The following was written almost a decade ago now.
When my ex-girlfriend, Sandy, and I moved to Georgia from Myrtle Beach, just over 2 years ago, she to Athens and myself to Atlanta, she promised her kids that they could each have dogs of their own. This is a long story, but bear with me, it is going somewhere important.
They took a long time to decide what kind they wanted and ended up with Border Collies because Trey (her son) saw one on TV, a beautiful long-haired black and white dog, running dramatically across a field, herding sheep by whistled commands and doing amazing things. It said they were smart, and smart is good, and it said they were affectionate, and that is good too, and it said they were very active, which might be good, so Trey wanted a Border Collie. Sandy reasoned that hyperactive children needed hyperactive dogs. I found that reasoning obscure.
I've been a dog person all my life, even though I haven't had a dog since I was a kid. I know people who rent sometimes get dogs and then discard them when they have to move, but I could never live with myself if I did that. Dogs have a deep emotional commitment to the pack, and that sort of behavior would be nothing short of betrayal. Owning a dog is a commitment for the life of the dog, sometimes longer. I tried to explain to Taylor and Trey that being smart has problems as well as advantages, and you need to be prepared for them and be sure of your commitment ahead of time because it isn't right to back out. Border Collies are indeed smart, and also highly active. That means they are a load of fun, and easy to train, but it also means they get bored easily, and a smart, bored dog will invent jobs for itself. This is why Border Collies are notorious for bad habits, frequently are given up by overwhelmed owners, and aren't happy unless you work with them all the time. Bad habits are not endemic to the breed; they just need something to do. They are high maintenance dogs, with high rewards to be sure, but they are a lot of work. Besides, being herding dogs, they are given to some behaviors, like nipping, that others breeds don't do much and that many people find undesirable.
You know kids. With the best of intentions, they got the dogs, a brother and sister, and, once they were no longer puppies, proceeded to ignore them pretty much of the time. What they really wanted was Platonic dogs who could be relied on to take care of themselves for the most part and, once in a great while, be available for hugging and petting and perhaps the occasional ideal fetch. The dogs, Sugar and Bam-Bam, fell into some pretty destructive habits, like creating a cratered moonscape in the back yard and eating the drywall. I did what I could. When I was in Athens, I would always take the dogs for walks, or runs in the park. I managed to redirect their digging behavior. I would try to train them in some basic obedience, and I showed the kids how to do it. But I was only there one day a week, at most, and that simply isn't enough to have a huge effect. Nobody else held up their end of the deal.
Nevertheless, I loved those dogs. It surprised even me. They were so sweet, and eager to please and would do whatever you asked of them. All they really wanted was for someone to do something with them. It didn't matter what. They just needed a job and they were happy. I looked forward to working with them. I loved them so much I even figured out a way to work their picture into a middle school science book that I was writing at work.
Sandy broke up with me in February of that year. Apparently, she had been thinking about doing so for about nine months, while I had been thinking about how she and I could afford to get married and live in the same place. Stupid me. She also took a rather large amount of money in the process. I've thought about that a lot over the years and in the end decided that it doesn't matter. I used my resources to care for the people that mattered to me. If that is not what money is for, then it must be completely useless.
I missed the kids most of all, but I also missed the dogs terribly. I used to have their picture as wallpaper on my computer monitor at work, but I took it off at that time. I couldn't bear to look at it anymore, knowing that I would never see them again.
By August, I had bought a house and, figuring this was about as stable as I was ever likely to be, I started planning to get a couple of dogs. I wanted two because I learned from Sugar and Bam-Bam that it is good for the dogs' mental health. They are pack animals, and it helps to have part of the pack always nearby. I was in no real hurry, though, to get dogs because my new house had no grass in the yard, and I wanted to give it a chance to grow.
However, I had learned a lot about Border Collies from Sugar and Bam-Bam and they taught me a lot about myself as well. I had always sort of toyed with the idea of getting BC's, off and on, but after a little reading I always got nervous about the effort that would be involved with such active dogs. What I learned about myself is that, with Border Collies, that effort is not work. Work is what I do at Tech. Being involved with my guys is playtime. So I started seriously thinking about Border Collies.
I looked in the paper, but I just can't afford $400 or more per pup. So I was talking with my sister , who used to raise miniature pinschers, and she said that breeders will sometimes have dogs that they had intended to breed or show but for one reason or another would be unable to do so. Sometimes, they will give them away for a song just to get them a good home. She told me I should get a copy of Dog Fancy and just start calling some Border Collie breeders, ask around, tell them my sister was in the biz, see what developed.
I didn't have time to run to the bookstore right away, however, so instead I searched the web to see if there were any local breeders with web pages. After plugging "Border Collie Georgia" into Google, one thing that turned up, aside from breeders, was a group called Border Collie Rescue Society of Georgia, a home and adoption service for abandoned dogs. I thought, "Well, that would be pretty responsible -- get a dog that nobody else wants, one that really needs me." So I looked at the pictures of dogs that they had for adoption.
The last two on the page were a brother and sister, 2 years old, who had been seriously neglected, and had only each other. They were separated in their foster homes for the first time in their lives, and she cried for her brother every night. The guy who maintains the web page was asking for someone to adopt both, if at all possible.
They were named Sugar and Sam, and I thought "I know those dogs." I'd know them anywhere. Sugar is the most beautiful dog I've ever seen; I'd recognize her elegant lines from a thousand miles away. And Bam-Bam is always examining the world, as it it were his own private TV. And there they were. Same markings, same posture, everything. I was stunned. Someone could easily have changed Bam-Bam to Sam to make it less silly (original name chosen by an 8 year old boy) but close enough for the dog to still answer to it.
So I talked to the guy that night. Screw the grass. He told me that they were very loving dogs, who liked to walk up and put their head in your lap to be petted, and the girl gets your attention by pawing your arm, as if to say "Hey! Hey! Pay attention." My guys did that all the time. He said they loved to be outside. Sandy threw them out of the house at 6AM and didn't let them back in until 10PM. Then, they had to go in their crates. They only ever knew outside. Inside was the inside of a crate. Open the crate, and they always made a beeline for the door. I asked him where they came from. He said they were taken from a family in Winterville by the Humane Society They had chewed up some stuff (one of the bad habits my guys developed from being left alone too much), and had in consequence been kept shut up in crates for months. Let out long enough to go to the toilet, then back in the crates. I have reason to believe that Sugar has been beaten. She recognizes all the major curse words and is deeply distressed by them. She is terrified by anything resembling a broom. The people in Winterville had been given the dogs by a relative who lived in Athens.
Sandy lived in Athens. She has an aunt and an uncle in Winterville.
I was 99% sure these were my guys. He brought them over one Saturday at lunchtime, and I found out for sure then. They poured out of the back of the truck before he could even get the leashes on and climbed right into my lap. They were all over me. They were my guys. They spent the first week I had them curled up on the sofa, as close to me as they could possibly get, obviously secure for the first time in a very long time. There is residual damage, especially with Sugar. She is a very different dog. She is terrified of loud noises, thunder (which she can distinguish from fireworks and can predict from the smell of rain), things that are shaped like a broom, dog crates, and people that are sitting on the floor. She also knows all the major curse words. And it is the actual words, not the tone of voice, which she knows. When I get mad at the computer and curse under my breath, she gets very submissive and apologetic. She thinks I am angry at her. Curse loudly, and she runs away and hides. But she is also overjoyed to see me, still follows me wherever I go, and tries to climb up in my lap when she is tired. She also knows her brother by name. Ask where he is, and she will go and get him. Sam shows less damage. He has learned to be much less active than he used to be. I guess crates will do that to you. But he is still always watching and thinking about the world around him. Give him a chance and he'll station himself on the porch and study the world in detail. He's also convinced that the rules only apply when the people are home, so there's that.
There is an element of destiny in the twists and turns of this story. Just when I can finally afford a house of my own (I hadn't even made a mortgage payment yet), so I am as secure as I can ever be in having dogs, is the very moment when my guys need me the most and I can help them out. Then, by pure chance, I just happen to stumble across their pictures at exactly the right time. It is as if they were meant to be with me. There is an old saying that God looks out for children and animals. I haven't much believed in deities for some time, but perhaps there is an oblique truth embedded in the folk wisdom. I hope so. It would have to be good for my guys, after all that neglect and horrible confinement, to go live with the one person who always had time for them, who always did things with them, whom they know and trust, and who will keep them safe and happy for the rest of their lives. So much in my life has gone awry recently, but being able to do this for such sweet dogs would make up for the lot of it.
Dogs are good karma.
And these are my guys.
Now it is almost ten years later. Between Christmas and New Years' of 2010, one night Sugar began to act like she was seriously dizzy. She was nauseous, vomiting, could barely stand up and staggered around with her legs splayed out for balance.
Her eyes were zipping back and forth. I was scared.
I took her to a Vet emergency room where they diagnosed idiopathic vestibular syndrome. Idiopathic is how doctors say "got no idea what caused it" without sounding clueless. But she was already seeming better. He gave me what turned out to be very expensive dramamine and sent me home, advising I take her to my regular vet for further treatment.
My regular vet is speeding toward retirement so I took her to one recommended by a friend. He x-rayed her because he thought her heart rate was slow and found a mass, he thought on her heart.
I made an appointment with a canine cardiology specialist back at the emergency room place and in the meantime got to talk to my regular vet. He said it looked to him like it was outside the pericardium and that the dizziness is a disorder of the peripheral vestibular system common in older dogs. The cardiologist concurred.
My little girl has some sort of mass on her lung.
We can't tell what it is. Ultrasound doesn't work on lungs. The air inside reflects it. We can't even tell what it is without surgery.
So there we are, waiting for the surgeon. She's been my best friend for a very long time. She's helped me through some tough issues, always seemed to know when I was feeling down and would curl up next to me until I felt better.
She's feeling a great deal better now. She's got her old personality back, and tries to run around like she used to. But her balance is still not good, and her head is permanently tilted to the right. But when she wants to go out, she stamps her feet and howls impatiently, and she hasn't done that for a couple of weeks.
I have to do what's best for her, as long as there's some plausible chance of her getting better. After all, that's what money is for.
The story so far . . .
No one can figure out what that vet was thinking.
My regular guy said two things - as far as he knew, vestibular syndrome is a disease of the peripheral vestibular system and has nothing to do with the brain, and also that mass on the x-ray looked like it was outside the pericardium - not a heart tumor at all.
He turned out to be right on the money. And he's retiring entirely this year. I'll miss him.
The cardiologist at Georgia Veterinary Specialists ordered a CT scan and verified that it was a lung tumor and that she needed surgery. I gave her a bath the day before. I had been putting it off for a while because of all the rain we have been having, but I figured cleaner is better for surgery and in any case it would be embarrassing to put the surgeon through smelling that funk for the entire procedure.
They removed one lung lobe containing masses, another that shared an airway with the affected lobe, and sampled her lymph system while they were in there.
Dogs are amazingly tough. She went in early on a Tuesday morning for surgery. They wouldn't let me visit her that day to avoid agitating her, but I visited on Wednesday. She had a huge bandage all around her body, and the anesthetic had made the vestibular syndrome worse, and she whined continuously for an hour and a half while I tried to calm her (yes, I was holding my camera sideways for some reason). Then she finally napped for a little while.
When I told my sister this, she said "Well of course. She had to tell you all about it first, didn't she?" That she did. The techs said everybody in the back loved her, and I can believe that. She's the sweetest dog ever.
That was Wednesday. On Thursday, I went to pick her up and bring her home. She came roaring out of the back, climbing all over me while I was trying to sign the discharge papers, and when she got home she immediately picked a fight with her brother. Two days after major surgery, with a suture almost half way round her body. No way people could do that. If it were me, I'd still be whining.
She's really been kind of a handful. I was supposed to keep her inside and not running around, but she's acting like she's two years old again. When my wife went out to rake leaves, she circled the family room for two hours trying to be let out. She keeps showing her brother who's boss. It was a hard job preventing her from tearing her sutures before they could be removed the right way.
On Wednesday February 16 she finally got the sutures removed. I also consulted with an oncologist afterwards. She has an adenocarcinoma. He recommended chemotherapy on a three week cycle. The first week she gets cisplatin, which takes all day, and there is a 5% risk of nausea. The second week is off. The third week she gets vinblastin, which takes a half hour and carries no risks. Dogs who don't get this therapy live an average of 6 months. Those who do live an average of 18 months and some live very much longer, years longer.
He said there were two very big factors in her favor. It was a big deal that the masses were restricted in the one lung lobe. Had they spread, that would be very bad. And it was a huge deal that her lymph nodes were clear. Basically, we seem to have caught the cancer while it was localized. I interpret this as meaning that she has a reasonable chance of living toward the long end of the probabilities. Maybe I'm dreaming.
But this seems to me like all up side and no down side. The only down is a 5% chance of throwing up once a month. We can live with that to reap the benefits. She completed the first cycle yesterday and was a little mopey after the first drug but didn't seem particularly sick.
This has been unbelievably expensive. I am so glad that I thought to purchase pet insurance a couple of years ago. I will always have that going forward. I would have done it all anyway, but this has made it much less stressful (at least, it will when they send the first reimbursement check).
But I would have organized credit cards and tax returns and whatever resources I could muster to do this. It is the right thing for Sugar and so it is the right thing. She is full of life still. I can't let her go when that is still true.
And she's my best friend. Right now, late at night, she is lying in front of the back door, struggling to keep her eyes open, and watching me, making sure I'm ok.
Making sure I'M ok. I love my little girl.
I took the guys down
to the WABE studios (the local NPR station) and told
their story for Storycorps.
July 4, 2012
My sweet little girl passed away today.
At the end of May, we went for another three month checkup for the cancer, and the vet said she was doing great, no signs of metastatic disease, it's been a year so we can change to doing checkups every six months.
Last Wednesday, she threw up her dinner from the night before. She hasn't been able to keep anything down since then. The vet told me to give her pepcid and that didn't help. I took her in on Friday and she was so dehydrated that they wanted to keep her over the weekend for IV fluids. Her kidney levels were a little elevated, but they thought that might be because of the dehydration and they would come back down over the weekend. I went to visit her every day for several hours. She had a hard time standing up and didn't like walking around on the slick floors, but she was ok outside in the grass. I thought she was just weak from lack of food.
The kidney levels didn't go down. They went even higher.She went back to the hospital, and steadily declined. My little girl was in acute kidney failure for some unknown reason. The hospital vet though leptospirosis but she was inoculated for that at her annual physical just two weeks earlier, when her kidneys were perfect. The only other possibility is something toxic but we don't keep anything toxic around our house and she can't, and doesn't want to, get out of the yard.
I visited her on Tuesday. She didn't want to stand but she at least put her paw on my hand and licked my face. When I went back yesterday, she didn't voluntarily move her limbs at all but she still wagged her tail and licked my face, over and over.
They had her in a hard tile enclosure, I guess because they suspected disease that is passed through urine. She hadn't even been able to go out to urinate. She was lying on a pile of diapers and had urinated down one leg. She was beginning to have edema, which meant that her kidneys were in such bad shape she couldn't process all the fluids she was getting. Reducing fluids reduces edema but makes the levels of toxins go up.
I was told her only hope was to go to the University of Georgia for dialysis. I was considering that, but I was able to speak with my regular vet about it. She had been at the institution where the dialysis procedure was developed for dogs and knew people there and knew the statistics intimately. I had been told Sugar had a 50-50 chance, but that includes much younger dogs and dogs where the underlying condition is known. Sugar's real chances were a great deal more pessimistic.
There was really nothing else to do. My sweet little girl was watching me while she died, worried about me again because I was upset. As her little head settled against my arm for the last time, I remembered when I first took her home as a puppy and she went to sleep on my hand. I drove all the way from Alpharetta to Athens with one hand inside a cardboard box, and a little doggie head on it.
I feel like I'm going to die.
It really isn't fair. Her little life was hammered too hard -- abandoned, abused, vestibular syndrome, lung cancer, septic leg, kidney failure. That's too many things to visit on just a little girl. Still, she beat almost all of it. At the very end, there are no right choices and we just make the least worst.
It doesn't feel right. It will never feel right.
I've had few relationships in my life like the one I had with her. She was faithful and loyal to an amazing degree. Sam is a sweet and gentle dog, and the most patient dog that ever lived, but he is very much his own dog. He goes where he thinks he needs to go and comes back when he is ready. The only thing Sugar ever wanted out of life was to be where I was. Her safe spot was behind my desk, and when I came into the house she would run to it and howl until I joined her. Sam would go upstairs to bed when he was tired but Sugar wouldn't go unless I went with her. When I went to the bathroom, within a minute her little face would be peeking around the corner. When I cooked dinner, she would lie in the doorway and watch me. When I left for work, she would watch out the door, and set up the howl for the pack when she couldn't see me any more. There's no love quite like that, perfect, uncomplicated and without compromise.
I remember when I first got her back and she spent two weeks straight insisting on being in direct physical contact with me. She had been betrayed so much in her short life and she knew I wasn't going to do that. The first time I had to go out of town for a meeting, I left her at my Mom's and I know she thought she had been abandoned again. When I got back, and went to pick her up, there's never been a happier dog. She wouldn't stop jumping on me until I sat on the floor. Then she crawled in my lap and licked my face for an hour.
There's a dog shaped hole in my heart and I don't know how to fill it. I love my little girl. there's never been a better girl and never will be again. She was always there when I was in trouble -- when I lost the kids, when I lost my Dad. I need her now.
You could say there was karma in the story that brought Sugar back into my life. But karma is about balance, and the mountain of good and wealth of happines that she brought with her is balanced by the abyss of emptiness and despair that remains now that she is gone.
I love my little girl forever.
Sugar is a good girl.
Postscript July 9, 2012
There's another way of thinking about the karma thing that helps with perspective. I thought of this yesterday morning.
There's nothing mysterious about karma. It is just how human emotions work. You can't be sad about losing something you were never happy about having. And the magnitude of your sadness scales directly with that of your happiness. So the only way to avoid the extreme depths of sadness is to also avoid the heights of happiness. Some people choose this. I don't yet know if I am one of them. I find myself looking at adoptable puppies, and then feeling guilty and afraid of the future.
All I know right now is this. Everybody keeps telling me how I gave Sugar an amazing life, how I saved her, twice. Maybe. But I'd say that is balanced by the fact that she equally saved me. She came into my life at one of its absolute lowest points, and she just huddled up next to me and wouldn't leave until I felt better.
It didn't really take very long.
She's done it many times since then. I have never been as closely bonded to another living creature as I was to her. I still tell her goodnight and how much I love her every night.
I miss the sound of her breathing in the dark.
I love you doggie girl.
Sugar is a good girl.