Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Beginning of the End

Lesson Number Fifteen: If You Love Someone, Set Them Free

I spent Bijoux’s last few years dreading her death, when overall she was quite healthy. I didn’t dwell on these feelings of doom for long periods of time; they just popped up out of the blue and then disappeared like rain clouds. I did my best to treat these feelings as a reminder that I needed to enjoy Bijoux as much as possible while I could. That she would eventually, as all living things do, die was always in the back of my head; how I would handle it was a very scary thought. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how painful it would be.

The beginning of the end was in the fall of the year 2002. Bijoux suddenly didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. My sense of dread started to rise, and after a couple of days, I decided to call Dr. Heflin to ask her if she thought I should bring Bijoux in to see her. The receptionist who answered the phone told me that Dr. Heflin had recently retired and moved to the South. I was completely blown away by the news. I was so happy for her, because she seemed to spend most of her waking hours at the hospital, but personally I was devastated. I selfishly imagined that she’d always be there, always available to us, and that her involvement with us would help me deal with Bijoux’s eventual death because I trusted her so completely. I felt like a child with these feelings, and resolved to concentrate on how happy Dr. Heflin probably was, now that she moved on to something else in her life.

I grudgingly left my contact information to be passed on, and another doctor returned my phone call later in the day. The doctor—who was extremely kind, soothing, and helpful, qualities I shouldn’t have been surprised about because he worked in the same environment that Dr. Heflin had—told me that Bijoux’s lack of desire at mealtime could be a dental issue. Older dogs, he said, sometimes had pain in their teeth when chewing on the hard food that I had always given her. He suggested that I switch her gradually over to a soft food for “Senior” dogs, so off to Petsmart we went!

After switching Bijoux’s food, she seemed to work up excitement for meals again. For the next couple of months, she ate her food almost every time I put it down for her. I chalked the problem up to the sensitivity in her teeth, as the doctor suggested. I felt good about things again. Jim and I, however, also began to notice that Bijoux’s activity level had decreased a great deal. She slept for many hours during the day, and was ready to go to bed earlier than ever. My tendency to retreat into denial was the norm when it came to the prospect of Bijoux’s deteriorating health.

Sometime during this period, we purchased a new, king-sized bed. Upon its delivery, we discovered that the top of the mattress was approximately six to eight inches higher than the old waterbed we discarded. It would be impossible for her to jump up onto the bed herself, and it was too risky, we decided, to assist her in getting up. Recently she had started to get up in the middle of the night, needing to go out. We were concerned that she would jump off of the bed and break a leg. We made the tough decision to make Bijoux a little bed of blankets on the floor.

One Saturday in February of 2003, Jim and Dylan were at a Scout activity of some sort. Jason was with me, at work. I planned to leave work early and take Jason to Julie’s apartment for a quick visit, and then possibly see a movie with him. It would be a long day for Bijoux to be home alone, but I figured that we could get into an early show and get home for her, and she’d be fine.

One of the girls who worked in the childcare area called my extension to tell me that Jason had a headache and felt somewhat warm. Our afternoon plans were thwarted, but in the end I was glad. I called Julie to tell her that we wouldn’t be visiting her after all, and we left to go home. On the way home we went through the McDonalds drive-thru.

We entered the house and I called to Bijoux. The house was eerily quiet, but I knew Bijoux would appear before us momentarily, when she smelled the food. She had taken to occasionally sleeping upstairs in the bedroom, in her nest of blankets. Jason and I set up our lunch in the family room so we could eat while watching television. As we began to eat, I became worried. We had been home, McDonalds in hand, for about three minutes and Bijoux was nowhere to be found. I whistled for her, and when she didn’t respond I ran up the stairs, growing more afraid by the second.

I rounded the corner into our bedroom and went to the far side of the bed where she was laying on her blankets. She looked like she had just woken up from a long nap, but seemed happy to see me. I petted her and said, “Come on! French fries!”

Assuming she would get up and follow me, I bounded back down the stairs. I listened carefully, trying to hear the click-click-click of her nails on the hardwood floor. Nothing. Finally I heard her walking, and I sat back down on the couch. She slowly made her way down to the kitchen, and sat down at the top of the stairs to the family room. At that time I had no idea what a hard time she had, getting down those first seven steps to the main level of the house.

I started to become truly alarmed when she wouldn’t proceed down the final seven steps to the family room to claim the French fry I held out for her. I called her name, trying to coax her down. She finally came down the stairs and lay down on the carpet in the middle of the room. I couldn’t get her to get up, not even for that stupid French fry. In one of my biggest ever shows of problem avoidance, I called the Animal Hospital for some advice. My panic, mixed with denial, temporarily paralyzed my judgment and I needed someone to tell me that I should get her there as soon as possible. I actually asked the receptionist, “Do you think I should get her in there today?” Naturally she suggested that an office visit would be the most prudent thing at this point.

I called Julie, praying that I would be able to get in touch with her, and asked her to meet me at the vet, so that Jason would be taken care of. I told Jason to get in the car with his lunch as I wrapped Bijoux in a blanket and carried her, because she wouldn’t walk, out to the garage. After settling her in the passenger seat, we took off for the vet.

That Saturday was one of the busiest days I had ever seen at the vet. There were people and animals everywhere in the lobby, sitting on every bench and standing in every corner of the room. The line at the reception desk had two or three people in it, waiting to be helped. I carried my 40-something-pound dog in and got in line. I tried not to be impatient while everyone behind the desk seemed to be moving in slow motion. Bijoux was getting heavy, but I couldn’t put her down.

Julie arrived shortly, and as I finally got to the front of the line and got Bijoux’s name on the waiting list, she took Jason to a vacant bench. I joined them, cuddling Bijoux on my lap. Julie spoke to her and petted her, kissing her on the forehead. I felt as if I would explode as my anxiety reached peak after peak, and still we had to wait. The minutes seemed like hours. I alternated between tearing up and pulling it together. Julie kept trying to reassure me that everything was going to be okay, and I kept trying to believe her. She will never know how much I appreciate her presence and strength that day.

Since the wait seemed endless, Julie took Jason to Portillo’s (a hot dog place). Left alone with Bijoux, I cuddled her and looked around at the other people who were waiting. It seemed to me that most of them had brought brand-new little puppies to get their booster shots. In my panic, I felt extremely paranoid, like all of the puppy owners were staring at me with my old, precious dog. I felt hostile, and would have given anything to be allowed into a patient room ahead of all of those puppy owners. I missed Dr. Heflin terribly.

Finally, Bijoux’s name was called. I carefully picked her up and took her into the designated patient room. I put her, blankets and all, on the exam table. A young doctor entered the room shortly after we did. I didn’t remember ever noticing him during our previous visits. He was very pleasant and wrote down everything I told him about Bijoux’s behavior.

His first concern was for Bijoux’s back. The fact that she had so much trouble walking—and then refused to walk at all—made him worry that she pinched a nerve or slipped a disc. He said that his preferred course of action was to take x-rays and a shot of an anti-inflammatory drug. I gave him permission, and he carried Bijoux out of the room to go ahead with the procedures. While they were gone, I struggled with what we would do if she had a major back injury.

The last surgery she had, after her knee surgery, was to remove some fatty tumors that Dr. Heflin said were quite normal in older dogs. In the time after those first fatty tumors were removed, many more grew, including one on her hip that became almost as big as a golf ball. Dr. Heflin recommended that at her advanced age, Bijoux shouldn’t go through that surgery again unless it seemed to us that the tumors were causing her pain. Jim and I had discussed this kind of thing at length, and we agreed that she was getting too old to go through surgery after surgery anyway. At some point we would have to let her go.

After about twenty minutes, the doctor returned. He walked in hesitantly and didn’t make eye contact right away. I could tell that there was something wrong. He had the x-rays with him and said, “I want to show you Bijoux’s films.” As he put the films on the wall viewer, he said, “I took a couple of pictures from different angles and I found nothing wrong with her back.” I said, “That’s great, right? But what’s wrong?” He flicked the light on so we could look at the x-rays and said, “I found something else.” I looked at the film and my heart sank into my stomach. Bijoux’s lungs, as the doctor pointed out, were about 1/3 full of little circles, tumors of some kind.

I started to cry again. “What are we supposed to do now???” I asked him. I was living one of my biggest nightmares. He said that if we wanted to, they could do some exploratory surgery, but considering the fact that she had just turned thirteen, the surgery and her recovery could have complications and it was important for us to weigh everything when making our decision. I told him that Jim and I had already discussed what we would do in a situation like this, and that wouldn’t be an option anyway. I asked him what we could do for her, for the time being.

He told me that even though he didn’t see anything wrong with her back on the x-ray, he gave her the anti-inflammatory injection anyway. He suggested that we keep her on one floor of the house from now on: no more stairs. He looked me in the eyes and told me that it was time to just make her as comfortable as possible. Try to keep her eating and drinking, and give her lots of love, he said. He told me that eventually she would probably begin to have breathing trouble, and to watch out for that. I thanked him and headed out to the lobby, where Julie and Jason were waiting for me. I told Julie what had happened, and at that moment her cell phone rang. It was Jim, on his way home from Scouts. I filled him in and told him I’d see him at home soon. I went to the reception desk to pay for the visit, and waited for Bijoux to be brought out to me.

I had quite a shock when I heard the door to the back room open. I turned around, and Bijoux came bounding out, using her own four legs to come to me. She wagged her tail and when I kneeled down she licked me and nudged me, ready to go home. This was completely beyond my realm of comprehension, how I brought her to the vet completely unable to walk, and now, two hours later, was walking her to the car on the other end of her leash.

On the way home, Bijoux settled herself in the blanket on the passenger’s seat just as she always did, and napped on the way home. When I parked the car in the garage and opened her door, she hopped down and trotted inside the house. For me, this was all way too much for one day. As I sat in the family room petting her, I tried to digest everything and attempted to come up with some kind of explanation for what had happened; why she had to be carried into the vet but jogged out to the car.

The only plausible conclusion I reached was that her little nest of blankets that was on the floor next to our bed was on the outside wall of the house. It was the middle of a cold winter, and perhaps sleeping for who-knows-how-long next to that wall made her very stiff. By the time we were finished at the vet, she would have warmed up and had little to no trouble moving.

Another wrench in the day was discovered when I went upstairs towards the bedroom: Bijoux had vomited on the Pottery Barn rug in the living room. I assumed that she had been sleeping on the living room couch while I was working, and—God love her—she hopped down when she felt sick. It must have been after that when she retired to the bedroom.

I kept running the day through my head over and over again, and decided that the only thing I knew for sure, without a doubt, was that the chain of events that led to the discovery of the tumors in her lungs was meant to happen for a reason. Had Jason not felt warm, had we not purchased McDonald’s French fries, had we not come home early to find that Bijoux couldn’t walk, had she not (probably) been too stiff to walk…we never would have taken her to be checked and we wouldn’t have found out at that time that she was ill. Although the news had been very upsetting to us, we chose to take it all in as a blessing. Our time with Bijoux was now very limited, but we felt lucky that we had a bit of a warning.

Click here for part 2!