Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Tuesday evening around 6pm, we let go of our dog Gus.
He got a cancer diagnosis 3 weeks previous, and at that time he had declined so fast we didn't think we'd get him home from the vet. But we did, and thanks to prednisone and nonstop attention from Cathy, he got a good happy 3 weeks tacked on. But we knew, too, that his time was short.
A few weeks ago, on the 9th of November, as I went downstairs in the morning to get ready for work and let the dogs out and feed them, Gus couldn't get up. He eventually did, but he was having problems, where the night before he seemed fine. He ate, but he wasn't right. He recovered a bit, but the next day, he was still bad and maybe worse. So Cathy took him to the vet to have him checked out.
I got a call from Cathy shortly after getting home from work that evening, a Tuesday. She was at the vet and had been crying. "He has cancer," she said, "It's really bad." I got on the bike and rode out to the vet's office to find Cathy and Gus on the floor of an exam room. He was on his side, breathing heavily, she sitting next to him stroking his head. When I came in the room, he didn't get up, didn't lift his head, but he thumped his tail on the floor as he looked up at me, breaking my heart into pieces.
A tumor in his spleen had apparently metastasized into his liver and lymph nodes. It was big and terrible and too late to do anything about it. At this point, surgery wasn't a viable option. Our only hope and focus at that moment was to get him out of that office and home, at least for the night. He couldn't go yet. Not like this.
We did lift him into the car and take him home with a tiny ziplock full of prednisone and pepcid. We didn't think he'd make it through the next day.
But prednisone can work temporary miracles in dogs. He rebounded and started acting like himself. He wagged his tail and walked around and sniffed Henry and ate food. He was still very weak, and his belly remained distended and full of fluid or blood or both. But he was happy. The vet said 1 to 2 weeks at the outside before he eventually used up all his clotting factor and bled out. We just wanted him to be free of pain and able to get up on his own, just for a while.
He ate whatever he wanted--first wet dog food, then cheeseburgers, vanilla ice cream, pastrami, leftover turkey, and at the very end, pretty much bacon only. But he stuck around for three weeks. He even got to meet The Swell Season on Thanksgiving day, when lead singer Glen Hansard fed him ham, a highpoint in the life of Gus. He was happy and excited to be part of the party.
He got daily trips to the park where he would lay in the grass with Cathy, chase balls on 5 to 10 foot throws, sniff and investigate and be a dog out in the world. He brightened every day for his trip to the park, showing the spark and bounce he always had. But the rest of the time we could tell he was just tired.
When someone goes suddenly, you always wish for just another day, another week. More time so that you could know the meaning and value of every moment and take nothing for granted. Gus gave us that time. He got 3 weeks tacked on at the end, and he and Cathy made the most of it.
On Monday, November 30, he was tired all day. So much so that he got a break from going to the park because he didn't seem up to it. And that night, he couldn't get up. His belly was so big and bloated, and his bladder so full, that we were afraid he'd pop. We coerced and carried him outside, but he couldn't support himself, and we had to hold him off the ground so he could go to the bathroom. When he'd sink to the ground, he'd just stay there, and we could see him giving up. It was a terrible thing, and we were afraid we'd been selfish and waited too long, but it just came on so fast we failed to see how bad it was.
We made plans for the vet to come out the next day.
Thankfully, the next morning, Tuesday, he was in better shape. He could get his legs under him and hoist his weight to standing. He peed--about 2 gallons--and we breathed a sigh of relief. But we kept the appointment. We didn't want Gus to go through another night like the previous one. His dignity wouldn't stand for it. If Gus was anything, he was dignified.
Throughout the day, he was alert, but not as he had been. It was time and he made sure to tell us so. He was catered to all day, never left alone, ate bacon and cheeseburgers and was petted and hugged and cried over likely far past the point of his own tolerance. But he let us do it, because we needed to.
The vet came at 5. The room was candle lit, with soft music, Gus on his favorite bed. He'd got a tranquilizer before the vet came to reduce the stress. It worked, though I think he was ready anyway. He didn't flinch a toe when the needle went into his leg, and the long slow movement of the syringe's plunger paralleled the slowing of his breathing and heart rate. He never moved or protested, me sitting above him petting him, Cathy on the floor stroking his face and talking him through it. Gus went very peacefully, his heart slowing to a stop that was almost unnoticeable for its gradual decline.
You'd think the previous three weeks prepares you for the end. But you'd be wrong. It hit hard, and it still hurts, still stops me short and makes me weepy all of a sudden. Cathy, as is to be expected, is taking it very hard. She's very sad, and we both feel that things just aren't the same now. Henry, too, is a bit off. He seems very subdued, depressed almost, and won't leave our side during the day. Things aren't the same for him either; he's lost a brother. There's never been a Henry without a Gus, and now the hound has to stand on his own.
Things aren't the same, but of course we'll be okay. Something inside me says that Gus has been sick for a long time and has stuck around as long as he has because we've had a tough couple years. He's been here to see Cathy through the terrible times, though the sadness and grief and frustration that has followed us as we've passed through the fire. And I think, now, things are on their way to being okay. I think he knew that. I think he stayed as long as he had to, as long as he was able, because he was needed. And I think now he knows we'll be okay, so it was his time to leave.
We miss Gus, and we always will. There's a special place in our hearts for that dog, that quiet, dignified, ever-present friend that we came to count on in the good times and especially the bad. He was our reason for getting up in the morning some days, taking care of his and Henry's basic needs, for getting out into the world when we'd have rather holed up and smothered from grief. His panting grin and hopeful bucking got us dressed and to the park when we needed it and didn't know it. He's been the best friend a person could ever ask for.
Our friend Kimberly said, on the night that we let Gus go, that heaven for dogs looks a lot like Montana. Gus spent a good amount of time in Montana, vacationing and visiting friends and a 3 month stint in Browning on the Blackfoot reservation when Cathy worked in a hospital there, and it was definitely one of his favorite places, running through fields of tall grass and splashing in creeks with sticks that were more logs than sticks and loping alongside us on dirt roads and trails and sitting on porches as the sun set. I like to think of him now in a place like Montana, playing with Yeti and Boone and GuntherMobley and all the other dogs that run free there. He deserves that. They all do.
Take care of yourselves and your dogs.