Why Did I Renew?!

After a slight hiatus, during which I weighed a public versus private writing practice, I decided to take advantage of the level 1 WordPress experience in order to accommodate my fleeting urges to write, without annoying the occasional (and, I’m guessing, accidental) reader with ads. I would be heartbroken if I’d written a deeply personal account of learning that it is possible to find joy among life’s troubles, only to find that readers were confronted with encouragements to try some new remedy for psoriasis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of psoriasis sufferers finding relief. I just don’t want “Big Pharma’s” dime underwriting my hobbies. I’d rather pay the fee, and call the tune.

So, after having ponied up the very reasonable year’s subscription, I now find that almost a month has passed without a single pixel having been posted. Maybe I’ve made (yet another) mistake with my petty investments in what ultimately serves as self-entertainment. It isn’t as if I have some unique practice or insight, either lofty or insignificant, to share with the world. Probably the sum total of topics about which I could write are comprised of:

  • My experiences in dealing with cancer and kidney disease
  • My experiences in trying to discover a centering philosophy
  • My experiences in trying to adjust to the mistake of retiring to the wrong place
  • My experiences in loving, and losing, beloved dogs

It is plain that the essence of these topics is “my experience”. I will carefully avoid offering advice on how to deal with chronic illness, how to winnow through the mountain of philosophic thought, how to choose the best retirement locale, or how to care for dogs and deal with grief. All I can honestly do is write about what it all feels like to me, and hope that the reader finds any useful seeds of ideas to make better sense of their own experiences. That being the case, I suppose I’ll make the effort to continue.

If one were to read farther back in the articles posted here they would discover that the bulk of entries are about the closing months, and eventual end of life of my beloved sidekick, Jessie. She was, in my estimation throughout her life, and now in my memory, the best dog in the whole world, even though she probably wouldn’t deserve such a title if her life and antics were given objective judgement. After her passing I offered a few ragged posts that were, at heart, about my grief. I’ll add an update to this meandering posting.

I still grieve. I’m sure there are reasons for the intensity and tenacity of this sense of loss, but I haven’t yet ferreted them all out. The good news is that, gradually, the sun, and the world’s colorfulness, have increased their intensity to where they once were in my view. I can often talk about Jessie with others for handfuls of minutes, only showing tears after I’ve slipped away alone. In the interim since my last post on this subject I have discovered a way to memorialize Jessie that I have come to find very helpful. It is not my idea, nor do I know who originated it. The memorial consists of one of Jessie’s water bowls (it could easily have been a food bowl) wrapped with her last collar, and then converted to a planter (succulents and cactus in this case). I added a photo of Jessie to complete the effect.

In this way I am able to give care to her memory every day when I open the blinds to let in the sun, and weekly when watering. I’ll pause in those moments, and others, to profess aloud how badly I miss her company. I don’t apply any magic to this practice. I know that Jessie is not really here with me, and cannot appreciate that I love her memory. I suppose that it is just that I had such a reservoir of caring for that dog, and this allows me to keep it flowing toward the living memorial of her.

“Ain’t No Sunshine…”

A grieving milestone

It has been 6 months, today, since my sidekick, Jessie, died. I suspected that there would be no “getting over” her loss. I wasn’t so prepared for the lingering heartache and sudden tears whenever she enters my thoughts. I think I may have figured out why she is that special, one-in-a-million dog that I just can’t let go.

One year ago, today, I wrote about the juncture of my own medical condition, and the care of Jessie and her adoptive brother, Maxx. Jessie had a full measure of social and physical vulnerabilities, no doubt stemming from a shaky start in life as a stray. She was heir to the worst attributes of her German Shepherd genes; rear-leg weaknesses and a host of digestive issues, just as I had grown up with a series of infirmities, culminating in stage 4 NET cancer and severe kidney disease. She was a shy introvert, anxious about every new and unfamiliar experience, mirroring my own retreats from social involvement. Rather than being one of those pairings where the strengths of one support the weaknesses of the other, we were alike in our struggles with living in the world. Through some inexplicable and silent communion we kept each other from succumbing to our own fears and infirmities in a “if you can do it, then so can I” kind of way.

Of course, there was also the promise.

An unspoken, inter-species mutual support system only goes so far, as one of us naturally carries the burden of sustaining the other. Being the human in a human-dominate world, that responsibility fell to me, and I took it most seriously. I had already forged a commitment within myself to assure a home and care to both dogs. To Jessie, though, I said it aloud. I knew that Maxx, in a pinch, would transfer fealty to whosoever was lord of the food bowl and treat pouch. With Jessie, it seemed that she looked to me for more than just creature needs, and I reflected back my solemn vow that I would do whatever possible to provide care and comfort to her until the very end of her life.

It is with that mission always before me that I found motivation to stay with diet and exercise plans designed to keep me as healthy and strong as possible, and to follow through with medical care crafted to slow disease progression and keep me alive longer. In this way it is no exaggeration to say that Jessie kept me going, kept me alive, and gave me purpose.

The last few years of her life were, for me, such a profound mixture of happy and sad. Her back legs continued to weaken to the point that I had to have her wear a sort of doggy orthopedic boot to protect the top of her paws from scuffing whenever we went for a walk. Her coat dulled and lightened, she spent most of every day napping, and, we feel certain, her eyesight dimmed. She became too frightened to walk down the stairs each morning after sleeping with us upstairs, so Maxx and I slept downstairs with Jessie (I exercised human prerogative, and claimed the couch) every night. The last 6 months we had to watch, helplessly, as a mass steadily grew behind her left eye. All of that was the sad part, and I was on an emotional hair trigger throughout.

The sad was balanced by a kind of blossoming that came about in Jessie. While she never outgrew her wariness of unfamiliar people, she did begin to widen her circle of exploration around our community. This lead to a widening of her socialization when, for the first time in her life, she began to make friends with various dogs she would meet on our walks. In her closing months she found great joy in her explorations. On the last day of her life, when the mass behind her eye had robbed her of most of the pleasure in her life, the very last thing she wanted to do before the doctor arrived at our home was to take one more lap around the neighborhood.

So, what is there to say about the end of a beloved dog’s life. We did our best to downplay any drama. We had the doctor come to our home, rather than have to face the scary veterinary office. We gave her the kind of massage she enjoyed, and we told her, over and over, what a good girl she was, how much we loved her.

And, I was determined to hold my tears so that she would not be troubled by them, and so I could focus completely on comforting her, my ultimate promise. Somehow I held on until the moment the doctor assured me that Jessie was beyond any further suffering.

The tears have been much harder to control since. With Jessie went so much that had given my life purpose and joy. I’d have to confess that I let myself go for several months after, and only recently have I found the determination to restrengthen myself. I do have my wonderful and supportive wife, who certainly seems to enjoy my company, and I hers. There is still Maxx, he of the shifting loyalties, entering into his own old age. I have made a similar promise to him, and I intend to help him find joy and comfort in his closing years.

But, for me, there has never been a dog quite like Jessie, nor, I feel sure, will there ever be.

For The Love Of Dog

I’ve barely begun to blog, and already I’m about to divulge very personal information about myself. Please know that I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t pertinent to the subject at hand.

I have cancer and kidney disease. While serious, I don’t yet have an expiration date estimate. The course of my treatment follows what one medical provider refers to as a “Cinderella” principle; do those things that will move the minute hand backwards, delaying midnight (when all the magic comes to an end). My philosophy, as it pertains to my medical condition, is that quality (of life) far outweighs quantity (of time), with one specific qualification. That qualification is the topic of this post.

Next to my lovely and wonderful wife, my life these days is mostly defined by the care of two elderly dogs. Jessie, the elder, is a few months shy of 13 years of age. Maxx will soon be 11 years old. Both are mixtures of big dogs, German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever in Jessie’s case, German Shepherd and (probably) Doberman Pincher for Maxx. Both are within sight of their average life expectancy. Jessie is showing her age.

Not only is Jessie showing her age, but she is also showing evidence of neuromuscular ailments common among German Shepherds. Her Doc says that either disease would typically cause rapid degeneration, but Jessie has been hanging in there for a little more than a year since the condition became evident. Maybe her Lab side is holding things together. Complicating matters further for Jessie is her history of beginning life as a stray, completely missing the socialization window. She is skittish, easily frightened, and completely attached to me. Maxx, though a bit gimpy from ACL surgery about a year ago, is still a big bruiser, and an independent soul. He’s entirely devoted to my wife, but he’d follow anyone with a cookie in their hand. I don’t worry about him quite so much. Yet, anyway.

The juncture of my medical condition and the care of my dogs occurs at the point where one of my doctors is persistently urging me to undertake an ongoing, invasive, preventative treatment plan that will significantly complicate my ability to provide continuous care for Jessie and Maxx.

I have found that there is a spectrum of thought regarding pet care. At one end are those who think of companion animals as entertainment and decorative devices, ranked a little above houseplants. At my end are people who don’t differentiate much between their pets and offspring. I’ll state it plainly: my dogs are my kids. I have also found that when medical care is in conflict with pet care, few doctors respect such a distinction.

This is not the first time I’ve been in this situation. A little more than a year ago the specialist team treating my cancer (which is 1,200 miles distant) strongly recommended major surgery to rid me of some dangerous tumors. I told the lead Doc that I would prefer to postpone such an invasive procedure for at least several years. I explained that I was committed to caring for my elderly dogs, and would feel more free to undertake such treatment after I had seen Jessie and Maxx through to the happiest extent of their lives. It was not well received. Clearly angered, he opined that it was more likely that I would die before my dogs would, and that, if he were in a similar circumstance, as much as he loved his dog, he would put his own health first. A lower-on-the-spectrum point of view. My wonderful wife solved the issue by finding a long-term “Home Away” lodging, and we brought Jessie and Maxx with us to that far-distant city so that they could be with me while I recuperated (and while she picked up the considerable slack). I’ll take this opportunity to publicly thank her, once again, for that loving sacrifice.

This current situation is quite different, though. It would require invasive treatments every few months. Jessie is probably no longer able to tolerate such frequent, distant travel, and the expense would drain reserves we will likely need to see to the dogs’ increasing care needs. More important to me, I am insistent on being a comfort to both dogs, especially Jessie, in this stage of their lives. And if the time comes when either of them needs ultimate help to relieve suffering, as hard as it will be, I must be there to hold and comfort them.

So, later this morning I have an appointed meeting with the doctor, where I will tell him that I will not undertake the recommended treatment plan. I’m betting he won’t understand. I won’t be surprised if I’ll need to find another Doc once I walk out of there. But one thing of which I’m certain; no matter what course of medical treatment I follow, the time will come when I will die, and I’ll likely have some time to contemplate choices I’ve made. Even if foregoing this particular treatment leaves me with fewer years, I will not regret choosing in favor of Jessie and Maxx today.

EDIT (2/27/18 11:40 AM ET): Recent testing indicated that I have moved, at least temporarily, into a lower-risk level, and so I was able to avoid the confrontation I predicted. This time.