Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What happened: Cold comfort for a bad dad

Fortunately, I'm a bad dad and husband, so Barky was at least comfortable when he died. The first question everyone asks, including us, is What happened?

I've only had the energy to explain to a few people. I'll lay it all out here so I can point anyone over here who's curious. I don't mean to be rude, it's just not a fun story to tell. There are no real tears until the bitter end, but there are no punch lines at all, and recounting the anxiety makes me anxious all over again. Even telling it over ice cream to Steve and Larry tonight choked me up.

You know it's bad when ice cream doesn't help.

So, Friday night I don't recall what got into me, but I got into it first with 3B and then with Mama. Maybe work was stressing me out--when isn't it these days, what with layoffs, firings, reorgs and moves? Maybe I was tired from getting back to bike commuting. I was definitely stressed out by Barky, who was not doing well through the week.

After I had written that post, he had thrown up a full meal on the couch, but then he'd also been to the vet on Friday afternoon, where he showed some signs of improvement--propping his feet up on their counter as usual for treats, even if he didn't wing around as he typically did in the waiting room. He got some drugs for what we assumed was an ulcer and for the trots and came home and ate some of the bland diet food they gave him.

It's a cold comfort but some comfort nonetheless to know that at least his last meal was canned food.

By the time I got home, Barky was in his usual perch on the couch, curled up, observing and napping. We were all tired, and I originally planned to go to bed early with Mama, but instead managed to pick a fight with 3B at bedtime over who knows what. That put me in a sour mood so I ended up picking another fight with Mama over nothing as well. At that point, she retreated to the bedroom to read and fall asleep. I stayed out on the couch with Barky to surf the innernets and watch bad TV. I took him out to pee at 10 or so, and he moved slowly, but not exceptionally slowly, given that I thought he was recovering from a long week. He sniffed and peed as usual and we headed back in.

After awhile I made some popcorn, which was one of Barky's favorite meals. Whenever I salt the popcorn in the bowl, I toss it by flipping it in the bowl, inevitably dropping some on the floor, which Barky would hoover up. This time, however, Barky didn't even lift his head on the couch, which was a bad sign. About 15 minutes after I finished eating my popcorn, Barky got up off the couch, walked over toward the front door, lay down on the carpet and stretched out. My immediate first thought was, "He's lay down to die."

I went right to him and comforted him, petting him and talking to him. Then I grabbed some of his canned food, scooped it into his bowl and offered it to him. He didn't even look at me. And he's a beagle, so I knew it was bad. Then his stomach started convulsing every few seconds, contracting as if it was cramping.

By then, I was freaked out. I went into the bedroom, woke up Mama and told her that I was taking him to the emergency animal hospital. I had put Barky on a soft towel on the carpet, in which I scooped him up and carried him down the hall, into the elevator and out to the car, where I put him on the front seat. I called the ER and gave them the history as I drove down. Their reaction was mild on the phone, but when I arrived, they took urgent action, even though Barky had summoned the energy to walk into the office from the car.

The vet asked if she could do xrays to see what was going on, but they were inconclusive. She thought she could see a large shadow on one side of his abdomen, but she couldn't be sure what it was without doing an ultrasound. There was no ultrasonographer on duty, and there might not be one the next day, Saturday, so the vet offered to run one on her own, at no charge, because she thought Barky couldn't wait.

I didn't pick up on it then, but that was the first of many worrying signs from the vet.

I went outside to call Mama with an update--the waiting room is a cell-free zone. When the vet next came out, she told me that she had tapped a large amount of fluid from Barky's abdomen and now she looked visibly shaken and worried. She said they were testing it to see if it was septic or not. I asked what the prognosis was. She said, "If it's not septic, we'll have to find the cause. If it is septic..." Her voice trailed off and she shrugged her shoulders before walking off.

I got that worrying sign, loud and clear.

I went outside again to update Mama, who was openly sobbing as we discussed the prognosis and alternatives. I tried to focus on the positive, but I was thinking that if it's septic, he's likely dead already. I texted Brother #2 that very question, shooting burning arrows into the night sky. Again while I was outside, the vet came back into the waiting room with an update: not septic, but no idea what's causing the fluid to collect. She recommended exploratory emergency surgery to find out. There were three possible causes: his spleen flipped, his intestines had telescoped onto themselves, or he had "a mass." And no, we're not talking the kind the Pope presides over.

The first two were easy fixes, but the third was more complicated. If it's a mass they can extract, they take it out, sew him up, biopsy the mass and present us with options. If it's a mass that's entangled or spread, they call us during surgery and present us with options and, she said, "We have a discussion about quality of life. Whether you want to let him go from there or bring him up to say goodbye."

There was no mistaking her seriousness here. This was not a worrying sign, this was a clear message that the situation had rounded a corner that it wasn't coming back around.

I approved the surgery, then asked to see Barky before going home. It would take two hours to prep for surgery and another two hours in surgery, so I could at least try to sleep or just lay down for a bit. I went back to see him and a vet tech pulled off our collar and handed it to me, during which Barky was pretty unresponsive, so I asked if he was sedated. They told me he was on heavy pain meds for the stomach pain he seemed to be having. His head was at the back of his crate, so I stuffed my body in until my head was over his, lips to his ear. When I said hello, he tried to stand, but realized he couldn't and lay back down again.

I whispered into his ear that I loved him, that Mama loves him, that 3B loves him, using all of our names so he would remember who we were and know that each of us loved him. I told him that he was going to be OK, and that he just needed to hang in there, that the doctors would make him feel better. I told him that he was my perfect dog, the one I'd always wanted, then I kissed him, again told him that all three of us loved him and that I'd see him soon.

It took about 10 minutes to get home--at 1 a.m., all the lights were green--and as I stepped into the elevator, my phone rang. I was passing the second floor as I heard the vet tech say, "Barky went full code. The vet is giving him CPR now. I'll get the phone to her as soon as possible."

I told her not to bother, I was on my way back. She immediately hung up. I was off the elevator now, running up the stairs. I called our neighbor, apologized for the late hour, and asked her to come down and watch 3B's monitor. By the time I got to our floor, our neighbor was coming out of her place, down the hall to ours. I walked in, told Mama, and we hustled down the hall. It again took about 10 minutes to get back to the ER, but it seemed like a week.

As we walked in, the vet came out and greeted us. All she said is, "I'm sorry." We went into an exam room where she explained that she had defibrillated him to the maximum possible, but they hadn't gotten any response. No heartbeat. No rhythm. Nothing.

The vet seemed shaken by the whole sequence of events and offered to us that she could perform an autopsy, for which there was typically a fee, but which she would do for us for free.

We went back to the mourning room to see him just as they were laying him out under a blanket and we held each other and cried. We stroked his soft ears and his still warm back and belly and cried. We took one last picture of the bone-shaped mark on his back that gave him his middle name--Bones--and that we would never see again. We cried some more. We marvelled at how beautiful he was, even in complete stillness, remembering how people would stop us on the street to comment on how handsome he was--even stopping their cars in the road in traffic to roll down their windows and tell us how beautiful he was. And I kept thinking that maybe in just another second I would see his chest raise with a breath or hear him let loose one of his infamous tired old man groans.

We stayed with him until we were ready to say goodbye, by which time his feet had started to grow cold, and then we drove home, thanked our neighbor and crawled into bed, where we curled around each other and cried some more.

The vet called about an hour later and said that she had no more idea what caused him to die than she did before she did the autopsy. The lining of his stomach wasn't ulcerated, it was "perfect." His spleen wasn't flipped and his intestines weren't telescoped, although she observed that they sometimes flip back and untelescope spontaneously. Barky's spleen did have several masses on it, but they were all rounded and, in her experience, if one was to be malignant or causing a fluid buildup, it would have ruptured.

His end was just as much a mystery to us as the beginning of his life, what came before we rescued him, was. But as I drifted off to sleep, I realized that had I not picked those fights with 3B and Mama, if I was a good father, I would not have stayed up with Barky. He would have died alone and in pain--for although his stomach was convulsing, he never once cried out--in our living room. Instead, he had at least the small comforts of pain medication and the knowledge that his entire pack loved him, which was all he ever really wanted.

There it is, then. What happened is something that we do not know, and yet is visciously simple and brutal to understand.

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  1. Thank you for that, and for sharing your Barky stories with us through the years. He was an exquisite hound, with a wonderful singing voice, and the joy he brought to many family members will be missed.

    I hope you and the rest of the family are getting some rest this week and starting to fit the pieces back together.

  2. Jeff S.11:57 PM

    You're not a bad dad. You did all the right things.

  3. Crying now. So sad, but I'm glad you were able to say goodbye the way you did before he went into surgery.

  4. I am glad you were there for Barky. Thank you for sharing what is obviously a difficult time. I think about the three of you and Barky every time I see my Shadow.

  5. Anonymous3:11 AM



  6. Sweet Barky. I'm glad to know he had that goodbye from you. He must have felt so comforted.

  7. Anonymous11:37 PM

    I hope it helps a bit to share that story. It must have been tremendously stressful and emotional. What a wonderful ER vet you have.

    You're a good dad.