Being a dog owner involves a certain amount of self-delusion. Rationally, you know the lifespan of a dog is short. Unless you get your dog when you’re 75 or you get into some horrific accident, you’re going to outlive your dog. This animal that loves you unconditionally, depends on you for everything, would likely give its life for you, will die before you do.
So one of the most important rules of dog ownership is you never, ever, ever let yourself think about it.
Until the day comes when you have to think about it.
We have two dogs. Sylvie, a black miniature poodle, is 14. Lucy, a white toy poodle, is 13. They’re getting up there. On their good days, you wouldn’t know how old they are. They bark, they frolic, they jump on things and climb furniture. But within the last year, both have had to have teeth pulled and Lucy has gone deaf.
I have an overactive imagination and a morbid streak, so even those mild developments were enough to send me into a tailspin. When it was dawning on us that Lucy might be deaf, I tried to have a rational conversation about it over dinner at an Italian restaurant. But the conversation was cut short by tears. … Cara took it pretty hard, too.
In late February, Sylvie stopped eating. Completely. She wouldn’t even consider a treat. Or ham. Or eggs. And this is a dog who is a connoisseur of people food — mostly thanks to me.
Hoping it was a tooth issue, but suspecting it wasn’t, I took her to the local vet. There, they found nothing wrong with her teeth and then ran a blood test to check her liver enzymes. For over a year now, she’s been on medication because she had “sludge” in her gallbladder, which caused issues throughout the entire system. Her levels were so far off the chart, they were unreadable. I was told to take her to an emergency vet as soon as possible.
So I put her back in the Subaru and made the hour drive to Alpenglow Vets down in Boulder. There are closer emergency vets, but her records were still at Alpenglow and as my anxiety started to creep up, I wanted a place we were familiar with and somewhere that wouldn’t require me to fill out a bunch of forms, answer a ton of introductory questions, or transfer records from one vet to another.
At Alpenglow, the verdict was pretty swift. She needed to have the gallbladder removed. It needed to be done immediately. I got Cara on the phone, they walked us through the procedure and the costs. As usual, we both said, “Do what it takes.”
I spent about eight hours at Alpenglow that day. The vet’s office is never fun. An emergency vet’s office is worse. There was the stoic guy with red-rimmed eyes commuting between the bathroom and his pickup in the parking lot, unable to leave, unwilling to cry in front of the strangers in the waiting room. Not so the couple in the corner, getting a diagnosis in the common area because the exam rooms were all full. The diagnosis wasn’t dire, but the thought of the pup caged in the back, unwell and likely terrified, was enough to get them crying.
I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, the surgery was over. It had gone well. I got to visit with her for a few minutes. She was drugged, out of it, but alive. For the moment, it was the best we could hope for.
And then I had to leave her there.
Sylvie and Lucy are, technically, Cara’s dogs. She raised them from puppies. They were around five years old when Cara moved to New York to live with me. To say I was skeptical of living with a couple of small, yappy dogs would be an understatement. But it wasn’t long before I was bribing them with table scraps and making them mine.
In New York, I walked them and took them to the dog run. Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been working almost entirely from home, so we spend all day together every day. I think they see me as part of their pack. And I mean that as in, Cara is the Alpha animal in the house, and I’m just one of them. There are worse things than being a domesticated dog.
At any rate, this was the first time since we’ve all been living together that Sylvie wasn’t home for the night. It wasn’t pleasant.
Alpenglow is just over an hour away from us. The surgery was on a Thursday. Friday afternoon, we drove down for a visit. She recognized us, but was still out of it, zonked out on painkillers and likely miserable with the feeding tube in her nose. We spent as much time as we could and then left her there. Again.
Outside of weddings and funerals, Cara and I haven’t set foot in a church in years. But we still do Lent. This year, we’d decided to go on a diet and give up eating out. Ash Wednesday was February 26. The surgery was Thursday, February 27. On Friday, we had pizza. (I also may or may not have eaten at McDonald’s twice on Thursday.)
We also gave up drinking. We managed to stick to that, which was both surprising and probably the best for all involved. If I’d been waking up with crushing hangovers in the morning, things would have been much, much worse.
Saturday, we drove down the mountain again to get our taxes done. We visited Sylvie twice. She was in much better spirits. She ate some of the chicken we’d brought. There was talk of her coming home the next day. We left her there again.
On Sunday morning, the vet called with the a.m. checkup. These calls had gone well before. Not so this morning. Sylvie had spiked a fever during the night.
This is when I finally lost it. I’m losing it all over again while I type this. Perhaps it was something. Perhaps it was nothing. If you’ve ever had a loved one, especially an older or infirm loved one, in the hospital for any length of time, that fever is too often a sign of impending doom.
There may or may not have been some spurts of choked down crying throughout the morning. And conversations that consisted of one sentence: “If you start crying, I’ll start crying.”
We headed down to Boulder, this time bringing Lucy with us, hoping a visit would be good for her and good for Sylvie. Cara sat in the back with Lucy. I don’t think we spoke the entire way, afraid to voice anything, whether it be hope or dread, afraid that opening our mouths would be to start crying all over again.
Sylvie seemed … okay. She ate a little bit again. And by the time we arrived, her fever had disappeared. But she’d be staying another night.
Sunday was the longest night. You get in these situations and you sort of close down. You want to think about your spouse. Sylvie was Cara’s dog first. And she was Cara’s first dog as an adult. Sylvie practically fit in the palm of Cara’s hand when she was a puppy. I figured what was going through her head was 100 times worse than mine — and what was going through my head was pretty damn bad. But all I could manage to say by way of comfort was “She’ll be fine.”
Monday morning, another call from another doctor, the one who’d performed the surgery in the first place. He seemed a little surprised that she was still there. The fever was gone. She wasn’t doing laps around her cage, but she was awake. She didn’t show a lot of appetite with the techs, but when I said she’d been eating when we fed her, he replied that maybe she was just sick of being there. It had been four nights, after all. He said that they’d try weaning her off IV meds again that day and we should swing by in the afternoon. Maybe she’d be ready to come home.
Which was good because at this point, Cara was ready to stage a jailbreak. So for the fifth day in a row, I drove down to Boulder. Instead of putting us in an exam room and bringing Sylvie in, they led us to the back, where she sat in her cage. When she saw us, she practically jumped out of the thing. We visited for about ten minutes, feeding her chicken and stopping her from flinging herself bodily out of the cage or disconnecting the feeding tube still attached to her face. Techs and nurses walked around us, some of them going off shift, some of them coming on for the evening. Further in the back, someone was trying to determine what they’d just pulled out of another dog. It was a tennis ball. Finally, a nurse came by and said, “If yall will just step outside, I’ll get all of this stuff off of her and get her ready for discharge.”
We took Sylvie home. Because she wasn’t allowed to climb steps or overly exert herself, we decided to spend the week sleeping in the living room. She was given a cone, which she wasn’t a big fan of. Surprisingly, for a dog who chews various body parts with the intensity of an obsessive-compulsive, she did not bother with her stitches at all, so the cone was largely unnecessary.
She was basically out of it for a week or so because of pain meds and antibiotics and, I assume, the pain and confusion. She eventually started eating again, started to come around. Want to see a 14-year-old poodle, post surgery? Here you go:
Most of this was written a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to post it. Superstition is strong when it comes to these things. There were a few times I wanted to break the no-drinking thing. A sick dog, another sick dog (Lucy had to join in), and a quarantine. It would have been understandable. But Cara told me she’d made a deal with God (or whoever) that if Sylvie pulled through, she’d stick it out until Easter.
Sylvie’s sleeping near me right now. She’s made a full recovery. Except for the patches on three legs where they’d shaved her for tests or IVs, you wouldn’t know she’d had surgery. She’s super slow on walks, but that’s nothing new. She doesn’t want to eat dry food anymore, so she’s stuffing her face with canned food. And she still finds those extra bursts of energy in the snow.
Couple years back, my friend Jim Mitchem asked me if I’d be interested in writing a piece for his book, Gone Dogs, and I just couldn’t. Even though it might make sense to write your thoughts down about your dog — or anyone really — while they’re still alive, there was no way I was going to imagine a life without them. Call it another form of superstition. That said, I read all the pieces submitted to Jim for the book, and I read the book when it came out.
Because while a gone-dog story is a sad story, it’s also a story of unconditional love and, often, life-changing affection. But I can’t tell you how happy I am not to be writing one any time soon.