Tuesday, April 11, 2017. This morning I was the invited guest lecturer for an NC State Abnormal Psychology undergraduate class from 8:30-9:45 am. It has been on my calendar for months, and I was looking forward to it very much. An old friend I went to college with is working on her Ph.D. and teaching classes at NCSU. She asked me to present on the topic of gender identity. Overall it went well. Especially considering the circumstances.
Also, this morning, we lost our fur baby Athena. At approximately 9:35 am, while I was doing my lecture, she was euthanized at our vet’s office with my husband Matt by her side, as she licked his hand the whole time until she passed out. Athena was our 12 year-old dog that we had for 12 years, a mixture of pitt bull and Jack Russell Terrier, (plus a few other unidentifiable breeds). Our vet was fond of calling her a “Heinz-57; a little bit of everything.” We know that mom was the pitbull mix, though, and dad was the Jack Russell Terrier. And somehow they mated. Imagine that.
I am absolutely lost over the loss of this dog. I mean, we knew it was coming because of 1.) her age, and 2.) a tumor she had growing near or in her spleen which distended her belly. This sudden development was spotted about 2 months ago. The veterinarian who was checking her out called and told us they were concerned about her belly and wanted to do an x-ray. We agreed to that. They called back later and said it looked like something was there, near her stomach, but they needed to keep her overnight so she could empty her bowels and they could get a second, clearer image. We agreed to that as well. As the night went on, though, I just wanted my baby girl back home resting comfortably.
I’ve been down this road before with senior animals, and sometimes more information is not necessarily better.
They called us the next day after the 2nd x-ray, and said the image was a bit clearer and less obstructed than the first one, but they still couldn’t quite tell what we were dealing with. This time, they said they wanted to do an ultrasound, which was going to be a lot more money than we had already spent on the exam, vaccinations, x-rays, boarding, bath & nail trim. They said they would need to call in an ultrsasound tech and she had her own rates (which amounted to something like $1500.) We turned that down, because we didn’t have the money, and we really just wanted our dog back after 2 1/2 days. And also, what good would an ultrasound do? It wouldn’t fix anything. If anything at all, it would show the doctor where the tumor was specifically located, but that would still mean exploratory surgery and nothing definite.
Now, we’ve always been happy with this vet. It’s the same one we’ve been using for the past 6 years, and she’s been really good to us – holds checks for weeks at a time if necessary, etc. But this time, we were talking to a younger, new vet tech who we were unfamiliar with. She was making us feel a little guilty, pushing the ultrasound, and refusing to prescribe Athena her Temaril-P (which she takes for a severe skin allergy that flares up her whole body, and is the only medicine that helps) unless we got the ultrasound.
So, we took her for a second opinion. I did some research and found a local vet that was VERY highly recommended, especially for people who don’t have tons of money to spend for procedures. This vet was very down-to-earth, no sugar-coating, told it like it was, very friendly, very blunt, and very understanding. He concurred that it was a tumor, but said it seemed to be her spleen instead of her stomach. He said that was his best guess as a veterinarian who has seen this condition many times in his 35 years of practice.
He told us it was a “ticking time bomb” to rupture. But, then again, he also said “she might live for years with it and have no issues.” It was a toss-up. He also said that he would’ve never ordered x-rays in the first place, because they don’t show much of anything. He said he might’ve gone straight to ultrasound first, but he said he’s seen a lot of this specific condition in dogs, and this is how it was presenting and looking to him. He also had no problem prescribing us the Temaril-P, for her comfort.
He said that if it were to rupture, the signs we should look for would be sudden loss of appetite and refusal to eat for several days, gums would turn very pale, and she would become weak and lethargic. He said at that point, he would recommend getting her in to be put down, because surgery at her age may not be worth the risks. But at the time they saw her, both vets agreed that Athena was not appearing to be in any pain or discomfort. So we decided to just let her be and hope for the best.
We couldn’t afford surgery to address the issue, but even if we could’ve afforded it, we didn’t want to subject a senior dog to invasive surgery. We once went down that road with an elderly cat. The surgery only worsened his quality of life, drew out his pain and suffering, and he ended up dying 2 weeks later despite the surgery that was supposed to save him. I feel horrible for the 2 weeks of hell we put him through after that surgery. We said we’d never do that again to an old animal.
We watched Athena diligently for 2 months for any abnormal signs. She was absolutely fine until yesterday. First I noticed she begged for a treat, I gave her one, and then she refused to eat it. Then my husband saw her throw up in the back yard. Several times. He said there was nothing there – just bile, and lots of it. That was concerning. Then the more we talked we realized she didn’t touch her breakfast that morning. She wasn’t exactly acting weak or lethargic, though, and her gums still looked perfectly fine. But then she didn’t eat her dinner, either. And when we tried to give her the Temaril-P wrapped up in a tiny piece of cheese (her absolute favorite treat), she sniffed it and walked away. That was a first.
The last sign we noticed yesterday was her attempting to dig out of the back yard. When I saw that, I just knew. She knew it was time, and she was looking to get out and find a place away from us to be her final resting spot. Wild animals and family pets are all known to do this. So, we were thinking the worst at this point, but it was late and she followed us up the stairs for bed with no problems, and jumped up onto our bed as usual, curled up, and went to sleep. She looked so peaceful sleeping.
By morning, she was 10 times worse. She was extremely lethargic. Matt checked her gums with a flashlight and said, “Oh no.” I looked too. They were definitely pale. We stayed there and rubbed her as usual in the morning, but she barely moved. We had to hurry downstairs for a quick breakfast. When she didn’t even get up to bound down the stairs with us like every single morning for the past 12 years, we knew it was time. Crying throughout this whole ordeal, we decided to quickly come up with a plan. I had to be at NCSU by 8:00 for this lecture. But Matt was going to drive me, because I don’t do parking at NCSU, especially not while stressed or rushed. And Kate had to go to class at her driving school, where she also had to be at 8:00. But we now needed to get Athena to the vet as soon as they opened at 8:00, because we didn’t want her to suffer any longer. We knew this condition that she most likely had could cause her to go into shock before dying and could be long and painful.
We woke up Jack & Kate and got them up-to-date. We asked if they wanted to go ahead and say their good-byes. They did. They were very thankful for this time, even though it was crazy early in the morning. Charlie was at my parents’ house, though. So Matt called my mom and she told Charlie. From what she reported back, it sounded like Charlie did cry a bit, but also busied themself with other things and distractions and was fine for other parts of the morning.
Because of incredibly awesome people in my life, everything was able to happen in an orderly manner this morning, despite the major upset. My parents had Charlie over to spend the night last night and were serving as a safe & comforting buffer this morning, keeping Charlie updated but also distracted so they wouldn’t get too depressed. Our oldest son, Jack got up at the crack of dawn on his spring break to drive his little sister Kate to driving school at 8am. He did this so that my husband, Matt could take Athena to the vet right when they opened at 8. And my dear friend and fellow LTYM writer, Beth, answered a last-minute, desperate Facebook plea to give me a ride to NCSU so I could do the lecture for my friend Betty-Shannon’s Abnormal Psychology undergrad class.
Conversation with Beth on the way there was a very welcome distraction from the chaos, along with seeing Betty-Shannon for the first time since our Meredith College days, and who also treated me to an awesome Port City Java mocha shake.
Tomorrow I have my eye surgery. I have a condition called Epithelial Basement Membrane Dystrophy. This is a disease of the cornea that essentially causes it to erode, and you have spontaneous reoccurring (and very painful!) corneal abrasions. Sometimes you haven’t done anything at all to aggravate your eye. Sometimes all it takes is the action of opening your eyelids after a long night of sleep and suddenly – rrriiippppp! The cells of your cornea rip apart and adhere to the top eyelid so that when your eyelid performs the simple motion of opening, it tears off a layer of cells along with it. Again, very painful. Often excruciating, because we have more nerve endings in our eyes than we do in our very sensitive fingertips. And unpredictable – you never know when it will happen next. I’ve had three episodes in less than one year right now, which is why we’re doing the surgery.
The surgery I’m having is called PTK (Photo Therapeutic Keratectomy). This is where the eye surgeon will scrape off my cornea, and replace it with a new artificial cornea, made from amniotic fluid. Aside from being terrified of having this procedure done while I’m awake and scared mercilessly (despite Valium), I’m also worried about the fact that I will now need glasses due to astigmatism. So this is coming up tomorrow, I’m very nervous, and my dog was going to be my nurse, as she always has been whenever I’m recovering from surgery.
Athena would always get in bed with me and lay her warm body up against whatever part of me had been through surgery – my back, my shoulders, my wrist, my fingers. She always knew when I was going to have leg bone pain before I knew, and would get under the covers and put her body under or between my legs, providing comforting warmth.
I can’t find the words to say how much I love that dog, and how much I will miss her and already do. Walking into the house just now and not being greeted in the doorway by her wagging tail, sniffing nose, and presentation of her rear-end – begging for a scratch – was empty and jarring. It was a reminder of all the things that are going to come over the next few days and serve as fresh reminders of things I didn’t know I was going to miss.
Jack’s leaving soon for a trip to the mountains for his spring break. It’s the first trip for multiple nights he’s taken without mom & dad. I’m not ready for this. Kate begins driving on the road today after driver’s ed class. I’m not ready for this. Charlie’s coming home soon and may be the most upset of all of us – Athena was Charlie’s only dog growing up and they had a pretty special bond. Jack & Kate got to say their goodbyes this morning when we had a hunch this was it. Charlie did not. Charlie will need lots of comfort. I’m not ready for this. Eye surgery is tomorrow. I’m nervous and scared, and I won’t have my “nurse” at home afterwards. I’m not ready for this, either.
12:00 pm: Jack just left for the mountains. My heart literally ached to watch him leave as I *gently* reminded him, “Send pictures when you can! Text me when you can!” He was happy to go, and I’m glad he had the distraction. He has been looking forward to this trip for about 2 months. First spring break trip with friends! (And one parent chaperone.)
12:45 pm: Charlie is home now. They have placed a yellow dandelion on Athena’s wrapped up body. I can hear them out there on the back deck right now, sobbing, and it’s breaking my heart even more. They just said through tears, “Athena, I’m so sorry for that time I kicked you out of my room! And I wish I had never yelled at you for chewing up my ear buds!” Heartbreaking.
2:00 pm: I drove out to the middle of nowhere in a car with no air-conditioning on a hot day to pick up Kate from driver’s ed. She was fine until we got home to the neighborhood. As we got closer to the house, she lost it, and so did I. Again. She asked for alone time with Athena’s body, wrapped up in the heavy duty black plastic bags they put them in. I can hear her sobbing like never before. She on the ground next to Athena, talking to her, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. Poor thing. And she has to go our driving with her instructor in two hours.
It’s now 3:25 pm and we just held a funeral for Athena. Since Jack is not here, Matt, me, Kate, and Charlie stood and held hands in a circle around Athena and said our good-byes and sweet memories of her. We even had a few laughs over some of her quirks. We had lots of sobbing. We said a prayer and then buried her in the grave Matt dug, in the shady spot beside the fence where she loved to rest whenever we worked or hung out in the yard. She would dig up the earth in that one spot and find a cool layer of soil to rest on. That was Athena’s spot.
We threw in some yellow weed flowers that Charlie picked, so they “wouldn’t blow away” is what Charlie said. We also dropped in a few of her favorite dog treats, and then Matt had the idea to throw in all the balled up tissues we just used blowing our noses and crying salty tears. That sounds crazy, but one of Athena’s favorite things was rifling through the trash to find used tissues. She would retrieve them from the trash, tear them apart to shreds, and leave a huge mess for us to clean. Nothing stopped her from this behavior. Even when we tried putting the trash cans up high and out of her reach – she still somehow ended up getting them. We were always getting on her case about that, so what better way to release her than to bury her with some of her favorite things.
Matt is covering her now with the dirt. I can’t watch that part. I guess like how I can’t ever watch the lowering of caskets into the ground at funerals. It’s just too much.
Everyone is about to be scattered again. Kate has to go driving for two hours, Matt has to attend a work meeting, Jack is in the mountains, Charlie is ready for a diversion into video games. But for now, I’m home. I will rest and do nothing productive for the rest of the day, and I will grieve. And I hope tomorrow will bring at least a tiny bit of ease from this massive crying headache, and the general brokenheartedness I’m sure to be feeling for a long time.
These are the last few pictures I have of Athena. The first one Matt sent me at work last week while Athena was sunning on the deck in the afternoon. You can see her distended belly 😦
This next one is a photo of what mornings in the Sirois household look like. Athena, up on the bed with Scratchy, trying to wake up Daddy for food. This was taken in February, 2017, before the tumor was found.
And finally, this photo of Athena is 2 years old, but reflects how she looked most recently. I love it because this is the face I always woke up to in the morning. I’m sure going to miss that face and the kisses that came with it in the morning. Rest well, sweet girl. Flights of angels.