from before when I monitored him so closely for depression when he was on crate/bed rest for 6 weeks. I was amazed how well he adapted. But this time he will not get better. My love for him is so deep. I would bargain away anything to keep him here with me, anything, if only someone would take it. I feel so fiercely protective of him, as I know he protects me. It sucks to be so helpless, to be unable to keep him safe. Someone said that the hardest part of loving someone is being unable to prevent their suffering. Not that Alec is suffering – I would not willingly let that happen. The person relaying this quote (a psychiatrist and author who was paralyzed in a car accident many years ago) was talking about how his quadriplegia was harder on his mother than it was on him. I can understand that completely. Indeed, pure love could not exist without the potential for the most unfathomable pain. I guess that’s what the rose and thorn metaphor is all about.

I regret that I didn’t take him swimming the week before last on the oncologist’s instructions. She said there was too much of a risk of infection given the chemo treatment he had just had (potential bacteria in the water). If I had known what the next week would bring, I would have taken him. The indoor pool where Alec always loved to swim just reopened after being closed for renovations the last couple weeks, and I regret Alec will not get to swim in the new and improved pool. But I was told with his immune system compromised he could easily get an infection and become septic, which would be bad. I tried to make the right decisions. I still had my faith in the new chemo protocol at this point, and we only had to wait a week. I didn’t know that week was all we would have.

I also regret that I had to keep Alec from playing his favorite games “stick” and fetch, after his back injury, and that I had to keep him from rough housing with other dogs. But I did this for his protection, on the recommendation of several veterinarians and rehab therapists (I got fourth and fifth opinions on that). I really tried to make up for it by taking him swimming all the time, which I thought was a good compromise because he could chase the ball in the water, and taking him to special places and new parks on a regular basis. After he was paralyzed, I vowed never to dwell on the things he couldn’t do. I said I would only focus on the positive - all the things he could still do - and that I would make the most of those. He wasn’t even supposed to be walking, and I tried never to lose sight of that or let anyone feel sorry for him. When people would see him limping along with his little shoe and say “awww, poor dog” I would always say “actually, he is doing great!”

But now that the end is here I can’t help but mourn the fact that this poor dog has been through so goddamn much, only to have this cancer cruelly snatch him away, just when I thought things were calming down for us. He had been walking for only a year, but he was doing so well and I looked forward to many uneventful years ahead where Alec could relax and turn into a wise, old, gray, OLD shepherd, by my side, enjoying his much deserved golden years in comfort and security, surrounded with love and quiet reflection (by me) on a beautiful life well-lived. This cancer wasn’t part of the plan. I don’t care about me. I would do anything, make any sacrifice or life change, for him, but it hurts so badly to see his life cut short after all the adversity he amazingly overcame just a short time ago. With tears in my eyes, I say: it is unfair!! He deserved more. My sweet shepherd deserved a break. But we didn’t get it. Why?? Again, how badly I want to wrest meaning from this. And I know our story is not unique; we are not the only ones to go through this, or worse. This is the human condition. But I don't care. This is our story and it sucks.

Besides those, I don’t have any regrets. Alec became the center of my world when my first dog Kobi died almost exactly four years ago and it was just the two of us. Our relationship further intensified after he became paralyzed and I nursed him back to health and, eventually, mobility. There is nothing like that experience to strengthen an existing bond. And because he was still disabled, I had to pay attention to things I never did before, which further brought him to the center of my day-to-day experiences, thoughts, emotions, and plans. When Alec was in the hospital in Feb 2008, I thought he might die. When he didn’t, a simple truth came rocketing home. Something I had known abstractly now took on immediacy and became very concrete: every day is precious. And I never forgot that.

The result being the last two plus years I have known exactly how lucky I was, not in the back of my mind, but in the forefront of my consciousness. So when Alec got cancer and people would tell me to cherish every moment, all I could say was, “I have already been doing that!” Honestly. I knew what I had and gave thanks for it every day. For all intents and purposes, I structured my life around Alec. And I am glad about that, after all. I recognized - and celebrated - the profound joy and contentment I felt when spending time with him doing the most mundane things. I don’t think I could have spent much more time with him, or put his happiness more front and center (seeing him happy brought me so much joy that it was a route to my own happiness as well). So there is that. But imagine the void that is going to leave. I can’t. I am having serious trouble seeing my life without him in it. That is one big presence. As one of his vets said, "Alec is larger than life," and I could not agree more when it comes to his place in my world. All I know is everything is going to change. Just everything. He has become such a big part of me. I scarcely know myself without him anymore.

Awhile ago, before I knew Alec was sick, I was dancing with my friend Mike at a club. The song “Just like Heaven” by the Cure came on and for some inexplicable reason I thought of Alec and started crying. Yes, I had been drinking but I don’t tend to burst into tears every time I drink or anything. I cried again as I told Mike on the cab ride home what happened. Even though he is the only person I know who is as obsessed with his dog as I am with Alec, he made fun of me…as well he should have. I was being crazy. He didn't understand why I was crying and I tried to explain it was just because I loved Alec so much and I didn’t know what I would do if anything happened to him. It was this overwhelming emotion. I laughed while I was crying, knowing I was being silly. That was only a few months ago.

Here is something I scrawled in my notebook, again before Alec was sick:

blissful days
quiet nights
never wrote much before
when I was happy
never felt moved
to capture the moments
to carry the feeling with me
always
you have changed all that
you
changed everything

everything
and always a little more
the narrative never stops
it keeps pushing forward like a train and
downward like the rain
sinking into my bones
radiating out through my skin
this “we” I am in

backward like an old refrain
I try to hold onto where we’ve been
before and ever now
upward into speechlessness
and the disorientation of being found
you are my sense of time, of place, of weight
my clock, my map, my scale
you are my reason.

I would not normally share the random scribblings from my notebook with anyone, but I wanted to convey what I felt, even then, when I thought things were fine. That Alec was my anchor… my purpose. I feel that when he leaves I could just fly off into the ether. Even for someone as verbose as me, it is hard to explain. It feels like losing home.

I will close this by again saying I am grateful I cherished every moment with Alec these last few years, and I’m glad I have the scribblings to prove it, like this from two years ago:

I miss you
even when you’re right next to me
in the next room (our room)
but I’m in the bathroom
thinking about random things
and then it hits me
how much I love you!
and I suddenly, achingly
miss you – rush to your side
even though you’re right here.

In cherishing Alec I also feared I would lose him, as this is the flip side of gratitude. Gratitude exists because we know we are lucky to have something – the awareness that it could be taken away. So we try not to take for granted, but we can’t be obsessed with loss either. I tried to straddle that line but truthfully after Kobi died (my first experience with grief), I was always afraid of losing Alec, even more so after he became disabled. And it has occurred to me that my fears brought this on somehow, but I know that for every thought I had that said “What would I do without you?” I had twenty more that said “We will be together for a long, long time!” If my thoughts were so powerful as to change reality, my world would look very different right now, and Alec and I would have many more years left together, many more experiences, many more chapters to write.

But the reality is we are out of options, and all of my high hopes have dwindled to this last one: the hope for a good death. Oh, and hope for an afterlife, which I have never held much truck with before but the impossibility of me being without Alec has driven me to seriously explore this. I refuse to believe our bond can be broken. And so I won’t believe it. I am going to turn into one of those woo-woo types when he leaves me, because I have to turn into something. Who am I without Alec? This dog has been the absolute center of my world and I mean that in a really, really good way. Although I used to scoff at them, I am starting to understand people who turn to spirituality and the supernatural in times like these. The mind rails against accepting the unthinkable separation. The afterlife is too appealing. Until someone disproves it, I think I am on board.

Soon I will hug Alec for the last time. Soon the color will drain out of my world. Soon I will change forever. And I will try to keep going without him. But I am not making any promises. I love Alec desperately with every fiber of my being. He is the best thing that ever happened to me. The times I have spent with him have been the happiest of my life, hands down. He is my joy, my light, my happiness. He is my amazing shepherd, but we couldn't beat this. Alec, I am so sorry I couldn’t make you better. How can I say good-bye? I don't know how to end this. There is no good way to end this. Oh please, I don't want to end this.


We had a picnic at Mt. Tabor Park last weekend. I shared my vegan "steak n cheese" sub with Alec. He also had some kibbles and lots of treats.


It was a happy day.

These lines on my face are new. I'm surprised my hair hasn't turned white yet.

My sweet shepherd boy.

Outside our apartment, just last week. The thousand watt smile that lights up my life.

The little house.

Keeping watch on the stoop.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hydro Power!

I uploaded some videos of Alec swimming in the indoor pool last weekend. Because of his disability, water is the ideal medium for Alec to play and exercise. Despite his activity restrictions on land, he can still enjoy his favorite game – fetch! – in the warm water at Paws Aquatics Canine Swim Center. During our weekly sessions at Paws Aquatics, I go in the pool with Alec and throw the ball for about 45 minutes. Recently I noticed he also likes to tread water and swim gentle laps with me. If I start doggie paddling across the pool he will follow or swim next to me while holding his ball. Very cute! My favorite part in the first video is at 2:42 when I go underwater and he looks around for me. I didn't know he did that until I saw it on the video. :)






I also take Ali swimming in the rivers around Portland. They are great in the summer but get very cold in the winter, so during the cold months the indoor pool is an ideal substitute. Now that the weather has finally warmed up here, I have been taking him swimming in rivers again. Sometimes lately he has been sluggish and not very interested in walking around the neighborhood, but he always perks up when I bring him to water! These two photos are from a recent excursion to one of our regular swimming haunts at George Rogers Park, south of Portland:


"I love my ball. It's so great!"

"Throw it!"

Alec has a very interesting relationship with water. When I adopted him seven years ago, he did not like it. Not long after he came to live with me in Georgia, we were on a hike and passed a small waterfall and Alec began biting and barking at the swirling water in the pool at the bottom. This was the first time I noticed something strange. I had tried to encourage him to swim but he was not interested, until one day I placed his ball just a foot or two into a gentle creek. His desire for his ball overcame his apprehension about the water, and he waded in. Ever since then, Alec has liked to swim, but he still barks at moving water. He becomes very agitated in the presence of waves (river or ocean); he will growl and grumble at them and sometimes bark using his high pitched “woof!” as he paces back and forth biting at the water in his adorable and strange way.

I took Alec to the coast a couple weeks ago on Father's Day and he had a good time patrolling the beach and playing in the waves (he does not swim in the ocean, just splashes around):

Here are some more photos from our trip to Cannon Beach.

I learned the hard way that Alec’s obsession with water means I have to keep him close anytime we are near it – especially if there are waves. Alec is a natural “heeler,” and when we are away from traffic and other dogs I often take him off his leash because he never goes far and never, ever runs away from me. Of course there are always exceptions, which is why I am such an advocate of dogs being leashed most of the time! However, at the risk of sounding like the most incompetent dog guardian ever, I will relay this harrowing tale:

One morning when we were living in San Francisco, I walked with Ali out to the Sutro Baths (ruins of an old public bath house right on the beach), where there is a lovely little promontory that overlooks the ocean. It was very early in the morning, and when we rounded the corner and I saw no one else was out there, I unsnapped Ali's leash. To my surprise and horror, he ran straight for the 4 ft. wall encircling the overlook, and, without hesitating, scrambled up and over this wall while I was still shouting his name. Miraculously he landed on a ledge halfway between the top of the cliff and the rocks below, but he was stranded there because the rock face was too vertical for him to climb up or down without falling. And I could not get to him. To make a long story short, Alec was rescued by the wonderful San Francisco Fire Department that morning (with only a small scrape on his paw) and I never made that mistake again! Alec had never done anything like this before and I realized afterward what prompted him to leap the wall; he heard the ocean waves and mistakenly thought the beach was right on the other side of the wall, rather than a story or two down. A close call that still makes me shudder!


The cliff. Not only the fire department, but also cliff and coastal rescue and animal control showed up.


That is my grubby hand in the frame. I talked to Alec the whole time so he would stay calm and still. It was a long time before the fire department (about eight members!) showed up and even longer before they got their climbing equipment set up. Alec was such a good boy. When one of the firefighters asked me if Alec would bite his rescuer, I said honestly I didn't know what he would do in this situation, considering he was stressed and scared. But to my great relief, when the firefighter landed on the ledge and grabbed hold of Ali's collar, he immediately started licking her face.

Once she got the climbing harness attached to Alec, she rappelled to the bottom holding him against her body. My hero! The firefighters were so sweet and told me how much they loved their own dogs as I thanked them over and over. As Alec and I walked back home, I was shaking from the aftereffects of my panic-fueled adrenaline rush. Alec, on the other hand, was completely unfazed and the first thing he did was grab a stick to play with!

I will wrap up with a general plug for hydrotherapy (not defined as jumping off a cliff into the ocean!). Although I swim Alec now mainly for fun and exercise, I cannot overemphasize the importance of water to his recovery from paralysis (not just free swimming, but the underwater treadmill too). Swimming is not only great rehabilitation for dogs with neurological conditions like disc disease, but it is also helpful for many other common ailments like arthritis, hip dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, or even recovery following injuries. For this reason, if your dog is not a natural born “water dog,” you might want to get her used to the water now before she has a problem that could benefit from hydrotherapy.

It obviously helps if your dog likes the water and is motivated to chase a ball other toy. However, even if your dog does not like the water now, this could change with positive reinforcement and the right motivation. As I mentioned, when I adopted Alec he would not go near the water, but he was so toy-motivated that I was able to coax him in one day using his ball as bait, and from that day on he loved to swim. So you never know! I thanked my lucky stars many times during Alec's rehabilitation that he liked the water so much. Because swimming can be therapeutic for so many conditions – in addition to providing an important physical and psychological outlet for dogs with mobility restrictions – I think it would not be a bad idea for every guardian to help their dog get comfortable with water while they are healthy, just in case. Again, you never know.

If you are considering swimming with a mobility-challenged companion, please use caution. Before we had the indoor pool option, I started out swimming Alec in various rivers. Alec is a very smooth swimmer and I was always careful to keep him submerged in the water as much as possible so that he was mostly treading water, rather than coming in and out, which would have caused more stress on his joints (I was always hip deep in the water in the beginning, now I usually only wade in up to my knees). If your dog gets wild in the water or is not a smooth swimmer, this is probably not the best activity for him if he is recovering from a back injury. If you can get him to walk in the water along the river’s edge that would be okay, but free swimming would not be a good option for a dog who may thrash or be rambunctious. Just use your judgment and talk to your dog’s physical therapist if you have one. I can only say what it seemed to do for Ali. Also, never put your disabled dog in the water without a life vest.


Until very recently, I always had Ali wear his "float coat" (Ruff Wear makes a good one, modeled by Ali here) when in the river as a safety precaution, just in case. And if you are trying to get your dog in a pond, lake, or river for the first time, enter the water with him and hold onto the life vest until you are absolutely sure of his ability. It was a long time before I was comfortable standing on the shore tossing the ball for Alec.


Ready to swim!

I did not talk about the underwater treadmill in this post because I have discussed it elsewhere, but that is another excellent option and one that Alec grew to love so much it was hard getting him out of the tank at the end of his sessions!

Alec in mid-squeak with his favorite underwater treadmill toy - the loudest one of course!

Post Script: This is the post I wanted to share this week, so I did. However, I had some bad news yesterday. Alec's cancer has come back. I don't want to write about that right now, but I will post another update soon. I wanted to get this happy post up now before I become too sad to look through pictures, etc. And I wanted to post it before I pick him up from the clinic, where he is getting an emergency chemo treatment, a different combination of drugs, in a last ditch effort to hold the cancer off a little longer. He has been there all day, and I don't want to spend much time on the computer when he comes home. Our time has palpably dwindled, my high hopes for a long remission seemingly swirling down the drain. This blog represents some of the most challenging times in my life but also the most rewarding. It has been, and remains, a labor of love.