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."

5 comments:

Connie, Orlando said...

As I read your posts, I can't stop thinking about Elsa, the lioness, and George & Joy Adamson. Her life and her story transformed not only George & Joy's lives, but those of Virginia McKenna & her husband Bill Travers who portrayed the Adamsons in the movie Born Free, many of the lions from the film, my life and those of untold others. The story of Alec & you, I am certain has had a similar transformative effect on the two of you and those whose lives you have touched. This has been but the beginning of the story. It is connections, like the one you and Alec have experienced, that make life more than simply getting up, going to work, and growing old. It is what makes life worth living and something we humans search for and rarely find. The story of the two of you is epic, life affirming, and the story of real, unselfish, pure love. My intention is not meant to trivialize or ignore the profound, earth shattering grief you are and will go through. Losing our anchor in the world irreparably changes our life, who we are and how we view the world afterwards. However, the fact that the two of you were able to find each other in the first place, and how you each have enriched the other's life is beyond amazing. Alec will forever and always be a part of who you are.

mary martin said...

I don't know what the most depressing blog on the Internet is, but the story of you and Alec is always inspiring and uplifting. No matter what happens, there is immense and unconditional love and dedication. That's the most any of us can ask for, as immortality unfortunately isn't ours. I hope Alec is able to sit in his his house and look at you for another day. And I'm sorry for your pain.

Marie said...

A French web surfer for 10 years, i have never left a comment ever before but your and Alec's story so touched me that I felt i had to. You are a beautiful person and you have enriched Alec's life. He obviously did the same for you, animals will do that if you let them. My thoughts are with you and as we say in french "bon courage".

Ben said...

You are amazing!

He's lucky to have someone that cares for him so much.

My wife and I have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Honey that was paralyzed almost a year ago.

You give us hope.

Anonymous said...

RIP Alec