Monday, July 21, 2014

On Love and Loss

I am not a person who handles grief or change well, not that anyone ever does, but when I say that, I mean I am exceptionally bad at it. When something horrible happens, or I lose someone I love, my immediate response is to drum up all of the absolute worst images my brain can hope to supply and then have them flash behind my eyes like a 'Don't Walk' sign. My brain can be a very unpleasant place to be. 

This post is not written out of hope for a laugh, or wanting a sympathy vote, or wanting to bring anyone else down from their day; it is simply a way of therapy. Seldom can I express what I want and need to say when I am faced with a real live human. I don't know how to make people understand that what I feel goes perhaps much deeper than they can guess. So again, I am not writing this to try and make you feel sorry for me, or complain, or even wallow. I am doing this so that I can survive the day and finally get some sleep. 

If you have read some of my earlier posts, you know that my unintentional hiatus from blogland has been due in a large part to the ever-changing health of my dog, Bear. Our lives the last six months have been a constant stream of vet trips, tests, medications, and challenges. Bear was diagnosed with a rare Autoimmune disease back in January and it drastically changed our lives. I don't say this to complain, but rather as a way of filling you in. Every morning was a routine of check ups, steroids, antibiotics, and prayers for improvement. 

About a month ago, things started looking so much better, and I mean SO much better. The sores in his mouth had deteriorated into next to nothing, thanks to the steroids, and it looked as though his disease was heading into remission and that we wouldn't be seeing its ugly effects for a few precious years at least. Once his immune system came back into control, we would be able to ween him from the steroids and have him free of the nasty side affects that came along with it; sore joints, limited-to-no walks, low levels of energy, increased appetite, the whole bit. I started getting my hugs in the morning before work again- the big, full body, hugs that only Bear could give. He started playing with Nova, our second addition, little by little. We hadn't seen him play in so long, and it melted my worry-riddled heart back into something solid and warm and alive with hope. 

Only a few days later and we were back at the vet for a gastrointestinal infection, or so we thought. He was put on more pills and a limited diet. Nova caught it a few days later and we started her on the same regiment and diet, just to be safe. Both of them improved with the help of medication, and again, things got better. We were happy.

Then Bear relapsed. We carted him back off the vet for bloodwork and various mini-biopsies to try and determine what was making him so ill, and nothing of concern came back. We put him back on the meds that had worked before, and he improved into his normal, happy-to-see-and-love everyone self. 

This brings us to last Thursday. We had just finished his round of medication a few days prior and were seeing the healthiest side of Bear. He was hopping up and down like a bunny rabbit for his food at meal time, was seeking me out for his morning cuddles, was laying across my feet while I got ready for work, was drinking from the tap in the sink while I tried to brush my teeth- the whole bit. That morning, I tucked him away in his kennel so that I could head to work and gave him a big ol' kiss, same as always. He cried when I left, but that was pretty standard so I didn't think anything of it. 

Between 8 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, everything went straight to hell. My phone rang at work and I picked it up to hear my husband say that something was wrong. Really, really wrong. He had gone home early and had opened Bear's kennel to let him out only to find him covered in shit and vomit. Bear never has accidents, and almost never pukes, so right off the hop this was really out of the ordinary. It escalated within minutes, and before I knew it, I was getting another call telling me to come home, now. 

The whole drive home, all I could think was, 'Okay, here we go again. Another round of the same infection.'

I took one look a my beautiful baby boy and realized just how wrong I was. I could see his skull beneath his fur, and his hollow eyes. I could see how he could barely stand. I could see just how much every breath was costing him. After helping him back into the house from our yard, I got on the phone with the vet and they informed us that we should get him there as soon as possible. 

We had to hoist him into the car because he couldn't do it on his own. His once 110 pound frame had dropped over the last few weeks, but was still a challenge for him to lift himself. Once we arrived at the vet, he laid down on the floor and we could not get him back up. After a good five minutes, he gained enough strength to make it into the exam room. 

I sat with his head in my lap while the doctor told us what was happening to our baby. Some mysterious something-or-other was making his fever skyrocket and making it impossible for his body to hold on to any of the fluids it needed. We went through X-Rays, Blood tests, and a slew of other options to see what needed to be done. The x-rays revealed nothing, but his blood work came back with some scary results. Normal Liver enzymes for dogs his size are around the 100 mark, and our vet had never seen any over 600. His were just past 1600. She encouraged us to leave him there overnight for an IV, and we hastily agreed, knowing that he would have the best care possible and would recover that much quicker.

I held him while they gave him shot after shot, and Blair soothed him while they gave him the IV. By the time they went to move him into the overnight kennel, he had to be stretchered. But still, the vet assured us that with the IV to get him hydrated and the high dose of medication, things would stabilize over night. 

We walked into the room to say goodnight to our furbaby and smother him in kisses until we could see him in the morning when we would either be signing off on surgery, or getting the rundown on what medications he would need from then on. The suspected illness was Liver disease that had gone unnoticed despite our invasive tests and had finally peaked. 

I will never forget the look he gave me when I turned to leave. His warm brown eyes had turned glossy, and I would have stayed with him all night if they would have let me. I ran my fingers through his fur like I had a million times and kissed his head, rubbing his ears between my fingers and holding him like I had every morning for the last 2 years. 

The next morning I woke up to my phone ringing and I grabbed it like a drowning woman reaching for the shore. They had said they would call to give us an update on his progress and go over the steps to come. I had prepared for a hundred different scenarios, but I had not prepared for the one that faced us. 

"I'm so sorry, but we lost Bear." 

My rejection to that statement was instantaneous. All I could think of was No, that's not right. He's just sick again like he has been for the last while. This is the same thing that's happened since we got him- he gets sick, the vet makes him better, and then we enjoy the grace period of good health. He's fine, we just have to give him the medications again. My mind was unable to comprehend that she was still speaking. My baby is two, I kept thinking. My baby is only two, he can't be lost. 

Questions from our vets lips kept coming, but I couldn't speak, I couldn't think. 

Did we want to come by to see him and say one last goodbye? What goodbye? I'm picking him up today and he's going to run to me, all healthy and happy, just like he always does. I don't need to say goodbye because I will see him right away.

What did we want done with the remains? Nothing, because there aren't any remains to be dealt with. He is fine. My dog is fine. 

Did we want an autopsy to give us closure and find out what it was that took his life? Nope, because he's still fine. He's coming home with me. I already have his toys ready to go. 

The vet was amazing, and did her best to calm me down, and at some point I told her that we needed to think over what to do. Everything after that point was a pit. We had let Nova sleep with us in our bed that night because she was so anxious about her brother, and one look at her broke me. 

I won't go through what followed, but I have never felt anything like it in my life. It was like what I imagine losing a child to be- a statement that I am sure will incur someone's wrath, but is as true a thing as any I can say. 

The thing I don't understand, is that when we told people what had happened, almost everyone was supportive and amazing, but a few people said that, while they were sorry for our loss, he was a dog, and that sort of thing happened. 

Well, for those people, Bear was not just my dog. He was like my child. And you can scoff and ridicule that all you want, but it doesn't change the validity of it. My husband and I got him when he was 8 weeks old. We have loved him and watched him grow for the last 2 years, and not once did we ever really consider the fact that we wouldn't get at least a decade. He had so much personality and spunk that he may as well have been human. He could communicate with us just easily as if he were speaking, and he had a bigger heart than anyone I have ever met.

Everything about him surprised us. When we first went to meet him in September 2012, we were blown away by how sweet he was. He walked right up to us, leaned against our legs and sat down, as if to say, "Yup. These are my humans. I found them and now they are mine." After that point, there was no going back. We were his, and he was ours. We watched him go from a 10 pound, pot-bellied ball of happiness and exuberance, to a 110 pound gentle giant who was always, ALWAYS, happy to meet new people, and always wanted to be near those he loved. 

Not once in those two years did he show anything less than absolute genuine happiness when new faces met his. He couldn't say hi to you fast enough, even if it was a little intimidating to have a giant horse of a dog approach you with that level of enthusiasm. We never did figure out what breeds he was, but the going theory was that we had a part lab, part husky, part northern wolf on our hands. We referred to him as our Direwolf.

Watching sad movies was never as bad with him there. If he heard so much as a whimper from me, he was beside me in an instant, resting his head in my lap and giving me kisses. He wanted to be friends with every dog he met, regardless if they were scared of his unusual smell or not, and he would never bark or frighten them. He would stay quiet and get down to eye level with them so that they could see he wanted to play. 

When it came to kids, he was just as surprising. Despite his size and obvious enthusiasm, he would always wait for kids to pet him. He would lean his head into their tiny palms, practically buzzing with happiness all the while, and I think he changed a great many people's opinions of black dogs. 

Blair and I ran away to the lake this weekend in an attempt to get out of our house. The lake turned out to be just as hard. We couldn't so much as walk Nova without breaking down because he should have been with us. Without him, our home feels like an empty shell; like a lie. He isn't gone- my baby is just downstairs, or sleeping in his kennel. I look around this place and all I see are the places he should be. He should be by my feet right now, waiting patiently for me to finish writing so that I'll go lay down with him. He should be taking up half of our kitchen, watching me with those huge brown eyes and giving me his goofy grin. Nova shouldn't be sitting in the window, waiting for him to come back, because he shouldn't be gone. She sits there, waiting, for what will never happen again. He should have been out there at the lake with us, loping through the water like he was born there. 

I shouldn't be bursting into tears every ten minutes because I think of something great he would have loved, or looking around my house for signs that he's still here. I shouldn't feel this horrible, ragged hole in my chest all the time. 

Right now, all I can think of is the guilt of letting him go alone. It's like wildfire, that guilt. He should have had someone who loved him beside him, holding him and telling him that everything would be okay. I should have been able to give him that after all of the incredible things he gave us. 

People have been saying that he is in a better place now, and I know that that is true. He lived a life peppered with vet trips and health scares, but I know that we really and truly did everything in our power to keep him for as long as we could. I would have run myself into the ground if it meant getting to bring him home with us for one more night. We put our personal lives on hold for the last six months in order to make him better, and so many times we cancelled plans because his health made it impossible to leave him. But you know what, I wouldn't have changed a damn thing. And our incredible friends and family never complained about our flakiness or inability to stick to our promises. Every single one of them understood, and for that we will be forever grateful. 

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Bear's 2nd birthday, and now we have a very different date to remember. 

But as much as I miss him, and as much as I just want to hold my dog again one more time, I know that now he is finally whole, even if we had to break a little in the process. He deserved a life of love and happiness, and I hope to God that we gave him that. Maybe he only needed two years with us to teach us a whole different kind of love. I am better because of him.


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