Departure By Water

At 5:30 PM today, a great light went out of this world. We bore witness to Gus’s passing and wished him a heaven with a cool, blue lake and friends to throw tennis balls for him as he retrieves them, never tired again.

When I wrote last Tuesday, I didn’t realize Gus really was completely blind; it seemed implausible, but a few tests with a tennis ball that Tuesday night confirmed it.

Wednesday, Gus’s second day of total blindness, his biopsy results came back: panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma. He is one of a handful of dogs ever to get this, and it’s rare in humans too, maybe 1500 cases a year. It’s typically very aggressive and debilitating, and it doesn’t respond to chemotherapy as well as B-cell lymphoma does.

Even so, the veterinary oncologist we consulted with on Wednesday afternoon was optimistic that chemotherapy might halt the cancer’s progress and reverse many of its symptoms for several months, maybe even a year, but he was equally clear that Gus’s sight would probably not return.

The blindness was most likely caused by infiltration of his nerves by the lymphoma, and thus the only way it could reverse was to contain the lymphoma and give the nerves several months to regenerate. Even if that long shot came through, it wouldn’t be much longer before Gus’s lymphoma became chemo-resistant and attacked him again.

Faced with the prospect of a blind Gus who, even with the best medicine possible, might live a few months and then relapse into these horrible symptoms, we knew that we had to make a gut-wrenching decision that was in his best interest, if not ours.

We decided to put him on Prednisone, not true chemotherapy, to see if its lesion-shrinking potential could return Gus’s sight. If he regained his vision at all, we would consider chemotherapy. What we wouldn’t consider, though, is chaining him to the limited half-life of blindness and sickness just so we could have him around for a few more months.

After a couple days of Prednisone, he perked up quite a bit. We bought him a stuffed duck with a Santa hat, spoiled him rotten with filet mignon, and helped him learn to navigate the house and the stairs without his sight. Even so, he remained on his couch all day unless he was called off. I imagine he thought the lights had gone out and had decided to wait patiently for them to come back on. These six days he waited for a solution, a light switch to flip up and return the woods and tennis balls to him.

He was content with this waiting, in a way, but we had no way of knowing when the Prednisone would stop working, just that it would soon, and all the symptoms being held at bay would ravage him again. Even on the medicine, he never stopped whuffing air out his nose constantly and sneezing savagely when he exerted himself at all. He never regained an iota of his sight. He also looked much sicker than he does in these pictures, which I chose because they show him at his best moments. He looks alert in each because he’s just heard a sound, not because he can see anything.

Even before we took him in today, there were signs that the brief window the steroids gave us was closing. His left eye was bulging alarmingly, and his lesions were starting to look red and itchy again. When we did bring him to the vet today, we learned he had lost almost five more pounds, meaning that in addition to the 10% of his body weight he lost in the first month of his sickness, he had lost 10% more in the last five days, despite lots of canned food, steak, and dog cookies.

It was time. Everything selfish in me screamed for delay, but our love for the dog had to win out. He had given six years of unwavering loyalty and love, and that gift deserved our best humanity in return. I cooked two strips of bacon and then seared one last rare filet mignon in the grease. I chopped the bacon and steak into chunks to feed him at the vet, and I held his head in my hands and Andy stroked his side as the vet pushed the plunger on those fatal shots. His head got heavier and heavier, and he leaned into my leg and smelled me one last time. We spoke words of encouragement and told him it was OK for him to go and be free. And then he was gone.

I would have thought that we would want to spend time with his body after it was all over, but aside from the moments we needed to compose ourselves, neither of us wanted to stay. At the moment he died, he was gone, and all that he had left behind was a husk that bore little resemblance to Gus. I smelled the top of his head, so I would remember him as he remembered me, and we left.

I like to think that once his eyes closed in that vet’s office for the last time, they opened up, sight restored, to look out over a clear blue lake, with a tennis ball sailing out overhead, no time for fear or worry or to miss those he left behind. He runs out to the end of the dock, eyes looking out over the water, spotting the splash the ball marks itself with, feet pounding the old boards, no more aches or exhaustion. But this time, when he touches off from the heavy bonds of the wood, he hangs in that perfect moment of time, as unaware of its passing as he was in life, savoring the the joy of the boundary of air and water, sailing out and across. Except maybe this time he sails out impossibly far over the water, until he crashes down, jaws closing right on the ball, and this time he takes it to the farther shore, not back to us.

I don’t know if there’s a heaven, or if dogs get to go. I do know that if there is any fairness, Gus deserves to be stretched out in the air over water somewhere right now, feeling the lightness in his chest and anticipating the satisfying crash down into the coolness. Even if a dog only lives on in the heart of those who love him, that’s what he’s doing in mine, leaping upwards and outwards, buoyed by love and joy.


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