Read Autumn — Chapter 4
Autumn shared her birthday with anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, August 16. I found it remarkable that decades after the man’s death, the date was still so publicly memorialized. Ah, the cult of celebrity. While many lamented the day, we were going to celebrate.
In hindsight, I realize that some of the way I cared for my dog was a little over the top, but I loved her. I did not have any children. To both Dan and me, Autumn was our child. I had many friends with dogs, our parents had dogs, and having a party meant we could invite the dogs, but also see our friends and family. After a year across the country we welcomed this opportunity.
Just as with any birthday party, I sent out invitations to the party to be held in the park near our house. I purchased gifts and wrapped them I bought food, made Autumn a dog food cake, and bought a human cake as well. I also got several balloons. We had celebrated Dan’s birthday when Autumn was five months old. At that celebration, Autumn was thrilled with balloons. She would pounce on them and pop them with her nose. I don’t know how she did it; balloons frighten me, especially near my face.
The day of the party was sun-kissed and warm. The park where the party was to be held was six blocks from our house. I loaded the cakes, food, party favors, and gifts into a wagon and lumbered down to the park to reserve a table. Because of the season, tables were a rare commodity, and one had to arrive early to get one. Autumn was excited by the presents. She kept sniffing in the wagon and trying to remove the packages. I made her wait, pulling her from the toys and asking her to heel.
In spite of the fact that the purported reason for the party was Autumn’s birthday, nearly all the guests we invited showed up to see us, many without their dogs. Both sets of parents, Dan’s grandma, and a half dozen friends arrived to celebrate Autumn’s birth. I played Frisbee with my friends while Dan and his played a mini version of softball. Autumn ran back and forth between both activities, alternately chasing the softball, the Frisbee, or other dogs. Murphee hovered at our feet, willing us to throw balls for her.
When the time came to open gifts, Autumn tore into them. She loved presents. She had discovered at Christmastime that presents meant treats and toys. In fact, for every Christmas for the rest of her life we had to be careful about what gifts were placed under the tree. Even if they weren’t hers, if they contained something she liked, she would root around and find them, tearing off the wrapping to see what was inside. My heart swelled watching her; she was so dear to me and obviously enjoyed her presents.
None of the other dogs were really interested in the cake. They weren’t much interested in Autumn or one another either. Like toddlers at a first birthday party, they were in it for themselves. All the dogs were given treats, and all were allowed to share in the cake, so they went home happy.
I celebrated birthdays for Autumn for the first few years of her life, then we got Molly, and later Milla was born, but for the time, they were a fun way to get together with friends and enjoy our canine friends.
That fall, Autumn started limping after long days at the park or after I took her running with me. It got to be that my runs were take the dog out for a drag rather than taking the dog out for a run. After some months like this, we decided to take Autumn to the vet to find out what was going on.
Since we had arrived back in Oregon, I had taken Autumn to a veterinarian’s office near our house. I had a lot in common with the veterinarian there. His name was Dr. Ken Fletcher, and over time, we became friends.
I adore Dr. Fletcher. After him (who wanted me to go to vet school, and still does in spite of having chosen to go to law school), no other vet could compare. Dr. Ken treated me like a partner in my pet’s care. He told me honestly what I could do myself and what I should let the vet do. He told me how much things cost the vet and what was just junk profit. Basically, he gave me credit for having a brain and for being able to do some things on my own as a collaborator in my pets’ health care. He was not a director who acted as if I could not possibly understand the intricate undertaking of a shot or even more complex aspects of veterinary medicine. He was my partner, and he treated me as someone capable of managing my pets’ health.
When Autumn started having hip problems, Dr. Ken referred me to a specialist in Eugene named Dr. Barclay Slocum. Dr. Slocum was considered the top hip dysplasia doctor in the United States. He had developed the technique used to replace failing hips in dogs, and had performed the surgery on hundreds, if not thousands of dogs.
Dan and I made the drive south to meet Dr. Slocum and to look at Autumn’s hips. Dr. Fletcher had explained to us that if Autumn did indeed have hip dysplasia, the cost would run into the thousands of dollars. We were apprehensive because we knew if she did have the problem, we would not be able to afford to fix it, and we doubted our parents would lend us the money.
Dr. Slocum’s clinic was slick and professional. There was a room with a glass window where we could watch as they anesthetized our dog and took the x-rays of her pelvis. Autumn had to be asleep because they would lay her on her back and press her pelvis open, which would be difficult and painful if she were awake.
An unassuming man with careful bedside manner, Dr. Slocum spent some time with us explaining what would happen that day, as well as what would follow. During our conversation, an assistant came and took Autumn away. She was apprehensive, turning to look back at Dan and me as she was led into the other room. Tears welled behind my eyes. She looked so vulnerable and frightened.
Watching as the technicians worked on Autumn while she was anesthetized was heartbreaking. She lay on her back, her head tilted, her tongue pulled out to one side with a tube protruding from her mouth and throat. My chest tightened in apprehension; she was so still, and with her tongue out, she looked dead. Dan decided to wait in the other room, unable to bear watching, but I could not leave her. I held my fist to my lips, watching as she lay there, prostrate. She looked dead. It killed me.
The tests revealed that Autumn did indeed have hip dysplasia. Not only did she have the disorder, she had one of the most severe cases the doctor had seen. He explained that the hip sockets were supposed to be round so they would hold the head of the femur at the joint. Autumn’s were flat. Every step she took, her femur rotated back and forth across the flat plain of her pelvic bone.
Dr. Slocum displayed Autumn’s x-rays for us to see. The image looked like a Rorschach blot. As the doctor pointed out to us what the hips were supposed to look like, it was obvious that Autumn’s were a mess.
The cost to perform the surgery was several thousands of dollars. In addition, recovery would take nearly a year, as first one hip had to be replaced, then recovery, then the second hip.
We waited for Autumn to wake up from her anesthesia. She cried and yipped, kicking her feet. Both of us pet her and held her even though the technician had assured us that such behavior was normal when anesthesia was wearing off. It still scared me; she sounded in pain. Once she was up and awake again, at least somewhat, the technicians took her vital signs and pronounced her ready to go. Leaving the clinic and driving north to home, Dan and I were heartbroken. We knew it would be difficult to come up with the money, not while we were both full-time students, and working minimally. We were also really worried about the intensity of the surgery and the recovery time. Autumn would essentially be out of commission for a year. I held her in my lap and stroked the fur on her head. I loved this dog.
Once we arrived home, I made an appointment with Dr. Fletcher to go over the results. A week later, Dan and I met with him to discuss what to do.
“You know,” Dr. Fletcher informed me, as we sat with him in his office, stroking Autumn’s bunny soft ears as he spoke, “There is research out now that suggests that sometimes the best thing to do with dogs like Autumn is to wait and see.”
I raised my eyebrows at him and looked at Dan. This seemed to be an odd approach.
“I know it sounds strange, but you won’t lose anything by waiting. Her hips are what they are and the bones are not going to change shape for the worse. Basically you strengthen Autumn’s muscles by taking her swimming,” he said. “There isn’t any impact and over time, the stronger muscles keep the head of the bone in place where the socket can’t.”
It was worth a try. We couldn’t afford the surgery, and even if our parents were to lend us the money, the surgery would have meant Autumn would have to stay in a kennel for months, and then allowed gradual exercise for a year. I could not see putting her through that.
In the end we decided to try Dr. Fletcher’s approach, not only because of the cost of the surgery, but also because of the length of recovery, and we could change our minds if her situation worsened. Primarily it came down to the impact it would have on her quality of life during the prime of her youth. We just couldn’t do that to her.
I began walking Autumn down to the park near our house where a medium-sized creek ran into the swift Willamette River. Up the creek a half mile or so, there were several swimming holes that were ideal for taking a dog. They were off the main path where people liked to congregate, and Autumn loved the water, probably more than anything other than eating. She would jump in any puddle, any pool, any lake, any river. Basically if it was wet, she wanted to be in it. Since the diagnosis came in the middle of the summer, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Nearly every day I took Autumn out to swim. At first, she tired pretty quickly, but as she became fitter, she could swim for a couple of hours without tiring. She would chase any stick, no matter where we threw it, and retrieve it. We would toss colored balls or frisbees into the water and tell her which one to get. Always smart and attuned to our body language, she quickly figured out which was the green ball or the red frisbee, and would swim out to wherever to bring them back to us.
One scorching summer, in an effort to escape the heat vibrating off the cement and buildings in the city, I took Autumn along with my friends Debbie and Robert, and we drove out into the countryside. As we wound out into the hills, the air became cooler and more tolerable. We came upon a rocky stream, and pulled over to wet our feet.
Autumn jumped from the truck and scurried down the embankment straight into the water. We followed more gingerly, seeking to protect our ankles and backsides from a fall down the gravely ridge.
The edge of the stream was covered in lumpy, grey river rocks. Another fifteen feet in from the bank, trees hung low. The water was runoff from the nearby Cascade mountains. Even in late August, the water remained icy cool. Logs littered the bank, evidence of winter storms and raging water, days when the stream was not nearly so docile.
I was wearing a bathing suit under my t-shirt and shorts, and quickly stripped down before wading midstream to my waist. Debbie and Robert simply waded out in their clothes. At its middle, the stream was about four feet deep, and fifteen feet across.
On days such as this, it was as if Autumn had been reincarnated from a fish. She swam and swam, lapping and biting at stream bubbles, her legs churning under the water. I would throw sticks for her, she would calculate where the stick would arrive as the water moved rapidly downstream, and meet the stick before it passed her. On the few occasions the stick made it past before she reached it, she would swim faster, chasing it like a mad beaver determined to create a dam. Debbie and Robert laughed at Autumn and her water antics. She was obviously having fun.
After tossing sticks for a bit, I sat down on one of the logs in a sunbeam to dry and warm my legs. Autumn dragged herself out of the water and shook vigorously, sending droplets every which way. She then bounded over to me and grasped a rock from the pile at my feet, picking it up and tossing it in my lap.
“Ow!” I exclaimed. That hurt! “I will throw rocks for you, but don’t hit me with them.” I stood and chose a rock for Autumn to chase, locating one the size of a plum. Autumn danced at my feet, barking. Throw it! She seemed to say.
I tossed the stone into the river. Autumn turned and hurled herself into the water, dove beneath the surface, then reappeared nearly immediately, a rock in her jaws.
Debbie, Robert, and I stared at one another.
“Do you think it is the same rock?” I asked.
“No,” Robert answered in his baritone, grumbly voice. “She just found a rock.”
“But it looks like the same rock,” I stated, and Debbie nodded, agreeing with me.
“Let’s throw in another one and see if she gets it,” I said, already choosing a rock. I looked at it closely to see whether we could identify it as the same rock, then threw it into the water. Autumn had dropped the original rock at my feet and turned to race back into the water after the second one. She plunged into the water, disappeared for a moment, then popped up a moment later, swam to shore and dropped the rock at my feet. She didn’t even shake off the water, but stood dripping expectantly, waiting for another throw.
I examined the sopping stone at my feet. There was no way I could tell if it was the same rock and told Debbie and Robert as much.
Robert pulled a pocket knife from one of the many pockets covering the overalls he wore, his default uniform regardless of the weather or occasion.
“We can use this to mark the rock, then we can tell if it is the same one,” he said as he picked up a rock and carved a long groove into pale grey surface. He then dunked it in the water to see whether the mark was still visible. It was.
Robert handed the rock to me and I threw it out into the water. Autumn zoomed in after it.
Moments later she dropped the marked rock at my feet. Amazing.
We played this game for a while, then I went out into the water with her. I wanted to see what she looked like under the water as she retrieved.
Robert found and marked a rock, tossed it, and just as the rock pierced the surface of the water, I held my breath and went under. I could see the rock as it slowed dramatically and settled onto the floor of the creek bed. I also saw Autumn watching the rock as it landed. She kept her eyes open underwater so she could pick the correct stone! The dog loved water, there was no denying it.
In time, it became apparent that swimming was ideal for Autumn’s hip problems. Gradually she stopped having episodes of pain and limping. Over the years as she aged and developed other health issues, I was only able to take her swimming a couple of times a year, but she never experienced problems with her hips again. Dr. Fletcher still uses her story as an example to patients who come to him with dysplasia dogs as proof that surgery may not always be necessary.
Read Autumn — Chapter 6