Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Length of the Rainbow Bridge

Over two years ago now, on Saturday, May 20th 2017, we had to make the hard decision to put our buddy Buster to sleep, our beloved boxer mix dog, our family companion and friend. I haven't posted anything about it online yet even though it was awhile ago now. I wrote up most of a blog awhile back but then never finished or posted. A year after I still had his Pill Pockets in the closet and a bin of his supplements stuffed in a bottom cabinet. I'm not entirely sure why it is that I didn't post anything about it, perhaps because it was a difficult phase and decision for our family to deal with and make. Maybe I was too emotional at the time for the outreach, I don't know. I also had just given birth to our second child at the time. It was a time of transition for our family, but we have had some time to deal. Celie and I had a chat about him awhile back and we decided that we "don't feel horrible anymore" so I'm ready to post about it I reckon. Now, two years after she has started to ask about getting another dog. While I am not ready for that step quite yet, and am also currently preoccupied with now gearing up to have our third child, I suppose I could at the very least finish up the blog post. 

On August 4th, 2016 Buster was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer after we took him to the vet for a swollen neck and a persistent hacking cough. They delivered the sad news and I knew I had to reframe it for Celie somehow. She was just 6 at the time. It was also only around a week before we found out that I was pregnant with Jasper. We were excited to be having another baby but simultaneously sad for the impending loss we had ahead of us. The vet told us that dogs usually only live 4 to 6 weeks after diagnosis so we had to tell Celie something because we didn’t think we had much time. We were obviously heartbroken and were not looking forward to saying goodbye to him so soon, but I made the choice to tell Celie up front and talk to her about it through it all because I thought that he would die or that we would need to decide to put him to sleep within a month or so. Being 6  years old at the time, I felt that it would be good for her to be told up front in an age appropriate way. I immediately bought her All Dogs Go to Heaven and did my best to explain cancer to her and what was happening, also so that she would be aware that he wasn't feeling well and would act accordingly because we had no idea what was ahead of us. It forced me to break down death to a child's level while simultaneously reexploring my own thoughts and beliefs. It was painful, sad, and vulnerable, but in the end I am grateful that I had the opportunity to explain it to her using a dog companion first instead of a human one, as it was her first rememberable experience with death at the time. 

I am grateful for the pure love that Celie and Buster shared. We already had Buster when she was born so Celie was raised alongside her furry friend. “Buster” was even her first word. He was her four-legged older brother and he was so patient and gentle with her, despite her high energy. For that I will also forever be grateful. If he was a mean tempered dog, it could have been a bad experience but he seemed to understand that she was a tiny people, one of us, and very dear to us, never doing anything overtly aggressive unless in a defensive manner and having a great way of judging how gentle he needed to be with her. It helps to keep in mind that it was special for her to have a good connection with a dog so early and this was a gift in itself. It still hurt like hell and was one of the most heartbreaking things to witness and have to explain to her, given her mix of emotional reactions through it all especially because it ended up taking much longer than the vet initially told us.

I, of course, not wanting to accept the death sentence even in my adult mind, initially Googled my fingers off about dog lymphoma and things. I frantically considered chemotherapy briefly, read up on that. Decided against it. We purchased supplements and ebooks on dealing with canine cancer. I started him on a mixture of vitamins and things. Most notably we switched his dry dog food to grain free Blue Wilderness. Ultimately, though, his lymph nodes continued to swell and eventually he was hacking and could no longer eat the dry dog food. About a month after diagnosis he wasn't in the best shape, but he was still here. The swelling in the lymph nodes in this chest and throat eventually became so significant, though, affecting his ability to eat, that we decided to put him on prednisone to see if it would shrink them and give him some relief. This is basically the first line of cancer treatment with dogs anyway. Luckily it worked, the swelling went down, he was able to eat better again, and he just kept going. 

I had planned on making him his own homemade dog food from recipes I found on the internet in canine cancer support groups and the ebooks that I got, but in the end we just switched to Blue Wilderness canned food for the most part, mixing it with the grain free dried kibble. He seemed to love most kinds, he was hungry because of the prednisone so at least he kept eating. We were fortunate to be able to afford it because grain free dog food is so much more expensive and it added up! I switched up kinds when they were on sale but stuck to grain free, high protein. Merrick’s was a brand he liked a lot also and some of it honestly looked so good I would have eaten it! All through my pregnancy we were in this limbo state where we gave him his medication and bought him his special food, every week we repeated the drill and it somewhat stayed the same. I called in and refilled his prescription at the vet so many times. I broke his pills in half and put them into chunks of Fresh Pet loaves. All the while he slowly got worse but still remained basically Buster, playful and social with a happy tail. 

We switched him to a completely grain free diet when he was diagnosed and I attribute this to most of the bonus time that we got with him. Aside from his diet, we also refrained from giving him any table scraps unless it was a pure protein or fat source like meat or something. He lived quite a few fairly active months after diagnosis, fetching tennis balls a month or so in and even playing tug of war with Celie close to only a month before the end, but he slowly got worse, though, and the cancer ultimately took over his body. In the end it was in his stomach, which became swollen, and in his skin that started to harden and peel although it didn’t seem to bother him. He was uncomfortable but didn't seem to be in significant pain. I continued the supplements that I had read showed the most results in other dogs with cancer. In the end I still feel like I failed him, not trying aggressively enough with the supplements or not making him his own homemade food or not doing this that or the other. But who is to say Colloidal Silver would have done anything? If I had tried crazy baking soda treatments I could have sent him into heart failure. I wasn’t sure of anything, but my mind was awash with all of the things I had read or ever heard that could fight cancer, this invasive beast that had killed so many family members. Now it was taking the best dog I had ever had who was the equivalent of a human only in their 50s, no where near done with life with still so much love to give. Son of a bitch. 

Seemingly selfishly lost in my own depression at the time and dealing with my pregnancy, I feel like I wasn’t able to give him my all.  While that was true with everything else happening, I know that it is also true that I did try my best to keep him as healthy and comfortable as possible through it all. I believe it got us a good amount of extra time, the equivalent of a human living for 5 more years after diagnosis versus the 1 year sentence they were given.  That’s fairly significant considering most of those months were decent months.

I remember nights of me putting my legs up to ease my swollen feet. I would grunt and rub my swollen belly and he would grunt as well as he rolled onto his swollen belly. In my limited positioning, he would snuggle his face into my toes and I would rub the side of his head with my foot as we gazed into each other's eyes in an understanding misery, only mine was temporary and self-induced, the creation of life, while his was an unfair sentence that would take him from this place, the slow destruction of life. He held on and watched me grow our new baby, though, almost like he wanted to see the family unit completed to where it was advancing to before he left. He wouldn't give up the happy tail and seemed only in mild to moderate pain. After 8 and a half months, though, his front legs began to swell. We had all of this time with him to prepare for our goodbye and in the end it didn’t seem long enough. 

At one point one of the tumors on his side burst open and he needed a vet visit. She said she thought it was a cat bite or something like that, but I knew it was one of the growths he had on his side that must have broken open some how, or he dug it open himself. It was squirting blood, regardless of how it happened. We thought that was the end but we bandaged and tended to it, covering his dressing with pet sweaters to keep it in place...and he continued. When his legs started to swell and his one front paw seemed as though he had punctured it on something simply from the pressure of the fluid, we once again thought it was the end. We took him into the vet again and they said it was most likely the beginning of the end and this vet was actually so surprised that he had such a happy tail and was in such good spirits. We got him on an antibiotic to help with the swelling, and it did take it down temporarily. Because of the antibiotic we got around one more month after that point, but it was apparent that the stubborn old boy wasn't going to go on his own laying out in the sun one morning like we selfishly hoped would happen. After the course of the antibiotics he started to go downhill pretty fast.

He had taken to standing instead of laying down, we are unsure if it was because it hurt his stomach to lay on it or what, but it was a weird stage. At first we thought that it was just the pain pill we had been giving to him at the end to keep him more comfortable but he seemed to be slipping out of consciousness while standing in the yard, almost dropping to the ground at times like someone falling asleep and then catching themselves. This is when we made the decision. He had taken to nodding out standing up in between lucid moments of happy tail interaction, but he looked in your eyes like he knew something big had changed. He sat out in the yard in different spots just looking around the grounds, like he was becoming aware of something we were missing. He was a mere 9 years old, only 57 in dog years, but in those moments he looked to be well over 100 in dog wisdom. Something was changing and we knew it was time, but it took us a good day to accept our responsibility. Nobody wants to put their dog to sleep. Nobody. The only reason we "want" to do it is to ease their suffering because there comes a time when our responsibility to them is to take their life, to show them mercy. There is a lot of guilt involved in trying to make the right decision when the time comes, a lot of dilemma over when the time is right and I think we did good by our boy. In the end, I think he'd understand we were trying to give him the most life that we could without allowing him to suffer unnecessarily. 

The day we knew it was time, Celie had left for school and I was having a chat with Buster in the yard. He gave me the look. I didn't want to accept it, I sent Celie to school that morning half knowing. The dilemma was then that it was a Friday and I didn't want to put him to sleep while she was in school so that she wouldn't get to say goodbye and know he would be gone when she got home. He seemed to be okay with it. I wished there was an at home service in our area for pet euthanasia, but there isn't. So we kept him that one last night so that Celie could say her goodbyes and wouldn't be jarred with him just being gone. So Buster got one last night at the ranch and that next morning as he sat in the yard in his drowsy state in what had become his favorite spot I watched from the window as my husband walked Celie over to tell him goodbye before he took her to my parents’ house. I will never forget his reaction to her approach, snapping out of it and immediately going into his happy tail and walking up to her. He was running on pure love at that point. I believe he knew he was going to die, or at least knew that something was up, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to leave us, but regardless of all feelings from all parties involved it was time to say goodbye. 

We had to travel to Mezger's in State College because of our decision, because our normal vet was closed on Saturdays and we didn’t want to make him wait until Monday, fearing he was experiencing a lot of pain. I had asked my mother to watch Celie for us, but Jasper was only 2 months old at the time and was still nursing so he had to come along. When we got there, the vet on call had an emergency surgery he was in. We were preparing to put him to sleep in the back of our Jeep in the parking lot so that we could avoid any added stress on him by taking him inside a weird and scary place in his state. Two nurses came out to put an IV into his paw as I nursed Jasper in the back seat. They said it would only be a little bit of a wait. We spent the time crying and loving on Buster in the back of the Jeep with the back hatch up in the parking lot. I bounced and held Jasper all the while in one arm while petting Buster with the other. 

At one point a stranger approached us in what was an odd interaction. In retrospect, I imagine she saw us upset and was just moved to do anything to help. She came up to us and asked if we were putting a friend to sleep that day, which was pretty obvious, I guess. She asked if there was anything she could do, offering to take a picture of us. In my surprise at forced conversation at such an upsetting time I almost told her to get lost then paused and thought she surely must have just wanted to offer anything she could. Given his state and appearance, though, it seemed like a weird request, but I did give her my phone and let her take one last picture of the four of us in the Metzger’s parking lot. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, but in the end decided on appreciative. It was a kind act of a total stranger and a final documentation of our sad time. 

By the time the vet was out of surgery and able to put him to sleep we had waited going on two hours. We had waited so long for his transition that when it was finally happening it was surreal how quickly it was over. He wouldn’t lay down so he was sitting up as it was done. The vet, my husband and myself positioned ourselves to catch him. I lovingly rubbed his furry face. The vet did the first injection and then with the second his head immediately dropped into my hand and we all caught him as he fell, gently letting him settle onto the blanket we had placed under him. Buster Buddy was finally resting. I cried and stroked his snout and we both pet him, apologizing. I think that the vet felt bad for us having to wait so long and with a baby in tow and all. He said Buster seemed like he was a really nice dog. I agreed, through my tears, that he was the best we had ever had and he was so great with our kids. He apologized for us having to wait and to our surprise said he would give us the euthanization free of charge. We thanked him heartily. 

The ride home was sad and the wrap up was bittersweet upon our return. We were happy to know he wasn’t suffering but had to make him a box, dig him a hole, and help Celie process her big feels. We saw her through the curious touching of his lifeless body. We witnessed her raw reactions, at one point screaming his name up into the sky like some dramatic scene from a movie. We felt his soft floppy ears, his favorite part to be rubbed during life. He would always push his head against your hand and grunt and groan with pleasure as you gave him a good ear scratch. One last stroke before we covered him up, burying him with his favorite squeaky duck toy and some tennis balls. We chose a spot under the hemlocks where he would always lay and bask himself in the morning sun. We could see him from both the kitchen and living room windows there. 

In the end, it was our duty to help Buster transition as comfortably as possible. We grant them that act of mercy despite our qualms, guilt and personal pain. It’s the least we can do. It will always make me sad that he didn’t live a longer life but he had just made it to his 9th birthday in February and we ultimately gave him a pretty happy life. He had survived having Lyme disease as well as anoplasmosis a few years back and had outlived his cancer prognosis by a significant amount of bonus time. His diagnosis led to a longer walk across the rainbow bridge than we initially anticipated, but I like to think he would understand that the choices we made were made out of love and compassion. Him was a good boy. 

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