Chapter 2 Lives On Parallel Tracks

The weekend Angie got sick, my husband and I were still wandering dazed through the days, trying to absorb the diagnosis of his illness:  brain tumor.  We had known for two weeks.  In that time,  Ron and I had somehow worked at our jobs,  walked Angie and fed the cat, while the horror of having something growing inside you that is likely to kill you darkened our lives.

Angie had been our dog for three years.  She came to us from the Maryland Cocker Spaniel Adoption Center, although she was only part Cocker.  The rest was Afghan hound.

“How did that happen?” a friend had asked.  I shrugged.  Dogs driven by love apparently figure out how to deal with height differences.  The result was likely several Afghan/Cockers, Angie’s brothers and sisters.

We do not know whether Angie’s owners had given her up or she had been picked up as a stray, but she had been living in an animal shelter in Ohio.  The staff scheduled her for euthanasia because no one wanted to adopt an old spaniel.

“No,” said the local dog rescue volunteer.  “I’ll take her.  We’ll make her an honorary Cocker spaniel.”

Volunteers took Angie from Ohio to Maryland, where I saw her on an adoption website, a medium-sized black dog with brown eyes gazing optimistically into the camera.  A few months later, after we filled out  a nine-page adoption form, got references and passed an in-home  inspection,  Angie was ours.  She was 10 years old, with a laid-back, easygoing personality.

Angie was deaf, we realized after she had lived with us for several weeks.    She compensated by watching us carefully, learning our movements that meant  important things: food, walk, playtime in the back yard.  We  made sure  we were in her line of vision when we wanted to interact with her and used gestures for “come” and “sit.”

Angie had chronic digestive problems.  When the ailment flared up, she was unable to keep food down.  I would get out the rice cooker and mix rice, chicken chunks and broth to feed her for several days, then gradually ease back to dog food.

On Friday morning of the weekend Angie got sick, September 22, 2006,  Ron sat at the breakfast bar,  cradling the cordless phone in his hand and staring at the number pad.  He could see the numbers, but his brain couldn’t arrange them in sequence to make a call.  The tumor had overrun that part of his mind.

“I can’t make it work,” he said, and clenched the phone.  Hard.

Ron had been complaining for a month or so before the diagnosis that he was forgetting words and names.  “It’s tough getting old,”  I joked.  But after he got lost driving through countryside he had known for 40 years, his brain unable to make sense of  the route numbers, he went to a doctor.  One MRI later, we knew: Glioblastoma multiforme, in the left occipital and parietal lobes, growing over gray matter that did visual processing and numerical and spatial perception, jumbling numbers, making objects appear to the right of where they actually were.

We were both terrified.  Experts, I learned later, can tell you that brain surgery is not urgent.  Performing it a few days sooner or later will not affect the outcome.  But experts don’t come to the kitchen and explain that it’s all right when you can’t dial the telephone.  Surgery had been  scheduled the following Wednesday.   I called the surgeon’s office.  Yes, they could move it up to Monday.  The sooner, the better, we told them.

There were things to do: pack Ron’s things,  arrange for someone to walk Angie while we were at the hospital,  call our daughters and Ron’s mother.

That evening,  Angie didn’t eat her dog food. Thinking it was the usual digestive problem,  I cooked her rice, chicken broth and a few tidbits of chicken.  But she didn’t eat the rice mix.

We followed her usual routine:  final potty break in the back yard before bedtime, then downstairs to the soft old robe she slept on.   Saturday morning,  she couldn’t stand.  I lifted her to her feet, but she staggered sideways.  I carried her outside.  When I set her down she staggered and fell.  This was not the usual digestive problem.

Vestibular disease, the veterinarian said, and gave me some pills for her.  An hour later, I was back on the phone to the veterinarian’s office.  Even with nothing in her stomach, Angie couldn’t keep the pills down.  We returned to the clinic for a shot,  and I was told to start the pills again later in the day.

At home, Angie lay all day without moving.  She licked a little of the rice mix from my fingers, but threw it up.  The pills came back up within minutes after I got them down her throat.   Saturday night, we carried her downstairs and put her on the playroom rug.  She did not move during the night.

Sunday morning, she could not get to her feet or stand  when I lifted her.  I carried her out to the yard.  She tried to urinate, but staggered sideways.  I held her so she could urinate.  She could not hold her body steady.  Ron and I looked at each other.

“She’s getting worse.  The shot didn’t help, and the pills are useless because she can’t keep them down,” I said.

He nodded.  “I know.”

We carried her back to the rug near the kitchen.  She wouldn’t eat, not even from my hand.  I put a pill down her throat, but she regurgitated it soon after.

We faced each other across the breakfast bar.

“Should we do for her what I would want her to do for me if our roles were reversed?”  I asked.

Ron sat silent for a long moment, then nodded.  “There’s no quality of life now,” he said.

Together, we carried Angie to the car and drove her to the vet’s office.  We stroked her and talked to her.  It didn’t matter that she could not hear what we said.  She knew we were there.  The doctor let us stay with Angie while she gave the shot.  We stayed, stroking Angie until she no longer breathed.  We completed the arrangements to have her cremated.  Then we walked outside.   Ron  put his arms around me, and I wept into his shoulder.

We drove home.  Patches, the cat, rubbed against Ron’s leg.  He scratched her behind her ears.

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