06 September 2011

Musings from the Back Porch

Changa the Catahoula, circa 2006.
After 70+ days of 100+ degree weather, yesterday felt like being on another planet, with the day time highs in the low 90s and the evening dropping to the high 60s. We did not run our AC all day, and we opened up all the windows and doors to the back yard. The beginning of September gave us a breath of autumn air, although still without a drop of rain (the 10 months from October 2010 through July 2011 have been the driest for that 10-month period in Texas since 1895). Not to mention fires raging in the Bastrop area outside of Austin. When I woke up this morning, it smelled like campfire. But there were no marshmallows.

Still, I welcome September after a brutally hot and cruel August. Last month flew by and dragged on all at once. At the end of July, we discovered a ping-pong sized tumor on one of our dogs, Changa. Almost overnight, out of nowhere, it popped out of her forehead right between the eyes, the way a lump comes up on a cartoon character after they've been bopped on the head. She also developed a slight limp.

After going to two vets, one specialist, and then having our regular mobile vet casually take a look while visiting our house for the other dog's check up (Tonka), we came to the conclusion that it was most likely a malignant tumor -- cancer. Even if we'd had thousands of extra dollars to spend on MRIs and surgery and recovery therapy, it would only have bought her several more months at best and probably a lot more suffering. At any rate, the way it seemed to be wedged between her brain, nasal cavity, and left eye, there was no easy to remove it.

Our only option was to make her as comfortable and happy as possible for the remainder of her life and wait for the day. The specialist said we'd know when it was time. I rationalized that one of three things would have to happen: she'd stop eating, she wouldn't be able to get up, or she'd appear to be in major pain. The lump grew. The eye bulged out and became discolored and finally turned milky white with a black film creeping over it. She increasingly bled through her nose more and more. The limp got worse, and she had a harder time jumping up onto the porch from the back yard. She lost weight. She lost interest in eating -- Changa, who loved food so much she'd lick tiny crumbs off the floor, stopped eating. She started breathing funny, as if she had a cold.

Then one day, the three signs converged. So we called the vet. August was a long month, as I watched this dog -- who was part of our little family since we rescued her and Tonka in 2006 -- slowly die. I will admit, she was my favorite one. Always so eager to give her love, always so grateful to receive ours. The day the vet came to put her down, on August 23, 2011, was harder than I imagined it. I kept reasoning why we were doing the right thing. And I don't regret our decision. But it was still hard. It doesn't matter how many times you watched Old Yeller as a kid.

I remember very clearly how in her last hour, she would periodically look up at us with her one good eye, even though she had been mostly out of it for the previous twenty-four hours. Even though it cost her a great deal of difficulty -- and probably pain -- to lift her head off the ground, she made eye contact with us, as if to let us know that she knew. She wanted to let us know that she knew what was going to happen, and it was okay because she was ready to go to her resting place. To let us know she appreciated all we did during her last weeks, feeding her chicken hearts from the farmers market and constantly giving her belly rubs. Or maybe that was all in my imagination. But that's what I believed, and it made me feel better.

I've never experienced death so closely. To have your hand on your dog's shoulder, right near her heart, and to feel the life go out of her, the last breath. I still feel the wind knocked out of me to remember the moment. So, here's to September, hoping for cooler nights on the porch like tonight, rain, and new life.

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