The Ultimate Survivor
Saying goodbye to the ultimate survivor
By Betsy, co-founder of PetFinder.com
Posted April 9, 2012 4:40 PM |
This week we said a final goodbye to our very sweet hound, Jim, after six years together.
We are ruled by dual masters, and in my case, they rarely agree. My time with Jim has been punctuated by countless quiet, painful battles between my heart and my mind, especially his last few years when he was in and out of hospice care.
I met him as an old, strange community dog in Costa Rica with numbered days, so I don’t think either of us expected a long, or especially deep, relationship. But love often sneaks up on us, and if we are lucky, our intellect still gives way to passion. This is what happened to us.
The arc of our attachment had a lot to do with external factors. I was determined to not bond too deeply, since, from the beginning, I knew he only had a few months to live. Then somewhere around the fourth or fifth time he had a medical crisis in which the doctor gave him only a few months, I began to feel as if my hardy Jim, who kept surviving the unsurvivable, might, in fact, never leave me. So I fell in love with this dog and his quirky hound-dog behavior. He became a guidepost for me, and the fact that he’d chosen me increased my net worth substantially.
Here is how it all began … well, this is not really how it all began. Like so many of you, I can only imagine what my boy’s life was like before I met him. I have reason to believe it was full of romping and play and that he was well-cared-for (if not well-loved). But at some point he became homeless. He, like many community dogs, seemed more at ease around other dogs than in the house with people. AT FIRST. Once he discovered things like pizza and dog beds, he began to fulfill his true destiny: to be a house-potato.
I met Jim, sick and emaciated, six years ago on a trip to a small village in Costa Rica, where he blocked my way on the sidewalk, looked me in the eye, and howled — the most mournful sound I’ve ever heard. Old, starving, toothless, raw from mange, with a big gross tumor on his belly — I’d never seen anyone more pitiful.
I’ve had a rule all my life. I don’t go out of my way to find pets in distress to rescue, but if one crosses my path, he becomes my responsibility, And there on the sidewalk, it seemed very clear to me that Jim was saying (loudly), “Hey, get me outta here!” That was the most pointed directive I’d ever received, and I was hooked. All I needed was a crate and space on the little airplane that would take us over the mountains to San Jose, both somewhat problematic in this village. Oh, and a way to get him from Costa Rica to the U.S.
By hook and by crook, I found the local Costa Rican park service office and wrested an old broken-down monkey crate (and a roll of duct tape to hold it together) from the official in charge. Departure time neared, so we re-found Jim on the streets of the village. As we ineptly tried to bribe this “street” dog into the monkey crate, along came a hero — a BIG local dude who simply picked Jim up and tossed him into the crate like a sack of potatoes.
I offered to leave members of my party behind to make space for Jim on the little plane, but as it turned out, there was just enough space in the cargo area in the nose of the plane for the crate. We took off for San Jose and heard Jim’s baying over the roar of the engines as we flew over the mountain range.
Lucky for me (and for Jim), there happens to live a remarkable dog named BudBud Jones near San Jose who writes a weekly newsletter through the hand of his mother (who happens to be Kitten Jones of Petfinder member Lighthouse Animal Rescue), and I asked her to take Jim in until I could get him to the states. A month later, Kitten brought Jim, now with a veterinarian’s health certificate to prove he was a “companion animal,” to my New Jersey farm.
They landed in five-degree weather, and I will never forget the experience of picking up this shivering dog and this strong woman from the Newark airport. From Costa Rica to New Jersey! Jim must have thought there had been a terrible mistake. And then, to underscore this impression, it was off to the veterinarian!
The big tumor on Jim’s belly turned out to be bad news. Hemangiosarcoma. Serious stuff, and he seemed to have a lot of them. Chemotherapy was supposed to grant him six months to live. Many more tumors (and way more than six months) later, we learned that there was a doctor in Florida at Blue Pearl Specialty & Emergency Medicine who would laser them off by the dozens — no surgery, and no more chemo!
Jim adjusted to farm life. We’d go for long walks with the dogs, horses, goats, sheep, cat and guinea hens. Sometimes, fiercely independent Jim would leave the group and run off, baying, into the woods. As soon as we caught up with him, he would dart off to tree his next victim and bay at that tree until we caught up. And over and over. For hours we would chase him back and forth across our woods, trying to get a leash on him. He must have thought we were the worst hunters ever.
In Costa Rica, he’d lived by his wits, begging for food — hanging just outside the door of kitchens until someone would throw him a scrap. At our house, this translated to Jim getting “stuck” on thresholds. A lifetime of not being allowed inside was a hard habit to break. What ultimately won him over was his love of dry dog food. We imagined him thinking, “What? Food made JUST for dogs?! Heaven!” It remained his favorite “treat” throughout his life.
The first time I took Jim to PETCO, he was not impressed by the rows of toys, which he didn’t understand, or the stinky rawhides I was sure he’d love. The other dogs there were only moderately interesting. But when we rounded a corner and there in front of us, reaching to the sky, were dozens and dozens of beds — soft and supple, puffy beds as far as the nose could smell — Jim did a full-body shiver of excitement. For a street dog, it is the simple (puffy) pleasures that rock your world. Jim spent the next six years punctuating his lounging time with intermittent bouts of activity — but it was always back to one of his own beds as soon as possible.
It was more than three years before he initiated play with me for the first time. He bowed, chuffed and gummed my nose. I’ve never received a sweeter, or more long-awaited, kiss. This was about the same time he exhibited other strange new behaviors: panic attacks at the vet, fear of anyone he’d met after February of that year (we didn’t think our new, post-February friends were any worse than our pre-February friends), and, inexplicably, a sudden and insatiable desire for pancakes. These were clues, but we didn’t know to what.
Silver linings being what they are, this weird phase made us grateful Jim was toothless and slightly decrepit, because one spring morning, Jim decided our 81-year-old neighbor was the devil. Jim, at his fastest-paced, stiff-legged run, the one we called his “business run,” made his best effort to gum the old man into submission. It was a mostly unlikely turn of events being played out in my living room as the two seniors battled it out. Luckily, no damage was done (other than hurt feelings).
One day, Jim turned blue and almost passed out at the vet’s office. They mistook it for bloat and gave him an x-ray. That was when they saw a little pea-sized tumor on his adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is responsible for those life-and-death, fight-or-flight hormones, and when it goes haywire, strange things happen. But adrenal surgery is dangerous and Jim was not a great candidate, so just in case (once more), we said good-bye as they took him back for the procedure. He did great, and once we removed the tumor he went right back to easygoing Jim.
Jim’s last year with us was especially rich because it was actually of higher quality than many of his years before. When arthritis and disc disease threatened his lifestyle, a good friend (and veterinary acupuncturist) recommended cold laser therapy that allowed Jim to enjoy walks again. His veterinarian was creative, and we found that testosterone injections addressed some muscle weakness and gastrointestinal issues associated with mega-esophagus. Another creative veterinarian friend recommended low-dose antibiotic therapy for Jim’s chronic pneumonia.
Over the balance of our six years together, Jim’s near-death experiences kept us in a chronic state of saying goodbye. Heroic measure after heroic measure kept Jim alive and happy — and many folks thought we were nuts. But how do you not allow a survivor to survive? It is, after all, the ultimate high achievement. And for Jim, it is what he did best. After mange, cancer, pet-food-related kidney failure, disc disease, arthritis, more cancer, atypical Cushing’s, mega-esophagus, incontinence, bladder infections, more kidney failure, pneumonia, adrenal tumor, aural hematoma, more cancer, more pneumonia and a lung tumor the size of a grapefruit, last week Jim appeared to have had a series of strokes that left him finally unable to bounce back. A wonderful hospice veterinarian met us at our home, and after sharing a whole pizza on our patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico (in his favorite bed), we said good-bye. Again.
Now, after saying good-bye “for real,” after so many false alarms, my relief and sorrow blur together. Tired of battling over what to do with Jim, my heart and mind finally find comfort in this hazy space. Today Jim is not uncomfortable. Today I am not worried whether or not Jim is comfortable. Today we are both free. And even though I would never choose to leave Jim, I am overwhelmed by having had the great honor of helping him leave me while he felt loved and peaceful (and full of pizza).
To others out there who are in the midst of hospice care for their companion, please know that the end brings great peace and that finally, those dual masters — our heart and mind — fall into concert with one another.
This memoir is the beginning of my begrudging acceptance that my buddy is no longer here, and yet he remains very much with me, even though most of the signs of him are gone (my hardwood floors are no longer covered by a patchwork of rubber-backed area rugs, we no longer have a dog bed in every room, and the biggest drawer in the kitchen is no longer filled with dog diapers).
I am struck by the little things that positively changed the course of Jim’s (and my) life: duct tape, good diapers, creative veterinarians, cold laser technology, good beds, and nice people. As for me, I feel smarter, luckier and humbler for having the chance to love my survivor, Jim.
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