Sunday, December 21, 2008

Guilt Trip

It snowed huge on Friday, then dusted on Saturday, and now it has snowed again this Sunday morning. Well, it’s been really more of a wintry mix, but Comet’s not discriminating.

He’s already been in the snow once this morning to frolic, but back indoors, he questions my motions. Am I fumbling with the camera so I can put it in its bag and get ready to go, as I so often do?

No, I am not. As Comet begins to realize the inevitable truth that it may be an hour or more (gasp!) before he is returned to the snowy wonderland, the will to live slowly leaves him.

The weight of the world settles down around him; his life-force ebbs. He gives his very best existentially drained look off into nowhere.

I swear he’s checking to make sure we’re observing the drama. It’s not good guilt-tripping if we’ve stopped paying attention. The reason he’s not looking at the camera is that it’s on the coffee table so it can be stable enough to take low light, non-flash pictures. He’s looking at me and I’m reaching down and snapping pictures with my left hand.

“Dad? Do you see you’re killing me here? Do you see?”

Now he’s throwing himself fully back into the role. And he’s hanging improbably far off the couch. This simply isn’t sustainable drama, at least in terms of the biophysics. He has to fall off the couch or give up the game.

He gives up, pulls himself back onto his couch, and dozes, still chock-full of drama, at least one eye open continually. He must wait until we move, or jingle keys, or otherwise indicate in any way that we might be going outside and taking him with us. Until that time (probably 1/2 hour from now), he will wait, vigilant, ever ready to do his job and show that snow who’s boss.

On a more serious note, he does seem to be holding up OK despite Gus’s absence. He still checks for his old friend once in a while, and I’m sure he would much rather play with Gus in the house than go out in the snow alone, but he’s adapting well to this one-dog household. We’ve been careful to spoil him rotten and keep his days active. I’m glad the weather has cooperated so nicely (even if it makes it hard to go get eggs in the mornings)!

Just for fun, a short video of Comet’s dramatics, combined with some lovely waiting music:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow Is Fun

Some of Comet’s first memories are of snow, and when this big winter storm dumped a whole mess on us, he was in heaven.

He eats it; he chases snow balls; he wants it kicked into his face or thrown at him with a shovel. He frolics in it, slides into it, and flops down in drifts. Now that it’s on the ground, he can’t believe that we would spend even a moment indoors and gives long, plaintive looks, sighs, and the occasional whine to go back out into this most glorious of substances.

I swear, I didn’t have this much fun even when I was a kid in a big snowstorm. I loved building forts, throwing snowballs, sledding, jumping into drifts, and the whole nine yards, but you have to envy a fur coat that’s so adaptable and water-friendly that throwing yourself onto your face and then wriggling on your back is not only comfortably but actually feels awesome.

This is joie de vivre at its finest. Demonic shining red eye joie de vivre.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Departure By Water

At 5:30 PM today, a great light went out of this world. We bore witness to Gus’s passing and wished him a heaven with a cool, blue lake and friends to throw tennis balls for him as he retrieves them, never tired again.

When I wrote last Tuesday, I didn’t realize Gus really was completely blind; it seemed implausible, but a few tests with a tennis ball that Tuesday night confirmed it.

Wednesday, Gus’s second day of total blindness, his biopsy results came back: panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma. He is one of a handful of dogs ever to get this, and it’s rare in humans too, maybe 1500 cases a year. It’s typically very aggressive and debilitating, and it doesn’t respond to chemotherapy as well as B-cell lymphoma does.

Even so, the veterinary oncologist we consulted with on Wednesday afternoon was optimistic that chemotherapy might halt the cancer’s progress and reverse many of its symptoms for several months, maybe even a year, but he was equally clear that Gus’s sight would probably not return.

The blindness was most likely caused by infiltration of his nerves by the lymphoma, and thus the only way it could reverse was to contain the lymphoma and give the nerves several months to regenerate. Even if that long shot came through, it wouldn’t be much longer before Gus’s lymphoma became chemo-resistant and attacked him again.

Faced with the prospect of a blind Gus who, even with the best medicine possible, might live a few months and then relapse into these horrible symptoms, we knew that we had to make a gut-wrenching decision that was in his best interest, if not ours.

We decided to put him on Prednisone, not true chemotherapy, to see if its lesion-shrinking potential could return Gus’s sight. If he regained his vision at all, we would consider chemotherapy. What we wouldn’t consider, though, is chaining him to the limited half-life of blindness and sickness just so we could have him around for a few more months.

After a couple days of Prednisone, he perked up quite a bit. We bought him a stuffed duck with a Santa hat, spoiled him rotten with filet mignon, and helped him learn to navigate the house and the stairs without his sight. Even so, he remained on his couch all day unless he was called off. I imagine he thought the lights had gone out and had decided to wait patiently for them to come back on. These six days he waited for a solution, a light switch to flip up and return the woods and tennis balls to him.

He was content with this waiting, in a way, but we had no way of knowing when the Prednisone would stop working, just that it would soon, and all the symptoms being held at bay would ravage him again. Even on the medicine, he never stopped whuffing air out his nose constantly and sneezing savagely when he exerted himself at all. He never regained an iota of his sight. He also looked much sicker than he does in these pictures, which I chose because they show him at his best moments. He looks alert in each because he’s just heard a sound, not because he can see anything.

Even before we took him in today, there were signs that the brief window the steroids gave us was closing. His left eye was bulging alarmingly, and his lesions were starting to look red and itchy again. When we did bring him to the vet today, we learned he had lost almost five more pounds, meaning that in addition to the 10% of his body weight he lost in the first month of his sickness, he had lost 10% more in the last five days, despite lots of canned food, steak, and dog cookies.

It was time. Everything selfish in me screamed for delay, but our love for the dog had to win out. He had given six years of unwavering loyalty and love, and that gift deserved our best humanity in return. I cooked two strips of bacon and then seared one last rare filet mignon in the grease. I chopped the bacon and steak into chunks to feed him at the vet, and I held his head in my hands and Andy stroked his side as the vet pushed the plunger on those fatal shots. His head got heavier and heavier, and he leaned into my leg and smelled me one last time. We spoke words of encouragement and told him it was OK for him to go and be free. And then he was gone.

I would have thought that we would want to spend time with his body after it was all over, but aside from the moments we needed to compose ourselves, neither of us wanted to stay. At the moment he died, he was gone, and all that he had left behind was a husk that bore little resemblance to Gus. I smelled the top of his head, so I would remember him as he remembered me, and we left.

I like to think that once his eyes closed in that vet’s office for the last time, they opened up, sight restored, to look out over a clear blue lake, with a tennis ball sailing out overhead, no time for fear or worry or to miss those he left behind. He runs out to the end of the dock, eyes looking out over the water, spotting the splash the ball marks itself with, feet pounding the old boards, no more aches or exhaustion. But this time, when he touches off from the heavy bonds of the wood, he hangs in that perfect moment of time, as unaware of its passing as he was in life, savoring the the joy of the boundary of air and water, sailing out and across. Except maybe this time he sails out impossibly far over the water, until he crashes down, jaws closing right on the ball, and this time he takes it to the farther shore, not back to us.

I don’t know if there’s a heaven, or if dogs get to go. I do know that if there is any fairness, Gus deserves to be stretched out in the air over water somewhere right now, feeling the lightness in his chest and anticipating the satisfying crash down into the coolness. Even if a dog only lives on in the heart of those who love him, that’s what he’s doing in mine, leaping upwards and outwards, buoyed by love and joy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I was going to write this entry with no pictures at all, but it seemed too dark, too bleak. So I went back to this picture my Mom took at Easter 2003, to buoy me up a little while I wrote. Gus’s condition has gotten yet more mysterious and the future harder and harder to see.

Around 1PM, Andy noticed Gus was disoriented. He seemed confused about the stairs after going out and stumbled a couple of times. Andy called the animal hospital and took Gus out front of the house to get him in the car. Gus walked in between a garbage can and a cardboard box, and hit the box as if he didn’t see it.

Andy slowly began to realize that Gus is now partially blind.

It’s incredibly hard to gauge to what degree Gus is confused and to what degree it’s an issue with his sight. Both options are terrifying in combination with the other symptoms. It’s clear that he can see a little, at least out of his left eye. But his right eye, the one that has a couple of mystery lesions above it, looks deformed, swollen, and terrible. The cardboard box was on his left, though, so he may be having balance issues or some other kind of disorientation.

Andy observed similar confusion and difficulty seeing again at the animal hospital: Gus couldn’t figure out the door and tried to walk through the glass next to the door at first.

He waited quite a long time, so I was able to go straight from work and meet him at the hospital, where Gus greeted me and we waited to see the doctor. The surgeon who removed the lymph tissue and lesion for biopsy saw us, and she was completely flummoxed, as was the veterinary oncologist she called to consult. The damn biopsies won’t be back until tomorrow, so even though she examined him again head to toe, there was nothing she could do for him. She was able to ascertain that there is nothing structurally wrong with either eye, including the intraocular pressure in both of them.

We need to wait to see the biopsy results tomorrow. In the interim, she’s added Clavamox to regimen, since he improved on that before. We’re also giving Benedryl, because that’s one of the initial treatments for some of the cancers he could have, as well as the now unlikely diagnosis of allergies. The most likely culprit now is cutaneous lymphoma, a rare form that causes tumors on the skin. Mast cell tumors are also possible.

When we left, I saw what Andy was saying about his blindness. He had difficulty finding the edge of doorway out of the hospital, and when he tried walking down the stairs to the parking lot, he stumbled as if he couldn’t see where he was putting his feet. He caught himself before I had to, so it seemed more like a vision thing than a balance thing. I saw a similar lack of coordination when he took the stairs back into the house.

Now we wait. Gus is sleeping next to me, pulling air a little laboriously through a stuffy nose. The biopsy results hang out there in the dark, creeping closer, and I dread them as much as I can’t wait for them.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Snowy Morning

Last night it snowed, and since we were up late, we took Comet for a walk in the falling snow in the wee hours. He was so good all day, even though he was bored, that he deserved a little treat of his own. He romped and ate snow and had a ball.

This morning, there was still a little snow on the ground, so we took both guys outside. You can see that Gus’s face doesn’t look quite right, since there are lumps over his right eye and on the crown his head. And he has a perpetual pre-sneeze face, since he’s pretty stuffed up still.

Despite all his problems, he perked right up in the snow and had a good, if quiet, time.

Andy made snowballs and lobbed them to Gus, who was his old self for at least the time it takes a ball of snow to arc and fall. The cut on his back is forgotten for a moment and he spots the ball, judges it, gauges it...

...and snap, he’s Gus again, healthy enough to rear up and grab it from the air.

And then the delicious, crunchy, cold reward.

He’s nowhere near healthy right now, but despite his surgery, he seems a little more happy and active than he was before we started the doxycycline. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gus's Medical Mystery

Gus’s lymph nodes swelled up again once the antibiotic course was done, and his energy level went back to almost zero. More and more of the mysterious bumps appeared.

We went back to the vet for more bloodwork, and he tested positive for one of the tick-borne-diseases (TBDs), anaplasmosis. It’s quite treatable, so he’s on a four-week course of doxycycline, but it unfortunately doesn’t explain the lumps, and lymphadenopathy isn’t particularly common with anaplasmosis.

So, we scheduled biopsies for both the lymph nodes and the mysterious lumps. That procedure was yesterday, and Gus spent today on the couch recuperating, with big shaved patches and Frankenstein stitches (not visible here) on his back and leg.

Comet can’t quite understand why Gus can’t play and we won’t go anywhere. He’s being very well behaved in terms of leaving Gus be when he’s told to, but he’s pretty confused.

We’ll hear about the biopsies early next week, but for now we’re trying to keep Gus’s weight up with canned food, and we’re giving him the doses of doxycycline and hoping for the best.