June 1, 2013

North Cairn: If only this dog had nine lives

I fear the end.

Not my own, you understand. The dog's.

In a way I have been planning for it for years, ever since she was diagnosed with epilepsy at 11 months of age.

The vet already by then had been tolerating my dogs and me for 20 years -- through the loopy antics of a golden retriever-Irish setter mix and then a pedigree golden from a hunting line. He had dealt, too, with a fair share of illnesses in my newest golden, who came to me with mange, worms and a face that alternated between a look of worry and a steady gaze of expectant joy.

When he told me about the epilepsy, he explained that it could be controlled but not cured, and even that not forever. He prescribed the usual treatment, phenobarbital, and explained that as time went on, she would experience some bloating from the drug. I needed to understand, he said, that the barbituate would probably shorten her life by perhaps a couple of years.

"We find these dogs don't live much past 8 years old," he said.

She is now 10.

The phenobarbital has worked almost miraculously, most of the time, for nearly a decade. Consequently, during the quiet periods, it was easy to forget that she had an incurable illness. She was like any other dog, only better -- sashaying her way through life, swimming through miles and miles of salty waves, and perching in beds of seaweed, waiting for me to hurl a tennis ball or a quahog shell past her -- whatever object was at hand to help her perform a mock retrieval and paddle out into deep water.

My favorite memories of her are from the beach, the one spot on earth where she enjoyed total freedom and her favorite pastime, swimming without constraint. For three or four summers we went to the beach almost every evening after my work was finished and the sunbathers had gone home. I would toss a few items into the surf; she would think about going after them. But inevitably she would set out, pretending to retrieve a stick, then speed past it, heading straight out to sea.

That was the undeniable sign that she was in her zone, a place apart from me, a watery timeless, immediate and completely private world.

Often I let her go a long way out from shore, once almost into the ferry lane, before hollering her back, waving my arms like an aircraft ramper, signaling her in. She scared a lot of people -- a couple of times even frightening me into pointless rescue attempts -- with that behavior, but I knew she was in perfect ecstasy in the water, off on her own. So rather than restrain her, I bought her a bright yellow life jacket, XL, just in case the unthinkable happened, and she suffered a seizure half a mile out in the bay.

She has survived to become a grizzled old girl, moving slowly as a Hereford, but still willing to shed her age at the shore. She has outlived by two years the predictions and prognosis of her epilepsy, at last removing my daily concern over her health and giving me hope that she could go on and on, despite the disease derailing the signals in her brain.

So it came as a dreaded recognition recently when on a Sunday morning, she seemed to be behaving in an odd way, opening and closing her jaw as though the joint had been dislodged. Then, she began licking her snout hypnotically, in a rhythmic action, accomplishing nothing.

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