I’ve never read the book Marley & Me. I’ve picked it up in the bookstore dozens of times, and almost immediately set it back down every single time. Every. Single. Time. I’ve never seen the whole movie, either. I’ve watched the first 2/3 of it a few times, but the moment Marley starts looking tired, I turn the channel.
Simply put, I just can’t handle it. I mean, we all know how it ends, don’t we?
So, it is with some trepidation that I offer up the end of the “tail.”
Dexter had gotten a clean bill of health with the infection scare. It was hard-won but we did it! He’d need to be monitored periodically to be sure the nastiness wasn’t lurking in the shadows, but mostly he was back to his usual level of health. Meaning, he was healthy-ISH. Still a bit structurally fragile but also healthy enough to frolic with his little brother. In some ways, even with the grief around us, it was a good time for me and my moose big drooly dog.
One Sunday evening, Dexter just seemed “off.” He was breathing a bit funny and he had the Turkey Trots. Neither completely out of the ordinary, but by this time I had something of a radar when it came to Dexter’s moods and his health. After discussing it a bit, Hubby and I decided to take the Moob to our local emergency vet hospital.
Dove Lewis is a wonderful establishment – I would hazard a guess to say it’s one of the best emergency hospitals in the country. It has an astounding facility and a level of support within the community that is unrivaled. It’s not the only 24-hr emergency vet in the area. As it happens, the other one in town is at the same facility where Dexter had all of his surgeries. NW Veterinary Specialists is also a fantastic resource – but clearly we didn’t want to drive 30 minutes to a place Dex associated with pain and torment. So, Dove Lewis it was.
We had FINALLY found a horse-sized crate, and for the first (and only) time we loaded Dex into the crate in the back of the SUV. It didn’t particularly help the car ride, just gave him a confined space in which to howl. By the time we got there, Dex seemed to feel better. We went in anyway and he had a quick evaluation by the doctor. We then waited a long time for whatever was next, only to find out that a critical emergency (dog vs. car) had come in. All things considered, we felt okay about taking Dex home with instructions for him to go on a bland diet in case he had some sort of ulcer.
Ya, I guess dogs get ulcers.
Even with the bland diet, it was clear he wasn’t feeling well though. It seemed best to follow up with our very favorite vet, Dr. Felton. She proposed some bloodwork and x-rays, just to be sure he hadn’t swallowed anything dangerous. She knew him well, obviously. Now, you didn’t just plop Dex up on the table and run some films. So they sedated him and ran the x-rays. We waited.
“He has a mass on his spleen.”
Are you KIDDING me? No, no, no, that is NOT possible. I started at her silently.
“Plus there are a couple of suspicious spots on his lungs.”
Just as with Zeta – the small mass on his spleen was impossible to biopsy without cutting him open, and no matter what the findings, the recommended action was a full removal of the spleen.
I said no. I finally, actually said no. After six surgeries that left him isolated for over a year of his short life, after all the anxiety and pain, we were finally done. I didn’t even have to ponder it, or consult Team Dexter. This surgery was going to entail cutting him open “stem to stern” as they say (with people anyway, I’m not sure what they say for dogs), and another three-month recovery. At least with the hips he actually felt better immediately. I’ve had the full zipper abdominal surgery and it is incredibly painful. The recovery is hard.
So, no, that wasn’t going to happen.
The risk of not doing the surgery was that his spleen would rupture, or that the (what we will assume was) cancer would spread. For now, though, it was a small, seemingly slow growing mass and he pretty much felt fine besides the on-again/off-again upset tummy. We went home and continued living a good life. We continued romping around with Logan. We had adventures together. We spent quiet time in my office. Dr. Felton once remarked that Labs have an uncanny ability to mask their illness. I believe it. Their love of life, their desire to be of service to you (rather than worry you) seems to give them the extra energy needed to just keep going in the face of whatever ails them.
This is certainly true of Dexter. If he felt the effects of this probable cancer, he displayed it very little. Weeks went by and Dex just seemed like his usual goofy self. Perhaps slightly less energetic (or easily tired of games with Logan) but generally still frolicking and playing with the Big Ball of Happy, still making trouble when the opportunity arose. Still eating anything left out by inobservant humans. Still walking everyday and loving it. Life was normal.
One Friday, he came in with Mary, one of our regular dog walkers. He was in a great mood, so great that Mary even commented on his particularly happy mood. But then, he was always in a great mood after walking. So happy to have been out in the world. He hated the car, didn’t get to run or go places like most dogs. But he loved that walk. So he came bounding in, butt wiggling, ears back, smiling, leading with his big heart as he ran to me to tell me how much fun he’d had, how amazing the world was. Then he followed me to my office, turned around three times and lay down at my feet as I worked.
I used my feet to massage his head, as I often did when I wanted him to know how much I loved him without stopping whatever else I was doing.
About an hour later, I noticed that the labored breathing was back. My stomach dropped a few inches as the radar kicked in. Something wasn’t right. I stepped into the hall to call for Rio, and when I stepped back in, my stomach hit the floor. He’d lost his bowels. He wasn’t moving. His eyes were open, and he was still breathing, but his tongue was hanging out. I hit the 911 button on the vet’s line and told them what was up. “How quickly can you get here? He needs to be seen immediately.” Hubby struggled to get Dexter up, and ended up mostly dragging and then finally carrying him into the car. The eight blocks to the vet went quickly, and our trusty (strong) Vet Tech was waiting outside with the stretcher. He and Hubby carried Dexter into the back, and then we were ushered into a room to wait.
Five minutes went by. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.
When the doc walks in crying, you know the world is about to shift out from under your feet and you are headed for a free-fall. I immediately felt like I was teetering on a cliff, heels over the edge, hanging on with my toes and trying to stay upright as my arms flailed about.
“We’ve been doing CPR for 15 minutes, and we just can’t get him back.”
I screamed. I literally doubled over and screamed, feeling that direct punch to the gut that comes with instant grief. I guess I had been fooling myself. I knew it was serious, but it simply had not occurred to me, after everything we’d been through and all of the times that we’d come out on the other side, that she’d walk back in and tell me my boy was gone.
He was gone.
I imagine sometimes how Dr. Felton must have felt at that moment, too. How hard it must have been to call his death. How it must have felt to be on the other side of the door, ready to come in and talk to us. We are blessed by her kindness, for sure. I know that if we couldn’t be with him when he passed, there’s probably no kinder person to have by his side, nobody that would have fought harder for him.
They let us go back to say goodbye. I lay my head in the sacred space in his forehead and stroked his face. I tried to will my soul into his to coax him back to life. I buried my face in his neck and grabbed at his fur. So much fur, so many layers of skin, so squishy and comforting. So many times I had held on tight and cried over something, hanging on his neck in just that same way. Looking for comfort. Now here I was again, needing comfort. But he was cold and I was doing it for the last time.
I was in good company in my shock and grief. Rio and I held each other and cried. Dr. Felton hugged us and cried with us. The entire staff of Powell Blvd. Vet was in tears. We’d all fought hard for years, we’d all adored him and knew he was unique. All animals are unique and special, but I know Dexter had made an impression and touched peoples’ hearts, just has he’d burst mine wide open.
They ushered us out the back. We went home. I’d gone from a happy, wagging, smiling boy at 3:00 to no dog at all by 4:30.
It was January 23, 2015. One year ago today.
There’s more to the story. More to my story, of course. But I was about to take that journey alone, without my BooBoo.