June 2, 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.

I walked to where she stood, bent over her to see if she had a bit of rawhide or a twig stuck between her teeth. As soon as I touched her, she toppled against my legs and collapsed in a heap.

And the seizures started: her body first rigid, then her feet twitching in swimming movements, her eyes full of disorientation and fear. I sat down on the floor beside her, murmured the habitual promise that everything would be OK and prayed that it would turn out to be true.

It was the beginning of six hours of rolling seizures, each lasting a few minutes, then relenting, only to start again moments later. When we passed the first hour mark, I knew it would be a long day, exhausting for her, heart-breaking for me to watch. But sometimes the only gift we have to give is witness.

I whispered to her a long time, recounting stories of her puppyhood, reminding her how I had adored her from the start, urging her to go if she needed to, pretending that I would be all right without her as constant companion.

She shuddered, rested, stiffened, relaxed, while the first sunny afternoon in days drifted by. And finally, just before the dinner hour, the seizures ceased and she slept.

I sat in a wing chair and watched her for a long time, a leaden heaviness in every limb of my body, the start of lonely grief like a rock in my heart. I let her lie, untouched and undisturbed in her hard-won slumber, as though her calm was not exhaustion but the peaceful stillness of any ordinary day.

Suffering suggests that truth, how hard it is to accept the final facts: how powerless and alone we are, trapped in bodies that come apart at the seams. As long as her nerves last, I will tell myself the well-practiced lie about how we will go on doing what we have always done -- taking walks, filling the cupboard with rawhide and dog biscuits, then emptying it again, as if life were nothing more than treats and trust in happy endings.

Maybe that's all we can do, crossing species boundaries -- just sit, as time exacts its tolls, and befriend the departures as we greeted the arrivals. Perhaps all we have, ever, is the comfort that loyalty brings. Little else is needed; nothing more granted or earned. This bond, I expect, is all there is beyond the tremors of the body, the eclipse of days. Love, and love more.

 

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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