Indian summer and a hole in my heart

September 16, 2006 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


Everyone knows that fall is the sweet spot in terms of spectacular weather in the Bay Area. Today is no exception – not a cloud, deep blue skies and warm sunshine bathing the City.
But despite the brilliance of today’s sun, I have no shadow.

My best friend Archie, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier who never left my side, died last night. We’d been together 10 years and in that decade we lived several lifetimes.
Everyone knows that pets die. We all die. But pets in particular have such short lives compared to those with whom they live. So when we take on the responsibility of a pet, we do so knowing that they will be with us only a short period of time.
Even so, as I sit today, alone in my apartment that echoes with his absence, the pain is eerily familiar. It’s a deep, vacant ache reminiscent of those first moments when all the guests left on the last day of sitting shiva for my father. With everyone gone there’s a ragged-edge void, a booming echo in the space where Archie used to be.
Some might raise an eyebrow or even condemn me for making such a comparison. “You’re crazy,” they might say. “Your father gave you life, provided for you, sent you to college, took care of your needs, and protected you. Archie was a dog.”
The people who would say such things are idiots. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. After all, any person with such an incredibly pathetic view of the incredible gift that the pure soul of an animal is to one’s life probably deserves my pity more than my condemnation. Besides, these people are of little consequence, because to those who knew Archie, who experienced his joy of life and witnessed the connection between this little man in a fur suit and me there are no raised eyebrows and no question to the magnitude of this loss.
In returning to thoughts of Archie, the tears rise again and I weep, in spite of the fact that I know he was in pain and so this is for the best. In spite of the fact that I know that he’s in a better place where he’s always young, there will always be Bully Stix and he can run perpetually on the sand and in the surf – and never have to get a bath.
But no amount of understanding can soften the sharp stabs that come every time I shift my leg under the desk where I sit writing this, and sweep across the empty space where Archie would always lay as I worked.
This entire experience, especially the last 36 hours, feels a bit as though wound along the plotline of a crafted script.
It began on August 29. That was the day I returned to the Bay Area from a short visit to my family in Florida. Upon landing at SFO and turning on my cell phone, I found a voice mail from the dog sitter. Archie had re-injured his neck. It was a long-time injury that tended to flare up when Archie was doing something over-zealous. In this case, he’d been allowed to wrestle with a Golden Retriever, and in doing so his neck flared up.
I’ll truncate much of the story here. The gist is simple. Archie had to go on massive anti-inflammatory drugs along with a hefty dose of painkillers to relieve his discomfort. In the process, the vet checked and found that his kidneys were acting up. Now it bears mentioning that Archie’s kidneys were always a bit dodgy. It’s a problem that the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier faces as a breed.
Long story short – we switched his diet to support the kidneys, and the new diet gave him violent diarrhea. This created the downward spiral that led to his death. The dehydration and taxing on his system compounded by the heavy drugs, resulted in pancreatitis.
On September 12 Archie went into the vet.
On September 13, after aggressive IV fluids and drugs his numbers showed no improvement. But his spirits were okay.
On September 14, the numbers looked just a tiny bit better, but Archie’s demeanor had shifted. When I visited him at the vet’s office, I recognized the look on his face. It was the same expression my father had the last time I saw him alive. He was tired and had given up fighting.
I shook off that feeling and went home, hopeful that the slightly better numbers would continue to improve overnight.
My hope was for naught.
On September 15, there was no improvement. I went to the vet and saw that his spirits were shot. We had one last option – take him to a veterinary specialist for IV feeding and acupuncture. The chances of success hovered around 5 percent. And even those odds were only that he’d survive, but not have a great quality of life.
After some consideration, and a gentle urging from my vet, I opted to let him go.
The actual moment was remarkable. I got to the vet’s office at about 4:40pm. They told me that he’d started crying a bit and that rather than taking him home for one last night, they recommended that we do the injection right away. With a deep breath I walked into the back of the office. They opened up his cage so that I could get next to him.
It looked as though they’d bathed him or at least brushed out his hair. He was laying on his side, with his head on the sweatshirt that I’d left there so he could have my scent with him. Dropping to my knees, I leaned into the cage and put my arm around him.
“Archie, mommy’s here.”
At the sound of my voice, Archie pried his head from the pillow and turned. His movement was thick and his drug-addled gaze was glassy and blank. Then he blinked, those clouds cleared for a moment and I was looking into those deep, chocolate eyes I knew so well. He stared into my eyes, right through me as he always did when there was something important to say. And then he blinked again, turning his head away. A deep gasp, followed by another and then a shudder went through his body as it went limp in my arms. And with that, Archie was gone.
Archie was my shadow, my mirror, my confidante. He was my lifeline. He endured the most excruciating moments of my life – from my coming out through the death of my father and everything on the spectrum in between – and he did so with the most incredibly pure love. I am a better woman for having had him in my life.
I know the pain will abate. I know that he’s in a better place. I know that one day another dog will find its way into my life. But for now, I mourn the loss of a spirit whose gentle soul and kind heart have left me changed forever.
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