A New Year …

The BeachThe world lost some good dogs this year. Some because it was their time, others too soon, but if anything is true, the world is better to have known them.

Now, as we close out this year and welcome the new, it’s important to do as they did, and always look forward, not back, and remember that life is an opportunity, and it is up to us what to make of it. The time we were given with them may be over, but the lessons they taught and the love they shared will be with us forever.

Every New Year, just after midnight, we read Robert Burns’ The Auld Farmer’s New-Year Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie to the dogs. This year will be no exception. And though it may look like there’s one dog missing, I know that he is still here in the ways that matter the most.

Dexter and Sophie

 

We’ve worn to crazy years thegither;

We’ll toyte about wi’ ane anither;

Wi’ tentie care I’ll flit thy tether

To some hain’d rig,

Where ye may nobly rax your leather.

Wi’ sma’ fatigue.

Here’s to looking forward. Happy New Year, everyone.

Lost and Found, Part Three of Three

This has taken a long, long time to commit to words. For me, writing has a way of making things real, and I’m not certain I’m ready to make this real yet.

I wrote those last two sentences over a month ago. I haven’t been able to even look at it since. Let’s try again tonight.

That night, after we went to his spots, the places in our neighborhood he invariably insisted on checking, even if only to make sure they were still there, and that no one had paved or dug up or peed on or built over them, we rolled back home. Dexter was as happy as I’d seen him in weeks, sprawled out in his wagon, smiling, smelling the air, looking at his world pass by. In the hallway, I helped him out of the wagon, and he smiled as he walked from the elevator through our door on his own … no collar, no leash, just him, coming home. He took a good drink of the Gatorade that replaced his water these days, and waddled over to the couch, waiting for me to help him up. It was time for a Canine Concert. [NB: trademark pending, so there!]

As a recovering musician for the last ten years or so, I have been afforded the opportunity to find my core audience, which apparently consists almost exclusively of dogs … usually, but not entirely, of dogs that I happen to own … you know, the ones that rely on me for things like food, shelter, and affection. Dogs in this situation tend to be a very attentive audience, particularly when there happens to be a little pile of liver treats nearby. Dexter and Sophie are no exceptions.

Dexter didn’t particularly care for TSOL’s Walk Away or my versions of Rocket Man or Purple Rain, but he liked Raglan Road, Chelsea Hotel #2, My Last Two Weeks, and Sunshine on Leith. More than anything, though, he would lift his head and smile when he heard The Broad Majestic Shannon and Gliding Like a Whale. We broke out the keyboard and guitar, and for the next couple hours, went through some tear-stained versions of his favorites. He found Dexterado, my version of Desperado, as humorous as always.

By the end of the set, M and Dex were dozing, and Sophie had long since abandoned the living room. She never cared for Dexterado. I put the instruments away, and M woke up and asked if I could take her place with Dex. I stretched out and he put his paw over my shoulder. I knew it was probably the last time he’d be able to do that. All those positive signs we saw earlier were fading. He fell asleep curled up on my chest.

A couple hours later, the bloating was building back up in his belly, and the pressure on his bladder made Dexter pee as he slept. I gently rolled him head over tail … thanks, jiu-jitsu … and put us on the other, much more dry, end of the couch, softly explaining to a still sleeping dog that it was OK, and that everything would be just fine, and that we’d take care of that tomorrow.

The next morning I woke up early, made coffee, and carried Dexter into the bedroom to lay next to M. He plopped his head onto her pillow and melted into the mattress. When they woke up, Dexter crawled to the edge of the bed, and I carried him to the balcony, where he squinted his eyes and bathed in the sunshine.

What are we doing today?

Taking Dexter to the lake, and then the vet, I want to check his weight, and maybe check his blood, too.

We walked Sophie, got his wagon ready, and rolled out the door, into the car, and off to the lake. Sophie would have to hold down the fort at home.

It was quiet, and parking was a breeze, like there was a spot waiting there just for us. We unloaded the wagon, helped Dex in, and rolled over to the beach at 31st Street. He was silent, mostly, just smelling the air, soaking in the sun, and listening to the birds, barely noticing M and I whisper back and forth, desperate not to disturb him with our sensational hopes of everything just getting better and back to normal. We rolled out to the end of the pier, stopped, and sat down on the concrete. This was his place. This was where he needed to be.

I can’t tell you how long we were there, but I can say that I wish we still were.

We eventually rolled back along the lakefront, close enough so the mist from the waves splashed him in the face. He approved. In his stronger days, he liked to dodge the water that would splash up as the waves crashed into the rocks on the shore. We rolled up a grassy hill and I helped him out of the wagon and onto the grass. The waves were gently falling, the wind was blowing, the sun was shining, and here was Dexter, stretched out on the grass, eyes shut, breathing it all in.

M asked

What should we do now?

We should go to the vet and check his weight., maybe do his blood.

I don’t know if I can do that to him any more.

Let’s take him in and check his weight, and talk to Dr. Katz about what to do next.

As I loaded him back into the wagon, his look told me what I didn’t want to hear:

Daddy, I’m tired.

I knew what was next, it started a few months ago with Daddy, I’m sick, and then in the hospital with Daddy, I want to come home, right before he chewed his catheter out. When we got to the car, I put him in the back seat, and he finished it:

Daddy, I need help.

Why he chose that term, I’ll never know. I’m not a father, and by most people’s standards, should never be one. But that’s what he said, because he was my boy, I guess. Painfully, I knew what help he needed. I pulled up some fresh grass from the hill and put it in the mesh baggie we left with him whenever he was in the hospital. Off we went, purposefully taking the longest and most traffic heavy route.

We arrived, too soon. He walked in on his own. We checked his weight. Everyone at Gold Coast started to tear up. Some had to leave. God bless them all. He walked into the treatment room on his own. No leash. No help from me, other than to steady his hips as he raised his head up as best he could and marched through the door. Dignity, even then. We put his pillow down, covered with his “Arnold’s” hoodie and the shirt he slept with, and he plopped down onto it and closed his eyes to rest. We spread the grass from the hill around his head, his favorite smell by far. He took a deep breath.

We sang to him. The Broad Majestic Shannon and Gliding Like a Whale … his favorites. I don’t even know how many times. Doctor Katz came in, as teary eyed as the rest of us. It was time to help him.

On Bastille Day, July 14th, 2011, Dexter Lama, a three time cancer survivor, gained peace after 15 years of making the world a better place. He passed in the arms of his family and surrounded by his friends. He is survived by his constant and faithful companion, the brave Sophie Two Toes, who has known nothing in her life but him, and M and G, who were blessed to have him, and whose lives he saved more than once. We will never be the same.

Holding Pattern

I have stopped myself from writing this at least a dozen times. I’m trying to stop now. It’s not working, but at the same time, I can’t seem to start. A typhoon of images and sounds and thoughts floods my head, desperate to drown the memories of that sad, sad time, when what we did was what must have been done, but still, so relentlessly and ruthlessly heartbreaking.

I don’t think I can. I’ll have to try again tomorrow.

Part Three, postponed.

Lost and Found, Part Two

That conversation lasted a long time. The facts were not complicated:

  • we are doing everything we can, but we do not have any real options, since he would not survive the treatments;
  • he is not in pain … yet … but he is not happy;
  • draining the fluid gave him relief, but it is only temporary;
  • we will not send him away to the hospital again;
  • we cannot allow him to become that sick again;
  • he is a proud dog and it hurts him to fail us, but if he gets any sicker, he will begin to fail, and he is worth more than that;
  • he deserves to be free from pain and fear;
  • we do not want his last memories to be my carrying him to the car at 3am, driving frantically to the emergency vet, all of us petrified of what is happening; and
  • we understand we can never repay him for what he has given us, but we owe him at least his dignity, our respect, and some peace.

The conclusions resulting from that conversation were somewhat more complicated.

We knew that eventually, we would have to help him pass. We just didn’t want that to be now. We owed him a chance to fight, once again, to see if the relief he is experiencing would give him the strength to heal. If we felt it was time, if he let us know, we would have to act. He told us he wanted to come home from the hospital, so certainly he would be able to tell us sadder truths, too. In the meantime, we had to make every moment he was with us special, so that his last days or weeks or, if there could possibly be more miracles in this dog’s life, months, would be something that we could look back on and say that we had done good for him.

I bought a pizza for dinner; I hadn’t actually cooked for anyone but him for weeks, and we were sick of takeaway. Besides, he used to love eating the crusts and sausage, and I hoped he might be up to it now that he was feeling more like himself. I was right. M hand fed him sausage and pizza crusts, along with one of her fingers that he seemed to think was another piece of crust. She managed to keep smiling as he bit down and tugged at her finger. She told me that she couldn’t help but smile, it was so nice seeing him strong and able to bite down so hard again. He even drank his Gatorade — orange, this time.

Wagon Boy

Life in the fast lane ...

That night, I wanted him to take him to his old stomping grounds, places where he used to love to walk, places where he would stop and sit and stare, listening to the sounds, smelling the air or the ground, just taking it all in and experiencing as much as he could. He was still too weak to make it on his own, though, so I helped him into his wagon, and out the door we went.

The first stop was Daley Plaza, where he liked to sit on a bench, stare at the lights and the fountain, and smell the flowers. He met a few new friends that night, people amazed to see an old white pit resting in a red wagon rolling down the sidewalk, pulled by me, and accompanied by a woman fighting to stay strong and positive. Along, of course, was a very patient red nosed pit mix called Sophie. He had raised her from a puppy, steadily by her side for more than thirteen years. One man walking alone asked about him. Visibly moved by our explanation of the reason for the whole scene, he knelt down next to the wagon, rubbed Dexter’s head, hugged him, and scratched his back, before softly telling him that Saint Francis would be watching over him.

Dexter at Daley Plaza

So on we went to Daley Plaza, so that Dexter could stare at the lights dancing in the fountain, listen to the water, and smell the flowers.

Our next stop was a strip of dirt and grass along the sidewalk next to a vacant lot. He used to love to patrol it so much we called it Dexter’s Alley. When the wagon approached the spot he liked to mark, I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see him clamber out of the wagon, big grin on his face, front legs on the sidewalk, dragging the rest of him out of the wagon and towards the dirt. Before I could get over to help him, he made it out, walked over towards the fence, and relieved himself of all that Gatorade. He turned and walked back to the wagon, paused, and looked up at me to help him get back in, as if to say “We have one more stop to make, get me up there, let’s go!” So on we went, to the little public plaza where Sam’s Hot Dogs used to stand, where he had his favorite patch of grass. Every walk he took seemed to end up there, in one way or another, so he could plop down, take a rest, and smell the grass.

My Own Private Patch of GrassIt was in this spot where a couple of weeks ago, the night before we brought Dexter to the hospital, a hobo walked down the sidewalk and asked if he could say hello to the dog. Before you laugh, this guy really was a hobo … white hair, dungarees, his t-shirt stuffed into his back pocket, carrying a nearly empty bottle of water … all he was missing was a bindlestick and a 1950’s nickname like Lefty, or Lucky, or Knobby. I could have sworn I saw soot from a coal fired locomotive under his eyes. In most cases, I would say no, but this time I said “Sure, come on over.” He walked over and sat on the grass next to Dexter, who didn’t seem to mind.

It’s almost time to go, huh? It won’t be long.

Yeah, he’s getting up there, fifteen years now.

Fifteen, huh? That’s a long time. He’s a lucky guy. Not much time left. That’s OK, though. We start dying the moment we’re born.

Alright boy, well, come on, Dexter, let’s get you home. You have a good night, OK?

Dexter got up, walked over to the hobo, and started licking his face. The hobo scratched him behind the ears, and Dex just kept on licking and wagging his tail.

Come on Dex, let’s go. Hey, do you want another bottle of water?

We kept a couple bottles of water in the bag we carried on Dexter’s walks. I handed a bottle to the hobo.

Thanks, I’d love one. You take care.

You too. Stay safe.

We walked off, Dexter strutting along. Time to go home.

Lost and Found, Part One

I have aged five years and lost five pounds in as many days. Forgive how scattered this post may end up; my hands are trembling as I begin to write.

The twelfth of July was a very special day. Dexter had made it home from the hospital, ate a little, and was looking more bright-eyed than I had seen in a week. He slept between us on the bed, where I turned him over every couple hours and massaged his back legs, where edema had turned them into sausages. You could massage the fluid out, but it eventually made its way back. They felt like those gel-filled stress balls. The next morning he spent on the balcony, soaking up the sunlight. He was not interested in food, but I managed to get his medicine in him.

A little grumpy, but bright eyed.

A little grumpy, but bright eyed.

I wanted to take him to some of the places he loved to walk to, but there was no way with his anemia and the weight from his abdominal fluid that he could get there on his own. M had been half-jokingly asking for years for a Radio Flyer red wagon she could use to pull the dogs around town. I thought, “Why not?” Something made me get up and head to the store, where I found the last wagon in the city. As I carted it away, I walked by a clerk at the store talking on the phone: “No, they were out of the Radio Flyer wagons, someone just took the last one.” That was spooky timing.

As the day wore on, something inside told me that maybe I was missing something, maybe we needed a new set of eyes to look at Dexter — I was too close to him, too focused on trying to help him and care for him, and maybe I was missing some key symptom that would explain everything; something that could be treated.

The day before, I received a card from Dexter’s oncologist, noting where her new practice was located: a veterinary specialty center in town. I called and they said bring him on in. I loaded Dexter into his wagon and off we went. I had to carry him into the center: he had so much fluid in his belly (he weighed 62 pounds … 10 more than a week ago), and just couldn’t walk very far, even with help.

Dexter’s regular vets had kindly faxed over his latest records, and spent time on the phone with the oncologist explaining what had been happening. She came into the treatment room, where I explained that I was afraid I might be missing something, and wanted to make sure that I live up to my promise to give him every opportunity. She explained that there were treatments we could do, like plasma or blood transfusions, IV fluids, and the like, and we could hospitalize him and get started tonight, but that there was almost no way that Dexter would survive the treatments. I had already promised him that I wouldn’t leave him in a hospital again, so that, coupled with his likely not living through it, meant that transfusions and more needles and medicines and pokes and prods wasn’t an option. She added that even if he did survive the treatment, he would still have to fight another high grade sarcoma, which is hard enough when you’re healthy.

I don’t normally speak so bluntly, but you have to ask yourself how deep a hole are you going to put him in, and then expect him to climb his way out? This is not the Dexter I saw two months ago. I think this is the end stage Dexter. It’s time to start thinking about euthanasia.

The welling of tears in my eyes burst into streams as she gave me a box of tissues. I apologized.

It’s OK, this is oncology, everybody cries in oncology.

I wasn’t ready for euthanasia, M wasn’t with us anyway, and after all, I just got him the last red wagon in Chicago, and he had barely used it. His oncologist said that she would give him some comfort by draining fluid and I could take him home. He wasn’t in any pain, but the amount of fluid in his abdomen made moving and walking difficult, and he was damned miserable. The treatment was a risk: he could go into shock right then and there, or the fluid that was removed could merely be replaced, leaving him worse off than before, even dead. We went for it. He deserved some relief from the bloating and swelling.

After a couple hours, the door opened and he stormed in, face swollen from the fluids they injected under his skin to hydrate him, but on his own four legs and walking under his own power. The swelling in his back legs was gone, so he could walk instead of waddle for a change. They had managed to drain 3 liters of fluid — between half and two thirds of the total volume. That’s the equivalent of two and a half GALLONS of fluid in a 150 pound human. I wouldn’t have walked around much with that sitting in my belly, either.

For the first time in what seemed like weeks, but was really days, he walked in front, on his own, demanding that I get him the hell out of that hospital and back into the car, immediately. He even tried to jump into the back seat on his own. When we got home, he walked over the threshold and through the front door on his own, headed straight for the couch, and curled up. He shivered, and M covered him with a blanket. Unmistakably pissed off at me, he dozed off and on as he built his strength back up, and I had to have the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had.

 

 

Story Titles

In addition to the updates on his condition, we’re compiling a list of stories about Dex. We have the following titles so far:

  • The Carrot Thief
  • The Baker
  • The Locksmith
  • The Detective
  • The Benevolent King
  • The Pocket Burglar
  • The Frankenstein
  • The Truffle Eater
  • The Remodeler
  • The Bull Dozer
  • The Snorer
  • The Window Protector and Shadow Submitter
  • The Third Shifter
You can’t be all doom and gloom, even when the odds seem stacked against you. Remembering the positive things this fella has done and the great life he’s shared with us is just as important as getting him the best care we possibly can.
Update: We’ve got some more:
  • Rats, Rabbits, Birds, Skunks, and Chipmunks
  • The Snow Diver

Good by Dog and Dexter

Dexter sleeping

Dexter.

Welcome to Good by Dog. We’ll get to what that means later. The important things first. This is Dexter. He’s more than likely a pit bull – boxer mix. I say more than likely because he’s a rescue dog, saved from a shelter in central Illinois, in a town where breed ignorance is so persistent that the vet he visited for his first shots and neutering made sure to list his breed as “Terrier mix” on the rabies form. Without that courtesy, one would be very, very hard pressed to find a place to rent that would accept your application. Ironically, the only reason Dexter made it out of that kennel with M was that he was the only dog that she could walk in their play area — the rest pulled too hard, barked, jumped, whatever … they were just excited, of course, not bad dogs by any means. When M entered the room, Dexter looked up, saw her, and put his head back down, likely thinking what anyone else would think: no way this five-foot-tall-ninety-five-pound-just-graduated-from-college-young-woman would be able to handle him. He’d be too big, strong, and scary … all barrel chest and teeth and muscle. When she got him on the leash, he stood up … never barking, never jumping, never pulling … and walked calmly beside her in the run, happy someone would take the time to give him a chance. Before she left the kennel that day, she went back to him and whispered “Don’t worry, I’ll be back for you tomorrow.” She paid her deposit, filled out the forms, and the next day she bummed a ride from a friend to get her and Dexter back to his new home. That was 14 years ago.

Dexter has cancer. Well, he’s had cancer in the past, actually, and more than once. In 2006 he had (most of) a mass removed from his elbow: spindle cell sarcoma. It grew back three years later, which we expected since they couldn’t get it all out, and we had it, as well as a big fatty tumor underneath the muscle on his left side, removed. This time it was well encapsulated and amazingly the whole thing came out.

A couple months ago, after noticing a weight loss and lethargy that couldn’t be explained by old age (he is 15 years old, after all), we had an ultrasound done and got the bad news: Dexter had mass in his spleen, and it looked like there was something in his liver as well. Splenic tumors in dogs come in a few different types, and none of them have a very favorable prognosis. In general, you’re looking at a matter of weeks … by the time symptoms appear, this very aggressive cancer has already spread to the liver and other organs. Dexter had his spleen removed shortly after the ultrasound.

Dexter got lucky, in a perverse sense of the term. Though the biopsy couldn’t definitively state what type of cancer he had, all signs pointed to histiocytic sarcoma. This is kind of like being picked second to last in gym … it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty awful anyway. In a further burst of defiance, Dexter’s tumor seemed to be completely contained within the spleen, and during surgery there didn’t appear to be anything going on with the liver. With chemo, we could shoot for six more months with Dexter alive and well, and with some luck, a year or even more. Sometimes, and not a lot is known about these cancers, in fact only recently have we even been able to differentiate between the different types that occur, removal of the organ is curative.

That’s when I decided to start Good by Dog. The name comes from a promise I made when he was struggling a bit recovering from surgery … I told him I would do everything I could to make sure that every day he had left would be “good by him.” No more excuses, no selfishness, no I’m too tired for a decent walk, no I’m too busy staring at a computer to spend time with him. I wanted to make sure that every night he and I would be able to look back and be satisfied; that every day from then on out would be “good by Dexter.” Good by Dog came around not only because I figured that there are bound to be plenty of other people struggling with similar issues, but because the world would be a much better place if everyone in it would live their lives Good by Dog. Doesn’t matter what dog, really, or even that it is a dog in the first place, but the important part is that we tend to be better people when we set high standards for ourselves. Good by Dexter is mine, and I hope Good by Dog will be yours.