Athens, Georgia, Canine Cancer Awareness, Christmas, Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, Grief and Loss, Memoirs

Two Paws Too Many

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Christmas present 2010 I commissioned for Audie: portrait of his 2 dogs, Reggie and Lizzie Roberts

 

I was so excited to see the look on Audie’s face when he opened his Christmas present 8 years ago.

I had once commissioned a painting of my first dog, Toby, from Darlene Pucillo.

I wanted Audie to have a portrait of his “Lizzie Bear” and “Reggwood” also.

He loved it. I think he may have told me it was the best Christmas gift he’d ever gotten at that point in his life, or something like that.

Last year, 2017, was Lizzie’s last Christmas. She passed away from complications from pneumonia and tracheal collapse and went into heart failure the night of October 12, 2018.

We said goodbye to her the next day.

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Lizzie’s paw

Never did I imagine that two months later, I’d be facing losing another dog.

But that’s what’s happened.

Today I found out that this year, 2018, will be Reggie’s last Christmas.

Too many paw prints. Two too many, in such a short time.

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Lizzie’s paw prints

Reggie was riding in the car with me, sitting in his usual spot in the front passenger seat, when I got the call from Dr. Barker today – she had the biopsy test results from Reggie’s colonoscopy. We were almost home, and it was pouring rain.

Perfect weather for one of the worst pieces of news in my lifetime.

Odd, that while Dr. Barker’s voice was projecting over the car speakers, explaining the conclusion that three different pathologists had all agreed upon, Reggie was looking at me, hearing his diagnosis, but not knowing what was being said, much less that it was about him.

His diagnosis is terminal:

…this is a rectal carcinoma. The mitotic index is high at 35/10hpf. This is consistent with a fast growth rate. This tumor is a malignant cancer. Spread to local lymph nodes, lungs or liver is possible. I am concerned because the (2) lymph nodes around the mass were enlarged. Surgery could be considered to resect and anostomose the colon. However surgery would be risky because the colon does not always heal well. In general, surgery for colonic resection for a carcinoma would be associated with a 6 to 9 month survival time. Prior to surgery (if this option is elected) I would recommend chest radiographs. If surgery is not going to be pursued, treatment with prednisone or an NSAID would be reasonable.

Prednisone is one of my least favorite drugs on the planet, no, it is my very least favorite. It infected Lizzie’s body and almost killed her 9 months ago.  And then, ironically, it extended her life for a week in October, which I was resistant to, but sadly, it was the only choice.

I treasure that extra week, and always will.

Reggie already has a heart murmur, and I cringed when the doctor said he needed the steroid, but parenting a dog, like parenting a child, is made up of a series of difficult decisions, many of which we don’t like because there are no good choices, only less horrible ones.

I admit that today I did ponder whether or not surgery was reasonable for Reggie (even though I told myself last week I’d never consider it because of the stress it would put on Reggie’s body and the high likelihood of complications, with a very short life span to look forward to, if it worked at all).

Dr. Clifton was the deciding factor –  when I brought Reggie in to see her today to talk about my options. She did the same during the last few weeks of Lizzie’s life – we are so lucky to have her.

Reggie still has time. He still has quality of life, albeit, it’s not the same, and never will be. Palliative care is the best and most humane option for him. But I don’t know how long his quality of life will last. I asked her if she thought he’d make it to New Year’s Day, at least. She didn’t know, but most likely, she thinks he will. It’s hard to say.

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Reggie at Hope Animal Medical Center Friday 12/14/2018

I have been unable to sleep all week, ever since Monday, when Dr. Barker showed me the images of the mass inside Reggie’s colon.

It is hideous, and huge, and bloody, and reminded me of the head of the alien in the original sci-fi classic, “Alien.” It filled the screen…and Reggie’s colon. I cannot believe that Reggie is living with that “thing” inside him. It is like an invader, no it is an invader, taking over his intestinal pathway, wreaking havoc on his body, and on his peaceful, happy life. (I do not have copies of the pictures, but even if I did, I would not post them online – too grim).

I only cried for a few minutes when I got off the phone with Dr. Barker – in the bathroom, when Reggie couldn’t see me – I can’t let him see me cry. And I can’t let myself fall apart, just like I said before, earlier this fall, I am a dog mother, my dog needs me to be strong for him.

There will be time to grieve and cry one day, but not now.  Now, I have to cherish every moment we have and give him the most comfort and love and joy I can in his last days…which I hope, will extend into weeks, and even further, hopefully, into months.

But I’m not kidding myself, either. I’ve seen it, twice, now. How fast it happens. I won’t know until he tells me.

And I know he will.

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Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts November 2018 at home

When Reggie’s symptoms began to worsen a few months ago, I made up my mind that this would be Reggie’s last home. I could not see another place where I could take him, or anyone could take him, unless they owned the house, that is. But most people might not even do that.

I’m not most people.

I am determined that Reggie will never be uprooted again.

He’s moved four or five times throughout his life, with resilience, mind you. Dogs don’t care as long as they are with their humans. In fact, they love new places, new smells, from what I can tell.

If their person is with them, life is perfect. Life is grand.

They have all they need as long as they have their pack.

And food of course, always food.

I admit, I did not let myself even contemplate that I would not have two, three, more years with him.

Maybe I should have.

My eyes were dilated earlier today so my vision was too blurry to drive this afternoon (great timing, I know), and my next-door neighbor was kind enough to drive us to the vet since it was a short workday for her (Winter vacation starts today in Oconee school district).

I was glad she was with me, and Reggie adores her. Oh my Gosh, does he ever! He adores everyone over there at her house. As soon as he sees any of them, he takes off and runs right over to them. Barking, tail wagging, coming in for a whole lot of petting.

In fact, today, it was the first time he perked up all day – riding next to Pennie in her car. He didn’t even shake at the vet, much less try to get away, with Pennie there. Amazing.

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Pennie and Reggie at Hope

Looks like the feeling’s mutual.

Dr. Clifton and Hope Animal Medical Center have been a Godsend (and right now, God is not my favorite person. I’ve had more than enough, but I’ll think about it another time, after Reggie is gone). I was glad that she told me that if it were her dog, she would not put him through surgery, for all the reasons you can guess, plus some more medical reasons you probably haven’t thought of.

In the meantime, his palliative care options are manageable, as long as I stay organized: special food to make it easier for him to digest and excrete, prednisone (steroids), metronidazole (antibiotics), stool softener so he is less constipated, something special for pain and anxiety that they aren’t supposed to talk about (Ssssh), possibly Gabapentin for pain, but not yet, and Chinese herbs and acupuncture with Dr. Stoppe.

There’s probably more I can do, holistically, and believe me, I’ll be researching that.

In fact, sadly, I now fit into the category of most of the grants I researched online, when I was looking to apply for a grant to pay for his original colonoscopy.

Most of the grants were for dogs living with a cancer diagnosis.

I’m sure it’s competitive to get any of those grants. I’m sure it’s a long shot. But I’m going to look into it. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

I knew this would be expensive, but I’ll figure it out. Somehow, I will find a way to do this by myself.

I really don’t have another choice. I refuse to let go of my last dog without a fight.

Reggie is also my last family member in the life I’ve known for 10 years:  a life I loved, a life I miss, a life I am grieving for and wish I could fix.

But it’s lost forever.

In that I have no choice.

In this, with Reggie, I still do. I still have one choice left.

Reggie is still here. He still has quality of life.

He is tired. He is in pain when he has to go to the bathroom. It pains me to hear it: he wails in the yard, and he never did that before. This week, I heard him wailing in the bedroom. His body is telling me he needs help. And I’m going to make sure he gets it…

And, more love than ever before…if that’s possible.

Fortunately, many people out there love Reggie. And that will lift him up and give him, and me, the strength to get through this, to make the remainder of his life, however short it is, as wonderful as it can be.

For no dog could be more deserving of a wonderful life than sweet, precocious Reggwood.

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Pennie and Reggie at Hope

But, there is a gray cloud hanging over me, one I am trying to put out of my mind.

And so it goes. The questions. The doubts.

Did I wait too long to get Reggie the colonoscopy?

If I’d done it in March, or April, or May, when I wanted to, when we were advised to, would it have made a difference? 

Now, it’s too late for chemotherapy. The mass is too large. The cancer has metastasized, and the cancer cells are multiplying too rapidly.

The mass could obstruct his colon, or rupture. It’s out to drain his life away, as it grows like the parasitic demon that it is.

There’s that question, too. I’m taking a chance with that, too. That weighs on me more than the cancerous disease itself.

The reality is that 9 months later, since his first ultrasound with Dr. Barker, Reggie’s options are fewer, and because we waited, his life will be shorter. It has been hard on him already.

As Dr. Clifton said, I can’t go back, and she’s right, I can’t. Anger won’t help. Beating myself up for not doing it myself in the beginning won’t help. And, the cancer was there, beginning its life inside of him, back then. It had to be. His symptoms started after his neck surgery in late summer of 2017.

Yes, back in March, the cancer had not advanced, had not metastasized, but the phantom was there. We couldn’t see it, but the tumor had fixed itself in Reggie’s colon, waiting to grow and spread its ugly cells.

According to Dr. Barker, it’s possible we could have started chemo then, and extended his quality of life a year longer, but this kind of cancer is so aggressive, she said, it would have come back again sometime next year, somewhere inside him, most likely.

That’s what cancer does. It feeds itself by draining the life from its host.

But, I still questioned: what if his life would have been happier, less painful, in 2018, had we caught this early, and started aggressive treatment right away? What if it would have given him the time he needed to heal? Could he have defied the odds and lived another year if we did the colonoscopy this past spring?

Miracles happen. Even with humans, anyone would tell you, the sooner you catch the cancer, and treat it, the better the chance of survival.

But I can’t go back. I can’t afford to be angry, not at myself, not at anyone. I have to move forward. I have to focus on Reggie.

Dogs can pick up on human emotions, especially stress. I can’t afford to let him see me crumble, or break, or even flinch.

This will be our last Christmas. I can’t change that. I’ll be damned if I let cancer ruin it for us. No, we are going to have the best Christmas I can give him – even if I have to will it to be so in my mind.

But, I think I better skip the Petsmart pet photos this year.  Thankfully, I have other Christmas photos of Reggie from years past, and Pennie took photos of us in front of the tree so I will always have pictures of this Christmas to remember.

It’s still hard to believe this really will be Reggie’s last year, and last Christmas. I knew it was possible. But now, it’s not just a hypothetical. It’s our reality.

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Reggie’s Xmas portrait with Santa, 2010

I know deep down that I’m convincing myself that I’m fine, when I’m not.

The truth is that I’m tired of filling my room with paw prints, not paws, with photos of dogs that have left me, instead of feeling my dog cuddling by my side.

Too many paw prints. Too many losses, in such a short span of time.

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Toby’s paw print

But that’s what we sign up for. I know that.

Audie told me many times, and I agree with him, that it would be worse if we died and left our pets behind. We want to go first so that they are not grieving for us, and most importantly, so that we do not die not knowing if they are okay, if someone takes care of them for us. You can put your dog in your will ( I did that for Toby in 2008), but if you’re gone, you still don’t know for sure what happens to them.

No, Audie’s absolutely right, better that we outlive them, not vice versa.

We have to know, when we enter into a life with a dog, that we are signing up to say goodbye to them first, and for all the grief that goes with it.

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Bronze-like cast of Toby’s paw print

Not once, not for a second, did I ask myself today, “Is this worth it?”

I would never need to ask that because the answer is always going to be, “Yes, yes, without any doubt. Yes, it is all worth it.”

I can’t imagine my life without Reggie, just like I could not imagine my life without Lizzie, or without Toby, and God knows, I miss them every day. I still tear up, all of a sudden, without warning, over Lizzie. And sometimes, over Toby, too, even after all this time, but with Toby, I’ve had more time to adjust. Still, the pain of Toby not being with me anymore has never gone away. That’s the price of love.

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My favorite ornament: Toby’s picture at his last Christmas

 

Lizzie left me two months ago. I have not recovered. Not from the weeks leading up to her death, and not from the aftermath that followed.

Reggie’s illness accelerated in, and overlapped, that time, and now, I’m left knowing that the aftermath will be worse, much worse, at a time in my life when the losses are piling up like books burning in the rubbish of the dark days of history.

When will it stop? When will the losses stop coming? When can I breathe deeply again? Sleep peacefully again? Wake up without missing someone I love who has left me behind?

Okay, I will admit it. I have repeatedly asked God, “Why? What did I do? What did I do wrong to deserve this much pain?”

And the answer is: I did nothing to deserve it, but life does not come down to what we do, and don’t, deserve.

It just comes down to what happens. Even if it all happens at once.

Someone told me the other day, “We make plans and God laughs.” That’s just the way life is. We can fight it, but we’ll lose every time. Reality always wins, whether we like it or not. We can accept it, or not. We can argue with it, or not. But either way, life happens. Period. It’s up to us to find a way to live with the life that happens to us when we’re making other plans.

The harsh reality is not one I can understand, and I know I don’t deserve it, but it is what has happened:  the dogs I was leaning on to get me through the biggest loss of my life, the most painful loss of my life, will not be here to see me through to the end of it.

Bottom line is that I have to find a way to cope with that. Not today, but the day will come when I have to find the strength, without Reggie or Lizzie, to bear the loss of the man I loved more than I’ve ever loved anyone. There is a way to do that, I’m sure of it, but right now, I don’t know what that way is.

These two dogs have been my lifeline: when Toby died, I had to be there for Reggie and Lizzie. When Lizzie died, I had to be there for Reggie.

When Reggie dies, there is no one left to be there for.

What does that mean?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

I know the answer will come to me, eventually, but I can’t imagine what that answer will be.

There’s more. Much more.

Reggie and Lizzie filled the void in my life, in my womb, for a little while, after I was denied the experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

For now, at least, I have my beautiful, sweet Frenchie/pug to love and nurture and watch over and support.

For now, Reggie is what matters. Love is what matters. And I love Reggie, with all my heart.

A special thank you to everyone who donated to the GoFundMe Fundraiser for Reggie’s colonoscopy. I appreciate your generosity from the bottom of my heart.

On December 26, 2018, the annual Slackpole issue of Flagpole magazine will be released. I wrote a story for Reggie that I hope will be selected for publication called “The Last Christmas Tree.” I read it aloud at the Athens Writers Association open mic at Normal Books last Saturday night, too.

If it is not published in the Flagpole, I will share the story in a blog post, before New Year’s Eve, not for myself, but because it is a tribute to my dog, Reggie, on his last Christmas.

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Photo of Reggie under the tree I submitted with my story

 

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