Heart condition

Each day, by the brevity of its life, our pet tells us, I shall soon be dead. In the deepest sense, these familiar creatures are part of the hurt of living. Because dogs inflict the suffering of loss upon us, the French sometimes call them “beasts of sorrow,”bêtes de chagrin.

–from Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog

Since around the beginning of the beloved’s last trimester with our lil’ peanut, I have known that my dog has had a heart condition. A terminal, shorten her life to sometime far less than a year heart condition.

She has a leaky valve, which means her heart can’t pump efficiently enough. To compensate, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and eventually it will crowd out everything: lungs, other organs, itself. She will die of congestive heart failure, or need us to help her to die, soon. Just how soon is the only thing we don’t know.

It figures that the thing she’ll die from is a heart that’s too large.

I brought her into my life just over thirteen years ago, to stem the tide of loss. In late summer, I lost my then-sweetie (though it was just me who lost her; she found someone else). Then three short weeks later my mother died. We had sensed she was dying, but didn’t know why. In mid-August, just as she was slipping into a coma, a metastasis of her breast cancer was diagnosed. She died the first of September.

I reeled with shock that fall, but by the dead of winter — and at the time, I was living in Minnesota, so it was the dead of winter — I knew I had to get me a dog. I would get me some warm-blooded mammal who was not going to leave me for a long while — not if I could help it. I would get me a little somebody I could care for, a little somebody who could see me through to the other side of this loss, and then some.

I went to a nearby shelter, and brought a friend with me so that I wouldn’t go home with the first dog who batted her eyes at me. Within a few minutes I saw a sweet three-month old lab mix, and quite naturally I immediately tried to convince my friend that I was kidding about how I didn’t want her to let me leave the shelter with the first pup I saw. She held firm. I squatted down and whispered to Maxie that I’d be back, gave her a kiss on the top of her head, and the next day I was driving home with my slinky-black wet-nosed girlie.

That year after my mother died, I would come home from just a half a day in the world — a half day in which I sleepwalked through graduate seminars, or immitated a memory of myself teaching a class, one which I’d taught with a dear friend twice before, and which provided a lifeline to continuity and community. Without it, I would have never left the house. But after half a day away on campus, I was spent. I had run out of words, or the energy to speak them. I would make my way back to the house I was living in (Eleanor’s House of Butches, I fondly call it; I was by far the feyest of the bunch). There I would gather my tail-thumping puppy in my arms, plod upstairs, curl onto the bed, and hug her. And hug her. And wordlessly hug her.

What she needed from me was exactly what I had to give; what she had to give me was exactly what I needed.

She gladly went with me everywhere I could take her. To clinic defenses and sweatshop labor protests. To university buildings, smuggled under my heavy winter coat, for office hours. To Lesbian Avenger meetings. When the weather warmed up, she accompanied me to outdoor cafés. She was my companion through the time in my life when I was most profoundly alone, most accutely companion-less. Then one by one, she endured the gradual encroachment of others into our lives and into my heart: first, the beloved; then, for an intense time, another dog; then — body blow! — our first child. Now, another baby. She has received each of these interlopers with a poignant mixture of generosity and impotence. The plight of the dog. Or perhaps more specifically, the plight of the dear, sweet, submissive dog.

In her thirteen years she has seen me through more losses than I could have imagined when I first drove her home that chilly January. She has lived longer than my oldest nephew. Unthinkable.

Precisely one week after our lil’ peanut’s birth, after climbing the flight-and-a-half of stairs it takes to get to our place, she collapsed, and so announced the beginning of this last chapter. Since then I’ve accompanied her outside on her frequent trips to pee, and then carried her increasingly bony body back up those stairs. She’s beginning even to dread that gesture of tender accomodation nearly as much as she yearns to go outside. Nights, she paces restlessly. Her breathing is often labored; she eats like a bird. I can’t know what she is experiencing, but it’s clear that she’s uncomfortable much of the time. How uncomfortable? I look at her and say what the lil’ monkey so often says to me, when I ask her something she can’t answer. “You tell me.”

Then I look up and make eye contact with death, who’s been patiently sitting over there all along, thumbing through last week’s unread Sunday paper.

Friends say I will know when it’s time. I hope so. For my sake, and of course more so, for hers, I hope it’s the bus.*

* What this metaphor means, here.

21 thoughts on “Heart condition”

  1. A couple of weeks ago, Luisa and I were laughing about the time we babysat Max while you went away for a couple of days. That’s when we learned what it meant for a dog to be “in heat”!

    I am so sorry and want you to know that you are in our thoughts.

  2. Wow.


    I can’t imagine what it must be like, but I’m glad Maxie has you with her. Thanks for sharing her with us, and know that we’ll be thinking of you both.

  3. We are also waiting for the bus at my house. My ‘not quite 15 year old’ cat is slipping away from us day by day. It is the hardest thing to watch, and yet I treasure the time I have left with him.

    Today, in fact, I will start to give him subcutaneous fluids so that he doesn’t die from dehydration. Shortly, my son and I will lay on the bed with Atreus and hopefully by example I will be able to teach him about hospice care.

    I always worry if I will “know” when life becomes too painful for the companions of my heart. And in the end I do the best I can and grieve and grieve and grieve and then give myself permission to accept that it just “is”.

    Good luck to you, and know that your heart and her eyes will make the decision when it is time.

  4. When our 15 year old lab was dying from cancer, it was agonizing for my parents trying to decide when it was time to help her leave this life. They made one appointment with our vet and my then 20 year old brother asked them to delay it so he could visit a therapist first (we were all having a hard time with Liza’s illness) and my parents looked at Liza and agreed; they weren’t sure she was ready to go, either. A few days later Liza let them know that she was ready. She got off her bed in the living room and pushed through the baby gate keeping her out of my parent’s room (my mother had just developed a severe allergy to dogs and cats and they needed to keep the room pet free, but didn’t want to close the door just in case she made a noise and needed them in the night). My father got out of bed and lay down on the floor with her, holding her for the rest of the night. In the morning she didn’t rise, but just looked at my parents and they knew she was asking for help to go. So they carried her out to the car and the family drove with her to the vet’s office and the moment the vet saw my father’s face she dropped what she was doing and came out to the car and Liza passed on, surrounded by family.

    I’m not entirely sure why I just told you that, except to reassure you that you will, indeed, know when it’s time. She’ll tell you.

  5. Thank you, all.

    And much love to your household, Liesel, as Atreus makes his way. Hospice work is the angels’ work, and I’ll bet your son feels that, and will treasure what he’s learning.

    For better and for worse, our animal companions, if they leave us before people do, help us convey these deep lessons to our kids (lessons we all wish we didn’t have to learn, but know we haven’t the choice not to).

  6. Usually you make me laugh. Today you made me cry.
    I say this all the time and I’ll say it again, I can’t believe you share this talent for free (!) but I’m grateful.

  7. I’m in tears here – these dear, sweet animals spend far too short a time in our lives. Like you, I found my first dog in a time of great need and loss. She’s seen me through some of the darkest times of my life. I only hope that I’m as lucky as you, and that I get to spend 8 more years with her (for it’s her 5th birthday tomorrow!)

    Maxie will tell you when it’s time. And when it is time, know that the love of all the dog people in the world is with you, for we too understand how hard it is to say good-bye.

  8. Of course you will know. So don’t worry about that.

    It doesn’t make it easier, knowing; and knowing that you will know. It’s a heaviness but it’s part of what you signed onto, opening your heart to Max so many years ago. You couldn’t close that door now if you tried.

    Have you read Chris Clarke’s blogging about his dog Zeke’s decline and passing? If you haven’t, it might help. He writes beautifully, with his whole heart:

    Creek Running North

  9. Off I go to read. Thank you.

    later: The Zeke oevre, here. I’d read him just once some time back, after running across one of his comments in the Twisty Faster commentariat. A treasure, generally, and particularly on this topic for me at the moment. Thank you, virgotex.

  10. What a wonderful posting — you’ve so eloquently captured the beautiful relationship with your dog. I’ll be thinking peaceful thoughts for her and you during this time. Liz

  11. Oh! Life! I lost my canine sweetheart a little over a year ago. I say “lost” even though we put him down intentionally. He was 13 and virtually paralyzed with arthritis–totally incontinent and frozen with pain. I’m sorry to say I never saw the bus. My ex- and dog-partner (long story) wanted to wait until we did but we never did! Until…the home visit vet gave him a preparatory sedative–that’s when we all saw the bus. His little furry body relaxed for the first time in Years–and we knew. We’d all been grieving the decision while the bus sat patiently idling at our stop.
    Good luck, and peace, and blessings.

  12. Sometimes the paralell-ness of our lives is spooky to me (you don’t even know the half of it). I just found out (three weeks ago) that my beloved cat, Emma, is on her way to the next world as well. They initially thought her lethargia was a heart murmur, but now they think she has some ‘left brain thing’ and not the good left brain thing. It may have been a stroke, or an infection, but is, more likely, the “C” word. It has not been a steep decline, but we’ve really noticed changes in her lately. Now, especially, it is as though she’s forgotten how to use her left front paw and I am often helping her into and out of the litter box.

    I’ve had her since 1991 and, like Max in your life, he’s seen more than 9 lives of my own.

    Good luck and I’ll be thinking of you as we travel these similar roads together.

  13. I hope this is a comforting thought, but I honestly believe they know and understand far more than we give them credit for. It’s been almost 3 years since my old cat Jezebel had to be put to sleep. She had kidney failure and it was the most horrendous experience. At least I got to spend a moment with her at the vet’s office before they did what had to be done. She and I had a moment of eye contact and there was a sense of understanding. She knew she was dying and more importantly she knew I loved her. I can’t even write about it without getting very choked up.

    Just enjoy the time you have, and relish it. I have another cat that may not be with us much longer. She’s lost a lot of weight and I’m thankful for each day we have with her.

  14. I cant imagine what that must have been like (because this post is old xD) because you had him for so long.. but I had a cute doggie, I loved him and he let me loved him for almost 3 year and then one morning he got out of the house when no one was watching and a car killed him … and my heart broke, it took me months to recover even when we got a new puppy in less than 2 months after I still sometimes call my new baby by his older brother (puppy bro) name..
    As a way of copping with my first death I used to wear his tag (military type) in a necklace…and I wore for months and one day I just stopped… they cremeted him and gave us the jar, we buried him in the garden…he’s there always with us… and the new puppy is so differente..

    let’s see if that works mmm

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