Sunday, July 25, 2010


Some old scanned photos (before the digital revolution):

The beginning of the story, October 2002. This was taken before I adopted Alec, in the kennels of The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J., where I worked as a kennel attendant while writing my dissertation. I knew him for almost a year before I was (finally) able to adopt him.

There were hundreds of dogs at the kennels of the Seeing Eye, and I was fond of many. But Alec and I bonded immediately. Although I was in no position to have more dogs (I already had two, and moved a lot), I decided if he ever was released from the program, I would have to adopt him. Almost from the beginning, I felt he belonged with me. That feeling only grew over time.

Alec was eager and neurotic and lonely, and I felt sorry for him. I petted him once, and from that moment on he was obsessed with me. He would watch for me from the bars of his kennel and go crazy when he saw me. I started staying after work to play with him and I spent my breaks in his kennel, brushing him and talking to him. He would get so excited to see me he would attack my face and give me bloody noses! His loyalty was touching and sad and I wanted to repay it.

At this point, Alec had been in the program (which is normally 3 months) for 8 months. Although some dogs relish the work, Alec was a terrible Seeing Eye dog and only wanted to be someone's companion. As I got to know him my biggest wish was to give him a normal and happy life. My biggest fear was he would be placed with someone who wouldn't care for him properly (unfortunately, it happens).

Alec was finally released from the program in January 2003, not long after I had moved back to Georgia. I adopted him in February, when he was 2 1/2 years old. My parents were planning a visit and so they picked him up and drove him down south for the happiest reunion. Alec got along with my other two dogs, both of whom have since passed away. He is now 3 months short of his tenth birthday.

How can I be shattered all over again? Wasn’t I at this place last week? When I heard there was one more chemo treatment we could try, I allowed myself to hope. I couldn’t help it. I went into research mode again, asking questions not only about the different protocols, possible side effects, and potential outcomes, but also checking in with my intuition – is it the right thing to do? The answer came back loud and clear – yes. He seemed to be feeling better this week and this was our last great hope. Like a last-minute reprieve, maybe we would get our miracle after all. I knew better than to get my hopes up. But really, how could I help it?

But the oncologist decided Alec was not strong enough to do another round of chemotherapy. My very last hope…gone. When she saw him on Thursday she was hoping to determine that his not feeling well was due to an inflammation of his bladder, which can be a side effect of the chemo drug he received three weeks ago. This would be good news, meaning the sickness was not the cancer and that the chemo was working; we would just have to address the side effect. No such luck. After doing a bunch of diagnostics she determined his symptoms were being caused by the cancer, and furthermore his liver doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. She localized the source of his pain (which is being kept under control by pain meds) to his pelvic/lower back area. It could be the cancer having spread to the bone (but this would not show up on x-ray until there is 50% bone loss), or believe it or not, it could be his back – a slipped disc. Either of these would explain the pain and hind leg weakness.

If it were just his back, we could try to address it. But there is much more going on now, all of which can be lumped under the umbrella term, “paraneoplastic syndrome.” It basically refers to symptoms that are caused by the presence of cancer in the body, but are not the cancer itself, for example, inflammation (or auto-immune disease, where the body attacks its own red cells) or the cancer can secrete a factor that stimulates the bone marrow to make lots of white blood cells. Either of these would explain the extremely elevated white blood cells we are seeing and certain abnormalities in his urine (high presence of something called bilirubin).

But the main problem is that Alec’s liver is not functioning properly. Although the masses in his liver have grown slightly in size since the last ultrasound, they had become less fluid-filled and were not obviously bleeding (good). That part is actually relatively stable. The problem is that the ultrasound showed that his liver has very little normal tissue left (bad) and a relatively healthy liver is necessary to process the chemo drugs.

Conclusion: the oncologist said she was very reluctant to administer any more chemotherapy at this point. She said if his liver is not functioning and Alec is not strong enough, then we could cause severe side effects, which could be life threatening. The obvious question is, if we are facing imminent euthanasia (and sooner rather than later), isn’t death an acceptable risk? Well, not once she explained what “chemo death” is like and how sick he would get and that a toxic reaction will not come on gradually but all at once (meaning I would not have time to euthanize him before he began to experience the awful effects). Obviously, I could not take that risk, especially when she said the potential for positive response with his disease at this level of progression is very low. The most we could expect might be a couple more weeks. She summed up by saying with all these factors considered it is probably best if we focus on maintaining his comfort for as long as possible. Shatter.

Obviously this is NOT what I was hoping to hear. I spent the day by the phone waiting for the results of the diagnostics, hoping it was his bladder being inflamed that was causing all this (which seemed entirely possible). They didn’t call back with the results, but rather called at the end of the day to say I could pick him up, and I was hopeful this meant he would be going back for chemo the next day. When I got there I realized I was the last person they had scheduled to pick up their animal. The lobby was empty and everyone was getting ready to go home. I should have known it wouldn’t be good news. The oncologist came out into the lobby and told me the results of the diagnostics and answered all my questions as I tried to process and understand that this is truly the end of the line. She said I should seriously start thinking about euthanasia soon. I cried all the way home. Again.

I think it is particularly hard to hear (and accept) the terrible odds because of my history with Alec. The whole story of him walking again was us beating some pretty bad odds, together. It is hard not to feel like I am “giving up” on him when the odds look bad, which of course I would never do, but still these thoughts come (thank you, stupid brain). It’s like, because he pulled this miraculous recovery once, it’s hard not to think he could do it again….that we could do it again. We’re a team! But rationally I know this is totally different and that there is no coming back from it. But it feels like giving up on our story, which has been so amazing and inspiring so far (at least to me).

True love is supposed to make us capable of super-human feats, of lifting cars and whatnot (or is that adrenaline?). And I have no doubt there is no emotional force in this world stronger than my love for Alec. I could not love anyone or anything more than I love him. It is such an intense, powerful feeling it seems like it should enable me to lift cars, move mountains… cure cancer. Alas, I cannot save him. I cannot save us. What good is love if it has no force? I want those metaphors to be true. If your love is strong enough, anything is possible. I think I used to believe that. Alec's story helped me believe that. It’s a beautiful idea. It’s not true.

I have been driving the oncologist and our regular vet crazy with my incessant questions I am sure. But it is all part of the process for me. I have to understand what is happening inside Alec in order for me to really accept and truly know there is nothing more that can be done. I keep saying “But what about…?” and “Can we try…?” and “Maybe we could…?” and “What if…?” The answers keep coming back the same. Nothing can help him at this point.

So we are back where we were last week: hospice. I have been in constant contact with our wonderful vet (to whom I am eternally grateful for being there for us - especially me as I try to navigate this horrible time without losing my mind) and she said she thinks he may have a week – maybe. We are not sure it will be that long. I am monitoring him for any change, any sign of worsening in his condition. But I am afraid I might be seeing that now. Yesterday after I took him for a ride in the car (he was happy to go, and ate cookies on the drive), he did not want to get out when we got home. We stayed in the van for four hours (him snoozing off and on….not looking distressed but more tired and weak). Then I carried him most of the way into the house. He slept through the night but I am worried. I am afraid this is it. If he worsens, I have to help him. I have to release him, let him go.

My last post was me trying to sound brave, I guess. “I will know what to do, etc." But I am having trouble. I am not okay. I am not strong. I need help. But nothing can help. You see, I know this. I am very familiar with the grief process. I went through it only four years ago with my dog Kobi and at that time I was new to the unique world of grief. So in my typical analytical fashion, I read every book I could find on grief and losing a loved one. I attended a pet loss support group. I created a memorial. I lit candles. I raged and cried and felt numb. I talked it out. I wrote in my journal. I wrote letters to him. I learned that every crazy thing I was thinking and feeling was a normal part of the process that everyone goes through. I feel like an expert now. But you know what? It doesn’t help. I know what grieving is. But I don’t WANT to. I don’t want time to intervene, to make the memory of him fade. When did he become a memory? I can't...I am dizzy. He is watching me from his little house right now. Those brown eyes. He always watches me. I don’t want to move on from this, from him. I don’t want to process this. That is not healthy (I know this even as I have the thought). File under “denial,” this stubborn clinging to a past – so vivid, so recent – now lost.

I love Alec and I do not want to “move on” and away from him. There it is. And nothing I learned in my grief books or heard in my support group can address that. It's a fundamental flaw of mine (along with loving too much and too deeply - what is wrong with me??). It is what exists at the bottom of everything for me. I fall in love infrequently but when I do I get very attached. It is the way of misery to not want to move on. I will have to figure out a way, somehow. And I know that Alec has had a wonderful life. I know we have lived and loved enough in our time together to last several lifetimes. I know I appreciated and cherished him. I know we all die. This is where we are all going, and nobody knows when. None of it helps, somehow.

Making it worse (if possible) is the soaring high that preceded this slow-motion crash. The thanks I gave for nothing hurts my heart. I was so overflowing with joy and gratitude after the benign biopsy results that I was aloft. It felt like flying or some other magical thing too magical to describe. It felt like I could have faith in something. Well friends, it’s a long way down from there.

One of the many things my vet has helped me with has been staying in the present moment. That is the only way I have been keeping myself from going seriously and immediately crazy. When I find myself thinking of what Alec and I should be doing this weekend, swimming, strolling, sharing burritos, just hanging out, it is enough to make me think I will lose my mind. Or the things we will never do again, like go to the office together. Oh now I need to stop that. And breathe. Here’s what it comes down to: this is already so hard. But it has not even begun yet. What will I do without him? To quote a Mountain Goats song I will never listen to again, “Woke up New:”

What do I do?
What do I do?

What do I do?

What do I do without you?

That about sums it up.

P.S. I really regret that what used to be a hopeful, inspiring place has now turned into the most depressing blog on the internet. For anyone still reading, I am sorry. I used to be a happy, positive person. I am mourning her, too.

The grounds of the Seeing Eye are gorgeous but they are not for the dogs. The dogs are confined to the kennel at all times when not out training for their half hour a day (and this only on weekdays). On weekends they are alone among the chaos, noise, and barking of the crowded kennels. Not a happy place for an anxious shepherd.

But I had a trainer friend with keys to the building and we would sneak Ali out on Saturdays for some fresh air and a little walk.

He would show his gratitude by standing on me and attacking me with violent kisses! I would throw my head back to protect my face from his desperate affection.

Who's got your back?

He looked so different then - much blacker! I didn't even think he was that cute then (he was kinda of gawky!), but falling in love with him, as so often happens, made him beautiful.

He was always so happy to be outside on those clandestine weekend jail breaks.

This is where he spent most of his time during that year, a barren cold kennel with a couple chew toys he never played with.

I wanted so badly to bust him out of there and take him on hikes, to the beach, to take him everywhere! To make up for lost time (the first year of his life was spent with a family who neglected him). Another one of the happiest days of my life was when, a year after meeting him, I finally got the call: "He's yours."

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Not 100%, but still smiling. His happy face makes my world glow. One of my favorite songs to sing to Alec is "You are my sunshine."

Enjoying his cranberry bone while keeping a watchful eye on the toys.

Here is my disclaimer that I am not going to commit suicide. One person was worried by my last post and asked my neighbor to check on me. Luckily that neighbor took my post for what it was: uncensored me pouring my heart out. But it made me realize maybe I worried other people. Sorry. I appreciate the concern (really), but this blog has always been a record of my relationship with Alec and to deny or minimize the pain I am going through now would be to downplay Alec's considerable and immeasurable impact on my life. And I don't wish to do that. Raw outpourings of desperate emotion are not pretty, I know. But they are real. Statements saying I don't know if I can go on without Ali can be taken in several ways. Here are two: 1) as an honest assessment of my feelings and my inability - or unwillingness - to imagine life without Alec (this is how it feels, and no sugarcoating will alleviate that fact). 2) as metaphor (in a real sense the "me" who is here now will not go on; I will be someone different, as we all are when touched by a life event as monumental as finding and then losing a soul mate). But neither is a "cry for help," I promise.

Another disclaimer: to the person who commented on my last post, "poor Alec - please let him go" (and anyone else who might be thinking this but was tactful enough not to say) - I will let him go when the time is right to do that. This is a delicate, difficult time and no one should presume to know our situation, or think what I post here could ever be the whole story. I realize my last post was mostly about me and my feelings and maybe I did not stress enough that Alec is not suffering, despite the fact that his disease has progressed to the point where the end is near. That does not mean the end is HERE. If you doubt my judgment, let me first thank you for your concern for Alec, and then assure you that I have, and have always had, his quality of life and best interests in mind. Saying "I do not want to end this" and "I don't know how to end this" refers not only to our relationship, but also to the previous blog entry.

And saying I don't want to end this does not mean I won't. I will do what Alec needs me to as my last act of love and devotion to his well being. Yes, this is an emotional and gut wrenching time. However, I would not keep Alec around because I cannot let go. Nor will I let him go too soon because I can't handle the pain of imminent separation or the emotional trauma I am slogging through like a slow motion nightmare sequence. There is tremendous pressure to make the right decisions now and I feel it acutely. I know Alec very well. My experience nursing him when he was paralyzed honed my observational skills in terms of his body language, facial expressions, and all the subtle cues that enable one to assess how someone else is feeling. Because I was very anxious that Alec would become depressed, I monitored his mood closely; plus, he depended on me for everything from expressing his bladder to bringing him water when he was thirsty, so I got very good at reading him. This is part of what tightened our bond and brought us closer over the last 2.5 years.

Besides the fact that I know him better than anyone, it is fair to wonder if my judgment is clouded by emotion, denial, and blind tenacious love. Let me reassure anyone who is concerned that since he became sick last week, I have been consulting with Alec's vet regularly on his quality of life and all of the issues surrounding the euthanasia decision. I thought I was going to have to let him go last weekend, but she helped me to see that neither Alec nor I were at that point...yet. This is an hour by hour, minute by minute situation. And it is difficult. But it is my final responsibility to Alec, and as someone who has worked so hard to ensure his happiness, believe me the last thing I would ever want is to see is him suffer. I would kill myself before I willingly let that happen. Disclaimer: I am not planning to kill myself.

Alec remains stable and he even seemed to be feeling a little better this week. I was surprised pleasantly because I anticipated a rapid decline after last week. But there is still not much improvement overall. Alec's oncologist had been out of town, but I spoke with her earlier this week and she said we could try one more chemo protocol. I was wrong that we were totally out of options. She is not optimistic, but she said we can try. Our hope would be to stop/prevent further internal bleeding and possibly shrink the mass(es) so he feels better for a time. This may not happen. But it is truly our last try. I dropped him off this morning and am waiting for the oncologist to call. She needs to analyze his blood work before she can decide if treatment today is a viable option. I would love if I could take Alec swimming again, if he felt strong enough to do that. But this may not happen.

This has been difficult, and it is getting more difficult the longer he does not feel 100%. After dropping him off, I wandered around the grocery store like a forlorn zombie with tears standing in my eyes, staring at the items on the shelves as if they could help me. In front of the dog food aisle, the floor started to sway and I was a sad listing boat, careening in a sea of formerly reassuring normalcy...broken sail, dragging anchor. I cried all the way home in the car. I only stopped when I started typing this. Along with my best friend on the east coast (whose phone I have been monopolizing) and my wonderful vet (who has been doing double duty as a counselor to me during this horrible time, bless her heart), this blog has been like a lifeline of sorts; I'm not sure why. I guess writing helps pull me out of myself to observe and gain some critical distance, if only for a short time. I have been mad journaling too, which seems to serve a similar function of keeping me grounded in the present moment, if only for those moments when I am feverishly scribbling.

I don't know how to end this one either, but how about with some gratitude? Thank you to all who have left supportive comments here. One day I will re-read them and they will bring me some comfort. Thanks to everyone who has left sympathetic Facebook comments too. I don't know how to save those, but I will have to figure out a way. They are too nice to lose. I just learned how to back up this blog after it disappeared recently for a few days and I feared it was gone forever. Apparently someone hacked into my Gmail account and so Google not only disabled my email but took down my blog as well, without telling me why. I didn't realize Google could do that but oh, yes they can. They can take down any blog at any time for any (or no) reason. That was a scary few days, but now I am hoping to eventually move this blog to a different server where it will be safer. It would be piling awful upon horrible to lose this tribute to my wonderful friend.

If you have called or emailed me and I have not gotten back to you, forgive me. It is not always easy to talk. I appreciate you reaching out though, really. Your kindness matters.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has sent prayers, good thoughts, and love to Alec. He will always be my amazing shepherd.

I took Ali to the pool yesterday. He was too tired to do much swimming (although he swam a tiny bit with Diane's and my help), but he sat in the shallow water with his prized ball and he enjoyed the car ride.

Ali loves his "little house" but contemplated moving to the fold-out mattress after I arrayed his toys and bones (which he eventually did, as you can see in the photos at the top of the post). He looked so cute staring at the toys I had to snap a photo. Note the "blue thing," which our friend Maggie gave Ali. This is one of his favorite toys. It appears to be a blue bone with a giant tooth wearing a Santa hat, inexplicably. Because Alec never destroys his toys, they last forever.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I cannot believe I am writing these words. Alec and I are nearing the end of our time together. Incredibly, unbelievably, tragically, I am saying good-bye to my partner, my best friend, the love of my life: Alec. How can I? Well, I don’t have a choice. My wishes have gone unfulfilled. Our miracle didn’t come.

At the end of my last post, I mentioned Alec’s cancer had come back. Two weeks ago, he had another bleed and the ultrasound showed the cancer had spread through his liver. We immediately tried a new chemo protocol and a little more than one week later, this past Monday, he started feeling badly again, lethargic and intermittently nauseous. I wasn’t sure if it was a reaction to the chemo, perhaps an infection due to lowered white blood count, or the cancer coming back. I fervently hoped for the former and that the antibiotic would help. It did not. Late Thursday night our wonderful vet came over to see him and although she did not see immediate evidence of bleeding (which was our first concern), while she was examining him he gave a little growl when she touched his tummy, which surprised us both. Upon further, very gentle, examination, she found a large mass in his abdomen. Not a bleed but a new tumor - she estimated it was the size of a round watermelon - which means the end of the road.

She said it is pressing against his tummy which is why he was nauseous and the tumor is secreting hormones that are making him feel weak and maybe like he has the flu. Also the fact that his abdomen is painful made him not want to move much. Although she said she didn’t think the pain was too bad because his heart rate was so regular, that made me feel terrible because I could not tell he was in pain. I know dogs are good at hiding this, but still…ugh. I had some tramadol (painkiller) on hand from his surgeries and we gave him those right away along with a stronger anti-nausea medication, which seemed to make him feel better and he drifted off while we talked about options, or rather lack thereof.

A third surgery is not an option (we can’t remove his liver like we did his spleen), nor is more chemotherapy. The cancer already resisted the first protocol, and now has come back despite using a second “rescue protocol” with a new drug. If you know anything about cancer – and I am happy for you if you don’t – the cancer cells come back stronger every time. He is not going to get better from this. It is hospice now, meaning I make him as comfortable as possible until the time comes, which can be anytime. It will be soon. Of course, I will help him with his transition if need be (although my fervent last wish is that he painlessly and peacefully drift off…don’t we all wish that; don’t worry, I know it rarely happens that way), but I want it to be done at home. He does not want to move and the thought of trying to get him to the emergency hospital where he has not had happy times, with doctors he doesn’t know, and all those horrible fluorescent lights…that is not where I want it to happen.

I tried to make a plan a few weeks ago, just so I was prepared, and both his vets agreed to be on call after hours should I need them. But as bad luck would have it, they are both out of town this weekend. His oncologist is also out of town. His vet gave me the numbers of two mobile vets who do home euthanasia, but one of them is out of the country on a family emergency and the other is especially busy this weekend and can’t promise anything. I am hoping he stays stable until Sunday (or longer) when his vet, whom I love, is back. But I need to be prepared for anything. If his condition worsens I will not let him linger. There is another wonderful vet filling in for my two regular vets this weekend and she gave me her number and said I could call if I need her. I hope I don’t have to call before tomorrow, but thank goodness I have an option. Although she did say her car is in the shop so it could be tricky for her to get here. What is up with this weekend?? Even my closest friend in Portland left town a couple days ago. Can you say ALONE? I don’t mind being alone with Alec. This is the purpose of these last few hours, minutes, days, however long we have left together. But the scary part is everyone on our veterinary support team being gone at once. Hopefully he will stay stable until at least tomorrow. After everything, I can’t believe this is good-bye.

Alec has a big kennel with a bed and pillows called his “little house,” which is his safe spot where he loves to rest. This is where he has been hanging out. He is eating some snacks here and there but is not much interested in food (believe me, I have tried everything), he is drinking lots of water, and sleeping and dreaming intermittently. He is not flat-out or anything. He sits up occasionally and when I leave his side he turns his head and follows me around the room with his eyes, which are bright and alert. I am camped out next to him as I type this. He is napping. I have been alternately journaling and crying into his fur (I gave up the trying to act positive stuff) and telling him how much I love him and how being with him has been a dream come true and how sorry I am I can’t fix this. I have thanked him for making my life so good these last seven years. I have let him know I have never loved anything or anyone the way that I love him. I have been saying a lot of things. I also smile and laugh. There has been some music and singing. It is not all dirge-like. He is still smiling at me, too.

But the end is near. And as my vet put it Friday morning, I am holding vigil at his death bed. There is nothing beautiful about this. I want so badly to wrench meaning out of it, but it is nothing but sadness. It hurts so much. There aren’t words to describe the awfulness of my heart breaking, of the air slowly being sucked out of the world. No, it’s not my heart breaking…it’s ME breaking. I can’t think too deeply about what is happening beyond the immediate or I will go crazy.

I know I did my best, but nothing helped. The oncologist told me she was seeing remissions of 2-3 months to a year with this chemo protocol, in dogs with Alec’s cancer who were sicker than he was when they started. How I hoped Alec would be at the long end of the average remission! How I hoped the fact that it took so long to find it (43 sections!) meant something optimistic. The news of the cancer, of the multiple false biopsies, was crushing, but still I kept relentlessly hoping for the best. It seemed too unfair after everything Alec had been through. And here he barely made it to the lowest point in the range: 2 months. I have tried to keep positive, but knowing I lost 1.5 months of treatment time because of the false “benign hematoma” results just hurts so badly, even though I know there was nothing I could have done. Two additional benign biopsies followed. The cancer was hiding. It seems this cancer was determined to take him.

This all feels so familiar. Caring for Alec and tending to him. He is even wearing his Walkabout Harness again to help me get him outside, just like when he was paralyzed and recovering from his spinal surgeries. He is a good and sweet patient. I know this from before when I monitored him so closely for depression when he was on crate/bed rest for 6 weeks. I was amazed how well he adapted. But this time he will not get better. My love for him is so deep. I would bargain away anything to keep him here with me, anything, if only someone would take it. I feel so fiercely protective of him, as I know he protects me. It sucks to be so helpless, to be unable to keep him safe. Someone said that the hardest part of loving someone is being unable to prevent their suffering. Not that Alec is suffering – I would not willingly let that happen. The person relaying this quote (a psychiatrist and author who was paralyzed in a car accident many years ago) was talking about how his quadriplegia was harder on his mother than it was on him. I can understand that completely. Indeed, pure love could not exist without the potential for the most unfathomable pain. I guess that’s what the rose and thorn metaphor is all about.

I regret that I didn’t take him swimming the week before last on the oncologist’s instructions. She said there was too much of a risk of infection given the chemo treatment he had just had (potential bacteria in the water). If I had known what the next week would bring, I would have taken him. The indoor pool where Alec always loved to swim just reopened after being closed for renovations the last couple weeks, and I regret Alec will not get to swim in the new and improved pool. But I was told with his immune system compromised he could easily get an infection and become septic, which would be bad. I tried to make the right decisions. I still had my faith in the new chemo protocol at this point, and we only had to wait a week. I didn’t know that week was all we would have.

I also regret that I had to keep Alec from playing his favorite games “stick” and fetch, after his back injury, and that I had to keep him from rough housing with other dogs. But I did this for his protection, on the recommendation of several veterinarians and rehab therapists (I got fourth and fifth opinions on that). I really tried to make up for it by taking him swimming all the time, which I thought was a good compromise because he could chase the ball in the water, and taking him to special places and new parks on a regular basis. After he was paralyzed, I vowed never to dwell on the things he couldn’t do. I said I would only focus on the positive - all the things he could still do - and that I would make the most of those. He wasn’t even supposed to be walking, and I tried never to lose sight of that or let anyone feel sorry for him. When people would see him limping along with his little shoe and say “awww, poor dog” I would always say “actually, he is doing great!”

But now that the end is here I can’t help but mourn the fact that this poor dog has been through so goddamn much, only to have this cancer cruelly snatch him away, just when I thought things were calming down for us. He had been walking for only a year, but he was doing so well and I looked forward to many uneventful years ahead where Alec could relax and turn into a wise, old, gray, OLD shepherd, by my side, enjoying his much deserved golden years in comfort and security, surrounded with love and quiet reflection (by me) on a beautiful life well-lived. This cancer wasn’t part of the plan. I don’t care about me. I would do anything, make any sacrifice or life change, for him, but it hurts so badly to see his life cut short after all the adversity he amazingly overcame just a short time ago. With tears in my eyes, I say: it is unfair!! He deserved more. My sweet shepherd deserved a break. But we didn’t get it. Why?? Again, how badly I want to wrest meaning from this. And I know our story is not unique; we are not the only ones to go through this, or worse. This is the human condition. But I don't care. This is our story and it sucks.

Besides those, I don’t have any regrets. Alec became the center of my world when my first dog Kobi died almost exactly four years ago and it was just the two of us. Our relationship further intensified after he became paralyzed and I nursed him back to health and, eventually, mobility. There is nothing like that experience to strengthen an existing bond. And because he was still disabled, I had to pay attention to things I never did before, which further brought him to the center of my day-to-day experiences, thoughts, emotions, and plans. When Alec was in the hospital in Feb 2008, I thought he might die. When he didn’t, a simple truth came rocketing home. Something I had known abstractly now took on immediacy and became very concrete: every day is precious. And I never forgot that.

The result being the last two plus years I have known exactly how lucky I was, not in the back of my mind, but in the forefront of my consciousness. So when Alec got cancer and people would tell me to cherish every moment, all I could say was, “I have already been doing that!” Honestly. I knew what I had and gave thanks for it every day. For all intents and purposes, I structured my life around Alec. And I am glad about that, after all. I recognized - and celebrated - the profound joy and contentment I felt when spending time with him doing the most mundane things. I don’t think I could have spent much more time with him, or put his happiness more front and center (seeing him happy brought me so much joy that it was a route to my own happiness as well). So there is that. But imagine the void that is going to leave. I can’t. I am having serious trouble seeing my life without him in it. That is one big presence. As one of his vets said, "Alec is larger than life," and I could not agree more when it comes to his place in my world. All I know is everything is going to change. Just everything. He has become such a big part of me. I scarcely know myself without him anymore.

Awhile ago, before I knew Alec was sick, I was dancing with my friend Mike at a club. The song “Just like Heaven” by the Cure came on and for some inexplicable reason I thought of Alec and started crying. Yes, I had been drinking but I don’t tend to burst into tears every time I drink or anything. I cried again as I told Mike on the cab ride home what happened. Even though he is the only person I know who is as obsessed with his dog as I am with Alec, he made fun of me…as well he should have. I was being crazy. He didn't understand why I was crying and I tried to explain it was just because I loved Alec so much and I didn’t know what I would do if anything happened to him. It was this overwhelming emotion. I laughed while I was crying, knowing I was being silly. That was only a few months ago.

Here is something I scrawled in my notebook, again before Alec was sick:

blissful days
quiet nights
never wrote much before
when I was happy
never felt moved
to capture the moments
to carry the feeling with me
you have changed all that
changed everything

and always a little more
the narrative never stops
it keeps pushing forward like a train and
downward like the rain
sinking into my bones
radiating out through my skin
this “we” I am in

backward like an old refrain
I try to hold onto where we’ve been
before and ever now
upward into speechlessness
and the disorientation of being found
you are my sense of time, of place, of weight
my clock, my map, my scale
you are my reason.

I would not normally share the random scribblings from my notebook with anyone, but I wanted to convey what I felt, even then, when I thought things were fine. That Alec was my anchor… my purpose. I feel that when he leaves I could just fly off into the ether. Even for someone as verbose as me, it is hard to explain. It feels like losing home.

I will close this by again saying I am grateful I cherished every moment with Alec these last few years, and I’m glad I have the scribblings to prove it, like this from two years ago:

I miss you
even when you’re right next to me
in the next room (our room)
but I’m in the bathroom
thinking about random things
and then it hits me
how much I love you!
and I suddenly, achingly
miss you – rush to your side
even though you’re right here.

In cherishing Alec I also feared I would lose him, as this is the flip side of gratitude. Gratitude exists because we know we are lucky to have something – the awareness that it could be taken away. So we try not to take for granted, but we can’t be obsessed with loss either. I tried to straddle that line but truthfully after Kobi died (my first experience with grief), I was always afraid of losing Alec, even more so after he became disabled. And it has occurred to me that my fears brought this on somehow, but I know that for every thought I had that said “What would I do without you?” I had twenty more that said “We will be together for a long, long time!” If my thoughts were so powerful as to change reality, my world would look very different right now, and Alec and I would have many more years left together, many more experiences, many more chapters to write.

But the reality is we are out of options, and all of my high hopes have dwindled to this last one: the hope for a good death. Oh, and hope for an afterlife, which I have never held much truck with before but the impossibility of me being without Alec has driven me to seriously explore this. I refuse to believe our bond can be broken. And so I won’t believe it. I am going to turn into one of those woo-woo types when he leaves me, because I have to turn into something. Who am I without Alec? This dog has been the absolute center of my world and I mean that in a really, really good way. Although I used to scoff at them, I am starting to understand people who turn to spirituality and the supernatural in times like these. The mind rails against accepting the unthinkable separation. The afterlife is too appealing. Until someone disproves it, I think I am on board.

Soon I will hug Alec for the last time. Soon the color will drain out of my world. Soon I will change forever. And I will try to keep going without him. But I am not making any promises. I love Alec desperately with every fiber of my being. He is the best thing that ever happened to me. The times I have spent with him have been the happiest of my life, hands down. He is my joy, my light, my happiness. He is my amazing shepherd, but we couldn't beat this. Alec, I am so sorry I couldn’t make you better. How can I say good-bye? I don't know how to end this. There is no good way to end this. Oh please, I don't want to end this.

We had a picnic at Mt. Tabor Park last weekend. I shared my vegan "steak n cheese" sub with Alec. He also had some kibbles and lots of treats.

It was a happy day.

These lines on my face are new. I'm surprised my hair hasn't turned white yet.

My sweet shepherd boy.

Outside our apartment, just last week. The thousand watt smile that lights up my life.

The little house.

Keeping watch on the stoop.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hydro Power!

I uploaded some videos of Alec swimming in the indoor pool last weekend. Because of his disability, water is the ideal medium for Alec to play and exercise. Despite his activity restrictions on land, he can still enjoy his favorite game – fetch! – in the warm water at Paws Aquatics Canine Swim Center. During our weekly sessions at Paws Aquatics, I go in the pool with Alec and throw the ball for about 45 minutes. Recently I noticed he also likes to tread water and swim gentle laps with me. If I start doggie paddling across the pool he will follow or swim next to me while holding his ball. Very cute! My favorite part in the first video is at 2:42 when I go underwater and he looks around for me. I didn't know he did that until I saw it on the video. :)

I also take Ali swimming in the rivers around Portland. They are great in the summer but get very cold in the winter, so during the cold months the indoor pool is an ideal substitute. Now that the weather has finally warmed up here, I have been taking him swimming in rivers again. Sometimes lately he has been sluggish and not very interested in walking around the neighborhood, but he always perks up when I bring him to water! These two photos are from a recent excursion to one of our regular swimming haunts at George Rogers Park, south of Portland:

"I love my ball. It's so great!"

"Throw it!"

Alec has a very interesting relationship with water. When I adopted him seven years ago, he did not like it. Not long after he came to live with me in Georgia, we were on a hike and passed a small waterfall and Alec began biting and barking at the swirling water in the pool at the bottom. This was the first time I noticed something strange. I had tried to encourage him to swim but he was not interested, until one day I placed his ball just a foot or two into a gentle creek. His desire for his ball overcame his apprehension about the water, and he waded in. Ever since then, Alec has liked to swim, but he still barks at moving water. He becomes very agitated in the presence of waves (river or ocean); he will growl and grumble at them and sometimes bark using his high pitched “woof!” as he paces back and forth biting at the water in his adorable and strange way.

I took Alec to the coast a couple weeks ago on Father's Day and he had a good time patrolling the beach and playing in the waves (he does not swim in the ocean, just splashes around):

Here are some more photos from our trip to Cannon Beach.

I learned the hard way that Alec’s obsession with water means I have to keep him close anytime we are near it – especially if there are waves. Alec is a natural “heeler,” and when we are away from traffic and other dogs I often take him off his leash because he never goes far and never, ever runs away from me. Of course there are always exceptions, which is why I am such an advocate of dogs being leashed most of the time! However, at the risk of sounding like the most incompetent dog guardian ever, I will relay this harrowing tale:

One morning when we were living in San Francisco, I walked with Ali out to the Sutro Baths (ruins of an old public bath house right on the beach), where there is a lovely little promontory that overlooks the ocean. It was very early in the morning, and when we rounded the corner and I saw no one else was out there, I unsnapped Ali's leash. To my surprise and horror, he ran straight for the 4 ft. wall encircling the overlook, and, without hesitating, scrambled up and over this wall while I was still shouting his name. Miraculously he landed on a ledge halfway between the top of the cliff and the rocks below, but he was stranded there because the rock face was too vertical for him to climb up or down without falling. And I could not get to him. To make a long story short, Alec was rescued by the wonderful San Francisco Fire Department that morning (with only a small scrape on his paw) and I never made that mistake again! Alec had never done anything like this before and I realized afterward what prompted him to leap the wall; he heard the ocean waves and mistakenly thought the beach was right on the other side of the wall, rather than a story or two down. A close call that still makes me shudder!

The cliff. Not only the fire department, but also cliff and coastal rescue and animal control showed up.

That is my grubby hand in the frame. I talked to Alec the whole time so he would stay calm and still. It was a long time before the fire department (about eight members!) showed up and even longer before they got their climbing equipment set up. Alec was such a good boy. When one of the firefighters asked me if Alec would bite his rescuer, I said honestly I didn't know what he would do in this situation, considering he was stressed and scared. But to my great relief, when the firefighter landed on the ledge and grabbed hold of Ali's collar, he immediately started licking her face.

Once she got the climbing harness attached to Alec, she rappelled to the bottom holding him against her body. My hero! The firefighters were so sweet and told me how much they loved their own dogs as I thanked them over and over. As Alec and I walked back home, I was shaking from the aftereffects of my panic-fueled adrenaline rush. Alec, on the other hand, was completely unfazed and the first thing he did was grab a stick to play with!

I will wrap up with a general plug for hydrotherapy (not defined as jumping off a cliff into the ocean!). Although I swim Alec now mainly for fun and exercise, I cannot overemphasize the importance of water to his recovery from paralysis (not just free swimming, but the underwater treadmill too). Swimming is not only great rehabilitation for dogs with neurological conditions like disc disease, but it is also helpful for many other common ailments like arthritis, hip dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, or even recovery following injuries. For this reason, if your dog is not a natural born “water dog,” you might want to get her used to the water now before she has a problem that could benefit from hydrotherapy.

It obviously helps if your dog likes the water and is motivated to chase a ball other toy. However, even if your dog does not like the water now, this could change with positive reinforcement and the right motivation. As I mentioned, when I adopted Alec he would not go near the water, but he was so toy-motivated that I was able to coax him in one day using his ball as bait, and from that day on he loved to swim. So you never know! I thanked my lucky stars many times during Alec's rehabilitation that he liked the water so much. Because swimming can be therapeutic for so many conditions – in addition to providing an important physical and psychological outlet for dogs with mobility restrictions – I think it would not be a bad idea for every guardian to help their dog get comfortable with water while they are healthy, just in case. Again, you never know.

If you are considering swimming with a mobility-challenged companion, please use caution. Before we had the indoor pool option, I started out swimming Alec in various rivers. Alec is a very smooth swimmer and I was always careful to keep him submerged in the water as much as possible so that he was mostly treading water, rather than coming in and out, which would have caused more stress on his joints (I was always hip deep in the water in the beginning, now I usually only wade in up to my knees). If your dog gets wild in the water or is not a smooth swimmer, this is probably not the best activity for him if he is recovering from a back injury. If you can get him to walk in the water along the river’s edge that would be okay, but free swimming would not be a good option for a dog who may thrash or be rambunctious. Just use your judgment and talk to your dog’s physical therapist if you have one. I can only say what it seemed to do for Ali. Also, never put your disabled dog in the water without a life vest.

Until very recently, I always had Ali wear his "float coat" (Ruff Wear makes a good one, modeled by Ali here) when in the river as a safety precaution, just in case. And if you are trying to get your dog in a pond, lake, or river for the first time, enter the water with him and hold onto the life vest until you are absolutely sure of his ability. It was a long time before I was comfortable standing on the shore tossing the ball for Alec.

Ready to swim!

I did not talk about the underwater treadmill in this post because I have discussed it elsewhere, but that is another excellent option and one that Alec grew to love so much it was hard getting him out of the tank at the end of his sessions!

Alec in mid-squeak with his favorite underwater treadmill toy - the loudest one of course!

Post Script: This is the post I wanted to share this week, so I did. However, I had some bad news yesterday. Alec's cancer has come back. I don't want to write about that right now, but I will post another update soon. I wanted to get this happy post up now before I become too sad to look through pictures, etc. And I wanted to post it before I pick him up from the clinic, where he is getting an emergency chemo treatment, a different combination of drugs, in a last ditch effort to hold the cancer off a little longer. He has been there all day, and I don't want to spend much time on the computer when he comes home. Our time has palpably dwindled, my high hopes for a long remission seemingly swirling down the drain. This blog represents some of the most challenging times in my life but also the most rewarding. It has been, and remains, a labor of love.