Cody, the Aristocrat (a.k.a Little Big Dog) hamming it up for the camera on a royal pillow

The Love of a Dog and How They’ve Taught Me to Appreciate Life

I was sitting beside him when it all happened — just having taken him out to do his business and getting him a fresh treat. He always fidgets to and fro after a treat or eating. It seems to have something to do with his lack of teeth — he has none, not even one. Maybe the food gets stuck in his gums. I’m not sure. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. But, the fidgeting seemed different this time — more erratic.

I sensed something was amiss and looked over to see Cody seizing up, his legs stiffening and his head jerking back and forth. My heart stopped and my brain took a few seconds to digest what my eyes were seeing. Something was wrong — really wrong.

In an adrenaline rush, I snatched him up, moving towards the door of our fourth-floor condo. I fumbled with my keys, dropping them twice before I could get the door locked and a few minutes later I was doing 65 in a 45 heading down Lake Cook Road to the veterinary emergency center. My heart was sinking and suddenly everything that had been important a few moments earlier now seemed so distant and trivial.

What we find important in life is a matter of perspective and is always relative to our situation.

I used to play this game when I was a kid. I’d close my eyes and try to capture a moment in time. My first memory of this involved my sister throwing a ball through a sprinkler in our yard. I must have only been 8-years-old or so. I closed my eyes just as the ball passed through the cascading water and like a camera shutter cycling, I captured the image. I could see it just like a photograph in my head and I still can. I wondered, at the time, if I would remember that moment in 5, 10 or 20 years. I wondered where I would be and what I would be doing.

It was a mind-boggling thought at that age. I thought I would be a kid forever and couldn’t imagine being an adult. But in that moment, I wondered where I would be at 20 or 30 years of age. Would I even still be alive? What would it be like to be an adult?

Even at that age, I was cognizant of how quickly time passes. I would play this game for many years and like looking through a photo album of the past, I can still recall many times where I captured a moment — pausing briefly to meditate on it. I still do this as an adult, but the moments I choose to save usually have a little more gravity or importance than a ball passing through a sprinkler.

It’s really no longer a “game” I play so much as it is a method of savoring a moment in life. Graduations, weddings, birthdays and sometimes just the little moments in life are what I choose to save. We have limited time on this planet and I find it interesting at how quickly it can slip by without notice — how quickly we can lose what we never took the time to savor or appreciate.

What seems trivial in our lives is often what is most important. We rush around running our errands, attending our meetings and managing the mundane. We miss a beautiful sunrise or a sunset and all of the tender moments between.

As I pull into the veterinary specialty center, Cody is on my lap. I don’t usually let him ride in the car this way but it was the only way I could keep him comfortable. He has a strange tilt to his head and is swaying it back and forth — involuntarily, I suspect. His legs are still twitching and I think it may be a stroke.

I held him the whole way to the ER while whispering everything would be okay. I didn’t know if that were true. And, I didn’t know if I was saying it for him or for me or for both of us. I had woken up that morning thinking it would be another day at the office mentally running through a checklist of the meetings and items I would need to attend to. In an instant, none of that seemed important and the world took on a darker hue.

I curse because I cannot find a parking spot and then see one in the front. I quickly park and am nearly hit by an SUV as I run to the door of the vet center. I curse again.

I am gripping Cody tight to my chest as I run through the doors. The front desk is clear and I run to the nearest receptionist. And then I say it. “I have an emergency.” As the words tumble out of my mouth, my eyes well up. It is as if by somehow speaking the words and uttering this phrase to another human being, the truth of the situation becomes a reality. I’m close to losing all of my composure because I believe I am close to losing my last dog and best friend.

It’s been four years since I said goodbye to my first dog, Jasmine. I don’t know where the time has gone. But, I do know I have thought of her every day for all of those four years and perpetually recall all of the moments I saved and savored with her.

My wife and I thought Cody, our surviving dog and Jasmine’s best little buddy, would not survive long after Jasmine’s death. I wrote of Cody a few years ago when we discovered he had a slowly progressing kidney disease and didn’t think he would survive much more than a year beyond that diagnosis. I wrote of him last year and the comical nature of his senior moments. I thought, then, I wouldn’t have him much longer. But a year later, the little trooper is still alive.

We have had plenty of scares and there has been more than one time where we thought we might be “at the end” of things with him. There was a blood clot a year ago, a nasty bout of stomach flu just before that and he tore his ACL on Memorial Day weekend of this year. He could barely walk for 6–8 weeks and he is still having trouble.

All of this time, I have savored moments with this scruffy little Maltese who has a spirit larger than life. I capture as many moments as I can and make it a point each day to pause and tell myself it could be my last day with him. Doing this helps me appreciate the time I have with him. And I know from my experience in doing this with Jasmine, I will thank myself later on when I must grieve his passage to the nether realms.

This past month, Cody had his annual appointment with the “Dog Doctor.” Cody was, for as long as I can remember, a steady 7.5 pounds. No matter how many treats I gave him (and I freely admit to spoiling him) or how much he ate, he always seemed to maintain that weight. This past year, he lost a pound and hit 6.5 on the scale. But, last month I was alarmed to weigh him in at 5.7 pounds when we visited the vet. A two-pound loss is a significant percentage of body weight for a 7.5 pound animal. Part of this is natural to aging. He is losing muscle mass. Another part of it is the progression of his kidney disease.

We had his blood work done and Cody’s numbers relating to kidney function doubled this year. Some numbers tripled. Up until now, his numbers had held steady. The special diet food he was on appeared to be helping significantly. But, it seems as if we have reached the end of the road with that solution. We now have him on blood pressure medication, an antacid to help with his stomach (kidney disease causes a buildup of stomach acid) and an aspirin to help with blood clots (which could diminish some of the effects of the antacid medicine).

I have pronounced myself Cody’s medication administrator…and chef. Daily, and because he has no teeth, I crush his tablets and mix them into his wet food. Some mornings I am in a hurry and feel taxed with the extra care I have to give a senior dog. But, I quickly remind myself: I get to do this. It’s a gift. Because when Cody is gone, I know I would gladly give anything to be able to serve him one more day.

I truly have a geriatric dog at this point. He has trouble walking, no longer runs or chases me down the hall as he once did only 6 months ago and spends most of his day sleeping. As a result of his condition, he is carried everywhere like a little king. It is questionable as to how alert he is or whether dementia has begun to take hold of his mind. I feel as though I am waiting for the other shoe to fall, but cannot find any reason to believe his quality of life has diminished to the point where we are doing him an injustice in keeping him alive. He does not appear to be suffering, still wags his tail, eats copiously and is always ready for a treat.

I have worked in healthcare for many years now and remember the first hospital I worked in. I spent a lot of time researching with nurses and a lot of time with the subject of death and dying. I remember a nurse talking with me once about quality of life and how hard it is to balance quality of life with hospice care in patients. Some people will live through hell just to have one more day of life accepting any medical treatment that shows remote promise. Others will surrender refusing any further treatment realizing they can no longer live life the way they once did and the life they will live under medical care will not be one worth living.

It is rather unfortunate animals cannot make this choice for themselves. But, I have been preparing myself for the day when I have to decide Cody no longer has quality of life. I did the same with Jasmine and it was a tremendously difficult decision to make. When they will no longer eat, get up or even wag their tails, it is time — their time.

While I am prepared as much as one can be for that day with Cody, I am still in his corner and rooting for him each and every day. On those days when it is just him and I on the couch, I’ll pet his scruffy little mane and whisper, “Just one more day, my little friend. Just one more day.” But, I know all I really have is today with him. Isn’t that all any of us have — just this day?

The receptionist at the specialty center makes one call and a team of veterinarians comes rushing to me through double doors. They take a quick look at Cody while asking me questions and then motion for me to hand him over to them. He’s shivering and twitching. He’s scared. I’m scared.

I don’t want to hand him over. I don’t want to let him go because if these are his last moments, I want to be with him. In this instant, letting them take him from me seems symbolic. A vet looks back at me as she walks through the double doors. She asks if it is okay to catheterize him with an IV. I nod and say yes.

I am left with an empty feeling and an assistant who is trying to find me in their system. She’s using a tablet and asking me questions — my name, address, wife’s name. She can’t find me and each search on the tablet seems to take longer than it should. Time has slowed down. All I can think about is why in the world did they think a tablet was a good idea in this setting. In frustration, I ask her if she would like to go to the front and search on a real computer. She declines.

I realize, at this point, I have not contacted my wife. I am trying to text her while answering the assistant’s questions. I manage to get a text sent in between answers, tempering my frustration with all of the questions. When the assistant is finished, she leads me to a private room where I am to wait. I sit, I wait and I think about how isolating this experience is. Emergency situations like this always seem to leave you separated from the one you love while you wait for answers. Time seems to inch along and I am stuck with only my own thoughts of Cody.

Last week, I was digging around online and wondering what the oldest recorded Maltese was. I never found it. But, I did find a list of the oldest dogs as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. There are 18 dogs on the list and the last 7 on the list are 20 years and some odd days old. Cody turned 19 in April. If he makes it past this coming spring, he stands a chance to immortalize himself by making the list.

I’m cheering him on — not just because he could make the Guinness Book of World Records, but because I want to capture more moments with him and savor the twilight of his existence. He’s no longer the dog I adopted when I married my wife. He’s mine and I am his. (Truly, he adopted me.) He has become a part of me, a part of my day and a way in which I ground my own existence.

Back at the veterinary center, I text and call my wife’s multiple numbers while I wait. A vet soon enters the room and explains the possible diagnoses to me. She also explains what can be done at this point. We talk briefly and she departs to work up some estimates for the different interventions.

Cody is finally brought back to me in the private room. Five pounds of scruff, shivering and shaking, he quickly collapses into me, nuzzling his head into the crook of my arm. I am just as scared and confused as he — only for different reasons. Cody had what we, at first, believed was a minor stroke. I decide not to put him through a battery of tests and do not know for sure what happened with him.

I receive the estimates and they offer to keep him overnight — observe him. I decline. They will only observe him, give him fluids and some motion sickness medicine for what we believe is vestibular dysfunction. I figure Cody would rather be at home with me on his little bed. I can’t bear the thought of him caged all night as we have never kenneled him.

That evening he begins to return to normal. The head tilt goes away. The twitching stops. Over the next few days he continues to improve. I was sure we were at the end with Cody. I truly believed this was his moment — the moment where he would journey from this life to nothingness, stolen away from me by cruel forces of nature and the inexplicable laws of existence. But, it was not to be.

This is the third time in the past year I have walked into a pet hospital thinking Cody’s life was about to end. This is the third time in the past year I have thought my life was about to end as I know it. Life won’t be the same without him. It’s exhausting to think you are so close to the edge with an animal and be pulled back each time. I am grateful for each extra day with him — but mentally and physically exhausted each time this happens. It’s almost a form of torture.

As I finish this article, the rain is lightly tapping against the French doors of our fourth floor condo while the trees bend in the wind. Cody is lightly snoring beside me on the couch where I make a special bed for him with pillows and a neatly folded blanket. It’s his spot and many days he will not settle into this spot unless I am sitting beside him. Many days, I have to sit beside him until he settles into his dozing routine and then carefully get up and slip away to do the other less important things I must attend to in life.

I watch over him as the rain beats down and I want to pet him. But, I resist the urge for fear of waking him up. We humans always seem to want more — rarely able to simply enjoy a moment as it is without our interference. I’m no exception. But, I do manage to resist this time and smile at his tiny snores.

In this moment, I can’t help but briefly wonder where I will be in 5 years. What will I be doing? What will my life will be like? This much I know is true: Should I be so lucky as to still walk this earth, I will still be grieving the loss of my good friend Cody.

But for today, I just enjoy the moment and capture it — my little moment of time in a bottle. And then it is gone.

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Chris Kiess

Chris Kiess

Healthcare User Experience Designer in the Greater Chicago area