Two weeks ago my dog Buster became unable to jump on the couch. Buster lives on the couch so I found this development mildly worrisome. At nine years old he has some arthritis and is not a limber as he still thinks he is. Then a few days later his back legs gave out and he almost tumbled down the steep stairway leading up to my apartment. If I hadn’t been behind him to break his fall he’d have been a dead duck. I called the vet and made an appointment for the next day.
The next morning, however, Buster was walking in tight left circles and falling down every few feet. And, when I got to the vet, the hammer of every dog owner’s fear came crashing down.
“There’s something neurological going on,” the vet said after taking one look at him.
My vision tunneled and I felt like I was going to faint. I plopped into a chair and started breathing heavy. I knew what was going on, I was having a stress reaction. I thought that Buster was going to die.
Looking concerned for me, the vet, who is a really sweet man, said, “Let me take Buster in the back and examine him”. My nervous pacing wore a trench into the linoleum floor. Then the vet came back with more bad news.
“Buster had a seizure while I was checking him out,” he said. “He needs to see a neurologist right away.” I was handed an address and my dog. “Go now,” the vet said, looking brokenhearted. “And good luck.” I wasn’t even charged for the visit, but the look of sympathy on the vet’s face alarmed me. It was the look doctors have when when they know things are going very bad.
I got into my car, secured Buster and made a beeline for the highway. I had no idea where the specialist hospital was and, to be honest, my brainpower had been reduced by 50 percent. I really shouldn’t have been driving. Luckily I had OnStar to feed me the directions. Of course, being rush hour, the roads were jammed. My anxiety was so high a bottle of Xanax wouldn’t have put a dent in it. Then I realized I had to get my shit together, pronto. I managed to relax myself, more for Buster’s sake than mine, and made it to the hospital. Then I got more bad news.
“Brain tumor, meningitis, or a hole in the spinal cord,” the neuro vet said. “These can all cause the symptoms we’re seeing. We’ll have to admit him and do an MRI.” So Buster was whisked away and the receptionist told me I had to put down a mighty big deposit. MRIs are very expensive. I slapped down my Amex card without a second thought.
There wasn’t much to do after that. The docs had to stabilize Buster and the tests couldn’t be run until the next day. My girlfriend joined me and, before we left, one of the techs brought Buster out to say goodbye. His tail wagged when he saw me, but I could see he was frightened. That broke my heart.
Being an idiot, when I got home I Googled “dog” and “brain tumor” and discovered that Buster’s symptoms hit very one of that condition’s diagnostic indicators. What would I do if that were the case? Take him home to live out his last days? I didn’t want to see him suffer or deteriorate. I did not want to take my dog home to die. It was then I realized I might be faced with a terrible decision. I didn’t know what to do. “This will kill me,” I said to my girlfriend. “He’s too young. It’s not his time. It’s all too fast. If I have to put him down this will just kill me. “ It wouldn’t have of course, but that’s how I felt at the time.
So I lost it, utterly and completely. I haven’t cried so hard in years and, if my girlfriend weren’t with me, it would have been exponentially worse. After the storm of emotion left me drained I went to bed and, amazingly, fell asleep. That was the only mercy that terrible Thursday.
My girlfriend stayed home from work the next day as we waited for the tests to be run. To be honest, the financial hit I was taking was unnerving me too. I am lucky to have resources I can draw on to cover the costs, not every one does. Years ago I took out pet insurance to guard against this very kind of disaster. When I got Buster I was a broke waiter, but I never wanted to have to put him down because of lack of funds. Some people have to and I understand that, but not me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
When I called my ex to tell her the bad news, she cried too. But when she got herself together she said. “I feel so bad for you! Buster’s your baby.” And she’s right. For the past nine years, Buster has been sort of my child. I know that make me sounds like one of those crazy dog people you see on TV, but I guess that’s what I am. Some people might tell me that my response to all this is way out of proportion. Having a sick dog is not like having a sick child, but what you feel is what you feel.
By five o’clock on Friday I was almost out of my mind. Then the doctor called. No tumor. No meningitis or spinal cord holes. The MRI revealed that Buster has two messed up vertebrae compressing his spinal cord. That’s what was causing the problems. While surgery was an option, the doctor counseled trying to handle the situation medically. Buster was put on steroids and stayed in the hospital for four days in case he had another seizure. There were none. The docs have no idea what caused it. It could have been brought on by stress but I was so happy I didn’t have a terrible decision to make. So my girlfriend and I went to the movies and saw The Artist. It was a great film. By the way, I missed my 25th high school reunion that night. I was too spent for public appearances.
Monday came and I went to the hospital to get my dog. Before I could even see him I had to pay the bill in full. Ouch. Then, as we went over the discharge instructions, the doctor told me to give Buster a tapering dose of steroids for three weeks and put him on strict cage rest for at least a month. I knew that would suck because Buster is used to having the run of the house. He also didn’t look a hell of a lot better than when I dropped him off, but I told the vet if Buster came back 75 percent I’d be happy. Now I had to settle in for the long haul.
My Dad had open-heart surgery a month ago. In a funny way, getting your chest cracked open, your heart stopped and restarted and your valves sewn up is the easy part. Dad came though it like a trooper but recovery, it turns out, is really the hard part. Your moods swing, you can’t drive or have to ride in the back seat like a kid and you’re basically housebound, totally dependent on others to help you live. You have doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists poking and prodding you and mundane things like showering or taking a piss become Herculean efforts. Dad’s doing fine, thank God, but now I’m facing a similar situation with Buster. After care for a dog is a bitch.
Cage rest sucks, but it has to be done. Because of the steroids, Buster is eating and drinking more, so he’s peeing and pooping more – usually when we have to sleep. I can’t tell you how many times my girlfriend and I have carried Buster out at three, five and six in the morning. Our sleep cycles are trashed. My mother said it’s good training to have a baby. If Buster hears us moving around in the apartment, he cries and whinnys until someone comes to hold him. But we can’t do that every time. It’s not good for him. Since he’s also used to sleeping in our bed, when he see’s our Boston Terrier snuggling under the covers while watching from the cage, oh man, it’s bad. The Boston is still trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
Two weeks later, I’m happy to report, Buster is back to eighty percent. Some lameness is still in his left hind leg, so he still falls down from time to time. He’s not out of the woods yet, when he’s off the steroids we’ll have to watch him carefully, but we’ll do everything to keep him from an operation. The vet even suggested acupuncture and I just might try it. Buster is a Japanese Chin, so, in a strange way, it’s part of his heritage.
But no matter what happens, we’ll have to change the way we handle Buster. He’ll always wobble and will have to be carried up and down stairs for the rest of his life. And since he loves to jump onto the couch and bed, an activity that must be minimized, my girlfriend and I will get some do-hickeys to help him get to his favorite places more easily. When we’re not around, he’ll have to be in a cage. There’s a bit of mourning associated with that because Buster won’t be the dog he once was. But when I remind myself how crazy I was at the thought of losing him, that puts it all into perspective.
Now it’s Monday night and as I write this, Buster is lying next to me on the couch. I give him some one on one time every night so he doesn’t feel like he’s being punished. The funny thing about dogs is that they really don’t know when they’re handicapped. They think everything is just going along swimmingly so Buster doesn’t know what the fuss is about. Dogs are simple creatures. They just want to be loved and to love you.
The past weeks have reminded me that everything and everybody gets old. At some point we all will be unable to do the things we’ve done before. We have to accept that, one-day, we will lose the people (And pets) we love the most. One person told me, “I’ll never buy another dog. When my last one died, I was devastated. I never want to go through that again.” I can sure understand that, but I know that when Buster goes to his reward I’ll get another dog. Dogs give you far more than you give them, and they are worth the pain when you lose them. The same thing could be said about love. You will always lose it, either though death or life’s cruel turns, but that should never stop you from seeking it. A life bereft of love is a cold and dark existence. And from all the support I received, especially from my girlfriend, I know Buster and I are loved. That’s a great feeling.
Buster is now snoozing, happy to be in his favorite place in the world, next to me. As he whimpers softly, chasing squirrels in his dreams, I stroke his silky fur and smile. Not yet old boy.