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