Monday, November 16, 2009

Hospitalization: One Year Later

On this day last year I went into the hospital with preterm labor. I spent a terrifying Thanksgiving in the hospital, and a less-terrifying (but fairly depressing) Christmas there as time went on.

60 days after I checked in, Lexie was born.

Look how far we've come.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Goodbye Wendy

The problem with dog stories is that they all end the same way. We knew this when we adopted Wendy. But we thought we would have more time.

Wendy was billed as a 5-year-old beagle. If we'd really looked, we would have noticed her bad teeth, the touch of gray on her muzzle, her slightly creaky back legs from the arthritis that would only get worse. Her actual age at the time was probably somewhere between 7 and 10 years old. As the story went, a shelter in rural Virginia had found her wandering on the side of a road, starving. People have beagle packs down there, and when the beagles get too old or lose their ability to hunt, they're often turned out from the pack. It was a kill shelter -- her number was almost up when the rescue org came through looking for adoption candidates. She went to live with her foster family Robb and Jerry (and foster beagle brothers Barney and Andy). Wendy had been there for about a month when we met her and decided to make her part of our family. Her foster dads had cleaned and fixed her up as well as possible in that short time, and had worked to fatten her up. But she still had a long way to go.

My brother called Wendy a "fixer-upper." She immediately needed to have her teeth cleaned, and a couple of teeth needed to be removed. Her front teeth were worn down almost to nothing in some places, which her vet said was a sign that she'd been in a wire kennel for many years, and had chewed constantly on the cage because she was bored. She had a bad ear infection, and some nasty stomach problems. The stomach problems didn't stop her from begging for treats, though. Her favorites included, but were not limited to, chicken, steak, hamburger, french fries, cheese, watermelon, pork, bacon, eggs, potato chips, crunchy bread, tuna fish, mashed potato, turkey... the list goes on and on. She was ALWAYS optimistic about the potential for treats.

Wendy was cool with Steve, but she was really my dog. She followed me around all the time. When I went to bed, she went to bed (her little dog bed was at the foot of our person-bed). She always came to sit by me and came to me first for help. She was more likely to listen to me than anyone else, although as a beagle, she was never the best listener. She was not brave. She never barked when anyone came to the door, and was more likely to hide behind us. She fled in terror from tossed tennis balls. She could not do tricks. She never picked up the Washington Post from the sidewalk. The only command we were able to teach her was "sit," and she'd do it only if we were holding a treat at the time.

We taught her her name by saying "Wendy" while crinkling a potato-chip bag.

We went for long walks around the neighborhood. We quickly learned that if Wendy pulled on the leash with all her might, no good could come of letting her go in that direction. Without fail, something heinous and rotten -- but in her world, deliciously stinky -- was at the end of that trail. She enjoyed feinting at squirrels and watching them run away. She rarely bothered to actually chase them. Too much trouble.

She learned that crowds meant more opportunities for treats. After my brother's wedding, we invited family members over for drinks and snacks. Wendy became increasingly excited as the guests arrived. Steve took her out for her walk as the last of the guests were showing up, including my dad, who always spoiled her with treats. Wendy moved very, very slowly as she and Steve walked away from the house. She did her business, turned around, looked at Steve, and took off at full speed toward home. Steve said our creaky little beagle, for once, actually outran him. Inside the house, I heard a commotion and a clatter of toenails and turned to see Wendy skidding to a stop in front of my dad, who then slipped her one of many tasty morsels that evening. I saw other family members do the same. Her stomach swelled to shocking proportions. It was probably one of Wendy's best days ever.

Wendy was a known kleptomaniac, having once stolen a pig ear from the dog groomer's array of treats at the register. I took her back in and we paid for the item, but I don't think Wendy learned any lessons.

We took Wendy on vacation with us one summer, to a cabin on the north fork of the Shenandoah River. She probably thought she was at bootcamp. We walked with her down to the river, maybe 3/4 of a mile. Exhausted from the walk in the sun, she sat panting and refusing to drink, balking when I brought her to the river shore, terrified of the running water. She and I sat under a tree while Steve took an ill-advised dip. (We didn't know until a couple of days later that the river is badly polluted.) We headed back to the cabin, and Wendy sprawled on the floor, panting like crazy. It wasn't until we fired up the grill that night that she got back on her feet.

Last April, Wendy became gravely ill. A tumor on her spleen was bleeding, and if we didn't remove it she'd die within hours. I handed over my Visa, and $2500 later we had a stapled-up dog with a new lease on life. (During the operation, the vet also looked in Wendy's stomach and found -- and removed -- a bunch of metal wire and two socks.) During her recovery at home, we tried to "crate" her in the kitchen with an attractive cherry wood gate. I came home from work to find the gate in splinters. Wendy hated being locked up and had chewed her way through it. We decided to give her the run of the house as usual, and everything was fine. Around the same time, we discovered Wendy had Cushing's Disease. Because the standard treatment could result in increased fearfulness (and some dogs had died of fright after being treated), we elected not to follow an aggressive regimen that kills off part of the pituitary gland. We treated her holistically with melatonin and flaxseed oil. The vet warned us that Cushing's would eventually kill her, but nobody could say how long it would be.

Wendy healed remarkably well from her spleen-removal surgery, and we had a quiet six months or so. When I became pregnant with Lexie, she followed me around even more.

When I went into the hospital last November with preterm labor, I couldn't stop thinking about how I'd deserted Wendy. Did she think I'd abandoned her? I'd wished I could tell her that I was coming back, that I hadn't wanted to leave for so long. I read "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" and cried in the parts where the elderly dog searches for her master. Even though Wendy had been doing well, I worried that she would die before I came home. I made Steve promise that he would stay with her if he had to put her down. When I came home after 9 weeks in the hospital, I expected a joyful reunion. Instead, Wendy regarded me with a sniff and a tail wag, the dog equivalent of "oh, there you are."

I have often heard stories about dogs who wouldn't leave their owners' sides when their owners were sick. This was not Wendy. A true pack dog, Wendy avoided me like the plague when I was unwell. Better to stay with the healthier members of the pack. So she stayed away for the first week or so that I was home, bandaged and weak. We slowly rebuilt our relationship and had a good nine more months together. As Lexie grew, she started noticing Wendy and laughing, sometimes reaching out to touch Wendy's fur. Wendy got used to Lexie, and even allowed Lexie to pet her (gently).

But Wendy's arthritis continued to worsen, and the Cushing's caused her organs to begin to fail. She might have had several more months if that was the only issue, but her back legs gave out. She would walk a few steps and fall down, and her little body would shake, wracked with spasms. She could still rally for french fries or steak, but she lost interest in her dog food. It was becoming clearer and clearer that her time had come. The day she couldn't stand up for some bacon, I knew she'd reached the end.

Wendy, keen-nosed hunter of fast-food bags, connoisseur of french fries and belly rubs, floor-cleaner extraordinaire, ate a bacon cheeseburger and fries last night before we took her to the vet's office and said goodbye. I stayed with her until the end, which was peaceful.

We will never forget her.