My Dog Is Dying

And She’s Handling It Far Better Than I Am

Today we found out that our dog Willow has a broken heart. No, it’s really broken and it can’t be fixed; they say she might live another six months — if we’re lucky. I know that in the grand scheme of things her congestive heart failure is not a big a deal. Compared to the tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando and Nice her disease is a nano-event. But after losing one dog less than a month ago, this is a big deal to us. The fact that we may soon go from being a two-dog house to a no dog house is devastating — and it’s unfair. Willow is without a doubt the sweetest and most loving mutt on the planet. She’s young and happy and until a week ago she was full of life. She deserves a much better fate given the joy that she’s given us. And because in spite of her pain and her imminent death, she is teaching me a few more things about life before she goes.

With my apologies to Oscar Wilde for hacking his quote, “To lose one dog may be regarded as misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.” I assure you we were not careless; we loved both of our dogs dearly. Jake the Vizsla was big, energetic, loud and aloof. I brought him home three months before my daughter was born. My wife was a bit preoccupied at the time so she didn’t put up much of a fight. “Every kid needs to grow up with a pet,” I said. Jake tormented us with his rambunctious athleticism for the next fourteen years. My daughter and he grew up together until we put him down this past June.

Willow is Jake’s mirror-opposite. She’s shy but playful, fragile and loyal. We adopted her five years ago. My daughter wanted a dog of her own and after a couple of sketchy but fortunate misses we lucked out and found Willow. Willow is a rescue. I have always said that she won the lottery — she found a great home. But the truth is that we won the lottery when we found her. She was the Yin to Jake’s Yang and has been my daughter’s best friend since the first day she passed through our. The thought of her not being here crushes my heart.

Her disease seemed to come on overnight. We thought maybe she was off her pins because of Jake’s death; we knew that we were. But she got worse fast. I thought she had kennel cough and took her to the vet. He thought she had a heart problem and sent us to a cardiologist. The cardiologist told us she had congestive heart failure and that all we could do was medicate, hope and wait. How the hell does that happen? In less than a week we went from having a thriving canine companion to caring for a terminally-ill pup. I’m still wrapping my head around that — but she’s not. I swear that she’s knows and has accepted her fate and this has given her a self-awareness that few of us ever possess.

Doctors Are a Dangerous

Willow hates doctors and hospitals. She’s obedient and cooperative when we visit the vet but as soon we get back in the car she gives me that look. The one that says, “Really? You think that guy has any better an idea of what I’ve got than I do? You think he’s gonna be able to fix what I have? That check you just wrote isn’t gonna buy me one more day of a quality life.” She doesn’t listen to Dylan or read Stephen King but she understands his line, “…you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.” She knows that all I’m doing is tossing good money after bad and getting worked by a shill in a lab coat. She knows that all of this stuff can only make her life longer and if she could speak she would say no to that. She knows longer is not better.

Drugs Are Worse than Doctors

Even when I’m on the other end of the house, Willow can hear me twist the cap off of her “drugs of the day”. She used to run when she saw me approach offing a treat in one hand and clutching a pill in the other. Now she gives me her other look, the one that says, “Go ahead buddy; cram all those toxins down my throat so you can pretend that whatever I have isn’t there. I’m not buying in. And these side-effects; they suck. How about we maybe just go au naturale with this? Let me be, I’m good with this.” If it were up to her she wouldn’t swallow another pill. She knows a bunch of chemicals in a capsule aren’t going to make her better.

Diet is the Best Medicine

Funny how she has decided that all the junky, human food that we used to toss her is suddenly off the menu. If some doctor tells me I have heart disease and my prognosis is dire I’m thinking maybe Del Taco washed down with a Corona. WTF. Willow’s instincts have taken over and she’s leaving half the stuff we put in her bowl — in her bowl. She knows better.

Boundaries Shrink

Three weeks ago her life was filled with “birds and bunnies”. That’s what we used to say before we went out on our walk. I’d clip the leash on her collar, open up the door and it would be 45 minutes of rabbit and bird hunting. No animals were ever harmed because she’s the worst hunter on the planet; she’d watch them dart off and go to the place they’d left. She didn’t really chase them because she never really wanted to catch them. Today she knows she can’t do either. Birds and bunnies are off the list; her heart and her head tell her that the risk is greater than the reward. We went to the park this morning and it was filled with birds but Willow didn’t so much as look. She knows better.

What Matters Most

Unlike most humans confronted by their mortality, Willow isn’t wrapping up loose ends or working on her legacy. She’s living in the moment and glued to her family. She spends her morning lounging on my daughter’s bed watching her on the computer. She breathes heavy and hard, she coughs a bit but she lifts her head whenever we wander in. When my daughter gets up and moves around the house, Willow is right there with her no matter how hard it is. Because that’s the most important thing in Willow’s life right now and she’s gonna do that until the day she dies. She knows.

What Willow Knows

We all have heart disease. When our heart stops, for whatever reason, we stop. It could be heart disease, cancer, a stroke or a car accident. Regardless of the event the last thing that happens in our life is our heart stops. We can bust our asses to delay that inevitability but we’re not going to avoid it. If I am indeed lucky enough to find out before I die that I’m going to die (not if but when) I hope that I remember all that Willow has taught me. I hope I can remember that doctors are artists (con?), not scientists. That pharmaceuticals and drugs are nothing more than a mirage. That diet makes a difference and that boundaries do shrink. But most of all I hope that I can remember to focus on what matters most. To let them people that have journeyed with me know how important they are. Not doing that when my time comes will render everything before that irrelevant.

When life is easy and things are good and you have time to sit on the porch and watch it flow by people say that you’re “living a dog’s life.” For a moment the thought can make you feel kind of guilty. But then, you smile that “hang-dog” smile because you know that it’s a good thing, a happy thing. I could be so lucky to have lived a life like Willow. And while it may too late to have lived an entire life like hers, I’m hoping to live the rest of it with the same clarity and dignity…and a little luck.