My Life Was My Bitch
A heartfelt eulogy to my adored Chelsea, she who was "the other half of my soul". It's about living to the fullest , knowing you are doing so on borrowed time. (It's the human who knows that; the dog does not know and therefore does not worry or grieve.) This was my first adult experience of being responsible for the welfare and death of someone I deeply loved. Sadly, I have become rather expert since. That's what happens when you give your heart to the dogs to tear.
I thought I'd posted this on the site during its first few months, but now I find I had not. I now post it shortly after the death of Hazel, a bitch of whom I think Chelsea would have approved. I present this article exactly as I wrote it very shortly after Chelsea's death. I should add that with her usual ineffable grace, as she departed she left her body curved into a remarkably graceful pose. I wish I had photographs from which to do a painting or a sculpture.
Chelsea has now been dead longer than she was alive, but she is still very much with me. She is still Chelsea Queen of Creation.
|SITE INDEX||BOUVIER||RESCUE||DOG CARE|
|PUPPY REARING||TRAINING||PROBLEMS||WORKING DOGS|
Chelsea is dead.
Chelsea, my dearest friend. Chelsea, my teacher. Chelsea, my comfort and companion, warmer of my bed and guardian of my pickup truck. Chelsea, my rock and my salvation. Chelsea , who gave me a whole new life when my old one had run into a series of dark woods and dead ends.
I'd known that she was mortal. I'd even realized that she was starting to get old, and even that she had aged a lot during the past year. I'd always known that someday , some distant day, she would die and probably would need my help to do so gently, "to cease upon the midnight with no pain" instead of suffering those horrors to which the flesh is heir. But her mother had lived to 15 years, dying quite recently, so while I expected it, I didn't expect it yet nor any time soon.
Chels had been living the peaceful life of a well deserved retirement, "resting on her laurels and upon my bed." Doing what she wanted to and not much else, delighting in her food , her truck, and my companionship. Playing deaf to everything unwelcome, but able to hear the faintest jingle of the car keys. Reigning like the Empress of the Universe, the Quintessential Bouvier Bitch-Goddess.
About five weeks before her 11th birthday, I'd taken her for her annual checkup, part of my overall scheme for insuring that she would live forever, enjoying good health. The blood panel showed a slightly low albumen and the urinalysis showed a trace of protein, both suggestive of diminished kidney function and of time to switch from an adult formula to a senior formula dog food. My vet suggested we repeat these tests in a month or two. Nothing to worry about. Her overall health appeared to be robust.
Her 11th birthday came and went. My friend Rose, who likes and admires Chels tremendously, had suggested that we repeat the birthday treat of her 10th birthday when we'd taken Chelsea-the-Guide-Dog out to dinner at an exquisite Asian restaurant and fed her half of our meals under the table. We didn't do it , partly because both our schedules were hectic and conflicting, and partly because I was keenly aware that her gait had become so indisputably old dog looking as to seriously compromise the credibility of her appearance as an authentic Guide. I'm sorry now that we didn't do it.
About five weeks thereafter, Chels did something she'd never done before in all our years together : she left a small handful of her dinner uneaten. Now I'd always made jokes about "Chelsea the Bottomless Pit" and "Chelsea the Ultimate Garbage Disposal" and I'd often joked that "if Chelsea ever passed up an edible calorie there would be no point in taking her to the vet, just go directly to the mortician!" So I was half-way prepared to take her to the vet right away, even though I could point to absolutely no other symptoms which really gives the vet no place to start looking. So I decided to wait a few days, especially as the next few were busy. Twice more during that next week , she left the tail end of her dinner unfinished. So I did indeed make an appointment, with the rationale that it was time to repeat the blood panel and urinalysis anyway.
My vet examined her carefully and drew blood. She pronounced Chels to appear to be fine except for a slight heart murmur that had definitely not been there 10 weeks before. So she asked to take a chest X-ray to get a look at her heart. The murmur was not alarming nor unusual given her age, and seemed unlikely to pose any threat to Chels' sedentary lifestyle. But my vet and I both like to know what's going on.
Much to our surprise and to my horror, the chest X-ray showed dense nodules thickly seeded throughout both lungs. My vet was very sure that this was a metastasized cancer, though she could not find any hint of the location of the primary tumor nor any hint as to the type of cancer involved. She advised against trying a biopsy of the lung as being very hard on the dog, risking a collapsed lung, and unlikely to give any information useful in treatment. Indeed there was essentially no hope of any treatment. "Take her home and spoil her rotten until her breathing gets bad." Her best guess was that we had anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. She promised that she would come to my house so Chelsea could die peacefully in our own bed.
She made an appointment for me with the Oncology unit at the UCD Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital. Possibly they would be able to find the primary tumor using ultrasound and then perhaps being able to identify its nature. She assured me that VMTH would respect my desire to focus on maintaining the quality of Chels remaining life, rather than attacking with "treatments" that would merely prolong her dying and destroy her comfort. There was still the very slim hope that the lung X-ray was actually showing a fungal lung disease, treatable though with difficulty, rather than cancer. My vet felt quite sure that it was cancer, but she would have been delighted to be wrong.
While awaiting our appointment, I let our very closest friends , including Chelsea's breeder , Susan, know what was happening so that they would have a chance to visit Chels and say good bye. From these friends came much support and sound advice as to caring for a terminally ill dog. Also several of our friends are nurses who have worked on the cancer wards ; they were able to relay to me the experiences of patients in similar condition. They told me that eventually the metastasized tumors in her lungs would cause her to feel like she was suffocating. I vowed not to allow it to get that far. They told me to get her to eat as much as possible to get her weight up, preferably above normal, so she would have reserves to draw upon later. I started making Chels special meals to try to regain the several pounds of weight she'd lost during the preceding 2 months and if possible to fatten her up. I fed her several smaller meals a day, full of goodies. I cooked beef kidney and liver, sautéd in bacon and garlic, and simmered to make gravy. No worrying about this being too rich for her kidneys : if indeed they were starting to deteriorate, no amount of rich food would accelerate the damage enough to catch up with her cancer. Split pea & ham soup gravied over her kibble made it palatable. Likewise pasta sauce : Chels has always loved tomatoes, preferably picked by herself out of the garden. I gave her desserts of chocolate yogurt and ice cream : my vet had assured me that the modest amount of chocolate involved would not harm her and besides I knew Chels had nothing to lose and would probably believe that a surfeit of chocolate was the ideal way to commit suicide.
There was in fact a certain sense of freedom in knowing that I was free to give her anything she could enjoy and it couldn't possibly harm her soon enough and bad enough to matter.
We spent a wonderful evening with Rose. Rose had gotten Chels a giant chocolate chip cookie and fed it to her bit by bit. When Chels had finished it and asked, "Is there any more?" , Rose offered her a "no fat, no cholesterol" cookie. Chels took it into her mouth , tasted it, then spit it out at Rose's feet with a look of absolute disgust. Tremendous laughter all around.
We visited my ex-roommate Lynn and Chelsea's brother Smokey at their country place. Chels was able to enjoy a modest length and slow paced walk with her brother. They had lived together several years and remained fond of each other. Smokey is probably the last survivor of the litter, definitely of those with whom Susan had been able to keep in contact.
Our appointment at VMTH arrived. Ultrasound located tumors in Chels' spleen, liver, and abdominal lymph nodes. A needle biopsy showed the cancer to be a hemangio-sarcoma. This originates in the spleen and metastasizes early and spreads like wildfire. It is usually "silent" in that no symptoms can be detected until the metastasis reaches an organ such as the lungs where it can be detected. By then it is too late to do anything. Back to the original advice to "take her home and spoil her rotten until ..."
I was told that there was some risk of minor or major ruptures of the spleen, with a minor one making her feel weak and woozy and a major one sending her peacefully into shock and (if untreated) thereafter into death. However the more probable outcome was gradually worsening impairment of her lungs and inability to breathe comfortably. She would become less and less tolerant of exercise, and eventually be choking and gasping even at rest. Of course I was not going to allow things to go so far. A friend whose father had died of liver cancer told me that eventually that became terribly painful. Again I would not let that happen.
My vet put her on fairly high dose of prednisone to give her an appetite and an illusion of feeling good another instance of not worrying about possible long term harmful effects. Without this help , I would soon have been unable to persuade her to eat enough to maintain herself. My nurse friends told me that many cancer patients slowly starve themselves through lack of appetite. Apparently some of the biochemical by-products of cancer act on the brain so as to make it believe the stomach is already full. Several friends told me that they'd had good luck getting their cancer afflicted dogs to eat baby food. I stocked up. Susan told me she had kept her ancient Chihuahua comfortably alive with cancer for over a year on McDonalds hamburger patties, when she would eat nothing else. (I suspect her over-plump Bouvier got the buns.)
I did more cooking in the next few weeks than I'd done in the last few years. Mostly for Chels but I did a little people cooking too in hopes that Chels would want to share. She really liked my Near Eastern Lamb recipe (highly spiced), though plain ground lamb sauted with garlic got a dewclaws down rating.
I soon became grateful for roommate Jeff's folly of feeding our dogs goodies from his own dinner by offering same on a fork or spoon. I found that although Chels wouldn't eat a breakfast of rice, cooked egg, baby food, and liver or lamb from a bowl, she would eat it from a spoon. Breakfast in bed with a spoon.
During the day I offered her another meal, this one with plenty of goodies. Either during the day or the evening, I'd give her a treat of chocolate yoghurt or ice cream. And of course she was as successful as she pleased to be in begging from Jeff's plate and mine.
I tried hard to get enough kibble into her to give some balance to her diet and to try to mitigate the diarrhea causing tendencies of the richer parts of her diet. (The rice in her breakfast was also intended to calm her digestion.) I offered kibble at the usual time for her previous daily meal, when she was accustomed to wolfing down her meal then trying to convince someone else that she hadn't been fed yet and was starving. Soon I found that she was trying to "jerk my strings" : when offered kibble, she would sniff and then ask me "Don't you have anything better?" So I played along and added flavorings and gravy and hand fed her. She would eat from my hand what she rejected from her dish. At times I could see a glint of amusement in her eyes, enjoying her success in putting one over on me.
For reasons unknown, she lost her taste for the Cheeze Whiz in which she had always wolfed down her pills : heartworm, thyroid, vitamin C and E --- plus now the prednisone upon which her continued appetite depended. Force-feeding them was a bit of a struggle and I hated to do it to her. When I mentioned this to my vet, she gently pointed out that the (large and bitter-tasting) heartworm pills really weren't needed any longer. I realized also that the large and unpalatable vitamin C pills and the slippery E capsules likewise weren't going to make any difference. From then on laying out pills for the 3 Bouvs and deliberately omitting Chels' heartworm became a statement to myself that she really was dying. Up to that point some part of me was still hoping that maybe she would somehow survive a substantial time anyway.
Susan, Chels' breeder, came to visit a few days after our evaluation at UCD. She brought her own Bouv bitch (whom I'd found for her years ago as a pup) and her Brittany puppy. We all walked very slowly down to the creek (dry), then we sat in the shade with Chels while the younger dogs and the pup explored, then we walked back. Chels was wearing my "It's not PMS, I'm just a bitch" tee shirt to protect her tummy (shaved for ultrasound) and of course it suited her to a tee. She was able to make the walk and enjoy it. It was a very golden warm late fall day, and we had a wonderful happy time together. It was strange to realize that I was genuinely happy, living entirely in that present moment in which Chels was still very much alive and enjoying her life.
Soon afterwards Chels began to let me know that she wanted shorter and shorter walks. I'd carry a few tid bits for encouragement and walk as slowly as I knew how , even slower than for the "slow" in AKC obedience heeling, and I'd stop frequently then caress and praise her as she caught up and laid her head against my thigh. As soon as she indicated any hesitation to continue, I'd turn around and return to the house.
The walks got shorter and cost her more effort and more need to rest afterwards. She remained able to make it back and forth to the car (parked very close to the house) but she began to use the very nearest patch of grass (closer than the car) for toilet purposes.
One day she over-worked herself. We'd walked maybe 100 feet to some good looking grass to take a few photos : Chels in her red parka, in which she really does look like a Giant Scotty, and me against the lush green grass. Afterwards she refused to get up again and her breathing was fast and rocky. I was panic-stricken and called the vet to arrange to bring her in, thinking with dread that this was The End. While waiting the return call, Jeff and I took turns staying near the phone and staying with Chels. After maybe 15 minutes and just before the vet called, Chels got up and walked back to the house. When I described in detail what I'd observed , the vet reassured me that this was not distress and pain, but only fatigue and sensible rest. She also assured me that she was prepared to come to my home during the weekend if needed.
The next few days were good ones for us. Borrowed time can be very sweet.
Chels has always adored going for rides in the car. So I never went anywhere without her. She snuggled next to me on the seat with her head against my thigh or on my lap, while I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other stroking her head. She came along when I took Bingo and Bones out to track or to work sheep and she waited contentedly in the car while they worked. She came along on every trip however trivial. We went somewhere almost every day. On at least one occasion she conned me into taking her for a ride when I actually had nowhere to go; so I made an unneeded trip to the grocery a few miles away. I think I would have driven her up and down the driveway if it would have made her happy. At times I had visions of simply getting into the car with Chels and just driving off, just the two of us alone like it was in our first years together, and keep on driving forever as if it were possible that we could drive far enough away that Death couldn't find us.
Throughout all this time, I spent much of the day just keeping Chels company and , when she was awake, caressing her and talking to her. She remained affectionate and appreciative of caresses, smiling at me and showing me where she wanted to be caressed and massaged. Our own private language of love was still very clearly understood by both of us.
Borrowed time runs out; the debt comes due.
The day before, Chels had gone with us to herding class; but whereas the week before she had lain outdoors (wearing her coat and lying on a plush cushion) and watched, this day she chose to stay in the car.
Now on this final morning, she refused her breakfast of rice, egg, baby food, and lamb. I could not persuade her to eat. I offered her chocolate yoghurt and she refused. I offered her tiny bits of pure chocolate and she refused. Surely some distinguished French philosopher, I forget who, must have said "Quand on ne desire plus le chocolat, on ne desire plus de vivre." ("When one no longer desires chocolate, one no longer desires to live"). I forced her thyroid and prednisone down her and went back to bed for an hour or so. (I had been having strange pains in my left leg for several days and had not slept well that night.) Then I got up and cooked up a new batch of liver, sauted with bacon and garlic. That she deigned to eat, at first I think only to please me, but then with some show of pleasure. I noticed that her breathing was not only fast (as it had been for some days) but also appeared to me to be distressed. This persisted for hours. I put in a call to the vet to arrange for a tail end of the day appointment in case we needed it and to have the vet call me back when she was free. When she did call back, she said things did not sound really bad, but readily agreed to my keeping the appointment so that she could see for herself. At this point I was no longer confident of my own ability to judge whether Chels was in distress or suffering : I had never seen a dog dying of lung failure, and the vet of course had seen any number. I spent the rest of the day sitting on the floor next to Chels, keeping her company and assuring her of my love for her. She pressed her head and neck against my chest and seemed to luxuriate in my caresses. Later I got her to eat more liver and some chocolate yoghurt. She still refused her breakfast. I got out her herding videos and we watched them together. I hoped that this might stir up pleasant memories for her, as they surely did for me. Later she asked to go outdoors, then wanted to lie in the driveway sniffing the breezes. Jeff came home and she got up to bark at his car. Her breathing was somewhat better but still cause for concern. Her overall demeanor was decidedly better. When we headed off for the vet, I really expected to be reassured that Chels still had some good days left to share with me.
My vet said that although Chels was not yet suffering , she was right around the corner from it. While I could take her home again if I really needed to , it would be at the risk that things could get very bad, very fast, very soon. I looked at Chelsea's honest and trusting face, and knew that I was as prepared to lose her as I ever would be. I had promised her that I would never allow her to suffer uselessly and needlessly, and that when the time came I would err on the side of being a little to early , thus to prevent suffering, rather than waiting too late. I wanted her to go peacefully and while she still felt some happiness and some pride. While she still knew herself to be Chelsea the Queen of Creation, not as some suffering wretch yearning for the release of oblivion. I took off her collar, reminding us both that she was never my property, but rather my ward and my friend. The vet performed her office without fear, knowing she was sending Chelsea beyond all harm.
Chels went easily and peacefully. I continued caressing her and talking to her long after I knew she was gone.
I drove home with extreme care. I divided her uneaten breakfast carefully among our surviving dogs, doling it out as a sacrament.I noticed Bones sniffing at length the spot in my bedroom where Chelsea had lain most of the day. It seemed as if he was looking for her.
When I undressed for bed , I discovered a horrible rash up and down my left leg, the one that had been experiencing strange pains. This proved to be shingles. So for most of the next week, this very painful affliction pre-empted most of my attention. The pain was actually welcome, as it hurt less than immediately grieving for Chelsea would have. And it was welcome as making clear to me that I had done the right thing for her at the right time.
Since then I have grieved for Chelsea some each day, some days more and some less.I find, not to any surprise of course, that I miss Chelsea very much. Especially of course at certain times and circumstances. Like waking up in the morning without her pushing against me. Handing out morning pills, when I lay out one less set. On walks when, however slowly I walk, she doesn't catch up and nuzzle her face against my thigh; and when I look backwards towards the house expecting to see her sitting or lying in her red parka waiting for us to rejoin her on the return portion of the walk. Driving anywhere in the car, without her beside me nor behind me on the Bouvie shelf. When any car drives up to the house, and she doesn't sound off. At feeding time, when she isn't there to do her dinner dance. At dinner, when she is not attentively doing her "Chelsea Vulture Pose" over Jeff's plate. (I wish I had a photo of Chels vulturing.) At bedtime , when she doesn't come up on the bed for a little good night hug. In the middle of the night when I don't wake up to find my ass hanging out in the cold because she has somehow stolen the blankets off towards her side (2/3) of the bed. And again in the morning, and so on.
Bones is a tremendous comfort. He is always sweet and loving, and has sought out hugging and petting more often than before. Whether he is seeking solace too or simply isn't inhibited by Chelsea's precedence, I cannot say. Yet hugging him is both comfort and reminder of loss. He has been spending a lot of time on my bed, both with and without me. When working he is as happy as ever and I too am happy when working with him.
Bingo is neither comfort nor reminder. He is however a substantial hope for the future, and working him on stock is an absorbing pleasure. He often sticks his head and neck into the bedroom door, obviously hoping for an invitation in and probably wondering if Chelsea's absence makes it possible that an uninvited entry might go unrebuked. I haven't yet invited him in, nor has he dared to invite himself. Eventually, but not now. He follows me around and obviously would like a closer relationship. He is a loveable dog, despite his problems. And at times I am able to offer him more closeness. But it is Bones, not Bingo, to whom I turn for solace.
I had a dream soon after she died, in which 3 Bouvies came trotting up towards me happily out of a grassy field. I didn't really look at the two outer Bouvs, assuming they were Bones and Bingo or maybe Bones and Smoky (Chels' litterbrother and last survivor) , for the center one was Chelsea. Her gait made it apparent that she had rejuvenated into middle age. She looked happy and zestful. I knew that she was actually dead, but I was not aware that this was a dream. I was so happy to see her again!
Her box of cremated remains with its epitaph ,
"Parted from me and never parted, |
Never and always touching and touched,
Always and all ways loving and loved."
Each evening from November to November,|
Before I drift to sleep at close of day,
I'll say a little prayer and remember
Chelsea is dead.
But I shall use all that she gave me and all that she taught me in her honor and to the service of the Bouvier.
Chelsea is dead.
But her truth goes marching on.
Veterinary cancer treatment has advanced incredibly in the 15 years since Chelsea's death. Many of the cancers for which no useful treatment was then known are now treatable, buying considerable amounts of good quality time, and some are completely cureable. Hemangiosarcoma is still as deadly as ever, and the best current treatments (2007) offer only a fairly short but precious reprieve, but there is currently much research going on that may provide better treatments.
Cancer research continues, much of it funded by Morris Animal Foundation (http://morrisanimalfoundation.org), which also funds a great variety of other veterinary research. If you have a bit of money (or a lot of money) to spare , there is no better place to donate it.
|site author Pam Green||copyright 2003|
|created 9/06/07||revised 9/06/07|
|return to top of page||return to Site Index|