Saying Goodbye to Honey

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This past Friday I made an appointment to have my 18 month old puppy euthanized. Honey had been diagnosed with a rare form of incurable leukemia only three weeks earlier. I adopted her, along with her brother and litter-mate, Fig, from PAWS this past February. Seven months to the day that I brought her home she was dead.

I am a first-time pet owner, and up until a few years ago didn’t consider myself a dog person, but my brother and sister-in-law have an amazing dog whom I adore, and well, love among pets and those who love them is contagious, I’ve found. I could not wait to adopt a stray myself. I asked other pet owners which breeds they recommended, read up about temperaments and was pretty sure I had a good idea of what I needed to do. I tried to adopt from a local pet store in Evanston, but they turned me down due to the freelance nature of my current work. The clerk at the store was blunt: “You don’t have any prospects.” Ouch.

Last February I had an errand in Lincoln Park and walked to PAWS afterward to “just look” and get an idea about what types of dogs were available. I had tried evaluating those available for adoption online, but you really can’t tell much from a photo and a few lines of generalities; I needed a face-to-face to learn more.

Silly me. I was totally unprepared for how my heart squeezed as I walked along the corridor, glass-plated rooms on either side, canine faces of all sizes, breeds and colors looking at me with pairs of big eyes, all of them seeming to channel ESP codes saying ‘Take me home.’ It was pitiful, only made bearable because PAWS does such an excellent job taking in and taking care of so many strays. They process several hundred adoptions each weekend, so most dogs and cats rescued by PAWS are adopted within a few weeks.

I met one dog that I noticed right away, but we did not connect with one another. She was a sweet dog, but totally uninterested in interacting with me. The volunteer shrugged and took that dog out of the neutral meeting room. Almost as an afterthought I asked to meet Honey and Fig.  Their little room faced the foyer area for maximum viewing with a sign on the window saying joint adoption of both puppies was required. They had been given up by their previous owners and were both traumatized and malnourished when they came to PAWS. The volunteers wanted to make sure I knew that the dogs could not be separated before I would be allowed to meet them. I assured the volunteers I was aware.

Literally within one minute of meeting them I was head-over-heels in love. Every mothering instinct that ever existed within me surfaced and all I wanted to do was take care of and protect them. Sitting on the floor with them, they reciprocated in kind with kisses, licks, yelps, nips and wags in a hurricane of emotion and energy. They crawled on me, over me and on top of me.  I was laughing and crying, drinking it all in, using my arms to embrace them but all of me to envelop them.  If anything ever felt ‘right,’ this did in multiples.

But wait. I had not planned to adopt a dog on that particular day and had certainly not planned to adopt two. I had absolutely nothing ready at home. Two hours earlier I had taken the purple line to Lincoln Park–I didn’t have access to a car and the three people I would have called to help me were all otherwise engaged. How was I going to do this?

Do you ever have “Should I or shouldn’t I?” conversations with yourself? All logic said to wait; the timing was not right for so many reasons.  Funny thing, though. the heart wants what it wants. A small mountain of paperwork later and with purchases from the Petco across the street from PAWS, I took a dog-friendly cab home and we started to settle in.

From the beginning, Honey was the dominant personality of the two even though her frame was smaller and thinner than Fig’s. She bossed Fig around, led him in play, and barked and snapped at other dogs and people protectively when we went out on our walks.  She was fully housebroken before Fig; she adapted better at doggie obedience training. Honey was confident. If I snuggled with Honey, Fig would come running over and squiggle between us so as not to be left out, but Honey never did the same when I snuggled with Fig. She was confident or indifferent enough not to care.

They loved to be with one another. They snuggled together during naps and at bedtime, they sunned themselves side by side, and played regular games of tag or boxed after nearly every meal. Fig also relied on Honey. The first time I attended obedience class with only Fig, he was so panicked about being without her that he trembled nonstop during the entire one-hour class and repeatedly tried to hop back in the carrier. Only after I brought Honey along to subsequent classes did he calm down and attempt the exercises.

Honey was also capable of relaxing. She loved to be petted and cuddled and would close her eyes luxuriously during caresses. (Her brother keeps his eyes wide open except during deep sleep.) She enjoyed long walks, whereas Fig still does not. And that attitude toward exercising showed in their figures: Honey was lean and Fig is…zaftig.  As the vet suggested, he needs a little bit more definition in his midsection.

A month ago at bedtime I noticed Honey’s breathing was labored. We saw Dr. Megan FitzGerald the next day at VCA Misener-Holley Animal Hospital.  The tech drew blood and x-rayed Honey’s lungs and Dr. FitzGerald confirmed a diagnosis of pneumonia.  We were sent home with an antibiotic. The next day she called with the test results from the blood sample and indicated Honey was much sicker than either of us realized. I went to BluePearl (formerly Animal 911 Emergency Care) and saw the doctor on call (VCA had already closed for the weekend). That vet examined Honey and drew more blood. He was concerned enough to strongly recommend we see a specialist on Monday or Tuesday and schedule an ultrasound. One of the two vets recommended, Dr. Susan Yohn, practices out of Blue Pearl and had an appointment available for us on Tuesday morning.

Dr. Yohn spent over an hour with us and confirmed Honey’s spleen was enlarged. There were no masses evident on the ultrasound, but Dr. Yohn still did not have enough information to make a definitive diagnosis. She recommended a needle biopsy of Honey’s spleen and a bone marrow sample, both of which I authorized. Honey tolerated the procedures well and I took my wobbly little one home to recuperate. Two days later, on my birthday, Dr. Yohn told me that all the data on Honey was presenting as cancer; after speaking to a range of veterinarian oncologists, Dr. Yohn confirmed my worst fear. Honey had a rare form of leukemia with a remaining lifespan of weeks; chemotherapy would make her remaining days miserable and was not recommended. The kind of leukemia she had was extremely unusual to see in such a young dog.

The next three weeks were a blur. I let her eat whatever she loved and washed her anti-nausea and antibiotic pills down with ice cream. The changes came quickly–loss of weight, loss of interest in food, lack of energy.  I started to feed her by hand to make sure she was getting nutrition. Dr. Yohn prescribed a probiotic to ease her digestion and steroids to stimulate her appetite. Both helped, if only for a few days.  Honey continued to weaken. She became too tired to walk long distances, then to walk around the block, then to walk at all. Her collar became loose because of all the weight she lost. Fig begged her to play with him, but she snapped at him until he left her alone. He kept sniffing her, either detecting the change in her body odors because of the cancer or the scent of the medicines. The last two days she gagged and coughed when she sipped water. Her eyes, which I had always described as sad, seemed pained to me.

I slept on the sofa with Honey and Fig those last few days. The last night she and Fig snuggled together. On Saturday morning I bundled her in her blanket, my old and threadbare blanket from childhood, as Ricky drove us to the animal hospital. I held her, petted her, and talked to her as we drove, waited in the waiting room and paced in the room where she would die. The end was faster than I could have anticipated. She was eight and a half pounds at the time of her death and had lost 15% of her body weight in just three weeks. The wonderful people at VCA made a plaster mold of Honey’s paw prints, a surprisingly sweet souvenir from such a terrible outcome. We drove home with Honey in a file box. I wanted to bring her home so that Fig could see her one last time.

We left the box in the car and I carried her still warm body into the apartment. Thank goodness I did not run into any neighbors on the way in or out! Fig greeted us at the door and I placed Honey gently in their bed. Fig went over immediately. He sniffed her, poked her with his nose, looked up at me. He cried his pitiful doggy cry and ran away, then came back and slowly attempted to see her again, but the result was still the same. The three of us sat there for a few minutes, then I sat with him alone, reassuring him and holding him. An hour later I buried Honey in my brother and sister-in-law’s yard and planted some beautiful flowering plants on top. The plants are supposed to flower earliest in the spring and last the longest through the fall, a poignant counterpoint to her all-too short life.

Fig and I are getting used to a quieter apartment and life without Honey. He snuggles with her sweater and is even more affectionate than usual with me. He had no appetite immediately before and after Honey’s death, but that has rallied as well. He is even going on longer walks with me, but only because I insist. Friends offered me many kind words of support after Honey’s death, and I was truly comforted by condolences from all the phases of my life and many locations where those friends live. I recognize it is ‘only’ a pet and one I did not have for very long, but the death of a pet is still a significant stressor, and it was helpful to have my loss acknowledged. I wish I could do the same for Fig.

I am fortunate that I was the one who had the chance to take care of Honey, and luckier still that I have a feisty, needy and mischievous Fig at home now. We are slowly coming up with new routines and activities. I plan to get a bicycle basket and mini-helmet for Fig; he has too much personality to sit home! So if you see us on one of our walks about town, don’t be shy–please call out and say hello. He, especially, will love the attention.

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I Want to Talk About Books

This week I finished two books, The Woman at the Washington Zoo by Marjorie Williams (non-fiction, edited by Timothy Noah, copyright 2005) and The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (fiction, copyright 2012), selections that could not be more different from one another if I tried. (I did not.) I enjoyed them both and recommend them.

The Middlesteins The Woman at the Washington Zoo

The author of the first book, Marjorie Williams, passed away in 2005 at the age of 47. In spite of knowing this sad outcome, The Woman at the Washington Zoo is not a morose or depressing book. The book compiles editorials, essays and profiles the author wrote about Washington, D.C. and the people she met and covered there. Some of the profiles and essays had previously been published in publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate, and Talk and some of her editorials appeared in the Washington Post. Even eight years later, every one is as sharp and witty as the day they were published. Time has not detracted from her work but enhanced it.

Williams writes about politics, personalities and egos; after her cancer diagnosis she wrote about her illness, the medical profession and facing her own premature death. She was a precise and detailed writer, an astute observer with great instincts and insights. The profile of Barbara Bush goes deeper than any other I had read. My favorite piece in the book, “The Halloween of My Dreams,” chronicles Williams helping her daughter get ready for a Halloween outing. It was her last column in the Post and she died two short months later. In June 2011, that column was later listed as one of the top 15 newspaper columns in American history by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The second book, The Middlesteins, is about three generations of a Chicogoland Jewish family that is splintering apart. Edie and Richard Middlestein are parents of two children and grandparents to twins. Richard’s pharmacy is hanging on by a thread and he is completely kowtowed by his wife. Edie, a bright and ambitious attorney in earlier days, stays at home and is eating herself to death. Their high-strung, controlling daughter-in-law Rachelle is planning the twins’ b’nai mitzvah, their son Benny has started losing his hair, and daughter Robin–sullen, angry, single–with an unambitious boyfriend. The family tries to help Edie lose weight and prepare for necessary surgery, until Richard abruptly leaves Edie and asks for a divorce. Like a match tossed on a pile of old newspapers, this action sets things in motion as Attenberg (who grew up in Buffalo Grove) weaves back and forth to earlier generations and into the future, somehow making sense and telling a cohesive and compelling story. The last few chapters were especially rich as momentum gathers for the ending one can almost anticipate. Food plays a critical role in the story, Chinese food in particular, but it is the family dynamics that make this a universal book regardless of one’s religious or cultural background.