A Good Boy

Ann called me Tuesday sometime around 8am. As I was in Florida visiting Mom, I knew the call couldn’t be good, being that early for her. She was crying when I answered and shared that Calvin had pretty much been up all night panting like mad, and seemed unable to settle down or get comfortable when laying down. By default he was thus standing a lot, but purposelessly. She knew something was wrong–very wrong, she felt.

These past few months for the boy haven’t been easy or good ones. Two months ago he developed some growth in his paw that caused him real discomfort when walking. After the doctor said there wasn’t much to be done other than surgery that could result in the removal of the affected toe, Ann declined that option given the larger potential impact of such a procedure on a 13 ½ year old dog. Bless her heart, she then proceeded to jerry rig a pad for his foot for his daily walks that really did seem to make a difference, using foam and blue tape and a boot. This she did every day, faithfully.

Then last week something else kicked up in another paw, rendering him gimpy as can be. The vet couldn’t quite figure out what that was about and suspected perhaps something small had penetrated that paw. As to whether it was still in there or not, couldn’t say. Ann tackled that one using the age old Epsom salts soaking technique, and damned if a day later he seemed better. Taping the one foot up, holding the other foot in a shallow bath of Epsom salts—she loves the boy.

And now the other day, this. Ann anxiously asked if I felt she should wait for her vet to open up shop, or just take him into a vet emergency room. I counseled the former, and of course Ann went with the latter.

Her next call to me was light years more despondent. They found a tumor near Calvin’s stomach, a sizable one that was pressing on the spleen, the liver. They needed to hold him there to explore whether the tumor had metastasized to other parts. In effect, this didn’t matter much to Ann. Clearly the only option for addressing the tumor was surgical removal, and as I already mentioned that kind of thing was a nonstarter. Calvin seemed indeed to have entered his end stage.

Well enough to get out of there, Ann brought Calvin home, the game plan being to monitor him and keep him comfortable (she left the vet with plenty of pain meds for that, and the name of a house calling vet, who could help us put Calvin to rest at home if it came to that). The next 24 hours quickly revealed where there didn’t appear to be a lot of room to keep Calvin comfortable. Calvin struggled to sit still, apparently no position being comfortable to him. He seemed to want to go outside a lot but would only walk out and then just stand there, as if befuddled by it all. He did eventually eat, so that was good.   Ann’s anxiety grew through the day Wednesday until she finally called the home based vet, who happened to be a neighbor. Sam came by and said things didn’t look too good. The goal then became to keep Calvin sufficiently comfortable for the next 24 hours until I got home from my visit. This would allow me to see the guy one last time, and also for Ann to not be so very alone in dealing with this gut punch of an experience.

Mercifully Calvin made it to my return. As did my wife, the preceding 36 hours being surely the worst she’s known in years, maybe ever. Anyone would hurt badly over the impending loss of a 13 year old pet and friend. Calvin came into Ann’s life right after her divorce, was there throughout the transitions in the next few years, including moving into her new home, and inviting the likes of me into her life. Calvin and Claire were the constants for Ann during some really shitty years, thus were the good luck charms that ushered in the goodness that has since followed.

I got home Thursday early evening. When I first saw and hung out with Calvin, I have to say, I was given pause over whether the agenda to end things was really necessary at this point. He seemed reasonably alert, and while he wouldn’t sit in any of the various ways we’re used to seeing him sit, he had a whale of an appetite, would wag his tail in the presence of food, and was able to go outside almost like normal.

However, even in just the short hour and a half between when I got home and when Ann had arranged for Sam to come to take care of things, I quickly saw how very and sadly off Calvin was. He would only sit in a manner he’d never preferred before; he’d get up only to just stand ther; there was only a lightless look in his eyes. He still had some life in him, but living was surely only going to slowly kill him in the coming days at this point. Of course we wanted to believe that he was caught up in some bad phase, one he’d eventually get to the other side of, but the data was all pointing in the wrong direction.

Ann asked me if I thought we were making the right decision. I understood the dilemma, now three-dimensionally, being here in his presence. I also understood all too well what my loving wife had gone through over the past 36 hours, over the past 8 months, really, since the day last summer I ran Calvin over with my car (fortunately I pretty much passed over him and he was shaken but fine within days). All the slow but real declines he’d experienced, the specific incidents that each stood to undercut his quality of living, which seemed to be emerging at a more rapid pace these last few months. He’d take his walk one day with the vim and vigor he’d shown for years, then the next day could barely hobble across the room. He’d dodged a bunch of bullets during this time, barely. A large tumor near his stomach? That was one bullet too many. I told her yes, I did, and I meant it, and hated like hell the instinct that whispered that truth in my ear.

That last hour with Calvin felt to me like the epitome of my experience of him this past half year. I enjoyed being there with him, but there wasn’t a lot of reciprocity in this. Calvin became almost maniacally Ann-dependent during these past months, tracking her every move, following her if she left the room, even going into the bathroom with her. It was sort of cute, sort of maddening for Ann, but I missed him and what affection he’d formerly shown me. Ann started to experience this goodbye in her way this past half year, but given the depth of their connection, that wasn’t going to curb in any way the intensity of her grief at this final goodbye. For me, I started saying my own goodbye to Calvin these past six months, and otherwise deferred to the affection he shared with his Momma.

I wish the actual procedure had gone otherwise. There are two steps in this kind of thing. In the first a general anesthesia is administered, allowing the dog to slowly go to sleep (this is what’s used for cleaning teeth, or minor surgery). After the dog is under, a dose of something is given to finally rest his heart. Sam administered the first shot and then left Ann and I to be alone with Calvin. He was already calm, lying there on the floor with us. Eventually he set his head down on his front paws, sleep taking over. It was as peaceful as you could hope for—until it suddenly was not. Apparently some dogs can experience an almost epileptic seizure with this drug, and this infernal reaction suddenly took our poor dog over. Ann was horrified, while I saw it for what it was, just a biological reflex. Sam came rushing back in the room when we called out to him and worked to both hold Calvin down and explain how oblivious he was to what was going on. That was too much for Ann who left the room at that point. I lingered a moment as Calvin calmed back down, then when he did, I leaned in for a last kiss on the snout. This reawakened the damn spasming some, and I left too. I know Ann will struggle with that moment for a while.

Sam and his wife Nancy (also a retired vet) finished the procedure, then came to give us hugs before departing with Calvin’s remains. I couldn’t help but hear every note from the sound of their car leaving, shock and sadness vying in my heart to grasp the moment.

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Ann’s mother once made an offhand comment about dogs that could not have rung truer to the dog owner education that came with my life with Ann and Calvin. She said, “Give a dog a little bit of food, a little bit of love, and they’ll be loyal to you forever.” Yes, indeed, Joan. Yes, indeed.

Calvin was a true Golden Retriever. Never a candidate for the Doggie Mensa Club, he could detect and would respond to a human emotion from across the bay. He didn’t beg for affection while welcoming all that came his way, and ditto (mostly) where food was concerned. He had that utterly charming habit of bringing Ann something in bed after his breakfast (most often a shoe), and that utterly horrific habit of rolling around on any dead thing he found along a trail. He rarely barked unless someone pulled into the driveway or walked past the house with their own dog. He cherished his goodnight routine—treats from Ann, then a loving rubdown from her, then me. I can’t remember him chewing a thing up of any importance, though if he escaped the house with a toy in mouth it was as good as buried within minutes. If you dropped your speed below 50 in the car he’d demand his window be rolled down. Nothing entertained him for more hours then sitting poolside with his captured tennis ball, knowing that damn ball was trying to escape back into the pool, and if it couldn’t figure out a way to do so itself, Calvin would eventually nose it in there, then barking to raise the dead at its treachery. And always, always, parked by the door whenever we left the house to be there when we returned.

So of course the house doesn’t feel quite like home for now; a 25% loss in pure heart will have that effect. What else to say? We loved you, “Calbeen.” And thank you for all of your love, you good boy!

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