Testing, testing, 1-2-3
A journal of cancer, death, tears, and laughter

Musing on love, loss, uncertainty, and one heckin' good doggo

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of a series I adored reading as a teenager (the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but haven’t re-read since then. While most of the details of the books had long since faded from memory, there are a few bits that stuck with me for some reason, that I particularly enjoyed hearing in the audiobook version. One of these bits is when the character Zaphod Beeblebrox is described by others as “Zaphod… he’s just this guy, you know?” with that somehow being a fully acceptable and complete explanation.

My dog Lucy… I don’t know how to describe her without going into paragraphs and paragraphs (which I also did - aka this blog post), other than to say “Lucy… she’s just this dog, you know?”. My mom calls her a “once in a lifetime dog”. There’s just something about Lucy.

Lucy was literally the first dog we met when we went to the local animal shelter one weekend in 2017 to start what we thought would be a months-long process to find a dog that was a good fit for our family. We told the person at the front desk a little about us and what we were looking for and (this sounds like a story from a children’s book but I swear this is exactly what happened) they said that none of the dogs they had at that moment seemed like a good fit for us but well come to think about it, they did have this dog in the back that had just finished their intake process but not yet been listed on the website or put out in the adoption area, and she did have some health issues they’d tell us more about later, but did we want to meet her first?

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Lucy at the shelter when we first met her

After a minute or two, I could tell that our supposed months-long search was already over, but my husband and I forced ourselves to wait at least a few hours so that we wouldn’t rush into things, because we felt like that was a sensible thing for adults who are grown-ups to do.

image from media.giphy.com

Pets & Connection

We knew she was a senior dog with various health issues who had probably never seen a vet in her life and might have a hard time getting adopted by anyone else due to all the unknowns. Or rather, we knew that she was an adorable, soft, smart, sweet, friendly, happy senior dog with various health issues who had probably never seen a vet in her life and might have a hard time getting adopted by anyone else due to all the unknowns. Details on her past were unclear, but we knew she’d spent most of her life on a farm until she was surrendered to a shelter when her owners were no longer able to take care of her. My husband and I had both grown up with dogs, and although we were nervous about being new dog owners for the first time as adults, we felt like we had the resources and financial stability to be able to take care of her medical issues, and could handle it if she didn’t have much longer. Plus… there was just something about Lucy.

So Lucy joined our family and immediately fit right in, and charmed everyone who met her. Seriously – everyone (everyone human, that is… she’s really reactive to other dogs). I’ve spent a lot of time in vet offices with her because of her health issues, and when a new vet or vet tech would meet her for the first time, they’d often look at her and say things like “aww look at that soft pup” but then they would actually pet her ears and do a double-take and say things like “WHOA she is REALLY soft, I’m not just saying that, she’s just that soft”. It probably helps that she has one flopsy ear and… it’s just so danged cute. It bounces when she walks.

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As a life-long fan of dogs, I’ve always enjoyed living vicariously through the stories my friends post online about their dogs - the latest hijinks, the goofy videos, and tons and tons of pictures. I haven’t met any of these pups in real life, but somehow I feel a connection to them, and to my friends through their stories about their pets. I’ve celebrated as friends have adopted new puppies (while also cementing firmly in my mind that I never, ever want to adopt a puppy myself), I’ve giggled countless times when reading about the latest quirky story or seeing the latest pic in a spontaneous dog photoshop battle… and I’ve mourned with friends who lost their beloved dogs.

Once Lucy entered my life, this connection took on more significance for me and I leaned heavily on my friends for their perspective and wisdom, as I’d share pictures and updates of her and ask my friends my newbie questions. It reminded me of the early days of being a nervous first-time mother of a newborn, posting in online forums asking things like “Is this normal? Does this happen often? Have you seen this before? Am I the first person in the history of the world to have experienced this? No?”. It’s always nice to get confirmation that you’re not alone.

In Sickness and in Not Exactly Health

In our first 18 months together, Lucy made it through one health challenge after another:

  • A diagnosis of degenerative heart disease which is now managed via palliative medications and monitored with echocardiograms every 6 months.
  • Pyometra (infected uterus) which we only discovered when she started bleeding one morning – and she was in emergency surgery a few hours later. (The ER vet who saved her said that the mantra in vet school was “Never let the sun set on a Pyo” and that we were very lucky it hadn’t ruptured. The vet also let me take a picture of the infected uterus – it was 1.5 pounds, a uterus full of pus -- I think the technical term is 'uterpus' -- I’ll leave you with that image in your head, unless you’d like to see the picture too?)
  • Surgery to remove most of a tumor on her liver – the tumor only having been discovered by the ER vet during the Pyometra surgery. The surgeon wasn’t able to remove all of the mass safely, so as a followup Lucy’s been getting bloodwork and ultrasounds every 6 months to check on her liver function and the rate of growth of the remaining mass.
  • Dental surgery to pull half of her teeth & clean the remaining ones after she cracked one of them. The dental specialist we took her to for the procedure said it looked like she’d grown up chewing rocks, which may not be far off from the truth given what we know about her life before us.
  • 4 separate trips to the ER vet to "empty her stomach" (at least, that's the polite way of phrasing it) after Lucy (who’s very food motivated) got into things she shouldn’t have – a trail mix packet that had raisins in it, a ball of raw bread dough left in the kitchen garbage, an Advil that fell off a counter, etc. After the 2nd ER visit, my then 12 year old daughter printed up a list that still hangs on our pantry, enumerating all the items that are forbidden or require special handling:

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I miss eating grapes - but not enough to risk having them in the house. 

After her liver surgery in the fall of 2018, Lucy’s behavior underwent a fairly dramatic change almost overnight. While she had always been affectionate and snuggly during the day, before the surgery, she would sleep on our bedroom floor or sometimes at the foot of our bed (always facing the door, to guard against the high risk of intruders, I assume). After the surgery, however, she suddenly started spending part of almost every night curled up by our heads, leaning on one of our pillows, giving us easy access to scritch her soft, soft (so soft!) ears.

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Around this time, she also started becoming less and less of a “family dog” and more and more of “KC’s dog” – I became her Person. When I’m inside the house, she’s next to me. My kids joke that Lucy is their “Mom Detection System” – if they can’t find me but they see Lucy sprawled against a closed door, they know that I’m behind that door. When I move to another room, Lucy follows me, and then if she senses that I’m going to stay in the new location for a while, she’ll sprawl herself somewhere between me and the doorway as a sort of early warning system if I move again. When I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, if I take more than a minute she will blearily poke her head in to the bathroom to make sure I’m still there – ya know, just in case I needed her. When I leave the house, she waits by the door for me to return:

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This Year

Her last vet check-up on her heart and liver was this past February, and things were looking good. Her heart disease was stable thanks to the medications, and while the mass on her liver had grown a little bit, the rate of growth wasn’t a concern given her already advanced age (I learned to think optimistic things like “old age will kill her before that tumor’s growth rate or the heart disease will!”). Basically, she was doing as well as could be expected.

This was a very good thing, as the pandemic hit with full force just a couple of weeks later. In the Seattle area we were part of what I think of as an “early access program” for Covid19 – my home is just 4 miles away from the assisted living facility that was ground zero. As Shit Got Real in this area before it started to spread around the country, we had a few extra weeks of time to practice walking around in a stupor and figure out how to adapt to the new normal, and hey practice makes perfect or something. But even as the months passed and More Shit Got Real, Lucy was always there with those impossibly soft ears and goofy grin.

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I said at the beginning of this post that I'd known what I was getting into by adopting a senior dog with health issues… but truthfully, I had only the vaguest idea at the time. I knew I was signing up for a lot of vet visits and medical expenses and dog walks, and I knew I was going to scritch a lot of soft ears and give a lot of boops. But I didn’t yet know how deeply I would love this pup, or what it was like to be a pet’s Person, or how sharing stories and pictures of my pup with others online would bring me so much joy and connection, something that I would need every scrap of as I could possibly get by the time 2020 rolled around.

One day last week, Lucy collapsed while walking down the stairs.

I had been walking a little bit behind her and turned the corner to see her sprawled awkwardly across two steps – one of her paws on the upper step, the other three on the lower step, her head on the floor. She was conscious but dazed, and stayed in that position for 30-60 seconds in a stupor, until I picked her up and carried her downstairs and immediately called our (excellent) vet.

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In the days since then, the vet has run various tests to try to figure out what was going on – was this Lucy’s heart disease (which had surprisingly been held at bay for ~2 years by this point) finally taking a turn for the worse, or had she gotten into something poisonous in the house, or something else?

A couple of nights ago, the vet called me with the last set of results from an ultrasound that showed that the liver tumor has grown considerably in size. The ultrasound also identified some other concerning anomalies, as well as bloodwork that while not conclusive, point at the high likelihood that her liver has started to fail. I should be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is imminent – we could still have months or even a year with her, we don’t know yet... but it's certainly making me think a lot about our remaining time together and how we spend it.

The vet is going to consult with the surgeon who removed Lucy’s liver tumor two years ago to discuss the risk profile of another surgery, but given that we’ve been through this same process with Lucy when she was two years younger and without some signs of liver failure, I imagine that it will come down to one of two possibilities: either both vets agree that the risks of another surgery is too high to be worth considering, or they say the risks are high (because they’re always high) but there’s some reason to consider the surgical option and the choice is up to me.

2020 has been a year of many things for pretty much the entire world… a year of overwhelming feelings, stress, illness, pain, injustice. I live a very privileged life and compared to most, I have it very good – and yet most days are still a struggle. One of the few positives of the pandemic and our new normal, however, is that 2020 has also been a year of more time… more time at home, more time to think, more time to feel, more time for walks, more time to scritch behind ears that are ever so soft. I’ve been trying to use that time to be grateful for what I do have, and Lucy is near the top of that list.

Learning to embrace uncertainty

2013 was another year that was a big struggle for me - it was the year my dad was diagnosed with and died from Stage IV cancer. The day I found out he was in the hospital with a ‘suspicious lump’ in his stomach, I took a red-eye to Florida to join him and my mom, so I was able to be there with them when the official cancer diagnosis came a couple of days later. The doctor made very clear from the beginning that there was zero chance of any curative treatment – any treatment pursued was palliative, and only about extending his quality of life for as long as was reasonably possible.

We asked the doctor to give us really rough estimate of how much time Dad might have left given the benefit of her experience from having seen many cancers before. We promised her we wouldn’t hold her to the number or blame her if it wasn’t accurate, we just needed some kind of mental framework for how to think about the remaining time we had with Dad, because it turns out that as people going about our daily lives, we really suck at how to think about time. After listening to a lot of our (polite) badgering, the doctor finally said that she thought maybe a time range of 9-12 months might be a possibility. As it turns out, he died 6 months to the day after he was diagnosed.

Dad chose to pursue some palliative treatment for a few months, I think more for the rest of our immediate family (myself, my four siblings, my mom, and his brother) than for him. I remember walking down the hospital hallway with him shortly after the official diagnosis, and he told me he wasn’t scared, because “I have no bucket list”. He said he’d lived a fantastic life and gotten everything he wanted out of it – he and my mom had been married for 47 years and had raised us 5 kids. He’d had a great career and an enjoyable retirement. He’d traveled the world and seen the sights and golfed the golf courses. He’d provided for his family as best he could, and knew that we would ultimately be okay after he was gone.

Dad still chose to pursue the palliative care for a few months, enduring radiation and chemo, but I think he did it more for the benefit of the rest of us, vs for him. About 5 months after the diagnosis it became clear that the treatment was no longer helpful in extending his quality of life, and any further treatment might make it worse. It was time to start preparing for his last few weeks – or days. At one point he was in a hospital bed with most of my siblings and I and our mom sitting in a semicircle around him. The mood in the room alternated between reminiscing about our favorite family stories and sitting in somber silence. The hospital brought around a therapy dog for him, and I remember so clearly how the mood of the entire room lifted in an instant, all because we got to spend just a few short minutes with this pup:

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Also in that 6 month time period, I ran across the following comic (from here). I thought about it a lot during that year, as after news of my Dad’s diagnosis spread, I would hear similar things from well-meaning friends and coworkers. I'm thinking about it a lot now too, as I think about Lucy.

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In 2013 I worked really hard on learning how to embrace uncertainty. 2020 has been another year full of uncertainty, and I’m still working on learning how to embrace it.

Hug the people and animals you love and if you don’t already have an animal you love but are open to the idea, consider opening your home to one. Thanks for reading.

  • KC

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