The following lachrymose missive has absolutely nothing -- at all -- to do with backpacking or hiking or gear, etc. That’s why it’s in chaff. It’s also pretty darned long. So those of you who get irritated at reading posts in BPL that aren’t backpacking related might want to skip this one. And those who get uncomfortable reading something that’s kinda personal might want to skip this one too. I apologize ahead of time for the post, but I needed an outlet. And, currently, BPL is my community. FWIW.
He was such a good boy….
Chance knew something was wrong.
He didn’t know what, exactly. After all, he is a dog. But he saw his ‘dad’ slumped haphazardly on the living room floor, leaning against the couch, sobbing. Slowly, his head bowed slightly, his brow furrowed over his deep brown puppy eyes, he padded over and gently nestled his head into my chest, trying to console me. I lowered my head and buried my face into the long, thick, tan hair covering his neck, and sobbed even harder.
Grief, to me, is one of the more interesting emotions. It can come upon you quite suddenly and terrifyingly, like a freak lightning storm on an exposed ridge. Or it can take hold of you slowly and envelope you, like a thick valley fog moving up with the wind to the top of a hill. But once it has you, it’s as if someone has filled the inside of your body with dense, wet sand. You can’t move. You can hardly breathe. And the pain spills every which way through your tears and your cries.
And as I sat crumpled on my living room floor, it had me firmly in its clutches. I had buried Gloria a few short weeks prior. She was 42. It would be a couple of months before the medical examiner would tell me what she died of (spontaneous ventricular fibrillation), but not why. He couldn’t. There were no medical ‘reasons’ for the death. No arterial buildup, no coronary issues or defects, nothing. She was visiting a friend and suddenly didn’t feel well. She decided to lie down on the floor while he made her some tea. When he got back from the kitchen, she was blue. She never regained consciousness.
That was nearly 10 years ago. Chance has been consoling me, and humoring me, and loving me, and teaching me those lessons that, seemingly, only a non-human can, ever since.
Gloria was the reason Chance came into the family. We lived in a tiny house in Hillsboro, Oregon, with five cats and a bedroom full of birds. Another animal was certainly not in our future! So when we saw this beautiful nine-month-old pup running down the middle of the road -- during rush hour no less -- his tail high and determination strong, and as we followed him and eventually coaxed him into our van, I told Gloria that this dog would have to go to the shelter.
And it did. Gloria went back to the neighborhood from which we saw him run and began knocking on doors. She found his owner -- a boorish ass who, we found out later, kept the dog tied up 24/7 in the back yard and paid it little attention. The dog had gotten loose and run before, he said. Go figure. When he found out the dog was now in the shelter, and that it would cost $75 to retrieve it, he mumbled that the dog could stay there as far as he was concerned.
So Gloria went to visit the dog, and came home and told me we simply had to adopt him. “No way, we have too many animals already!” I protested. Besides, I reasoned, he was beautiful. Someone would grab him quick. “But he acts crazy confined in that cage,” Gloria countered. No one was going to adopt him, she whimpered.
I’m sure some of you guys can relate to this: Gloria had a way of crying that simply melted any defense or argument I had. She didn’t abuse this ‘power.’ It was always sincere. And it was always, every single time, effective. We brought Chance (so named because we were giving him a second chance at a decent life) home a couple of days later on a cold, January afternoon.
Gloria and a 10-month-old Chance
He was daddy’s boy from the beginning. He followed me from room to room throughout the house. I’d sit at the computer and do some work, he'd lay near my feet. I’d get up to get something from the kitchen, he’d get up and follow me, then follow me back to the computer and lay back down near my feet. “You traitor,” Gloria would playfully tell him. “I saved you, not him!” I’d just smile and scratch him between the ears.
A scant ten months later I was nearly inconsolable, until Chance consoled me. He, and his ‘sister’ Casey, have been ensuring I got on with life ever since. Looking back, I’m never sure whether I was taking care of them, or they were taking care of me. I imagine a healthy dose of both.
When I moved to Maryland and bought a house, I bought a house for my puppies, not for me. I know, sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I live in a 4-bedroom, 2.5 bath house. Even with a room just for gear, that’s way, way more house than I need. But the back yard -- oh baby. It’s bigger, by far, than any dog park in the area. It backs up to wild wetlands that no one can build on. Lots of wildlife to catch the puppies’ fancies during the long days while I was away at work. I installed a dog door, and taught them how to use it, so they could get outside any time they wished.
Chance, mostly Akita, is a strong, natural hunter. He loved that yard in ways that would often make me cringe. He’s caught, killed, and partially eaten rabbits, a possum, and mice in that back yard. He’s dug up and killed moles and left them for me at the back door. He once brought a deer down in the yard. Fortunately, I was able to get him off the deer and the deer out of the yard before any significant or lasting damage was done to anything but my suit.
His favorite game was “make dad chase me!” I’d throw a frisbee, he’d run as fast as he could to get it, even -- and I am not making this up -- dropping his hind legs and sliding as if he was stealing second, grabbing the frisbee in his mouth as he passed it, and scrambling back up to his feet without slowing down. It was truly delightful to watch. With his ears back and his tail high, he’d then run as fast as he could back to me. Or, more correctly, back toward me. Just before he’d reach me he cut left or right and go flying by, his tail still high, and I swear a broad smile on his face!
I’d then chase him down (he always eventually let me catch him), wrestle the frisbee from him, and throw it again. And chase him again. We’d play this until one of us got tired (usually me).
Another favorite game involved me on my knees, and Chance running to me and butting his head squarely into my chest. I’d reach over him and grab his hind legs, lifting them as he dropped his head. He’d slide down my body and then across the floor until he was on his back in front of me, legs in the air all akimbo. I’d scratch his belly with gusto as he gurgled in delight.
As we all do, he slowed with age. We still played with the frisbee in the back yard, but I’d catch him a bit earlier, and he usually got tired before I did. Then he blew out his rear leg ACLs -- first one, then the other before I got a chance to get the first repaired. He was in a cast for eight weeks, and he hated it. He couldn’t run. He could barely walk. I had to take the dog door away and limit his travels.
Even after the cast was removed and he had one good ACL again, I had to continue to limit his movements. He still wanted to run, and every now and then would get away from me at the sight of a squirrel and run across the yard after it, using both back legs as one. He was something, and even slowed was a beautiful sight to behold when he ran.
He was really slow the last couple of weeks. I made an appointment with my vet to bring him in and get him checked out. The appointment would have been yesterday. But Saturday night, as I walked into the kitchen and Chance followed, he suddenly stopped, his lips peeling back, baring his teeth, as if he was about to attack. I had never seen anything like it, and it startled me. He has had mild epilepsy all his life, but nothing like this.
Then his body began to arc, as if every muscle was tensing. He dropped, quivering slightly and drooling, to the floor as the seizure continued. It lasted about a minute and a half. I gently rubbed him and told him everything was okay. And it seemed to be. A minute or so later he got up, slowly, and walked to the water dish. After drinking a lot of water, we walked outside and he walked around the yard. He seemed fine.
I gave him some extra attention before bed and then we turned in. The second seizure came around 4 a.m. When it was over I walked him to the car (he so hated to be carried) and lifted him into the back. We drove to an emergency vet hospital about 15 minutes away.
The on call doctor did some blood tests, and told me that Chance was severely anemic. He gave me some meds to bring up the red cell count, and gave Chance some Valium to control the seizures, and sent us home. He suggested I make an appointment with a neurologist to find out if Chance had a brain tumor.
But the Valium didn’t work. Chance had another seizure two hours later. I took him back to the hospital, and they decided to keep him for the day and overnight. They put a catheter in his leg for Valium and told me I could visit if I wished. I wished.
I drove down around 8 p.m. He had had another seizure, and he was still pretty out of it from the Valium. I thought that a bit strange, as he had recovered from the earlier Valium pretty quickly. I talked soothingly to him and petted him for about an hour, asked when I should pick him up in the morning, and drove home.
The hospital called at 11:30 p.m. The doctor wondered if I could come down to the hospital. No emergency, she just wanted to talk to me. When I got there she told me that later, when she went to take him outside for a bathroom break, he still couldn’t walk. She decided to take some X-rays (only blood tests had been done up to that point). The X-rays showed his lungs riddled with cancer that had started in his pancreas. She imagined his brain was full of cancer as well, and assumed that was causing the seizures. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers there is, she told me.
“Can there be any mistake,” I pleaded through a tight throat, my eyes already filled with tears.
“I’m sorry, no,” she replied. “Nothing else looks like that.”
“How long?” I asked between sobs.
“He’s on steroids now, so he’s comfortable,” she replied. “We can probably keep him alive for two more days, but no more.”
“Will he continue to have the seizures?”
As I’ve said to my friends many times before, I believe that breathing ain’t living. I said it aloud to the vet. Then, sobbing pretty hard I choked out, “Let the boy have peace.”
I then knelt down and kissed him on the nose and stroked his belly. He slowly lifted his head, which he hadn’t done since I had left from my earlier visit, and gently licked my tears. Once again my baby boy was trying to console me in my grief. I sobbed all the more.
The hospital staff was very kind. They put Chance in a room and gave me as much time as I wanted alone with him. We laid on the floor together for quite some time. I stroked his head and belly and whispered to him what a wonderful friend he had been. Then I opened the door, signalling to the staff that it was time. My sweet boy took his last breath around 12:20 a.m. Monday.
Cancer sucks. My heart really hurts. He was such a good boy.
My baby boy