Autumn — Chapter 17

Read Autumn — Chapter 16

The day Autumn died, I woke up and did not immediately know this would be the day. She was lying in the living room, half on the hardwood floors and halfway on the rug. She barely looked up to acknowledge my entering the room, a sure sign something was off, but she had been listless for days because of the unusual heat.

The night before, she had been so hot. So hot that after I removed her from the tiles on the bathroom floor and placed her in a cold bath, the place where her tummy had been touching the floor remained warm for hours. Literally hours. A sick and dreadful feeling filled my stomach when I walked into that bathroom so long after putting her in that bath and could feel the warmth in the floor where she had been.

The heat of those summer days finished her off, I have no doubt of it. She could not withstand the hundred degree temperatures. The last few days before she died, I would come home and find her inert with exhaustion. She would not move. Her stomach would feel like an iron. I would then run a bath of cool water and lay her in it. This perked her up because she needed that cooling off. I don’t know whether her body was incapable of regulating its temperature anymore. The diabetes did so much else to her body; I could see it killing her thermometer too.

That morning, she was lying there and I didn’t immediately register how badly she was doing. I began to get ready for work, roused Milla out of bed, was busily doing my thing, when I made a horrific discovery.

Neon green ooze had leaked of Autumn. It looked like she had peed and was lying in it, but it was not yellow. The color was not anything I had seen from a living thing before, the color of a summer lime popsicle. My entire body went cold upon seeing that ooze. I carefully cleaned it up and moved Autumn into the kitchen. She was more listless than ever. She could barely stand. My throat was tight. It was beginning to dawn that she would not reach her twelfth birthday.

What was that, the desire for her to reach another birthday? All along while dealing with this wretched disease, I had wanted her to reach another birthday. After her initial diabetic episode, I was not sure she would ever reach her eleventh birthday. Then it was Christmas. Then I began to think maybe she would just keep living through a few birthdays, just looking like a skeleton.

I realize now she was gradually worsening, but having her there with me every day I did not notice the decline. Up until three weeks before her death she still liked chasing things. She couldn’t see while she was chasing things, so we had to accommodate, but she still liked doing it. She even seemed to enjoy looking for the ball or stick or toy she could not see.

That’s the trouble with living with a degenerative disease; you don’t notice the degeneration because you’re so busy managing it. And when the good days completely outweigh the bad, which Autumn’s did, it is easy to forget that the one you’re taking care of is on her way out of this world.

And for some reason I had arbitrarily decided that Autumn had to make it to August 16 and her twelfth birthday. It was like that day could save her somehow, even though I knew in my gut it was not true.

While lying in the kitchen, more neon green ooze came out and she just laid in it. It was this that made it clear to me that Autumn was finally really dying. I gave her an insulin shot. I tried to feed her, but she would not eat. She would not even eat wet food. More dread. More tightening in the throat and drying in the mouth.

I knew.

I debated taking her to work with me, initially deciding against it. Then as I bustled about, fitting into the routine that made forgetting easier for the moment, I realized that if I did not take her to work with me I would not see her this last day and I could not do that.

I worried about the office, whether anyone would care that I dragged in my skeleton dog. I worried about her needing to go potty. I finally decided to bring a towel and tell anyone who cared that this child of mine, my first baby I picked out the day she was born, was dying and if that person was heartless enough to tell me to take her away I would tell them to go to hell, but no one did. No one said a word. If I hadn’t had clients, I would not have gone, but I’ve figured out working on my own that I am the only backup, the biggest drawback to self-employment.  The clients who came to see me that day were extremely sympathetic.  One woman who came in shared a similar story of losing her own beloved pet.

I still have the bowl Autumn drank from the day she died. I cannot bear to put it back in the office kitchen. The day I returned to the office after she died I bawled when I saw that bowl. I had heard people speak of feeling “raw” and I now know what they meant. I felt absolutely exposed those first days after she was gone, like nothing was protecting me. Vulnerable. Words I had heard and sort of experienced, but not like this. No, this was worse.

Watching someone gradually die is the epitome of the expression a blessing and a curse. You are blessed with having your loved one there with you, but you are cursed with their disease. One minute you are wishing they would just finally go, the next minute you are thrashing yourself for the thought, the guilt a cloak you wear constantly. When they finally go, those moments creep up on you, those moments when you had ardently wished the afflicted would die, and you curse yourself, wondering whether your wishes contributed to their demise, knowing intellectually this is not possible, then reasoning emotionally that perhaps the dying one felt your anger and this brought their death sooner. Guilt:  a horrible, ugly poison.

I know guilt is not one of the traditional stages of grieving, but they ought to add it to the list for those of us who have lived with someone who has a degenerative illness. It has to be there for all of us. I cannot imagine anyone being a one-hundred percent perfect nurse to a degenerative patient, and those moments when you are not perfect come back to haunt you. Maybe only a little bit, but they are there. I like to think I’m an emotionally healthy person. I’ve managed to talk myself out of those moments, but they came up nonetheless and they can be brutal during the first days after the loved one dies. Like little bits of acid spray on the raw wound of grief.

Mostly though, I remember Autumn with tenderness and affection. Her body was so decrepit in the end, such a mess. A few months after her death, I watched a video I took of her two weeks before that day and her body was an emaciated skeleton. So sad. I took the video that morning because I thought that was her last day, rather than the day she actually died.

Throughout her life Autumn followed me wherever I would go, no matter how trivial or short the trip. Going into the kitchen for a glass of water?  There was Autumn, at my side. Going for a short visit to the toilet?  Autumn would rise from wherever she had been lying, follow me in, sighing heavily as she laid down next to me, then rising again thirty seconds later to follow me back to wherever I had been.

On that last day, when work was over, I picked Milla up from school and we headed south out of town for Dr. Fletcher’s in Albany. Debbie and Robert maintained a phone link, planning to be there for me in the end. I called Dr. Fletcher as well, to let him know we were on our way.

It was a warm day, hot and yellow. Autumn lay on the front seat, curled up. I kept petting her and sobbing. During those moments I kept thinking to myself that in an hour and a half, she would not be there anymore, that I would drive home without her, that I would never see her again. Ever. The finality was like a cement brick to the head. I could barely drive through my tears.

When Autumn was little and she rode in the car with me, she would lay her head across my forearm as I held the gear shift. As we drove, I placed my arm on the seat next to her and she rested her head there, our last moment a microcosm of our life together, our last hour.

The sun was still fairly high when we arrived at Dr. Fletcher’s near 6:00 that evening. The air outside the car was hot, so I left Autumn in the air-conditioning while I went inside to let Dr. Fletcher know that we had arrived. Debbie and Robert had already arrived and were waiting for us.

It’s odd. Since that evening, I’ve had many moments of extreme stress where my body felt like it could barely handle taking another step, but my mind knew it had to and forced it to keep going, but that night I had not experienced anything like that in my life before, and it felt overwhelming, that forcing myself to go when I did not want to.

I returned to the car and carefully lifted Autumn from the seat. I held her close and walked over to a grassy spot next to the parking lot. She was so light, barely fur and bones. I held her closely in my lap. She did not lift her head or try to walk around as she had the many times she’d been there before. I just held her, and pet her, and told her how much I loved her. Milla crouched at my side, her hand on Autumn’s neck. Autumn had been a part of her life since birth. Debbie and Robert stood next to us, and Robert snapped a couple of photos.

Dr. Fletcher held a large syringe filled with pink liquid as he walked from his office and across the lot to us. He did not say anything, he just walked up and put the needle in her forearm, then whispered to me to talk to her.

She died almost immediately. I pictured her spirit fleeing that prison of a body, flying off into the ether, she left so fast.

Earlier that year, my mom had to put her dog to sleep. It took him several minutes to die. Autumn died so quickly, it just seemed like an escape. I truly imagined her flying away.

Dr. Fletcher helped me to place her body in the wooden box I had brought to bury her in. It’s a strange experience, carrying a box with you to hold the body of someone who is alive when you start out, but whom you know will be dead, so you carry a place to put them when it’s over.

I buried her in Debbie’s back yard. I wanted her in a place I knew I could come to for as long as I lived. I wrapped her in a special blanket and covered her with a shirt of mine. She looked curled up, like she was sleeping. I have seen a dead human once; that person did not look asleep to me, but very dead. Autumn was not like this. I know it sounds almost trite, but she just looked peaceful, resting. Useful words to describe how it is.

It took a long time to dig the hole, longer than I expected, plus it was hot and the ground was really hard. I had to pick with a pickaxe, then dig with a shovel, then pick again. It was after dark by the time the digging was complete.

Before I lowered the box into the hole, I opened it, and pet and kissed Autumn goodbye, even though she was not really there. I knew once she went into the ground, I would never, ever see her body again. Months later I would imagine losing control and going there, digging up the grave, and opening the box, just so that the last time I saw her wouldn’t have to be.

I found a perfect chunk of stone to place at the head of her grave. I surrounded it with bricks. A couple of weeks later, I came back and planted flowers all over the spot, a floral island in Debbie and Robert’s weedy back landscape.

When I visited the grave the following spring ten months later, the yard was full of wild and brown grass and weeds. Yet Autumn’s grave was covered with green, a grass that was a foot taller than the rest of the grass in the yard. It was a soft, green rhombus, Autumn’s little bed in the middle of the field.

Epilogue
Autumn’s was the first major death in my life that I actually remember.  My grandma died when I was two, and apparently I missed her, but obviously a death at that age is nothing like death as an adult, or even as an older child.  The only other death I have experienced since Autumn is Robert’s, which broke my heart.  He died five years after she did, nearly to the day, of complications due to kidney failure.

Having now experienced the death of a close human, I can honestly say that Autumn’s loss was no less for me.  I grieved her closely for years.  Eight months after she died, I wrote in my journal that I was still mourning:

I ask myself why this grief can return so fresh eight months after her death. Then I realize that if she had been human, no one would begrudge my feeling this way, and I’m questioning the depth of my feelings because she was a dog.

I sat on the floor last evening near the couch and thought of Autumn and realized again that she will never be here. Ever. I hate the finality of that. I hate missing her so much. I hate the way it makes my heart hurt. I hate that I’m not allowed to feel this much pain because she is a dog and not a human. I loved her so much. I loved her more than any human until Milla was born. She was my first child. Of course I grieve. And I should not question that it has been eight months, or that she was a dog.

The idea for a book about her life tickled my brain shortly after she left me, and so I wrote down my memories of her death and illness while the pain was still fresh so I would not forget.  Then I had to put the book aside.  I could not write about her as a puppy without crying so profusely that I could not continue. Every so often I would remember something and take a note:  Don’t forget this about her! the note would read, whether it was the way she hopped up and down when I toweled her dry after a bath, or how she liked to hunt beetles.  Autumn, killer of domestic bugs.

Autumn’s death was the first in a series of life events that nearly brought me to my knees, metaphorically speaking.  Sad but true, the timing of her death in relation to everything else was actually fortuitous.  Things went rather south with Bjorn once he entered a new relationship, and we suffered a rather protracted court battle for the better part of a year.  During that time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Bjorn’s new partner filed a bar complaint against me that lasted nearly a year.  The area of law I practice changed laws and my earnings plummeted to zero.  Rather than lose the lovely little house into which I had poured so much of my energy, I sold it shortly before the economy crashed.

I am not so sure I could have managed Autumn’s illness while handling so many difficulties of my own.  Yet perhaps I underestimate myself. It is amazing what one can endure when one has to, simply by placing one foot in front of the other, from one day to the next.  Perhaps too, in living with her various degenerative ailments, I acquired the discipline necessary to meet further challenges.

Two months before Autumn died, I adopted an older greyhound.  Her name was Edna, and surprisingly, she was a source of comfort in the months after Autumn’s death.  She came to us having spent the bulk of her life in a kennel on racetracks.  She had raced eight times and failed miserably at it, whereupon she was turned into a breeding dog.  Edna had no idea how to traverse stairs or eat anything but kibble in a bowl.  Teaching her these things and watching her make new discoveries was an utter delight.  She brought us joy during those sorrowful days after Autumn’s death.

In April 2009 Molly suffered a severe seizure. The seizure was horrible.  When I woke to her twisted body writhing on the floor, her eyes rolling in two different directions, feces and urine everywhere, I thought for sure she was dead.  But she did not die.  Three hours later, to the surprise of everyone who had seen her, especially the vet, Molly was 95% better.  And she stayed better.  The vet warned me that more seizures were to come, that she likely had a brain tumor and would continue to seize until one of them killed her, but that never happened.  She never had another seizure.

Then four months later, Molly seemed to deteriorate before our eyes.  She fell down the stairs to my boyfriend’s basement.  She had been having difficulty with stability on slippery floors for some time and those stairs were covered in linoleum.  She stopped wanting to eat.  We thought maybe hard kibble was bothering her so we bought wet food for her.  Molly gobbled that up like a starving beast and we thought things would improve, only the next day she did not want to eat wet food either.  We fed her some by hand and she ate that, but the next day she wanted even less.  Two days later when we took her outside to go to the bathroom, she slipped and fell going up the back porch steps, and the next day when she went out to go to the bathroom, she urinated, then lay in it.  Clearly something was dreadfully wrong.  My dear, sweet, fastidious dog would never go anywhere near her urine if she could help it.  We bathed her and I made an appointment with our vet.

Molly died the next morning.  The vet said she had a large tumor in her spleen that had burst and her belly was full of blood.  She said we could operate to remove the tumor, but Molly would likely not survive any surgery — there would have been no benefit in trying to save her life.  She was fourteen years old.  Her body was old and worn out.  Trying to keep her alive would have been selfish and cruel.

I am so blessed this creature was a part of my life for almost twelve years.  She was always there, quietly in the background.  Molly loved a lot of people.  She was always so excited to see my mom or my good friends.  She loved my boyfriend and enjoyed his company, following him around the house for a snack or to have her rear end scratched.  She took a bit of time to warm up to a person, almost like she was sizing them up to determine whether they were worth her friendship.  Yet once she decided she liked you, she always liked you and would remember someone after months or even years of an absence.

Upon hearing of her death, a close friend of mine said to me, “She was such a good friend and such a polite and gentle dog.  What a blessing to have had her for so long – she loved you all dearly.”  These words were simply true.  I am grateful Molly came to us. In her quiet way she was a fixture in my life for over a decade.  Of the hundreds of dogs I could have chosen from the humane society that cold, winter day, I am so thankful I chose her.

In winter of 2009 I moved to New York.  I had been telling Milla for months that after school let out for the summer, I would get her a small dog of her own.  During the school year, we would prowl shelters and pet stores, seeing what was out there, looking for a new friend.

One afternoon in April, we stopped in a dog store after going out to a movie.  While there, a small, impish, white maltipoo greeted me with enthusiasm and delight.  She climbed up on the railing to the display area, hanging over the bars begging me to pet her.  She was utterly charming.

The store owners brought the little dog into a fenced area in the middle of the store so we could play with her.  Milla and I sat and enjoyed her company for a half an hour before she wore herself out and settled in for a nap.  As we rose to leave, I reached over the bars and lay my hand on her side.  Something traveled between us in that moment.  I felt her entire body relax beneath my fingers. She sighed and stretched her legs.

After we left I could not get the little dog out of my head.  She was ridiculously expensive and I had determined we would be adopting a shelter dog.  However, I kept thinking of her and early the next morning, which was Easter, I decided that I would call the pet store.  If they were open, I would offer them less than half their asking price for her, the same price I would pay to adopt a dog in New York.  If they accepted, I would go and get her. I called the store, they were open, and they accepted my price immediately.  Milla and I rode the subway north to Washington Heights and brought her home with us. I named her Ava.

I fell immediately in love with this delightful creature.  There are some just dog things, such as the way they trot in front of you with their ears back, heading where you’re heading, that I adore in this dog of mine.  I love how wherever I go in the house she follows me, like Autumn did.  It was one of the hardest things to lose when she died.

Ava also has her own unique quirks that I specially love about her.  She sits on my feet.  If I am in a place and standing and talking or sitting and talking to someone else, she perches on my foot.  She will do this when I am saying goodbye to Milla as she leaves the house to go do something and I am staying home.  Ava sits there on my foot, as if to say I am staying here with herYou go have fun.  We will be here when you get back. Then as I move into the house to do whatever, she follows me.

She likes to sit on the corner of my bed look out the window or watch me while I’m sitting at my desk.  She hovers with her paws over the edge of the bed frame, her head rested on them, looking at me.

Ava makes distinct faces all her own.  The most common is what I call her happy face, her mouth slightly open, tongue out, eyes bright, often one ear cocked.  She’ll turn her head slightly as if to ask Do you want to play? In these moments I stop what I’m doing and play with her.

In the morning, when she wakes up, she has the most incredible bed head.  Her eyes are all sleepy, her hairs all akimbo.  She’ll crawl to the top of the bed, as if the effort is more than she can bear, then sigh and relax as we snuggle and pet her.

Later, wild dog comes out, chasing bears and fozzies, rattling them mightily from side to side until they are dead.  Sometimes she brings them to us and requests that we throw them.  We do, because watching her little sheep butt run away to get them is one of life’s greatest joys.  She does not like these stuffed creatures to see anything.  Within a half an hour of getting a new stuffed toy she removes its eyes.  Perhaps she does not want it to see her remove all its innards piece by piece.  More likely she loves that the pieces are hard and fun to chew.

After Ava has a bath she runs through the house like she’s on fire, ears back, bolting from room to room. What is that, dogs running after baths?  I understand their desire to rub themselves dry on the floor, but the running around after, I wonder why.  Almost every dog I have ever owned has gone running after getting a bath.  However, none of them have run like Ava does.  The others have all just gone for their run to dive into their rubs.  This one just runs like a bat out of hell from room to room, then comes and stares at me with the happy face, tongue lolling out, eyes bright. Then off she goes again to make another round.  It’s hilarious.

Ava isn’t thrilled with the bath itself.  She is actually one of the more obnoxious dogs I have had to bathe.  It’s a good thing she is small and easy to hold down because she really hates it and tries to escape.  Yet she is intrigued by the bathtub, or rather, people showering or bathing.  When Milla takes a shower, it is a guarantee that Ava will be in the bathroom standing on the edge of the tub, peeking around the shower curtain, her little sheep butt wagging its mini tail.  When either of us bathe, she comes and stands and looks in.  Maybe she is curious why we would want to do something so hideously awful.  Or perhaps she just wants our company.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

Ava truly loves to snuggle.  She is thrilled at her ability to jump on the bed.  She could not always do it by herself, but she grew and figured it out, and now seems to take great pleasure in both jumping on and jumping off. I can jump on the bed!  I can jump off the bed!  See?  I launch myself many feet past the bed!  Aren’t I skilled?

She will jump on the bed if I am lying there and come and lie across my neck and sigh.  She’s my little doggie stole.  She’ll snuggle there a while and get kisses from me, and strokes and rubs.  She knows I do not like her to lick me.  She does not even try anymore.  My ex-boyfriend lets her kiss him — I think it’s gross — but Ava knows he doesn’t mind so she licks him all over.  The only time she licks me is when I get out of the shower.  She will come in and lick the water off of my feet  until I dry them.

This dog makes me happy.  That’s the simple fact of it.  She came along when I was very sad.  There were so many reasons, many of them huge, for my sadness.  One the biggest was grief over the loss of the dogs who had lived with me.  I would have dreams about them, dreams they were still alive or still lived with me.  Vivid dreams.  Then this little dog came to live with me and I suddenly felt the desire to laugh again.  I laugh every day living with her.  She’s a happy, wonderful little spirit.  Frankly, I’m completely smitten.

Years and years ago, I may not have even been out of my teens, I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck.  I don’t remember much of it at all.  I read it because it was a bestseller, and I don’t even recall its premise beyond the title.

However, I remember one thing vividly.  Peck argued that humans can never really love a dog, or any other animal, because to love as he defined it requires reciprocation in kind.  My feelings in response to his position are unchanged:  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Life is full of different kinds of love.  Some loves are equally reciprocal, usually with the person we choose as a mate, but also with certain friends or even family members.  By Peck’s definition, I could not truly love an infant or a small child or someone who does not love me back in the same way and with the same articulation.

What a limiting view of human capacity.  I absolutely loved my dog.  It did not matter that her adoration of me was different.  My love for her was there, and it still is.  Autumn was a gift and I will love her forever.  She helped to teach me selflessness.  She brought me joy.  She increased my humanity.  For this and so much more, I will be forever grateful.

Autumn

Autumn's Last Day

Autumn’s Last Day

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Autumn — Chapter 16

Read Autumn — Chapter 15

I awoke one morning in early July 2005 and rose to give Autumn her shot. I called out her name, but she did not come. She was not at my bedside, and she was not anywhere in my room. She would usually get up to greet me and get her shot and food, because food was her favorite part of the day. I looked everywhere and was getting kind of frantic looking for her. Had she somehow gotten out again and I didn’t know it? I checked both doors, then headed towards the dog door to look out at the run. It was then that I saw she was lying in a heap of blankets on the back porch. I stood looking at her, my fist to my mouth, whispering, “Oh no, oh no, oh no. Not this. Not now. Oh, baby.” Funny, I had always pictured discovering her and running to her side, but I could not move.

“Autumn?” I queried. She remained still. Her ear stood on end. The light was the low, not quite sunny light of early morning in mid-summer. She was in a shadow. I stood back and could not move towards her. I was afraid she had died.

“Autumn,” I said. “Baby?”

I finally stepped forward and thought perhaps her ear had moved. Once I was within a couple of feet of her prostrate form, I could see that she was vibrating ever so slightly. I could see her breaths coming slowly, raggedly.

I knelt at her side and carefully touched her head. She was warm. Too warm. Her body vibrated, humming all over, like electricity was turned on inside her skin. Her eyes were glassy, staring at nothing. I was dry.

“Oh, baby. My baby.” I held her and stroked her, thoughts running through my head. What should I do? Who should I call?

I went into the kitchen, picked up the phone, and dialed Bjorn’s number at work. He answered and I could not speak. I could not emit a squeak. My voice would not come. I could not tell him what was wrong. Tears clouded my vision. The words were stuck.

He kept asking what was wrong. I finally managed to say, “It’s not Milla.” I meant that nothing was wrong with Milla.

He got the message because he said, “I know.”

I sobbed and finally told him that it was Autumn. After he told me this was probably for the best, I realized I had chosen the wrong person to call. Why him? Why on earth did I call him? I think on some level I wanted the closeness we never really had, wanted him to care about my grief and pain. During this crisis, I had a moment of absolute clarity when I realized that he would never be that person for me, ever.

I briefly told him what was going on, then got off the phone as fast as I could. I left a message at Dr. Fletcher’s office. Then I wondered, who do I call? I can’t call my mom; she won’t be a comfort either. I couldn’t call her.

Debbie. I realized then that Debbie was who I should have called all along. When I heard her answer the phone, I did not have to say anything. She knew it was me and she knew why I was calling her. There is a reason she is my best friend.

She asked for specifics. I told her how Autumn was. I told her I thought she would have to be put to sleep. I told her that I did not have any way to avoid my workday and would have to take her to Dr. Fletcher’s that evening because I could not get out of my work commitments. In spite of the fact I adored Dr. Horner, Ken was my friend, and I wanted him to be the one to put Autumn to sleep when the time came.

Debbie told me to keep her posted and stated that she and Robert would be there for me. She told me to let her know when I was coming down and when they needed to meet me there.

I was so grateful for her kindness and her calm. She put me at ease. As I spoke to her, I had filled Autumn’s syringe with insulin and given her a shot. I had given her some food. After the shot, she lifted her head and actually looked at me. Apparently the insulin had some effect, and quickly, because she was noticeably perkier than she had been.

It turned out to be a false alarm. Autumn gradually improved throughout the day and by the time afternoon rolled around and I could drive her down to the vet’s, Autumn had perked up significantly and was back to where she had been before the coma episode of that morning.

Dr. Fletcher patted her and gave her some string cheese. He always carried a can of the stuff to help keep pets happy in his office. Autumn gobbled at it.

“She’s not ready yet,” Dr. Fletcher said to me, patting her. I could see that. As prostrate as she had been that morning, she was back to her old self now.

We caught up on our news. Dr. Fletcher told me again that I should go to vet school, that I could have both law and veterinary degrees. We laughed together for a few more minutes before we turned to go.

“You’ve got some time,” he stated. “Not a lot, but some. Maybe a couple of weeks.”

Oh, I thought. Only a couple of weeks? I hoped with all my heart she would hold on just a little longer.

Autumn — Chapter 15

Read Autumn — Chapter 14

In spring of 2003, I graduated from law school. I studied for and completed the bar exam. After taking the test but before getting the results, I was hired by a law firm. Whether I would keep the job was contingent upon my having passed the bar. The firm was in NE Portland, a forty minute drive from our country suburb house in the middle of nowhere.

The reality of consequences was gradually squeezing me into the accepting that some decisions can impact a life for a long time. Less than three years earlier, during my first term in law school, I discovered with a panic that perhaps I had made a grave error. Yet the cost of that error was already well over ten-thousand dollars. If I quit, I would have to repay that sum, and if I wasn’t practicing law, how would I do that? And so I soldiered on.

My dismay grew the remainder of that year. However, second year was an improvement, and I began to believe perhaps the error was not so disastrous as I first thought. By graduation and beyond, I had returned to my original assessment, that I should never have gone to law school. Only after completion I was much further in debt, and much more discomposed. While I loved the academic rigor of law school, I was not enamored of the practice of law. I began to see the entire enterprise as one magnificent, horrendously expensive mistake.

Simultaneously, I was coming to terms with personal consequences as well. I knew three months after meeting Bjorn that we were not the most suitable pair. We were simply completely different. We could spend forty-five minutes arguing a point, only to discover we were arguing the same side. I was extremely energetic, always on the move, and constantly trying new things. Bjorn took life at a slower pace. He preferred hanging out at home and watching sports on television to buzzing around to various events. When we bought the first house, even though it was brand new, I wanted to dive in and start new projects, fixing it up. Bjorn liked it fine the way it was. About our only real connection was the love we jointly shared for our daughter.

Life was forcing me to take a good, hard look at the choices I had made, often on the fly, and determine whether a course correction was in order. I was driving nearly 45 minutes in one direction to my job. I didn’t hate the job, but I didn’t love it either, and making that commute seemed not worth it. I was living in a house and neighborhood with others who did not share my values, my politics, or much of anything except real estate. And sadly, I knew I was no longer in love with the father of my child, and nor was he in love with me. House linked to career linked to relationship, a concatenation of choices was leading me down the path to misery. Change was in order.

Bjorn and I had discussed ending our relationship several times over the course of a year. Early in the pre-dawn hours of the new year, after leaving a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house in Salem, the two of us were rehashing the menu from the evening as we drove along the winding country roads in the dark.

I was always the health nut, eliminating high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil years before it became commonplace to do so. Bjorn liked junk food and fast food, and didn’t feel bad about it or any need to eat any differently. The party food had been mostly junk food and I was lamenting the lack of healthy snacks. I was also hungry.

“If you would just eat the junk, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Bjorn informed me, driving down the blackened, curved highway under the cold, winter moon and low, shredded clouds.

“I don’t have a problem,” I retorted. “We are just different. This is what I have been saying for months now. This is just one of many reasons why I do not think we are good together or for each other.” The passenger seat where I sat was reclined back, nearly touching the car seat holding a sleeping Milla. I slumped there, trying to make myself comfortable.

Bjorn didn’t say anything for a long time, such a long time in fact that I began almost to doze off. Then out of the silence he said, “You’re right.”

And with that, we ended our relationship of five and a half years.

Even though we were no longer a couple, neither of us immediately moved out and on. We had recently decided to sell the country suburb house and move into Portland. We had been looking for a house together, and I simply switched and began looking for a house on my own. Bjorn had been working as an engineer, but wanted to move into another area of engineering entirely, an area in which he was unlikely to find employment in the Portland area. He had begun sending out resumes to companies in other cities.

I wanted an old house, preferably a bungalow. I had been looking and looking, but this was the beginning of the housing bubble and prices were starting to get really steep. It was still possible to find affordable houses, but they usually came with another sort of price in that they were further out, in a less desirable neighborhood, or needed a lot of work. If it needed work, that was fine with me. I relished the opportunity. I was less willing to live further out, and I would not even consider some of the more troublesome neighborhoods because it would be just me and Milla living there. We had the dogs, but there was only so much they could do, and I didn’t want them to get hurt either. Often a neighborhood looked fine on the outside, but Portland had been experiencing an influx of Russian and Mexican gangs. No thanks.

After only a few weeks of searching, I found my house. Built in 1920, it needed tons of cosmetic work, but was structurally quite sound. With a few changes, the house would be perfect for us. It also had a lovely, floral back yard, as well as a side yard already fenced and lined with bark chips for the dogs. The support beams under the eaves were carved with loops and bows. This house was charming and perfect, so I bought it.

I had major plans for renovating and started immediately, before we even moved in. Bjorn moved to the house as well, and the two of us demolished the kitchen. It was the only place in the house that was truly awful. The counters were covered with tiny brown tiles that had not been installed properly. There was more grout than tile and each swipe of a sponge brought up a handful of dust, dirt, and goo.

In the four and a half years I lived in that house, I made many changes:  I installed an entirely new kitchen, put in a new kitchen window with rising double panes, to replace the former single-paned window that did not open at all, a travesty in a kitchen. I replaced the floors in the kitchen with new tiles. I removed the ugly, industrial grey tile in the bathroom, covering the floor with small, square white tiles. I removed a wall in the second room that opened into a small room with no real purpose, creating one giant bedroom. In that larger room, I installed a closet and discovered space above the stairs in the wall and turned it into a cupboard, using period knobs for the doors. I built a wall along the far side of the bigger second room, then opened a door into the master bedroom, creating a walk-in closet in a room that formerly had no closet at all.

While making the place for the door, I discovered newspapers from 1925 under the wallpaper advertising “Paris Frocks for Only $25.99!” I moved the front door from the master bedroom back into the living room where it belonged. I designed and installed built-in bookshelves in the living room, matching the woodwork at the base and along the top edge with the woodwork throughout the house. I painted the entire interior of the house with many lovely colors. I replaced all the light fixtures with period fixtures, and replaced a couple of windows that were no longer functional.

I also removed the jungle that covered the front of the house and built a rock wall, then covered everything in flowers. This was quite a chore as there was a 75-foot tall camellia bush that was so close to the house, it hung over the roof. I advertised the bush for free to anyone who would come and remove it. Two men arrived with a trailer and tools and excavated it over the course of a week, before driving it away on a flatbed trailer. There were also many scrubby azaleas who found new homes via the internet. For some reason, someone had installed sheep fencing in the front yard between the camellia and the maple tree near the sidewalk. Twisted and rusting, it was covered in ivy that used the sheep fencing as a ladder to higher reaches in the trees. All of it I removed and replaced with grass and smaller shrubs and flowers. I built a rock wall along the sidewalk, dragging the stones in three carloads from a rock quarry nearby.

Every job was done with the period of the house in mind, and in the end, it was charming and engaging. It was the perfect project. I did not have the money to hire contractors for most of the work, and therefore I did it all myself. I hired an electrician to replace the wiring and update that, and my dad installed the new bathtub fixtures and the front door, but everything else was done with my own two hands. It was a lot of work, but I loved that house and loved the end result.

Four months after I bought the house, Bjorn was offered a job in Florida doing exactly the kind of engineering he wanted, designing medical implants. Within three weeks of the job offer, he packed his truck and set off, leaving me alone with our daughter and the dogs.

On the one hand, I was relieved to let go of the tension between us. On the other, life became much more difficult. First there was the house. Even though it was a project of love, it was still a lot of work, especially for a full-time, working single mother. Milla was attending kindergarten and would go to aftercare there after school. Because of the hours at aftercare, I had to cut back one hour per day at the office, leaving at 5 instead of 6. This did not change my workload, only the hours I sat in the office doing it. In spite of the fact that the workload remained unchanged, the firm cut my pay, which I could barely afford.

I was also now the only person available to ensure Autumn was given her daily insulin shots twice every day. No matter where I was in the evening, I had to plan to ensure Autumn was medicated. I chose 7:15 as the time for these shots because it was early enough in the morning that I had not yet left for work, late enough that it would not be horrible to wake up to on the weekend, and early enough in the evenings that I could still do something after.

At times, I would take her with me in the car if I had to be somewhere and could not be home to give her a shot, a cooler in tow for the insulin, which had to be refrigerated. I also had to be careful not to shake the bottle because this could cause the insulin to become unstable and unusable.

In spite of the difficulties, we managed and forged a comfortable routine. Six months after Bjorn moved away, I left the firm and started my own practice. This brought its own stresses, but it was still easier setting my own time and getting work done at odd hours. I was freed up to attend more events at Milla’s school during the day, and it gave me much more flexibility for dealing with Autumn.

Over the next year, we settled into our lives with Bjorn far away and working at my new practice. I worked on the house on weekends and some afternoons during the week.

I took both dogs out of the house nearly every day. We lived near a dog park with a wide field where the dogs could run without leashes. Even on wet days, I would go and let them romp in the muddy grass, then wipe their paws before having them ride in the back of the car to home.

Autumn couldn’t get up into the car by herself, so I would lift her and get her situated. She would ride, watching the world go by, tongue lolling, ears perked, her happy face on. She loved car rides. Molly didn’t mind the car, but she preferred curling up in the corner or on the back seat.

Autumn actually didn’t seem to notice the poking of the needle into the skin at the back of her neck anymore. Every shot was followed immediately by food and she soon figured out that my shuffling around in the refrigerator door meant food was soon to be had, so she would wait right at my heels, eyes up, perky and expectant, waiting for that shot.

Needles. The funny thing about giving a shot is that the first few times you do it, it’s terrifying to think of the pain it’s inflicting. After you’ve given fifty shots, then a hundred, then several hundred, you can do it in your sleep. I suppose it’s like that for anything new. There is just something rather odd about doing something that becomes so familiar that is actually poking into another living body.

I will never forget those little orange tipped needles. I bought them in bulk from various pharmacy stores. I got to know where the deals were. The shocking thing was the difference in price from one store to the next, for the exact same needles of the same brand. It gave me some insight into what diabetics or others with chronic medical conditions face every day. The same box of needles would be ten dollars less than the cost somewhere else. The cheapest I found were about $17 for a hundred needles (they had to be thrown away after each use), but I found places that sold them for $33 for an identical box. I had the benefit of being strong and fit, so driving to another store where I knew the needles were cheaper was a fairly simple proposition. I could see how a mostly housebound senior would have a lot of difficulty shopping around.

After administering shots to Autumn twice daily for over a year, giving the shots became mundane and completely routine. On weekend mornings, I would wake up, stumble to the kitchen, roll the bottle in my hands, pull the shot, give it to her, feed her, and head back to bed, all in about three minutes flat. I don’t think I even really woke up. All the dogs knew the wake-up time, and if for some reason there was no alarm and I failed to awaken, one of them was guaranteed to rouse me from sleep.

One morning on a Saturday, I staggered into the kitchen, pulled the shot, and the phone rang. I squinted at the caller id, wondering sluggishly who would call at 7 a.m.on a Saturday. There was no way I could read the screen. I am ridiculously farsighted and my eyes were full of sleep.

I answered the call. It was Officer So-and-So from the Milwaukie Police Department. Did I have a golden colored dog? I informed him that I did, looking blindly around the kitchen for the neck I’d planned to shove a needle into not thirty seconds previously.

The officer went on to say that a yellow dog had been seen “wandering in a daze” down the road. She looked lost and starving. He responded to the call and found my number on her collar. He offered to bring her to me.

I explained that she had diabetes and that this was why she was so thin, that I had no idea she was out, that she was an escape artist of the highest order, and that I would be most grateful if he returned her to me. And please, I begged, don’t feed her anything.

Five minutes later, Autumn walked in the door, that diabetic-glazed look in her eye. I poked the shot into her neck, barely glancing down, I had done it so many times. I talked to the officer for ten more minutes, telling him Autumn’s story and about her magical ability to get out of the yard, and thanked him profusely as he drove off. I did not mention that I had failed to replace her underground fence collar after her bath the previous evening.

I was grateful Autumn was back, but I was really glad I did not get a “Dog at Large” ticket. Those can be expensive. I knew. Autumn had given them to me before. Even though the dog yard was fenced with underground wiring, it did not guard against escapes out the front or back doors, and I lived with a 5-year-old who had a habit of running out without making sure the latch had clicked. Autumn knew this and followed Milla around, waiting for any opportunity to slip out the door.

I was also extremely grateful he had not given her any food. On one occasion when Autumn escaped, a well-meaning yet misguided neighbor fed her two huge bowls of food before she keeled over in the woman’s kitchen. Why she waited to call me until after giving my dog a meal I’ll never know. Maybe she thought I was starving her on purpose or something, as if someone who was careful enough to tag a dog would be careless enough not to feed it.

In any case, when I went to retrieve Autumn from the neighbor’s house, the lady started to scold me for letting my dog get so thin, but I cut her off and explained that she had a chronic illness and that the food she gave her could have killed her, which is why she had keeled over.

I wanted to scream, “Why would you feed someone else’s dog, you idiot?” but did not. She didn’t know, and she thought she was helping. I used my glucose monitor to check Autumn’s blood. I ran the test, gave her an insulin shot, and she was back to normal within a half an hour. After that incident I went to the pet store and bought a tag that read, “I have a disease. DO NOT FEED ME!”

The glucose meter was a godsend and really the only part of all the illness-related activities Autumn endured that she seemed really to abhor. Other than testing urine, it was the best way for me to get a reading on Autumn’s insulin levels, especially if she had broken into the trash cupboard and found something to eat, or escaped and gotten something.

We had a strict food routine in the house whereby any food-based garbage went into the compost bucket, which was kept on a high shelf with a lid. When it was full it went into the compost bin out back, away from the dog area. The rest of our waste was separated into two containers, one for trash and the other for recycling. Autumn loved to get into the trash version and lick through whatever was in there, such as butter wrappers or soiled plastic wrap. Once the new cabinets were installed in the kitchen, I put in a double-garbage-can rack, placing the recycling in the front bin, and the trash in the back. There was a childproof latch on the door. When that was closed and the trash in the back, she was not able to get into it. However, Milla had a knack for leaving the door open and the whole thing pulled out. Autumn would then remove the can from the rack and go through whatever was inside.

One time shortly after we moved in, I arrived home to discover that Autumn had gnawed through the bottom corner of one of the kitchen boxes sitting stacked and unpacked on the kitchen floor. She had discovered all the dry good baking items and ate them. Molly had joined in on that escapade. I caught her because I discovered powdered sugar on her ears and muzzle. Naughty things.

Another time both dogs managed to get onto the table and eat a pan of chocolate cake.  I had heard the warnings that chocolate supposedly killed dogs, but this simply was not the case.  I read somewhere that it was only dogs who had an allergy that had to worry about eating it, but who wants to be the person making this discovery the first time?  It makes sense to keep the chocolate away just in case your dog is the one who is allergic.

However, potential life-threatening allergies did not stop my dogs from climbing on the table and eating an entire chocolate cake.  When Dan and I lived at his parent’s, Murphee climbed onto the island in the kitchen and ate a pan of brownies.  In all cases the worst thing that happened was the dogs came away with some really nasty gas, and we no longer had any dessert.  Apparently none of them suffered from chocolate allergy.

The glucose meter was a big help for these non-diabetic dog food eating sprees. However, in order to use the meter, I had to obtain a drop of Autumn’s blood. One end of the meter had a sharp lancet with which to pierce her skin. At the other end of the meter was a test strip onto which I smeared the blood to obtain a glucose reading. Autumn hated the pricking part. There was not any part of her body where it was easy to get a blood sample, mainly because she was furry. Only her lips and the pads of her paws were bare. The lips had to hurt; she yelped whenever I tried drawing blood from them, the skin was so thin and soft. But the pads of her paws were thick and extremely difficult to pierce enough to get blood. When I was able to poke them hard enough, it usually caused way more bleeding than was necessary for the meter, and this made her cry out as well. Digging that deep into the pads was painful. For this reason I only used the test when I knew she had eaten something she should not have. In addition the test strips were really expensive, so I didn’t want to use them up quickly. Humans would use the meters daily, because they could control their levels fairly precisely with diet. Autumn could only eat her prescription diabetic dog food, so it wasn’t necessary to monitor all the time.

Autumn was always so patient with the medical interventions she had to endure, but the lancets and subsequent rubbings were the one procedure for which she refused to sit still or comply. She would pull away and yelp, making it that much more difficult to get blood. But she was a dog – as much as I told her it would all be over soon, she just couldn’t get it. Sometimes I would be frustrated because she had gotten into something and made a huge mess, and then wouldn’t sit still so I could check her blood.

“If you wouldn’t get into anything, I wouldn’t have to do this,” I would scold, obviously more for my benefit than for hers.

I would read the meter and if the levels were high, give her more insulin. On occasion, the meter simply read HI, in its blocky digital letters. This meant her glucose levels were so high, they were off the chart, and insulin was required immediately.

Within a few months after her diagnosis, I noticed tiny white flecks in Autumn’s eyes. The flecks increased as the weeks progressed. I went online and discovered that Autumn was developing diabetic cataracts, a condition that is extremely common. I read somewhere that 75% of dogs with diabetes develop cataracts, and that their presence did not necessarily imply glucose levels were not under control.

In a normal eye, the lens is round, clear, and hard. It is connected by fibers that move so the eye can focus. It is enclosed in a capsule and gets fluids from the eye. The lens does not have its own blood supply. One of the fluids the lens absorbs is glucose. If there is too much glucose, the excess is converted into the sugars sorbitol and fructose. Sorbitol and fructose pull water into the lens which makes the lens cloudy, and a cataract is formed.

Some dogs develop complete cataracts fairly quickly after their diagnosis. Autumn’s developed slowly in comparison to some of the stories I read, and her cataracts were never completely solidly white; they were slightly less opaque than that. However, a year after the diagnosis, she could not really see. She would tilt her head and look at me as if she were peeking out the side of her eye, trying to see around the cataract. A couple of times she ran into the doorframe around the back door, but she quickly adapted and learned where her world was at. I could have had the vet perform surgeries to remove the cataracts, but we discussed it and ruled it out. The cost was over $1000 per eye, and the average life span of a dog with diabetes is two years from diagnosis. Even if Autumn lived another three years, the result did not justify the expense or the upheaval of a surgery. Blind dogs adapt quite well to living without sight, and Autumn was no exception.

After Autumn had been living with diabetes for nearly two years, she was almost completely blind, but she was lively. I would take her to the dog park and throw frisbees and sticks for her. I would set her up, touching her muzzle with whatever I was throwing, then guiding her head in the direction of my toss. Autumn would head out and look until she found what I’d thrown. Her sense of smell was fully intact, and she would find anything, no matter how far I had thrown it, as long as I pointed her in the right direction. She loved the game, turning and running right back to me to throw again, in that familiar trot she had inherited from Cody. She wore out easily though, and would lie down to shred the stick after only three or four passes letting me know she had had enough.

Read Autumn — Chapter 16

Autumn — Chapter 14

Read Autumn — Chapter 13

I remember the color of the light in the room the night Autumn first tried to jump on my bed and failed, golden yellow, soft, and warm. It was late and we were getting ready for bed. I was already in bed, reading. Autumn usually came and asked if she could lie at the foot of the bed. In the middle of the night, she did not ask, just jumped up on the bed, curling up at our feet, or coming to the head where even in sleep I would lift the covers for her to clamber to the bottom near my feet. But in the evenings, she pretended to ask before coming up.

That night, Milla was snuggled next to me in the warm down comforter. I was sitting upright, my book propped on my knees. Autumn came over and made an attempt to jump on the bed. She could not make it. She tried again. Foiled again. Finally I arose and put her on the bed. Must be her hips, I thought, and thought nothing more of it.

Over the next several days, she appeared to gradually deteriorate before our eyes. As October closed and November opened, she lost weight and strength. She seemed also to have another bladder infection and drank water excessively.

With interstitial cystitis, Autumn always drank more than the other dogs. I thought this was what was going on, that she was having an exceptionally bad bout of interstitial cystitis, and it was causing her to lose weight, but I thought she should still go to the vet. Again. I made the necessary appointment and three weeks after her first failed attempt to jump on the bed, I took her in to see the doctor.

She had lost seventeen pounds. I could tell the vet was very worried. He wanted to run a number of tests, but thought cancer might be the cause. He could see no other major possibility for the dramatic decline in weight. There was the possibility of diabetes mellitus, he suggested, but I thought this unlikely because she had tested negative for it before. Cushing’s also, but this had also been negative. He offered to run a battery of blood tests to start. If the results from the first set of tests were negative, he would run a second set. Then a third. We would continue testing until we figured out what was happening.

I handed Autumn’s leash to the doctor so he could take her back to the lab. She was not happy and leaned her head towards me, pulling the leash away from the doctor. I pet her head and kissed her and told her everything would be fine. She kept pulling towards me as the doctor led her away. How many times in her life had I watched her disappear behind a door in a veterinarian’s office? How many times did watching the scene cause my heart to constrict and tears of anguish to form behind my eyes? It did not matter how often I had experienced this, my heart always ached as she was led away from me.

I sat in the sterile waiting room of the doctor’s office, staring at the mismatched tiles beneath my shoes. I liked this doctor. He was not Dr. Fletcher, but no one could be him to me. Yet this doctor was kind and honest, and he explained things to me as if I had a brain. The biggest problem with the clinic was that it was in a town about fifteen miles from our home, so trips there were a bit out of the way.

In the waiting area was a giant cage with three kittens in it. Milla was thrilled with these kittens and played with them as we waited. A fat, orange, office cat came through and asked to be petted. It was not very friendly though, and scratched if you rubbed it too long, so Milla left it in favor of the kittens.

Milla ran through the lobby, her blonde curls bouncing, babbling and telling me about the babies. One of the kittens was a light grey color, its fur almost bluish. “See the blue kitty?” she asked me, pointing to it.

“That kitty is blue!” I responded, reaching out to give her a hug. She let me snuggle her for only a moment before running off to the other side of the counter, searching again for the scratching cat.

A half hour later, the door through which the doctor had taken Autumn swung open and the doctor stepped through. His diagnosis was quick:  Autumn had diabetes mellitus.

Diabetes mellitus, also known as impaired glucose homeostasis, is a group of metabolic disorders with one common manifestation:  hyperglycemia. Chronic hyperglycemia causes damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, heart and blood vessels. It is a horrible disease and because of the manner in which it keeps the patient from absorbing food, causes gradual starvation. It results from defects in insulin secretion, or action, or both.

The disease was first identified in the ancient world as a disease associated with “sweet urine” and excessive muscle loss. The elevated levels of blood glucose cause the glucose to build up in the urine. Blood glucose levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, which lowers the blood glucose level. When the blood glucose elevates (for example, after eating food), insulin is released from the pancreas to normalize the glucose level. In patients with diabetes, the absence or insufficient production of insulin causes hyperglycemia. Basically, diabetics have too many sugars in their blood and no way to filter them out. It is a chronic medical condition, meaning that although it can be controlled, it lasts a lifetime. And Autumn had it. Little did I realize how much this diagnosis would drastically change our lives.

Years after all of this, I came to believe that the medical problems Autumn experienced arose from problems with her adrenal glands.  At the time Autumn was alive, no one really knew what caused interstitial cystitis, but I’ve learned that recent research shows a link to adrenal malfunction. All along the doctors thought she had Cushing’s disease, although she never tested positive for it. And diabetes is one of the symptoms of a long-term Cushing’s dog. Considering Cushing’s is an adrenal malfunction and Autumn’s diseases were all manifestations of adrenal malfunction, I think it’s a safe assumption that this gland did not work properly for her, or else hers was covered in tumors, causing it to keep from doing its job.

The doctor started Autumn on low doses of insulin twice daily. He also wanted us to change her food to a prescription version for diabetics.

“What about her IC?” I queried?

“IC won’t kill her,” he answered. “Diabetes can and will. You will want to do everything you can to lengthen her life span and make her as comfortable as possible during that time. If she eats the wrong food, she could get really sick because she her body cannot filter out the sugars. This can cause all kinds of problems, from blindness to heart failure.”

I got it. Autumn would have to eat what she had to in order to survive the diabetes, IC be damned.

At first, it was somewhat of a struggle to settle into the routine of taking care of a diabetic dog. It took several trips to the vet to get her insulin levels right. We had started her on one type of dog food that she would not eat, probably because it tasted like sawdust, and kind of looked like it too. None of the dogs would eat it. I tried a couple of other brands before I found something she would eat. All of these dog foods were prescription foods and exorbitantly expensive. It was frustrating to buy a bag of dog food that cost nearly one-hundred dollars for a twenty pound bag, only to have every canine in our house turn its nose up at it.

I also had to concern myself with the ingredients of whatever dog food because certain of them would trigger IC episodes. Even though diabetes trumped IC in determining what would land on Autumn’s plate, that didn’t mean I would choose the worst of them and end up causing her unnecessary pain.

It was a struggle to figure out how to manage the diabetes. Because she would not eat most of the foods I would buy, Autumn would either tear down the house getting into trash or escape and go eat someone else’s. This led to several diabetic episodes where Autumn would escape, then wander home, glassy-eyed and practically catatonic.

At the time of her diagnosis, we were living in the country suburb where all the houses looked exactly the same. Shortly after purchasing the house, we installed landscaping and whatnot for the side and back yards. While doing this, we decided to add a sprinkler system to the entire property. Then we fenced a special side yard just for the dogs. Ever since we owned Poppy we had used dog doors to allow the dogs to go out to relieve themselves. These had proved to be a godsend when Autumn starting having bladder troubles. If there was a chance she could make it outside, she certainly tried.

In the new house, we installed dog doors into the garage and out to the doggy yard. This yard ran the entire length of the house, and was fenced on two sides by cedar plank fencing five feet tall. We then installed chain link fencing between the dog yard and our back yard. We placed river rock up the length of one side of the yard, and grass on the other, with paver bricks between the two and along the base of all the fences. The bricks under the fences were fixed into place with cement. Our thinking was that this would prevent Autumn from being able to dig out and under the fence. We thought the cedar planks, placed side by side, would prevent her from squeezing out. Same with the chain link. Basically, this fence was a dog fortress from which we believed she would never escape.

We were wrong. First, Autumn removed the boards from the cedar plank fencing. We nailed it back up and then nailed boards along the base on the outside. She then removed a corner of the chain link fence. This blew our minds. Her teeth in front were all broken in half from ripping off boards and fencing. Once we repaired that hole, she started in on the brick pavers under the fences.

This was the last straw. After Autumn tore a hole in the pavers and cedar fencing, escaping into the neighborhood and getting into someone’s trash, then coming home stoned on blood sugar, I had had enough. I immediately got into my car, drove to the pet store, and bought an underground electric fence, the kind with collars that shocked the dog if it went near it.

For years I had resisted these kinds of containment systems. I thought they were cruel, shocking the poor dog in the neck, but this was ridiculous. A shock was less traumatic than being smashed by a car.

We installed our fence and sent the dogs out into the yard. We set the range on the wire to two feet. This meant that four feet out from the fence, the collar would start beeping. As the dogs moved closer to the wire, the beeping became louder and faster, more insistent. Then, at two feet out from the wire, the collar gave them a shock.

It worked. It worked so amazingly well, I wished I had installed it years earlier. After two or three shocks, all the dogs stopped going near the fence the second they heard the beeps. Autumn would go to the faster beeps, but then she would stop. She was no dummy.

I no longer thought the fences were cruel. It kept my dog contained and out of the way of cars and other dangers lurking about in the big, bad world. It also kept her from getting out and into food that would cause her to get sicker.

All of the other dogs gradually figured out where the line of the fence was at and never even waited for the beep. They stayed away. When I bought a new house less than a year later, I installed the fence in the dog run area there, and it worked then too, to the point that neither of the other dogs needed to wear the shock collar when they went outside.

It was never this way with Autumn. If she did not wear that collar, she escaped, no exceptions. But she did respect the collar and would not risk shocking herself to get out of the yard ever again.

One major plus to managing the fence situation was that I was able to stabilize Autumn’s insulin injections. Once her blood sugar stopped fluctuating because her food intake was controlled, it was easier to figure out where it needed to be and to maintain its levels.

One rainy Sunday afternoon several months after her diagnosis, but before we installed the underground fence, Autumn escaped and got into something, causing a diabetic episode. These episodes scared me. Autumn would return from wherever she had run off to, listless, her eyes staring off into space. I called it her sugar coma.

It was bound to happen that Autumn would get into something on a day when the vet was not open. She didn’t schedule her medical issues around the hours our vet was working. The result was that I ended up driving her into Portland to a corporate vet’s office in a national pet store chain. I had resisted these offices because I fundamentally disagreed with many of their policies. They tried to sell nearly everyone “prevention plans,” claiming the services cost less with the plan, but they charged more for those services in the first place, and seemed only to ensure the corporation would line its pockets on a regular basis, especially since as a large buyer, it most likely got discounts on many of the products. I also knew from my few vet friends that the wages paid to vets were low and the hours unstable. Overall, as is typical in many such conglomerates, profit drove its motives above all else, and I didn’t like that.

That said, the nice thing about such offices is that they are open many more hours than most smaller establishments. The vet we had been going to was open on Saturday, but not on Sunday. If we needed care on Sunday, they directed us to the emergency vet clinics in downtown Portland or downtown Salem, as they had when we thought Autumn’s stomach was twisted. It was one thing to pay an exorbitant price for such a visit at 3 in the morning, it was quite another in the middle of the day on a Sunday.

I dragged Autumn in to have her hooked up to an IV and get her blood sugars stabilized. After running all the tests, the clinic didn’t even bother trying to sell me their plan. They knew they would make way more money on me just based on Autumn’s many problems.

Yet I loved the doctor. His name was Dr. Horner and he was the closest thing to Dr. Fletcher I had found yet. Because I had read so much medical literature, and spent many hours discussing these issues with Dr. Fletcher, I was well versed in a lot of what was going on with Autumn metabolically. Dr. Horner seemed to sense this, and discussed her case with me at a precise, technical level. He was also extremely kind, and gentle with my dog. Over the years I have taken many animals to see Dr. Horner, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a rat, or a dog, or a lizard, he is always compassionate in his handling of animals.

While I had a good working relationship with the vet we had been using, his office was fifteen miles southwest of our house, towards Salem in a town called Woodburn. Not much later, I moved to Portland, and the new house was even further from the doctor in Woodburn. Once we moved, it was easy to slip into using Dr. Horner as our primary vet rather than the office that was so far away.

Read Autumn — Chapter 15

Lifting Their Legs on the World

When I was a girl, my family took car trips around the country. I know there were many long, uninterrupted and rather boring stretches where my sister and I complained and asked, “Are we there yet?” Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?” I used the time to read, still a favorite pastime, or to stare out at the landscape.

Yet as time has ebbed, it isn’t the long drives I remember so much, it is the places along the way. I have several ethereal, out-of-context memories, such as an intersection in the middle of nowhere stopping us at a light in the middle of the night. I was in the backseat. It was dark. We were in the desert. That is all I know. Or the Native American roadside stand in New Mexico or some other southwest place, selling strange toys and dolls covered in actual fur. We stopped at a place to go to the bathroom, and I was given a plastic pony covered in grey felt. It was short and fat, a Thelwell style thing. I can’t remember if I was given the pony before or after my crying fit, the one that seems as if it lasted hours, because I hadn’t gotten something I wanted. I remember the stickiness of the car seat, my raw facial flesh from the salt and water and rubbing. It was cloudy, but it was also hot — our cars never had air conditioning. It seems unlikely my parents would have given it to me after crying in such a manner, but I also seem to have some vague notion of there being some unfairness too, and so I was given this trinket. This episode was obviously linked to some emotional overflowing, and therefore this is the reason it sticks in my brain. I know it was summer and I was 10 or 11.

Mostly though, I remember the places: the museum at the petrified forest, the fluorescent lights shining on off-white, speckled formica tile, the bits of hardened wood under glass on tables, and the signs explaining the geological phenomena. I remember a roadside dinosaur we could climb inside. I remember campsites in far flung places, usually the desert, because we traveled every summer to visit my grandpa and uncles and aunt in New Mexico. I remember Los Alamos and the mesa stable, walking out and looking over the cliffs at what seemed to be vast canyons. I remember the Grand Canyon, and the Great Hoover dam and its unbelievable, terrifying, breath stealing bridge. I could see the water, trapped on one side and then far, far below, the canyon on the other, empty of water. I would marvel that the water caught on the far side could be that deep. I remember the Glen Canyon damn, and riding wide boats among the sheer rock faces. We roamed wax museums, and visited the pretend old west in Carson City, Nevada. We stopped at roadside attractions showing the path of the pioneers along the Oregon trail, and visited ghost towns that had thrived in the heyday of the gold rush. I remember passing billboard after billboard, announcing the coming attractions, as well as signs you had to read as you passed by. Roadside poetry. So it went. Summer after summer, we took our yearly drive. Sometimes in the winter we also visited, and skated on iced-over ponds, or hiked through snowy forests.

Last summer, I took my daughters to Europe. We trekked through several cities. I found myself feeling sadness and a little frustration that in city after city, the same corporate shops dotted the landscapes. Museums were large, crowded, and expensive, certainly not the best option for my then 2 year old. I could not find a small chocolate shop in Antwerp. A shop owner in the Netherlands told me it was because the multinational corporations had driven up the cost of real estate and all the small shops had gone out of business.

When Milla was three, we trekked to our annual family reunion in South Dakota. It was the first time I had been to the small pioneer cemetery where one part of my family has been buried since settling on the plains in the mid-1800s. Many of those buried there were born in Scandinavia. I have a great, great, great aunt who was one of the only white people Sitting Bull befriended. She brought food to them because the American government was purposely starving them. She ignored the prohibition against it and fed them. There is a book about her. These hardy (and hard) people moved from a very cold, harsh place to another cold and harsh place. Some of them were run off their Scandinavian farms by political unrest in their countries. For this, I think some of them identified with the Natives on those plains and perhaps this is why they became allies.

The trip was a complete and utter disappointment on one level. I expected it to look like South Dakota. I expected a “South Dakota-ness” to the place. No. It was Target. It was Walmart. It was Burger King. It was the same ugly, conforming corporate crap we have where I live. Later I traveled to several other US cities. The same thing.

Something erased these individual places and made them homogenuous and boring. I know what it is: capitalism. Capitalism took away the South Dakota-ness, and the Oregon-ness, and the Arizona-ness and replaced them with bland, ugly sameness. There are no little shops selling trinkets made by locals. If there are, they are now in the upscale, “artsy” places and the people making things sell them for a small fortune to tourists whose tours are to shop. Tour brochures in motels feature the “best” malls and the “best” shopping. Going to places and finding things to do that are not shopping is difficult. Oh, you can pay a fortune to ride on some guided boat, or to rent some piece of equipment you likely own at home such as a bicycle or kayak, but it’s rare to go to places and find things about that place that you can’t find in every other place all over. Even Europe has lost its uniqueness in each city. Family trips are taken to destination resorts that are exactly the same as every other corporate resort. Even the lines are the same. All that might change is the weather. Too bad the corporations can’t control that.

Bill Bryson, in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes rides in cars visiting places in the US. I’ve read many memoirs where the author remembers such things. I have also read stories where such summer trips played a key role in the plot. Driving around in the backseat as a child is a key cultural memory for those of us born between the 1930s and early 1980s.

Since taking vacations as an adult, I have spent many trips trying to find places like those I visited as a child, unusual places that I can take my children that define the place they are in. I’ve been frustrated by the search. I’ve raged against travel brochures that feature shopping as a tourist attraction. What, so I can buy the same shit made in China that is sold all over the world and then lug it home? I drove across the country in 2009. Every single roadside, every single town was monochromatic, exactly like the one before. Nothing had its own identity.

In another favorite book of mine by Bryson In a Sunburned Country, Bryson describes a town called Alice Springs, Australia, near the site of an Aboriginal holy place at the base of the MacDonnell Mountain Range. It is overrun with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Kmart. He says that Americans have created “a philosophy of retailing that is totally without aesthetics…” He also says it is totally irresistible, but I do not agree. I absolutely hate it and I do resist it. I avoid these places like the plague.

I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. In it, he describes perfectly how we are losing the identities of the world’s places. He describes his love of London, his visits there for thirty years, spanning from 1966 to 2006. Every year he went at least once, many even more. Yet in the last decade, London is losing itself because of the corporations “lifting their legs along London’s streets.” Oh, my good man, what an apt description. In it I had an Ah ha! moment that identified what has been missing from my vacations and visits to places that are not home. I thought it was something about me, that maybe I have lost my luster, and that this is why I haven’t been able to fully enjoy these places I’ve gone. I had an expectation of that feeling of newness, visiting something different from myself that I experienced as a child vacationing in the backseat of our family car.

Yet it wasn’t me at all. It was this erasing of individual identities from the places in the world. It was all the hideous conformity, with no regard whatsoever for the place that had been there. It’s the chasing of the almighty dollar.

We have to do something to change this. We have to stop the reign of capitalism. Something has to shift. People have to believe it is possible before we all become Stepford robots keeping up with the Joneses to buy ugly, plastic junk that destroys our planet. We need to go out of our way to find the few places that still exist where homogeneity isn’t the rule and take our children to these places.

Last summer I visited my friend in Ephrata, Washington. There isn’t much there; Walmart took care of that, although some small shops are trying to make a go of it. Yet they are shops, not tourist destinations. My friend took me for a drive out to the Columbia Basin plateau, a site of magnificent geology, where lava flows and massive floods created incredible landscapes. Up on the edge of one of the cliffs over a coulee there was a little museum telling the story of the geology, the ice age, and its effect on the land. My 13 year old actually read the information on the exhibits. It reminded me of the places we visited as a child. These places do exist. Find them. Take your children. Give them memories that are worthy of reminiscing. Don’t let us all turn into monochromatic robots, shopping our way around the world.

Autumn — Chapter 13

Read Autumn — Chapter 12

I have always ridden and trained horses. Horses and dogs seem to go together like peas and carrots, as Forrest’s mama would say. While attending the University of Oregon, I worked at an international hunter-jumper stable for a few years. Later, after we moved to Portland, when Milla was a baby and before I started law school, I worked at another big sporthorse barn in a suburb south of Portland.

While there, I befriended a woman named Lori who owned a small home-building company. The majority of her clients were wealthy, mostly conservative people, who dreamed of owning small farms and estates, the sort who usually hired someone else to perform all the work required on the farm.

Lori was a dear woman, somewhat doddering, but genuinely kind. She owned several Shelties and a lovely house on the lake in Lake Oswego, one of Oregon’s wealthiest towns. She owned a small thoroughbred at the barn where I was working and, when I left the barn, we remained friends. She hired me on occasion to help her organize her house or straighten up. Extremely generous, she usually paid me much more than the job warranted, as well as lunch.

We had been living in the farmhouse in West Linn for two years when Lori suggested we start looking for our own house to buy. Bjorn and I did not think we would be able to get into anything, but Lori thought we ought to try, and so we began looking for a house to buy.

It was Lori’s advice to buy a house as far from town as we could stand, built new or within the last five years. We did not take our lifestyle into account whatsoever when we took her advice. This advice may have served older, moneyed clientele, but it was not the best choice for young, liberal, professionals, as we were. I had always felt too far from Portland’s center, even when we were only a few miles away. Yet both of us were too giddy with the idea of home-ownership to allow something like reality interfere with our plans. We got pre-approval for a first-time home buyer program and started looking.

At first, the likelihood of our locating a house as suggested by Lori appeared dim. Part of the issue I think was that we were looking in the suburbs where Lori was used to building homes, which were all the places where the residents had higher than average incomes. After suffering one disappointment after another, we finally found a development thirty-two miles outside of downtown we could afford. We chose our lot, which in spite of our foolishness in the purchase on so many levels, was in a truly lovely location next to some older coniferous trees and a wetland. Years after we moved on these trees were chopped down to make way for more ugly houses, and for many other reasons it was for the best we moved on, but the trees were there while we were, and softened the blow of a truly bad decision.

I began having twitches of misgivings while the house was being built, but was still able to quell them by choosing light fixtures and countertops. I was in my final year of law school and fully in the throes of “bore you to death,” the final refrain in the saying about law school that first year scares you to death, second year works you to death, and third year bores you to death. I had figured it out, how to pull the law from opinions, how to hunt down statutes and legislative history, figured out what mattered and what did not. I was truly sick of it. But I still had work to do and after the house was built, it was exhausting to drive home from the campus that was nearly downtown out to the sticks where we now resided.

The length of the drive was an even tighter twist of the screw in that the road to our new home was two lanes and hilly. Although drivers were given free rein to drive 55 miles per hour, most of them chose speeds closer to 35. Because of the hills and curves, passing was a death sentence. This meant that our drives were an extra fifteen or twenty minutes longer than they needed to be.

What a mistake. We were living in a country suburb. As is often the case in these developments, it was named for what it had been: Big Meadow.  The meadow was gone and in its place were Stepford houses in limited shapes and sizes, with perfectly manicured lawns and neutral paint, as required by the unrelenting neighborhood regulations.  I quickly realized I was better suited to living close to downtown, near young, creative, liberal types.  I needed a house to fix up, and since ours was brand new, there wasn’t a lot to do to it. We gave the house our love, built a fence and a dog run, but we simply did not fit in. The neighbors brought us proselytizing literature on a weekly basis. Every visit to the store provided an invitation to our auto windshield to attend a local church play. We were one of only a handful of families who recycled. Basically, were major sore thumbs.

Our immediate next door neighbors were especially different from us. The main thing about them that I remember is that on periodic afternoons the woman of the house had her teenage sons out in the yard and driveway with square-nosed shovels to search for garter snakes to kill. She did not want them anywhere near her home. Since her house backed up to the edge of what had been the big meadow the neighborhood obliterated, garter snakes were frequently in evidence.  After her sons killed a sufficient number of garter snakes, she would spread poison all over her yard to kill insects. She would kill the harmless garter snakes that would have eaten the insects and chose instead to cover her yard in toxic chemicals. Insane.

Within months of the purchase, I was completely sorry and realized what a huge mistake the house purchase had been, but we were there and I knew there was no way I was going to convince Bjorn to move any time soon, so I made the best of it.

As was the case in every place I lived from the time Autumn was about five years old, she quickly figured out the neighborhood. She would roam around for a while then return home, barking her two short woofs to be let in. One nice thing about the development being unfinished was that there were not many houses in yet, and there was open land behind our house for her to run around in. I had to watch her diet closely because certain foods could cause her bladder to go haywire, but in spite of my dislike of the neighborhood, Autumn was very happy there.

The only dog in our family who wasn’t as happy as she could have been was Molly. Once we moved, Autumn and Poppy decided they were a gang of two and would gang up on Molly. Poppy especially was becoming rather aggressive towards her. Coupled with her extensive skin problems, her fixed unwillingness to figure out potty training, and her increasing nastiness towards Molly, I was actually beginning to think I should find her another home. This was an eventuality I had never previously considered, that I would send a dog away, but things were getting out of hand.

One afternoon during the dogs’ feeding, Poppy scarfed up her chicken and rice, then trotted over to Molly to see if she could steal some of her food. Keeping her head low over her bowl, Molly raised her lip, showing her teeth. This was as much as Molly ever did in aggression to anyone, human or dog, and it was always when she thought someone was going to take her food. She had learned that I was allowed to remove her dish, but no such rule applied to Poppy, not as far as Molly was concerned.

Poppy ignored Molly’s warning, and stuck her head in Molly’s food. Molly growled and Poppy lunged for her. The two dogs started brawling, rolling together across the floor. Poppy was attacking Molly, and Molly was trying to defend and get away.

I quickly grabbed Milla and yelled for Bjorn, who was in the garage. When Bjorn opened the garage door, Molly saw the potential escape and darted through, Poppy hanging from her neck. Autumn followed, barking and fired up by the violence. Bjorn ran after them, fearful of being bitten. The two dogs snarled and knashed, Autumn barked and barked, blood appeared in spatters on the garage floor. Molly tried to escape under the car, but this made the situation worse because she was too big to move underneath the vehicle, while Poppy, small and wiry, had full advantage.

Finally Bjorn grabbed the garden hose and sprayed under the car. Molly lay in a heap, whining and yipping in terror as Poppy bolted off. Bjorn chased her and tossed her into the kennel on the side of the house with Autumn. I set Milla down and crawled under the edge to try and coax Molly out. She was obviously hurt. I told Bjorn to go grab my purse and keys. He installed Milla into her carseat as Molly finally crawled towards me on her tummy. She stopped whimpering, but her paw was bleeding badly and she had a tear in the edge of the skin next to her eye.

“Poor baby,” I crooned. “Come here, Molly. Come to me, sweet one.” I petted her and held her. She stopped shaking and I put her into the car and drove her to the vet.

Poppy broke Molly’s foot that day. We did not seek immediately to find Poppy a new home; I thought it would be difficult given her skin condition. A year and a half later, after she had attacked Molly twice more, I decided enough was enough, and I was going to actively try to find her somewhere else to live.

We were living in the new house I purchased in Portland. There was a neighbor who walked her wire-haired Jack Russell down the sidewalk in front of my house nearly every day. Narrow and stoop-shouldered, with white hair and glasses that slid down her nose as she spoke, she would stop to talk and criticize while I worked in my yard, informing me that “People who owned other dogs should not own Jacks,” referring to Jack Russell terriers. She also said that “People with large dogs should not have small ones.” These pieces of wisdom were offered in response to my telling her about Poppy’s attacks on Molly. I thought her ideas were somewhat strange, but what could I say to her strange ideas? I just listened, nodded, and continued raking, or weeding, or whatever else I was up to.

I found this woman’s perspective on Jack Russells somewhat entertaining, especially considering my interaction with another Jack Russell named Jackie. When Bjorn and I had lived in West Linn, someone had offered to give us another Jack Russell.  We were well into many of Poppy’s behavior issues at this point, and crazy busy to boot, so we weren’t terribly thrilled at the prospect.  However, the person who told us about the dog said she was being housed in a tiny kennel in someone’s garage and tranquilized 24 hours a day.  We investigated and discovered the story was true.

The people who owned Jackie worked full-time and lived in a rather small house with a tiny back yard, but they had purchased a Great Dane and a Jack Russell terrier.  Obviously, foresight is not a requirement when one acquires a dog, otherwise how can one account for the canine choices in this family with so little room and no time?  The Great Dane was managing the situation, but Jackie needed more exercise and more room.  Instead of giving it to her, they kept her locked up and drugged.  After several months of this, they finally decided they should find her another home, whereupon we heard about her and decided we would bring her home with us with the sole purpose of finding her a more suitable home.

It did not take many calls for my friend Noelle to claim Jackie, before we even picked her up.  This was a fortuitous circumstance, and we genuinely hoped it would improve Jackie’s lot in life.  After visiting Jackie one evening, we made arrangements to bring her to our house later in the week and for Noelle to pick her up that day.

The afternoon we brought Jackie to our house was warm and sunny.  The people who gave her to us had ceased their drug administration. We lived at the farmhouse in West Linn at the time, and we were looking forward to letting her run drug free in the fenced field behind our house.  Nancy Reagan would have been so proud.

When we pulled up in the driveway, we opened the door to go inside, and Jackie darted out of the car and down the street.  Bewildered at the speedy escape, we backed out of the driveway and drove around for the next two hours, looking for her.  We finally gave up and called Jackie’s previous owners.  Jackie was still wearing her old tags.  If someone found her, they could call them, and they would call us.

Within two hours we received a call from the state police.  They had gotten our number from Jackie’s previous owners, and wanted to bring her to us.  Five minutes later, a patrol car pulled up at our house.  Jackie had been discovered sitting on a log, floating down the Willamette River, several miles upstream from our house.  We never heard the details of how she had been rescued, but this river is massive and swift, and we lived upstream from a rather large waterfall. Jackie was a lucky little dog.  Unfortunately, we were not terribly sad to see her go when Noelle came by our house to pick her up later that evening.  Our neighbor at the new house was right, perhaps some people should not own Jacks.

Not long after we moved into the new house, Poppy disappeared from our fenced dog run in the backyard. There was no evidence of escape, and Autumn was still there, a sure sign the fence was intact; if Poppy could have escaped, Autumn would have been gone as well. It seemed someone had taken Poppy right out of our yard. The dogs had free access to the house and dog run while we were at work, and if someone wanted to, they could have taken her.

The day after Poppy’s disappearance, but before I had posted any of the signs I printed on my computer that said MISSING DOG, I was in the front yard of my house when the white-haired woman walked by with her dog.

“I haven’t seen Poppy out here lately,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “Did you find her another home?”

“No,” I answered, “She is gone. Someone took her from our yard.”

“Oh, well that’s too bad, but you know, people with other dogs shouldn’t own Jacks.”

“Well,” I answered, “I hope whoever has her knows she has a skin condition and gets her the shots she requires and feeds her foods that don’t make her itch.” I said this while looking directly at her, knowing full well she was the one who had taken our dog, because no one else knew yet she was missing.

“Oh, I’m sure they will,” she said, walking off. “I have little doubt of it.”

We never saw Poppy again. The woman had done me a favor, but I was not happy about the sneaky and thieving way she had gone about it. Milla especially was upset to have her little dog gone without so much as a goodbye.

Molly healed from her broken foot and we began feeding the dogs in separate rooms. Molly and Autumn got to eat in the house, on opposite sides of the island in the kitchen, while Poppy ate in the garage. It was the least she could do having hurt Molly.

In spite of the fact Autumn was dining on a smorgasbord of ground turkey, rice, and some disgusting vitamin goo that looked and smelled exactly like blood, she continued to escape and eat trash at the neighbors’ houses whenever she got the chance.

One night, I arrived home late from a law school class that ended at 10. It was nearly 11 by the time I dragged my lumbering book bag into the house. Everyone was asleep. I made myself a bowl of cereal and was just sitting down to eat it and read a magazine before bed when I noticed Autumn lying near the glass back door. She did not look well.

It was not unusual for the dogs to skip greeting me when I arrived home late, so I had not noticed her when I came in. She was glassy-eyed and bloated. She belched every few minutes, and was passing horribly smelly gas, and she seemed to be in pain, holding her head down, with her legs spread at unnatural widths from her body. The worst part though, was that her stomach was extremely swollen. It looked as if she had ingested a soccer ball or something, her abdomen was so distended.

I went into our spare room and logged on to the computer, and entered the symptoms into google. All of the responses came back with “gastric dilatation,” and “twisted stomach,” and “gastric torsion.” One even said simply “bloat in dogs.”

I immediately called our vet’s office. The answering service told us to contact the emergency vet in Salem. I called the emergency vet who confirmed that the symptoms did indeed sound like gastric torsion, and that we should bring Autumn in immediately. Every site I had looked at said the diagnosis was a virtual death sentence.

Terrified, I awakened Bjorn and told him what was going on. He dressed and we loaded Milla and Autumn into the car for the forty minute drive into Salem. Because it was nearly midnight, the drive didn’t take quite that long, simply because we did not have to follow any extra slow drivers.

We slipped into the darkened parking lot of the emergency vet just over a half hour later. The building looked deserted, in spite of the fluorescent lights glowing through the opaque windows. A sign at the door told us to ring a bell. We waited in the cold, Bjorn carrying Autumn, and me carrying Milla over my shoulder. A tech responded to the buzzing and pushed open the door. It felt like we were being ushered into a science fiction spaceship. The lights above hummed continuously but the building was deafeningly quiet because the lobby was completely empty. I’m sure during the day the room was abuzz with activity, but not at that hour. The tech took Autumn from my arms and carried her into a small examining room, the three of us following closely on her heels.

“We will take her back and get an x-ray,” said the tech. “Then the vet will look them over and come out to let you know what we find.” Her voice was grim.

Less than five minutes later the vet came into the room to let us know her plan.

“We will take x-rays. From the way she is presenting, it certainly appears to be torsion, but we can’t be sure without the films.” Gastric torsion is a life-threatening condition whereby a dog’s stomach becomes twisted on its axis, causing the contents of the stomach to become trapped. The stomach then distends because it is twisted and the gas cannot escape. It is extremely painful and if left untreated, the dog will die quickly.

She went on to explain that if Autumn had torsion, her options were limited. We could try surgery, and if she had surgery, there was a strong likelihood this would happen again and again until it killed her. She said she was going to take x-rays first to determine what was going on, but she was fairly certain Autumn was suffering from torsion.

Bjorn and I said nothing. We waited and waited in the sterile, fluorescent waiting room. I was tiring of spending time in these cold, unwelcoming spaces. So much time waiting for tests on this dog I loved like a child. The chairs were never comfortable and on the few occasions televisions were left on, I was even more miserable. I hate television, with its unrelenting noise, flashing, and commercials. The two of us took turns holding Milla as she slept, warm and sweaty on our shoulders.

Forty-five minutes later, the veterinarian came out to talk to us, and asked us to come into the examination room. There was an x-ray on the illuminated x-ray sign.

The vet was calm as she said, “Autumn doesn’t have a twisted stomach. It appears that she got into something that has expanded, causing her extreme discomfort, but the stomach is not at all twisted, and is in exactly the right place. I suspect that as soon as whatever she ate passes through, she will be just fine. I administered a stool softener to help move things along, and gave her an injection of painkiller to aid with pain.”

I was so relieved, but it was after 2 in the morning and I was thoroughly exhausted, both from the emotional turmoil of the situation, as well as lack of sleep. I was grateful that once again my dog was okay, theoretically anyway. The visit cost nearly $300, but we wouldn’t be wondering where to bury my dog anytime soon. Every time we ended up in a veterinarian’s office for another Autumn medical catastrophe, I wondered where that place would be. Every time I asked, would this visit be the one that ended it all?

As Bjorn drove, I sat quietly in the passenger seat, hunkered down low, the chair reclined back touching Milla’s car seat, Autumn curled at my feet.

I was not the sort who prayed, but as we slid through the dark towards home, I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that this problem would be the last, that this visit would be the end to constant medical conditions, and issues, and investigations, and expense, that there would not be more waiting in yet another sterile room.

All the way home, I was grateful she was still with me, but I was fervent in my hope that this time would be the last. Perhaps I did not pray enough, or asked too late, because a positive answer to this prayer was simply not to be.

Read Autumn — Chapter 14

Autumn — Chapter 11

Read Autumn — Chapter 10

Autumn was seven years old when she began having bladder infections. Always fanatically clean and unwilling to wet inside, she began peeing uncontrollably wherever she happened to be standing when the urge overcame her. We had purchased a dog door insert for the sliding glass door to the backyard, so none of the animals ever had to wait to go potty. Autumn couldn’t even make it to the door. She would get up from wherever she was lying and head for the pet door, then stop and squat, trying to urinate. There would be a dribble, and nothing more. I could see the fur on her back end quivering as she strained to urinate, feeling the pressure, but getting no result.

I took her to the vet’s office near our duplex. Unlike Dr. Fletcher, when this vet would examine Autumn, a technician would take her from me in the lobby and do something with her in the back room. Autumn never liked this. She would pull towards me on her leash as she was led away. The doctors were kind though, and always explained things thoroughly to me.

The vet ran a culture on Autumn’s urine and prescribed antibiotics. She would get somewhat better on the antibiotics, but then the infection would recur as soon as the course ran. I would take her back to the vet, get another culture, get more antibiotics. This went on for several months.

Finally, frustrated, I told the doctor we needed to do something more drastic. The vet decided that we should give Autumn some very powerful antibiotics and work to kill the bacteria once and for all. After the course had run, she seemed better, and did well for several months.

There was a great deal of stress going on in Autumn’s life at this time. Actually, there was a great deal of stress in all of our lives. I had begun my first term in law school, Bjorn was completing his final year of his engineering program, and we got another dog:  a Jack Russell terrier we named Poppy.

Bjorn had always wanted a Jack Russell. I saw this dog advertised somewhere and chose her for his birthday. She was living in a small cage in a man’s nearly empty apartment in Gresham. Another dog was in a cage next to Poppy’s. There were urine stains under the cages because he left them there to do their business. It seemed he left them there all the time. If I could have, I would have taken both of the dogs, just to get them away from the man.

The entire time Poppy lived with us, she suffered severe skin infections. She would get fungal infections in her ears that required oozy medications. After she scratched herself bloody, I had the vet run allergy tests, and it turned out she was allergic to about ten different things, several grasses among them. We lived in the Willamette Valley, the grass capital of the world. Not a great place for a dog allergic to several varieties of grasses. Considering all the problems she had, I wondered if the man who sold her to us had bred her in some inbred puppy mill or something. We had not requested her papers, although he offered to get them for us for an additional price. Since we planned to spay Poppy and keep her as a pet, her papers were meaningless, but I wondered later if we could have seen the issues coming if we had known her breeding.

When I got Molly, Autumn was not pleased. She saw the acquisition as a betrayal and competed constantly for my attention. When Poppy came along, however, Autumn enjoyed her new friend. The two of them ganged up on Molly and had a grand time doing it. Molly seemed to suffer more stress over the transition than Autumn did. However, being Molly, she didn’t act out, but spent more time under the bed.

While this was going on, we moved from the duplex to that lovely little farmhouse on two acres in the middle of the suburb.

Autumn loved it. We fenced in about a half an acre in an attempt to provide the dogs with a large place to play and also to attempt to keep Autumn from running off.

All of the dogs seemed to really enjoy this new arrangement. We would let them out in the yard and they would wander around sniffing the bases of the trees, marking each other’s urine, and chasing squirrels.

In spite of the fabulous new digs, Autumn managed to get out and disappear for a couple of hours every week. Ever since she was a puppy living near the field in Tennessee, if she had the chance to go wandering, she would take it. Most of the places we lived had fences so secure that her escapes were not much of an issue. She would return from her adventure and bark at the door to be let in.

Escape was easier at the house in West Linn. Autumn would take off, often for a couple of hours, then back she would be at the door, barking to be let in. We diligently searched the fence for signs of escape, and repaired any areas that looked like possibilities, yet she managed to get out again. Of course.

For a while Autumn did quite well. There were no bladder infections and she seemed happy. Then Poppy starting causing trouble, urinating on the furniture and getting into things and chewing. I almost wondered if Poppy was ruined for potty training because she had been left to pee in the same kennel where she slept for the first nine months of her life.

One evening, Bjorn was in the kitchen cooking, and I was playing with Milla on the floor in the living room. Autumn and Molly were lying on the floor next to me when Poppy jumped up on our nubbly, brown love seat, squatted, and peed. I screeched and jumped up, grabbed her, and tossed her out the back door. The other dogs sniffed the spot, then Molly slunk off and hid, while Autumn looked at me quizzically. Luckily, the love seat was new and came with a cleaning warranty, so we were able to have the urine taken care of, but this was the sort of thing Poppy would do.

Unfortunately, there was no way to lock up just Poppy and leave the other dogs with a way to get out to go potty, so all three had to stay on the porch when we were away to keep Poppy from destroying the house in our absence.

Autumn hated this. After locking them on the back porch, Autumn would bark and bark, venting her frustration. Once she thought I was gone, she would settle down, but soon after the dogs had to start staying on the back porch, Autumn got another bladder infection.

I did not realize it at the time, but I know now that the stress of staying on the porch when she had previously had the run of the house contributed to her getting another infection. And as in the past, it took several courses and a final strong dose of antibiotics to get rid of the infection.

I will never forget the moment one sunny afternoon a few months after she had been off the antibiotics when I let Autumn out to go potty in the front yard, and she peed a stream of deep red blood, contrasting brightly with her fluffy blonde pantaloons. I learned the true meaning of my own blood running cold. I felt my face blanch, and it was as if the world stood still for a brief moment as I questioned whether this was really happening.

I went over and sought to examine the place on the ground where Autumn had peed. The spot was a mix of scrubby grass and hard packed earth. I could not see anything. I called Autumn to me. She seemed to be fine except for the desperate urge to urinate. She continued trying, although nothing came out. Whenever she managed a little, there were chunks of bloody tissue in it. It was gross and terrifying. I thought for sure my little dog was dying.

Heart pounding and choking back sobs, I called the vet. She said to bring Autumn in right away. I grabbed a towel and covered the front seat with it so if she bled again, none would get on the upholstery. I gathered the baby, diaper bag, my purse, and the dog, and we loaded into our compact, green car.

Driving to the vet’s office, I tried to hold back tears, little hiccuping sobs kept escaping my mouth. What if Autumn had cancer? What if she was going to die? Milla sat in the back seat, her eyes wide. She knew something was not right.

We arrived at the vet’s office. The technician wanted to try and get a sample of the bloody urine, so we led Autumn around out front in the strip of grass between the parking lot and the road, hoping she would try to pee. She made several attempts, to no avail. We were ready to give up when she urinated, and some small bloody chunks came out as well.

After the technician took Autumn into the back examination room, the doctor came out to discuss what steps would be taken.

“There are several possible prognoses,” she said. “It could be cancer, but this is unlikely, given the overall symptoms. It could be that she ingested some rat poison. Rat poison causes animals to bleed out. Is there any chance Autumn got into some rat poison?” she asked me.

Anything was possible. Autumn escaped all the time. She also ate anything and everything. I had tried to teach her “Leave it” when it came to food, but this had only ever worked when I was standing right above her, forcing her to leave something alone. She would sit with her head up at an angle, her eyes cast down at whatever food item I was forbidding, a gleam in her eye, licking her chops, hoping against hope I would give in and let her have it.

“Well, we will run the test for that and if she did ingest rat poison, we can take steps to alleviate any harm if we have caught it in time.”

“Okay,” I answered, unsure and worried. There was more. I could tell. The doctor had that anticipatory look about her.

“The other big possibility, and this really matches her history, is Cushing’s disease.”

Cushing’s disease? I had never heard of it. The main symptoms were increased water consumption (check), increased urination (check), accidents in previously fastidious dogs (check), increased appetite (well, Autumn was always hungry, or so it seemed), stealing food (same as hungry), a bloated tummy (check), a dull coat (not so much), and exercise intolerance, lethargy, general or hind-leg weakness (check, check, check).

I was dumbfounded. This described my dog nearly exactly, and actually illustrated parts of her that had been showing up for years, but I had overlooked. She was only a few years old when she began to refuse running with me. Could that have been the beginning of Cushing’s and I did not know it? The vet told me there were other symptoms that also showed up, but these were often the most obvious features. She said it is usually either the increased water intake and urination, or the coat changes which prompt an owner to have their dog examined by a veterinarian, because Cushing’s dogs don’t suddenly become dramatically ill. It is also much more difficult to ignore a dog that is peeing on everything, eating trash, and losing its hair.

The bad news was that Cushing’s was notoriously difficult to diagnose because there were many false negatives. In addition, the medication to treat it was prohibitively expensive. She told me we would rule out everything else first, then look at doing the primary test for Cushing’s. She also thought Autumn should have a scope of her bladder to see what was causing the bleeding.

“How much would that cost?” I queried.

“About 750 dollars,” she responded.

Oh my holy Christ! 750 dollars! There was no way we could afford that, but it seemed necessary to rule out bladder cancer and to try and figure out what was going on in there, because Cushing’s wouldn’t cause bladder bleeding, even if it did seem like all the symptoms fit my dog.

After much hand-wringing and consternation, Bjorn and I conversed and decided we would approach our friends Debbie and Robert for a loan.

I met Debbie when I began working at Oregon State. Poker-faced with a constant smile reminiscent of the Cheshire cat, Debbie worked as a graduate assistant at the university. I worked as a general office assistant. She and I hit it off nearly immediately. We shared the same ridiculous sense of humor, and could entertain one another for hours repeating the lines of simpletons in movies or pretending to dance the river dance. Bjorn and Robert would shake their heads in consternation as the two of us spent hours on the phone laughing until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces at basically nothing at all. Most of what we found hilarious would cause most people to wonder whether we should be incarcerated in a mental institution.

Debbie and I also shared an interest in politics.  We could spend hours discussing whatever was happening politically in the world.  Debbie was the first person I called the morning the twin towers burned.  We sobbed together, realizing the world would never be the same again.

Because Debbie became my very best friend in the entire world and she shared her life with Robert, Robert became a friend as well, and later my de facto father. I never knew my biological father, and was certainly never close to my step-father. In a sense, I had no father figure really, certainly no one had ever filled those shoes for me, so after the birth of Milla, Robert stepped in and took the job.

While I was pregnant, I decided Debbie was the person I wanted there with me as my support. Robert drove most of the time, and on the night before Milla’s birth, when we called them at 3 in the morning to let them know her arrival was imminent, Robert drove. The birthing center where Milla was born provided birthing “suites,” much like hotel rooms. Robert plunked himself down on a couch to wait for Debbie. Debbie took care of me, and Robert managed Bjorn and kept him company.

In the end, both of them were present at Milla’s birth, and forever after, she was Robert’s heart. He loved that child like she was his own. For the rest of his life, whenever he had the opportunity, Robert would tell the story of Milla’s birth and how, after the doctor plopped her up on my belly, he could see her tiny, quivering cleft chin. He then turned his head slightly and saw an identical chin, only slightly bigger, quivering on me.

Robert loved telling that story, and he utterly adored my daughter. Robert also cared for me in his own way, fighting with me when he thought I was being “dumber than a bag of hammers” (his words), or I thought he was being a “stubborn pain in the ass” (mine).

The two also thoroughly understood my love of Autumn and Molly. Debbie has a human child, and Debbie and Robert lived with the previously mentioned cat named Misty whom they loved completely. They cared for our dogs while we were in the hospital after Milla’s birth. They also welcomed our dogs whenever we visited their house. And they knew I would not have considered having Autumn euthanized for the medical issues she was experiencing unless it were the only option.

Between the two of them, Bjorn and I found emotional support often lacking in our own parents. We would have done anything for them, and in this time of need, they provided us with a loan so Autumn could have the tests deemed necessary by the veterinarian. We paid them back a few months later after Bjorn graduated and received a signing bonus at his new job, but if we hadn’t gotten that loan, I’m not sure what we would have done.

And so the tests were begun. After all the blood work and examination on the day she peed blood, nothing was found or conclusive. Rat poison was ruled out, and surprisingly, so was a bladder infection. There wasn’t any bladder infection bacteria in her urine, once they were able to obtain a sample. They also tested for diabetes mellitus, but that was negative as well. Also, based on the blood tests, cancer was unlikely, but the vet wanted to wait for the results of the scope to rule it out completely.

The vet’s office helped us to schedule the bladder scope at the specialist’s office. They also scheduled the Cushing’s disease test, which required that Autumn fast for twelve hours, then come in and leave a blood sample. She had to stay at the vet’s office all day for the Cushing’s test because first the doctor would inject her with a substance called dexamethasone, which was a synthetic steroid. She would then take blood samples four and eight hours later. In a normal dog, the body would recognize the steroid and suppress cortisol. Cushing’s dogs would not suppress the cortisol because their feedback loop was messed up.

After making all the schedules, I gathered Autumn into the car with the baby. She had stopped urinating blood because the doctor had given her something to relax the muscle walls in her bladder. The vet had also dosed her up on antibiotics, as she had the last time Autumn had a bladder infection, even though there had been no signs of that type of bacteria. The heavy antibiotic doses had worked in the past, so she figured we should do it again.

I called Debbie and Robert, and described everything we had experienced so far, all the tests, all the speculation. Then I called Dr. Fletcher and discussed what was happening with him. He asked me to keep him posted and let him know if we came up with a diagnosis.

I wasn’t as scared as I had been before because everything described to me so far could be managed, but I could hardly wait for the bladder scope that was scheduled for the following week. I was hopeful it would provide some clarity into what was going on.

Read Autumn — Chapter 12