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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Buried Grief

It’s funny how we humans bury those deep and painful emotions we all experience, only to have them seep out at inconvenient times. Like in the middle of the night.

I read in yesterday’s Washington Post a story about a man who lost his dog three months ago to pneumonia suddenly, and how he is amazed at the depth of his grief. Sound familiar? This man, Joe Yonan, says he is still grieving the loss of his Doberman, Red, after he suddenly died while he was at work: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-death-of-pet-can-hurt-as-much-as-the-loss-of-a-relative/2012/02/21/gIQALXTXcS_story.html He says that people relationships are complicated, while your feelings for your pet are sublimely simple and of a purer strain. Your life becomes predictable with your pet’s routine, and he or she loves you for it. No complicated egos, messy feelings of disappointment or anger. So elegantly beautiful—that pet relationship. Until they get sick.

Joe’s dog, similar in age to Saylor, became sick and he dutifully took him to the vet’s who diagnosed pneumonia and sent him back home with antibiotics. Joe left for work after giving Red a dose, and then came home to find him dead. The last image of his beloved Red lying on the floor burns in his mind, tearing him apart, cell by cell. I know that feeling. I remember Saylor, shortly after Thanksgiving, lying on the floor and I could see her heart beating in her chest, laboring to overcome the pneumonia we still did not know she had.

My ego stops me here:  “Wait a minute—tell them about how many times you took her to the vet that fall, how many days you spent worrying about her, how much money you spent on her care…” All fall we had been making trips to the vet, for anal gland expressions (she had several appointments; one of which, I assume, was the fatal time that she caught the pneumonia.) On November 11, I took her in and complained to one of the vets that she didn’t seem right, she was lethargic, and was losing weight, we found. She also drank too much water it seemed. But the vet missed the diagnosis. She looked for cancer, didn’t find it, and sent her home. The rest of that month, her pneumonia set in and raged through her body like German panzers in WWII. I was basically half conscious of her the rest of that month, worrying about her, wondering why her heart beat so rapidly, but assuring myself that she was okay. I asked Jeff about her, and he too was puzzled. She took shorter walks, ate her food, drank a lot of water. And I didn’t know.

I finally asked Jeff to take her in for another appointment the first week of December. After spending the entire day in a cage at the vet’s, we came to get her, having learned that the diagnosis was diabetes and probably a virus of some kind. She came from that back room where they keep the sick animals, and she could barely walk. Yet her tail wagged when she saw me. Her legs sprawled out from under her, she needed help from the technician to get up, but she couldn’t get to me fast enough. Then she settled down near me as I began to discuss this total horrific transformation of my dog with my soon to be former vet. I am angry to this day.

That’s the thing:  anger can disguise grief. There were other things that happened during Saylor’s long weekend that made me very, very angry. It also cheated me out of feeling my grief. But Saylor helped me out there, too. On that Saturday afternoon, we had reason for hope that Saylor would make it. She was almost stable at the emergency vet clinic, on oxygen support. I went grocery shopping. As I drove down a hill on the way home, I became acutely aware of Saylor and that she was saying goodbye to me. The tears threatened to entirely blind me, and I had to pull over for a minute. I was so overcome with grief, and love, and the need to see my dog. But still, I didn’t have a clue that she would die the very next day. I thought the stress of the last few days was taking its toll. Today, I like to think it was Saylor, telling me goodbye. She was giving me one last opportunity for pure grief, and I took it, thankfully.

And of course, happiness certainly plays a role in grief. It takes the edge off of grief, allowing you to absorb its pain slowly. And for this, we blame Singer. Our bell ringer. She is such a joy and love and balm to our grieving hearts. We love her so. And I am so thankful she is in our lives, hopefully for a long time. 

I hope Joe finds another dog soon. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Singer's "Vacation"


Have you ever planned a vacation and then was disappointed after you came home? I wonder if that was how Singer felt today after we took her to Goose Pond. I know I did.

After thinking about it for months, it was a let down to come to the area that I had built up in my mind as a setter’s paradise. One thing surely didn’t disappoint—the geese and their honking can take you far from the urban sounds of cars and plop you right down in the middle of gooseland, where aviary creatures rule. Which it did, at least metaphorically. Singer was slightly enchanted, she looked up briefly towards the pond where dozens of geese swam and honked, then turned her attention to the fallow field just south of the road. She wanted to go exploring, so we took off through the field on foot-worn paths in slightly wet stalks. She got a snootful of smells, I’m sure, which created more dendrites, as Jeff pointed out. Nothing like those smells to get a dog’s brain lit up! Some of you are probably wondering if I pay to get my dog hooked up to a fMRI or something, the way I keep talking about canine brains in this blog…I do like to think about my dog’s brain a lot.

We left after probably a fifteen minute walk through the field (my shoes were getting wet and I was cold.) Then we stopped at Einstein’s Bagels to get lunch, and I was suckered into getting a doggie bagel, which is really just a small, stale bagel for $1.25. Way overpriced, should’ve just gotten a regular bagel for her! Disappointed again.

So I hooked her up after lunch to take her on another walk. We went to Garner Park, one of her favorites. Right outside the park, there’s a street that is split down the middle with a mini nature preserve and small creek. Lots of huge oaks and bushes so you can’t really see across the street to the other side.  As we were crossing parallel to this boulevard, me listening to my iPod and not paying too much attention, Singer suddenly stops in the middle of the street to look at the nature preserve strip. More than a dozen squirrels were playing and chattering in the trees and were now jumping and leaping from tree to tree, then racing across the street RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER! Wow, it was like suddenly finding Big Foot! Or seeing Haley's Comet, or the Aurora Borealis. Even if she was in major high alert mesmerizing mode, and therefore still as stone, I was pretty damn excited for her and told her so. Those squirrels scurried across the street, like they all had important meetings they were going to. One by one, they ran past and into a neighbor’s yard. I really don’t know why she wasn’t tugging on the leash, wanting to at least TRY to catch one. She usually gets so excited that she tries to climb the tree. But it took more than a minute for the entire tribe of squirrels to run right in front of her, sassing her with their tails, and then hurrying off to climb another tree. She got her vacation right there, I tell you. Quite the sight.  



Friday, March 16, 2012

Singer is Five Today

The happy birthday girl, yesterday, when it was 80 degrees.

Just two weeks ago, there was snow on the ground!

My darling girl turns five today.

Five years ago, around three in the morning, her mama felt the first wrenching cramps. Actually, bitches sense the imminent birth way before the pain, right? I think they start to find a nest hours before. Okay, so this post won’t jive with reality. I don’t care if you don’t.

Back to our story: Mama is about to give birth to say nine puppies, one of which is Singer. She will be the third one out, a dark reddish lump of rat-like puppy. They end up all in a large squirming mass, while Mama licks them clean, a heating lamp keeping them warm.  Maybe breeder Mama is hovering nearby, watching.

By dawn, all the puppies have been born, and each one has had a turn at the nipple. Breeder Mama has weighed them, sexed them (four girls, five boys), and tied those sweet little colored ribbons around their necks to keep them apart. Singer is “Yellow Girl.” I know this is true, because I have a picture of her when she was just a puppy, when she was still identified by the color of her ribbon. Yellow Girl.

Singer is a strong one. She is able to maneuver quite adeptly to the nipple, whenever she is hungry. But her brothers and sisters are strong, too, and sometimes beat her to it. One of her sisters, alas, is rather weak and small. She ends up not getting as much. One day, Singer doesn’t feel the heat coming from her body and it no longer quivers. A hand gently picks up the puppy and takes her away.

Singer is beginning to hear the sounds of the household. There are dishes clattering near dinner time, voices come and go during the morning and evening hours. During the daytime, there are less noises, and that’s also when Mama dog jumps out for a few hours at a time now, taking a break from her mothering duties. Singer and her littermates wait for her, and wonder where she has gone.

The first time Singer and her litter mates go outside, it is a warm April day and she is startled by so many smells. The earth is pungent and she wants to spend a lot of time just sniffing up all those smells in close proximity, but then she smells the squirrels and mice scurrying several feet away. Her body quickly warms up, then is cooled by a fresh spring breeze. Tiny ants tickle her tender paws. The grass smells so sweet, her mouth opens towards a blade to chew on. She wobbles through the grass, then a hand picks her up and cuddles her to a chest. She feels the warm cloth and smells the scent of a familiar human. Her eyes can barely see movement on the grass as her litter mates worm around, barely making any progress. Soon she is tired. She wants to cuddle up to her mother and nurse herself to sleep.

Singer grows quickly. She plays with her brothers and sisters, and looks forward to the days in the grass, where she can smell the squirrels and all the interesting animals out there. She learns to attend to the sights and smells of the outdoors during these weeks, and fine tunes her senses. This is where her true nature starts to blossom. She is a setter, and she starts to orient toward her senses of animals in the yard. Her litter mates wrestle each other and pay little attention to the larger world. But Singer displays her remarkable abilities to scout out animals, her small body quivering as it holds a point. She is still baby fuzzy, but her emerging capacities are evident.

Today, on her fifth birthday, she received a large flying squirrel with several squeakers. Unfortunately, it looks like Dakota. I hope he didn’t notice, and I hope Singer doesn’t notice!




Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Pets


The shape of my dog is one reason why I love her. She is so sleek. Her body slices through the air. When she runs, the wind rushes through my ears, a yeow sound created by her speed. The sound buzzes around my ears, tantalizing the inner hairs that send messages to my brain. I can also feel it outside as an aftermath, tingling my scalp.

I know it. But does she know it? I don’t think so. She is so enrapt in her world. She is embracing the ritual of animal scouting, conducted in her best canine style. She cannot be interrupted. She is so very mindful of the sights, sounds, and smells of her world. She is also so lovely to behold. I try not to over estimate the power of her world on me, but it’s hard. Her impact on me is so concentrated—like frozen grape juice, its dark juice a brick of flavor that zings the senses and freezes my tongue and my world seems to stop for a moment.

Her shape allows her to slip among shadows and light, as easily as if she is dancing, as if she is a moon beam finding its way through the tangled canopy of a gnarled tree. The light of the moon is the source, and the power, yet the shape of the tree’s web holds the liquid light of the moon like a vessel holding silver. It only takes a moment to see its magnificence. You can see it along the far side of the branches, where the darkness highlights the lightness. You see its mystical power to enchant. Like an aolian harp, it channels the wind for the poet’s muse.

Moving with such grace, I think of the light of the moon and the aolian harp. She should not have such power over my emotions, just as the moon’s light should not stir up such thoughts and feelings. But they do. And she does.

Ah, but let’s not neglect Dakota for his charms. He sits like a soft warm hedgehog on the bathroom counter, sniffing the early spring air from the opened window. His eyes remind me of late afternoon shadows casting their bluish light before the sun slips below the horizon. His fur is still soft like cattail fluff. He is shaped like a pear, but he is also starting to show his age. He turns his head slowly from the window, and gives me one languid blink, a feline kiss. I cannot help but to kiss him back, although my human form of affection feels so clumsy in comparison. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Saylor April Song


Wow.

I just realized something as I was doing a routine task at work today—45 days from today is Saylor’s birthday. She is Saylor April Song, remember? Her birthday was April 23, and she would’ve been nine years old. My vision started to blur as I tried to concentrate on the revision letter to an author I was working on. My grief is obdurate—it had been hibernating these past weeks as I concentrated on Singer—but now it was insisting that I acknowledge its presence.

Saylor had so many health challenges, it’s easy to dismiss her life as the sum of her last illness. But she was so much more. Like people who face health challenges, she was very persistent in just keeping to her routines. And her most important routine, I deeply understood, was me.

What does that mean? She waited for me to come home, as all dogs do. And she slept by my bed, as Singer does now. But Saylor’s top, top priority was always her people. And she held everyone in her sweet mind’s eye as someone to sniff and appreciate, and perhaps wag a tail for. Her “smile” as my neighbor used to say, was huge.  I called her the sweetest dog this side of heaven for good reason.

I knew my grief was urgently knocking on my door when I got irritated with Jeff the other day for calling Singer  “Saylor” once again. “You call her Saylor more than Singer!” Alliteration aside, it’s easy to do. But Saylor is different, and I don’t ever want to mix the two dogs up.

Saylor came to us as a baby, she was a warm, soft puppy of nine weeks, still smelling of mother’s milk. She was the most playful of the litter, always ready to jump up and hop on her toys. Her mouth was always soft. She grew taller and thinner, her coat was glossy and long in her youth. Then her health started to deteriorate and she became more insistent. I felt frustrated right along with her because I couldn’t quite make things right for her. But she forgave me, and settled in.

In the last few years, Saylor had a habit of groaning as she would lie down. Now I surmise it was her hips that were bothering her. At the time, I thought it was a cute expression of her personality, starting to deal with an aging body. My grief flares at the thought of missing yet another sign.

In the basement are old remedies I bought through the years—glucosamine (she grew intolerant of it), vitamins for dogs, coat conditioners (same thing, couldn’t tolerate it), anxiety relief, natural pheronomes…I threw them all away recently. But they mark my efforts, they are tangible reminders that I did try hard for my girl. I did love her so. I still do.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Fear Factor

We had some snow here in Wisconsin this weekend-- Singer is enjoying her backyard.
Singer recently groomed, complete with her multicolored bow...


I'll get to today's topic in a sec, but I just have to tell you this:  Singer will wait at the back door forever to be let in. Just like the Little Match Girl looking in on a warm home, she sits, looking at the crack at the bottom of the door, waiting. We have a window to the left of the door and I can just barely see her, sitting there patiently waiting. She never barks or whines to come in. She must feel like an outsider, just like the Little Match Girl…snowflakes falling softly around her. Awww…I love to hold this lonely image of her in my mind and nurture it with all sorts of imaginary and improbable thoughts. But I digress.

Today’s post is really about anxiety, both human and canine. I read recently that there’s an app for people with all kinds of phobias that exposes them to their anxiety-provoking stimulus, whether it's airplanes, spiders, or honeycombs (yes, some people are afraid of geometrical designs, I understand). Even stuffed animals cause some to shriek in terror. But we humans, yes, we have the big brains and have ways of coping. Here it comes…thick as honey.

Dogs, on the other hand, cope with their anxieties in a much more enlightened way. They bark. Or growl. Or even attack the source of their anxieties. Singer is dealing with her anxieties quite rationally. The other day she stiffened as she saw another dog approaching, alerting me from my iPod walking reverie. I stopped and quickly decided a different route. We turned around and walked parallel to the vicious, but old, dog, who was now barking and growling at Singer from behind a fence. Good job of alerting me, Singer! We averted a near catastrophe there. Now, can you imagine designing an app for that? I can’t.

My friend Marianne from Virginia, she recently wrote on this blog in a comment that her Irish setter of years back used to bark at snowmen. I told her that Saylor used to do the same thing. Anxiety about a white figure, usually tall and bulky looking. Kind of stiff and silent. Pretty scary, if you ask me. And I would think that barking is a way to decide whether to attack or not. Saylor would bark until I would take her directly to the snowman, then she would sniff at the snow and continue on her way. “Oh well. I thought it was a threat.”

I hope I don’t come across as insensitive to people who have real phobias, but honestly, why can’t people just bark at their fears? Doesn’t that make more sense than to throw a virtual technology blanket over it? Isn’t that just another way of not dealing with it? Dogs know how to deal with fear, people don’t. That’s why people buy guns sometimes.