Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Lifetime Dog

Last night I invited my friend, Lynn, over to watch an episode of the Twilight Zone. Not just any episode, mind you, but my all-time favorite. I love it so much, in fact, I wrote an essay about it several years ago that ran in my former "Dog's Life" column in the San Francisco Chronicle column. It also ran later in The Bark magazine.

Today, I'm repeating a portion of this essay because it still resonates so strongly. I originally wrote it about my first greyhound, my "lifetime dog," Elvis, but realize now that the emotions I expressed back then capture how I feel about the dogs I've had since Elvis; my mother's dog, Lucy (who I adopted after Mom passed away) and my current girls, Olivia and Hazel.   

If you love your pets with even a fraction of the intensity that I do, you'll know exactly what I mean.


Today, when I look at my beloved dog, who will soon turn 8, I can't help but note his now gray muzzle and eyebrows. Like his human, Elvis is showing signs of age. And I realize, with an ache, that our time together will be much too brief.

That's why I'm so fond of a particular Twilight Zone episode. Titled "The Hunt," it features a recently deceased man and his dog. As they ramble down a country road in the hereafter, they come upon a gate. 

"Welcome to heaven!" the gatekeeper declares. Except for the dog, that is. 

"What kind of heaven won't allow dogs?" the old man asks. "If he can't come in, then I'll stay out with him. He's been my faithful companion all these years and I can't desert him now." 

So the old man continues down the road with his dog.  Soon, they come upon another gate. 

"Welcome to heaven!" the gatekeeper greets both man and dog. When the old man asks about the previous gatekeeper who said that dogs weren't allowed, he learns it was the devil. 

"He gets all the people who are willing to give up a lifetime companion for a comfortable place to stay," the old man is told. "They soon find out their mistake, but then it's too late." 

And the old man and his dog pass through the gates, toward the light. Toward heaven.

When I cradle my dog's face in my hands and look into his liquid eyes, so full of unconditional love and loyalty, there's no doubt.  Elvis is my faithful companion. My lifetime dog.

And this is heaven.

*Read the complete version in The Bark

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

My sweet girl is still with me, limping on occasion, but she seems to be comfortable thanks to pain medication. I won't lie; the past two months have been extremely stressful trying to come to terms with the fact that I'm going to lose my lovely "little tiger."  I keep second-guessing myself, wondering if deciding not to amputate is the best decision. Is it? 

But then I remember what the vet at UC Davis told me when I took Olivia there three weeks ago for a second opinion. She said that Olivia's bone cancer is most likely the very aggressive osteosarcoma, and even with amputation only 50 percent of dogs survive up to 12 months. 

I can't pursue such an invasive procedure with such poor odds. I can't carve my girl up just so I can have her a few extra months. I just can't do that to her. And so, I'm focusing on pain management and quality of life.

So far we're good. Her tail is still wagging, her appetite voracious, and she still gets over-the-top excited when she sees me grab her leash. Our walks may be slower and shorter, but I'll keep taking her "bye-bye" as long as she wants to go. 

Olivia is doing as well as I could possibly hope for, given the circumstances. Honestly, when she was diagnosed on Halloween, I didn't think she'd still be with me for the next holiday, let alone walking and playing with Hazel. That in itself is the best Christmas gift I could ask for this season. 

And a Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones, be they two-legged or four.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Olivia Update

It's not a pinched nerve. That's what we thought, remember? 

But when Olivia's limp worsened after two months of anti-inflammatories and pain killers, Dr. Arnott finally referred me to a specialist. This guy took one look at her limp and said immediately that she wasn't limping from nerve pain. He suspected either a torn or injured ligament in her right rear leg.  He studied Dr. Arnott's x-rays from September and then took new ones to confirm his suspicion.

When he returned to the waiting room though, his face held a stunned expression. 

"It looks like a tumor," he said. "I'm so sorry."

What? But it could be a shadow, right? Or benign? Or a fungal infection, which can mimic the symptoms of a tumor? Or a mistake, or anything, anything....

But when the surgeon performed a biopsy four days later,the report confirmed my worst fear: fibrosarcoma and possibly the even deadlier and aggressive osteosarcoma. Bone cancer. The surgeon couldn't get a wide enough margin for a definite reading because Olivia's leg is already so fragile, the bone was crumbling around the entry point of the needle.  

Amputation is only a palliative measure, not a cure. If it were a cure, I wouldn't think twice, but removing the affected limb will buy Olivia a mere 4-9 additional months before the cancer returns. And it will return because it's in her marrow. It's only a matter of time. I can't put her through such an invasive procedure for such a short fix. I can't do that to my sweet girl

This Wednesday marks our third anniversary when, on November 19, 2011, I saw my three-year old  "little tiger" for the first time at Golden State Greyhound Adoption. When I took Olivia home that night, I was walking on air, thrilled at the many years we had ahead of us to look forward to.  Now, we have just weeks.

I am sick with grief. Absolutely sick. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Squirrel Czar

“I am Hazel, hunter of Squirrels, defender of humankind.

Cats don’t interest me, nor do birds, rodents, other dogs or even people for that matter, although an extended hand offering a cookie might momentarily divert my razor-sharp attention. Especially if it’s a peanut butter cookie. I love peanut butter. Oh, and particularly those homemade bone-shaped ones that my human makes. Right out of the oven, they are quite good. Wouldn't mind one right now, actually. Maybe if I whine loud enough….

But I digress. My focus must remain solely for that tyrant of the tree, The Squirrel. How I abhor these bothersome pests, which are naught but rodents with fluffier tails.

And how they taunt me, my enemy The Squirrel. They park themselves in my path, fearless and brazen, teasing me with their “come hither” stares as we momentarily lock eyes before they playfully scamper away beyond reach, not the least bit rattled over their near brush with death. I hear them chattering in the trees and this infuriates me. No doubt the impetuous little rascals are mocking my failed attempts to conquer and destroy.

That’s not to say I don’t give it my best. Given the 93 heats I ran as a race dog, one would think a retired ex-racer greyhound could catch one of these scalawags, but they’re quick. And cunning, too. They know how to grab my attention with the flirty flip of the tail or a leap between trees, all the while evading capture despite my most enthusiastic endeavors. Even my mighty barking, which echoes throughout the valley, doesn't faze these treetop minions.

My human is also annoyed by the unwelcome presence of The Squirrel, I can tell. Whenever we’re going for a walk and I suddenly lurch across her path to lunge at the furry little imps and she trips over me and hits the ground with a heavy thud, she raises her voice and sounds upset. I don’t blame her. My enemy The Squirrel upsets me, too. The world will be a better place only with their total eradication, of which I take complete responsibility. There may be collateral damage in its wake, but those are the times in which we live.

Because I am Hazel, hunter of Squirrels, defender of humankind.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Canine Mafia

Ah, here we are in the glorious waning days of Indian Summer--toasty hot and the perfect time to give the dogs a bath before cold weather arrives and I have to resort to costly indoor facilities. 

Plus, I had just uber-cleaned my home, complete with moving furniture, beating rugs, and crawling on my hands and knees to use a toothbrush on the baseboards. Yes, I go clean-crazy every now and then, and clean dogs would be the final touch 

And so, I started with Hazel. Brought her into the like-a-sauna-courtyard outside my garage, soaped her up, washed her down, and finished her off with a nice towel rubdown. 

Now it was Olivia's turn. I swapped dogs, placing Hazel back in the house and bringing Olivia outside.

But this arrangement was apparently not acceptable to Hazel. She whined like she was being skinned alive. 

"You're having so much fun out there without me," she howled. "Nobody loves me, I've been abandoned!"  Then, her mournful cry morphed into a demanding bark. Bark bark bark barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkBARKBARKBARK!

And then, blessed silence. But only for 30 seconds before the barking resumed.

I rushed soaping up Olivia, cognizant of the fact that I've never met a neighbor who appreciates a barking dog. I wasn't outside more than eight minutes before my girl was freshly bathed and smelled like her "sister," of lavender and oatmeal.  We returned back to the house where Hazel greeted us as if we were long-lost loved ones she hadn't seen since the last full moon. What a drama queen.

Not to mention a vengeful one. Because there, on the oriental area rug that was just professionally cleaned last month, was the ominous dark sign of urine. Which, by the way, was discovered only after I stepped in it and noticed my tracks across the freshly polished hardwood floors.  

I looked for Hazel and found her quietly slinking on her belly toward her pillow, ears flat, furtively peeking at me out of the corner of her eye. This wasn't a "couldn't hold it" accident, mind you. My naughty girl had delivered a message as obvious as the horse's head on the bed from The Godfather, the man who was also known for the saying, "revenge is a dish best served cold."

As opposed to the Dogfather's world where revenge, it would seem, is a dish best served wet.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Real Olivia

It was with bated breath that I took Olivia to the vet yesterday for the third time in three weeks. She's had this persistent limp and, as any greyhound owner knows, a limping greyhound is a very scary thing because of the breed's predisposition to bone cancer.Gulp.

But, thank God, x-rays didn't show anything ominous or even suspicious. Dr. Arnott suspects the culprit is a slightly compressed disk on her spine that's pressing against a nerve.  Very short walks, lots of rest, and anti-inflammatories should help relieve her distress. Hopefully, in a couple weeks, the nerve will settle down and my girl will be back in fine form.

Of course, Hazel was with me. Can't take one without bringing the other is the Rule of Dog, even if it's a visit to the vet. As Dr. Arnott sat on the floor, playing and cuddling with both dogs, he made the observation that my feisty Hazel appears to be asserting herself as the alpha dog in our household. He asked how Olivia is with this young upstart trying to dethrone her.

She seems fine, I replied, probably because I still treat her as the alpha dog: I greet her first, feed her first, leash her first, and, every evening, always cuddle with her before moving on to Hazel. I then added my own observation that Olivia had really mellowed over the three years that I've had her. Dr. Arnott and I both recalled those unsettling first few months when my spirited girl lunged at other dogs, growled at people passing by, and even snapped at me on more than one occasion.  While I didn't miss her aggressive attitude, it saddened me to think that Olivia, now six, might be losing her edge due to age. 

But Dr. Arnott had another take, one that I hadn't considered.

"Olivia's not slowing down because of age," he said. "She was aggressive only because she didn't know any other way to be. Who knows how she was treated at the track?" I agreed, citing that to this day she still bolts and hides whenever she sees a fly swatter. He continued.

"Now, with you, she feels loved. Safe. What you see today--this mellow, sweet, affectionate dog--this is the real Olivia, not that scared dog you first adopted.  Olivia doesn't need to be the alpha dog because she trusts you. She's happy."

Olivia was still limping when we left Dr. Arnott's office, but I knew, with time, love, and care, she would heal. Just as she had on the inside, a thought that warmed my heart beyond measure. And I took my girls home.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Under the Full Moon

I was in my pajamas, standing on my bedroom balcony and looking over my backyard, admiring its tranquil beauty in the moonlight, when I saw the two skunks on my patio. I wasn’t concerned since they were climbing the fence and appeared to be leaving.

But then—oh no!  I heard the “clack” of the doggie door and realized that my greyhound, Olivia, wasn’t at my side. I rushed downstairs, but it was too late.

Olivia had caught one of the skunks and was tearing into it, chunks of skin and fur flying everywhere, blood spraying the patio floor and sliding glass door. I managed to drag Olivia inside when I saw the skunk’s partner re-entering the yard, looking for his mate. I tried closing the doggie door but the angry skunk was forcing his head through the door, snarling and trying to bite my bare heels as I used them to push his head backward. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the skunk was joined by two equally rabid rabbits that were also growling, biting, and shoving their heads through the doggie door trying to enter my home.

Then the skunk lifted his tail and a flume of white spray shot out, covering my entire patio in a putrid veil of white mist like a fog machine at a concert. The foul fog started creeping through the doggie door, violating my beautiful home, my peaceful sanctuary. It burned my eyes, my throat, my nostrils, and I realized I’d lost the battle….

I woke up with a start, gasping for air, my heart pounding like a jackhammer. The symbolism of the dream did not escape me.

Just a few weeks ago my neighbor had told me about the excruciating pain she was experiencing from her sciatica. But earlier this day, when I asked her husband how she was doing, he told me the pain turned out to be, not her sciatica, but stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized.  She was now under the care of Hope Hospice.

A few days prior I had visited a family member fading away from inoperable pancreatic cancer. And this Friday marks my beloved mother’s five year anniversary. She died just three weeks after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Cancer. Damned fucking cancer. Insidious, invasive, and quietly aggressive, snaking into homes, destroying lives, shattering hearts.

Eventually I fell back into an uneasy sleep. But the malodorous stench of that dream haunted me for days. 
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