Thursday, January 15, 2009

So Long, Squirty

I wasn’t ready for this — not even a little bit.
I don't think one is ever prepared for the death of a family member — even if that family member has four spindly little legs and a bobbed tail.

However I have indeed been forced to say goodbye to a member of my family today and I'm in hell right now. I can barely function. But I know that if I don't get this written tonight, I may never write it.

So yeah, let's just get something out of the way right here and now. I'm gonna mourn here a little bit; I'm gonna probably end up bawling my eyes out before it's all over, and right now I don't give a rip about being macho, manly, or any of that 'maintaining-a-stiff-upper-lip' bullshit nonsense.

I’m really hurting right now, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

Earlier this evening we had the horrendously painful task of putting our little dog down. Squirty (previously referred to in my stories as 'Spotty') had cancer, and she’d been in a lot of pain for weeks. She was fifteen and a half years old — that’s 105+ years to us two-leggers — but she was always our baby.

Our four-legged kids
In one respect we think of them as our children; less than human of course, but every bit as vital and important as members of our family. In another respect, we acknowledge them for what they are: animals, whose life spans are but a fraction of our own, and whose existence in our lives is but a vapor.

Yet no matter how much we mentally acknowledge that we know they won't live forever, we're always surprised — even devastated — by the reality that they never do.

We call them 'pets, ' but they so far exceed the demeaning connotation of that moniker. They’re companions; reassuring friends making us feel loved and wanted. They give so much; asking so little in return.

There’s my dog! This is Squirty about a year and a half ago, September 29, 2007, during one of Michelle’s and my often daily visits to our new home construction site. The rich, golden-tan markings around her eyes and mouth had long since been replaced by the white hair of her old age, but she was always a happy dog. This is how I’ll remember her...smiling.

Squirty was a Toy Fox Terrier, the runt of the litter, and by far (in Michelle's and my opinion) the cutest one of the bunch. She was born June 3, 1993 in Dixon, Tennessee at a breeder specializing in pure bred Toy Fox Terriers (although the Westminster Kennel Club doesn't officially recognize them as a 'pure' breed — meh...whadda they know?).

She was the perfect addition to our family, joining us at the beginning of our journey to a new life in Tennessee. We got her about a year and a half after relocating here from the Los Angeles area, and just prior to purchasing our first new house.

She was smart, rambunctious, and as precocious as a dog could be, and soon had us wrapped around her tiny little paw.

Nonetheless at the time, I wasn't all that excited about the idea of getting a dog. Dogs were so much more high maintenance than cats, our heretofore pet of choice. We'd gotten a pair of kitties when we moved into our first house as a married couple, the one in Long Beach that we rented for 11 years prior to our Tennessee adventure. Now thirteen years later only one of those two litter-mates, a beautiful black, white and gray tabby named 'Tina,' was still around to make the trip to Tennessee, and we knew her remaining time was short.

Born on the 4th of July (well…close enough)
Michelle wanted a dog in the worst way. Her parents from Florida were looking to get one as well. They wanted a small dog, and were looking in the direction of Fox Terriers when they discovered this breeder in Dixon, a small town about twenty-five miles southwest of Nashville.

From the late 1980s and throughout the ’90s, Michelle’s parents spent their summers in east Tennessee, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. So when we arrived in Nashville at the beginning of 1992, we understandably began seeing them on a more regular basis each summer, as they were now only four hours away rather than the usual twelve when they were back home in the FLA.

In 1993 they came to spend the Fourth of July holiday with us, arriving a couple days prior. While they were here they wanted to check out that breeder in Dixon. He was just about an hour's drive west of us. Michelle accompanied her folks but I stayed behind. We hadn’t even broached the subject of ‘us’ getting a puppy as well, but I can't say that I was surprised when Michelle returned home that afternoon, smitten. She insisted I come back out with them the next day, July 3rd, to see the pups for myself.

I felt as though it was slap in the whiskers to our elderly cat, Tina, but I finally relented and went along. Of course I too would be instantly mesmerized.

The litter had been born exactly one month earlier, and had it been any other breed, I may have been able to maintain my relatively hard-ass position. But as fate would have it, I actually had a built-in affinity for Fox Terriers; we had one as our family pet in Middletown, Indiana, the final four years we lived there prior to moving to California in 1969.

When it came down to selecting our puppies, it was only fair that Michelle's parents got the first shot. They chose one of the middle-of-the-litter pups, a larger and stockier female they would later name, 'Sugar.' My wife and I, delighted that they didn't glom onto our favorite, happily chose the runt, who may have been the smallest and most rambunctious, but who also was the most striking with her evenly black-spotted white coat and handsomely mottled black and tan head. Oh yeah; I too was smitten.

But so as not to appear a total pushover, I agreed to getting the dog under one condition — that I got to name it. I named her 'Squirt,' after the only family dog I really knew as a kid: the one we had in Middletown. He too was a Fox Terrier, and a small one — hence the name — but wasn’t of the ‘Toy’ variety. He was considerably larger, full grown, than our new puppy would be.

But the name fit. ‘Squirt’ she was to be — at least for the moment, anyway; apparently my ultimatums don’t carry a whole lotta weight. Within a week our puppy was re-dubbed, ‘Squirty,’ care of Michelle, who thought it a better suited variation for a girl dog. And of course, she was right.

Three’s Company
Squirty was indeed Michelle’s baby girl. I know the dog loved me too, but hey — she knew which side her bread was buttered on. She’d warm up to me eventually, but it took her a couple times of being shown ‘who’s was the boss’ before she stopped growling at me when I crawled into bed at night. Oh yeah, nothing says “welcome to bed” like your own dog bearing her teeth at you when you pull back the sheets.

But that didn’t last long. Meh…who knows, maybe she sensed that I still preferred the cat at that point…

Oh…did I mention that she slept with us?

From the second night on, Squirty was my personal hot water bottle. It started out as our only means of getting any sleep; doggie simply would not stop whining while she was in her own bed; she wanted to be in ours. And it quickly became a normal thing; whenever we were in the bed, Squirty was in the bed — even when we didn’t want her to be in the bed ifyaknowhatimean — which actually made for as many humorous moments as it did frustrating ones.

But all in all she was great. She was our joy in the face of a lot of trying times. She was always well-behaved and friendly; never snapped at a soul that I know of. And It was only in the last year — mostly just in the last month or so in fact — that she ever even soiled the floor inside our house. She was always so good to go to the door and let us know whenever she needed to go out and ‘do her business.’

And now in the end, thinking back, I suppose that should have been our first clue; her losing her way with her bodily functions should have told us that something wasn’t right. Maybe we actually did realize but just didn’t want to believe it.

The beginning of the End
About three weeks ago — but really it was more like five — Squirty really began losing her energy. Even in recent years ‘lethargic’ hadn’t even been in this dog’s zip code, yet we accepted it as we began noticing how much more she was sleeping lately; we simply chalked it up to old age. Then one morning, about a week ago, as was my custom while dressing for work, I reached down to pet my little dog as she sat nearby, watching me tie my shoes. As I wound my hand down from the top of her head and around her muzzle, I gently massaged the underside of her neck with my fingers. She’d always loved that; but not this time.

I nearly jumped out of my socks as she let out a yelp that would make one think I’d just stuck her with a straight pin. I returned to her and gently felt around the area on her neck and again she yelped in pain. I didn’t know what to think. Had she accidentally hit herself on the side of the coffee table or something?

I felt bewildered and sorry for Squirty, but didn’t put two-and-two together — none of us had at that point. I finished getting dressed and left for work.

When I returned home that evening, Michelle’s Mom informed me that Michelle had taken Squirty to the vet. During the day, her neck had swollen to twice its normal size. I was scared, but never assumed the worst. Maybe it was just a bad tooth that had caused the infection. Surely our dog would be okay, right?

Well, at least the vet thought so. He said that Squirty had refused to allow him to examine her throat, but he gave her a substantial infusion of antibiotics and was keeping her overnight for observation.

The next day the news was better. The antibiotics had indeed reduced the swelling, enough so that the vet felt good about going in for a better look, with Squirty under local anesthesia. Afterwards he said the x-rays he took detected a mass in her throat, but couldn’t reveal its nature. It could be more infection, but it could be something else. However he was encouraged by how well the antibiotics seemed to work on the swelling. He wanted to give things a week to see what course her condition would take. He seemed optimistic that it wasn’t life-threatening.

The next few days she did seem a lot better; not completely like her old self, but clearly headed in the right direction. She was scheduled to see the vet again today, Thursday afternoon, but on Wednesday, her neck began to become tender to the touch once again.

This morning, she looked like she was hiding a golf ball under her tongue.

Michelle dropped her off at the vet on her way into work, and we waited. The bad news came at 3:30 this afternoon. They biopsied the mass in her neck and found that indeed it was a carcinoma. It had started out deep in the salivary glands behind her left jaw, and grew like wildfire over the past two weeks.

The vet said there was nothing realistically that could be done; her entire salivary gland had become one huge cancer. There was no recourse. She couldn’t swallow; she couldn’t eat, and she was in constant, terrible pain.

Last Goodbye
When Michelle and I arrived at the vet’s office, we were taken into the exam room where they had our little dog wrapped in a towel and laying on her side on the stainless steel table. She was just beginning to come out of the anesthesia from the biopsy and examination.

The nurse told us that we could take as long as we needed to be with her; to say goodbye. Michelle and I were a mess. There was no way to hold back the tears even if we’d wanted to.

Squirty truly looked like death warmed over. Her shaved neck and the underside of her muzzle was horribly swollen and hardened by the edema surrounding the tumor deep within her neck. As we stood surrounding the table, Michelle and I took turns kneeling to get down close to her face. We wanted to look into her eyes; to let her to know that we were there with her.

Squirty’s breathing was heavy and labored; she shivered intermittently as she moaned a faint, high pitched squeal with each exhale, as if she were pleading with us for help as she lay there paralyzed in her partially anesthetized state.

It was grueling. Even after I had knocked on the door to indicate that we were ready for the doctor to come, we waited at least another 15-20 minutes before he finally appeared. However during that time, Squirty began to come to and at least a little bit of life returned to her faraway eyes. I kneeled down to make eye contact again and she looked right at me, weakly raising her head.

“There’s my dog!” I sobbed, “There’s my Squirters..”

It was only for those remaining five minutes or so that I believe Squirty knew Michelle and I were there. She stopped shivering, her breathing normalized and she made eye contact with each of us as we stroked, patted and loved on her, but never did she make any other significant attempt to move. I’m thankful for that. Either the sedation was still enough in place that she simply couldn’t move, or she just knew that it was no use.

She just lay there motionless until the doctor came in a few minutes later.

He asked if we wanted to be present and we both answered affirmatively. We just kept on stroking, sobbing and whispering our last goodbyes to our sweet doggy.

The vet shaved a small area on one of her hind legs and inserted an IV, to which Squirty gave a weak yelp. He then inserted the syringe needle into the IV and slowly depressed the plunger.

We said our final goodbyes. Thirty seconds later she was gone.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get another dog, but I’d be surprised if we don’t.

But not now; not for quite awhile, I’d say.

What Dreams May Become
I don’t know whether or not dogs have souls, but I know that they dream — at least mine did. On several occasions I had the pleasure of watching Squirty dreaming while she slept on our bed or on the couch: gyrating legs, flailing away; muffled barks; rapid eye movement — the whole nine yards.

She used to love to chase squirrels out of the back yard at our old house. Maybe that’s what she dreamed about. Maybe that’s what she’s doing right now.

Go get ‘em, Squirters!

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