Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Old Dog on the Stairs

“You’re crying at a dogfood commercial?”

“But look,” I gestured to the TV as I sniffled into a tissue.

You probably remember the one. It started with a kid at the top of the stairs hollering “Come on, Casey” to a red Irish Setter puppy who frolicked up the stairs. Then it moved to a teen calling “here, Casey,” to a healthy, adult Irish Setter who romped dutifully up to his owner. It finished with a post-college guy encouraging “atta-boy, Casey,” to an elderly, graying Irish Setter who struggled up the stairs.

I burst into tears every time it got to old Casey: He’s trying so hard to please his human. They’ve had such a beautiful, long friendship. Casey doesn’t have much time left. How can you not cry?

I would look at my robust, healthy Simon and be happy he hadn’t seemed to age a bit in all our years together. Always as eager for a hike as me, and just as willing to be happy with quiet time, for a decade this former pound puppy has been my perfect match. People have always stopped me on our walks and told me what a beautiful dog he is. I thank them as Simon smiles and nuzzles them for a pet. He knows.

Simon’s into his fifteenth year now. Old for a big dog. I believe it’s our active lifestyle and his not being a purebred got him this far, as well as the love of course. That and every time there’s been an injury or a sickness, I’ve always looked into his expressive brown eyes and said “you’re not allowed to leave.” He lays his head on my knee and somehow heals himself.

A few months back I noticed him panting all the time. He started to lose weight, drinking lots of water and not being able to hold it. I knew what it meant but I didn’t want to face it. With my limited salary I knew operations or chemo wouldn’t be an option. How effective could they be anyway at his age? I didn’t want to hear the words.

I took him in when he seemed to be in pain. Lymphoma, they said. They gave us antibiotics for infection, pain killers, and steroids to keep his lungs working. I went home and cried for days. So now Simon and me - a few weeks, a month, more? They couldn’t tell me how much time we have. I can only keep him comfortable and wait and watch.

The vet had chuckled, “Not a trace of arthritis or anything. Otherwise a totally healthy dog.” I want to scream that it’s not fair for his body to be in such good shape and still get taken down. It’s not used up yet. If the cancer just weren’t there…

Suddenly I have the old dogfood commercial Casey – the dog that makes me cry with his unsinkable will to please despite his infirmity. His ready smile breaks my heart.

After a few weeks on his steroids Simon started acting like a jerk. Begging incessantly, stealing the cats’ food, raiding the garbage – a doggie sin he’d never committed. I brought him back to the vet. He was down from his healthy 85 to 60 pounds, his spine and hind quarters skeletal. Quite simply he was starving to death. The cancer was stealing all his nutrients and he wasn’t getting any. We switched him to puppy food for greater nutrients and upped his feedings to three times a day. His walks to four. He stabilized and calmed down. Still smiling his happy dog smile. “But won’t that feed the cancer more, too?” my husband worries. I suppose it will but what can I do?

So we play our waiting game, enjoying whatever we have left. I tell him I love him a million times a day. I force his pointed steroid pills into bread slices that he eagerly gulps. I listen to his soft panting every night. I feel guilty that it irritates me and keeps me awake but I know it will be so much worse when it’s not there anymore.

Long gone are our wandering hikes in the hills. My once-strong dog shuffles behind me to the end of our driveway and back, his rear paws making a soft ‘shush-shush-shush’ as he fails to lift them. Sometimes, even moving slowly he stumbles. I modify my gait remembering not to rush and we amble along.

“What a beautiful dog,” people still croon on our short trips outside. I look at his emaciated rear and the visible curve of his ribcage. If you only knew, I think. Of course he’s still beautiful even as his eyes look sunken and his face fur grays. He wags his tail and nuzzles them for a pet.

Inside he struggles to get to his feet, his failing muscles fighting the slip of the wood floor. He can’t really hear anymore and I startle him if I come up behind him. I have to touch him or make vibrations to get his attention. And he smiles. Still that full-face, adoring-eye smile he’s always had for me, despite the pain, despite the fear he must feel at not knowing what’s going on. “The way that dog looks at you,” my mom always croons. It’s what unconditional love looks like.

He’s given me a decade of being the best dog ever. He’s always been there to comfort my tears or share my joys. I can’t imagine my adult life without him. I always thought he’d be around to help us raise kids.

He smiles, puts his head on my knee and nudges me with a nose that’s always hot and dry now. I give him whatever treats he wants. I stop myself from uttering my knee-jerk “you’re not allowed to leave.” It’s selfish of me and not fair to him. I tell him he’s allowed to leave if that’s what he needs. I bump my forehead onto his and tell him I’ll be OK but he has to tell me when it hurts too much; when it’s time. I pray I’ll have the strength to listen to him. Because otherwise I’ll hold onto him forever.

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