She ALWAYS made it up the stairs.
She was brought into our lives as a puppy to be both companion and protector. We decided on a Chesapeake Bay Retriever because, as usual, I researched the perfect dog breed for months and months. At the time, we had recently moved back into Ann Arbor and our house was right next to an area where petty theft was common. We didn’t want an attack dog, but I wanted someone who would let us know when an intruder approached and protect my family when I wasn’t there. I would love to say I was always there, but as a surgeon I was often faced with long and unusual hours. Chestnut was a beautiful dog by any standard having garnered her name from the color of her coat. She was also the toughest and most athletic dog we had ever seen, out jumping, swimming, and running every other dog, at every dog park we ever visited.
Chestnut was also the most stubborn animal we had ever welcomed into our family. She was so stubborn in fact, that when she was just over a year old we had to hire an animal behaviorist to help us learn from each other how to be a family. That said she became a member of our family, such so that our worlds began to weave around each other’s in the way that all of us do. You can’t make a plan as a family without considering all of its members and that is just how it goes and lest we forget as parents, we had three head strong children to remind us. At the time of Chestnut’s arrival our oldest daughter was nine, our middle daughter was seven, and our son was one.
Chestnut was indestructible till she was about 10. Prior to that there was no distance too far, no swim too long and no ball thrown too hard that she would not bring it back. In fact, we had to buy a special device and take turns throwing the ball to her as we simply didn’t have the fortitude to satiate her without it.
Through the years she walked with us, put her head in our laps when she needed something, looked at us with her quizzical eyes when we were clearly in the wrong or about to do something stupid. Our family grew up with her and when we moved to Seattle our yard was much smaller, so her needs meant twice per day we were taking her for walks. She loved the water so this day I think she was happiest of all us for the move to Seattle because despite the river that ran through Ann Arbor, it was no match for the majesty of galloping through the water in a shallow beach on the Puget Sound. Double Bluff on Whidbey Island was completely intoxicating for her. Although we weren’t able to go frequently enough to completely meet her desire, when we did, the joy as we approached would ripple through her body and reverberate through the car so that no soul within the vehicle was capable of being unhappy.
As Chestnut aged so did our family and as I stated above when she turned ten things went from full tilt athleticism to gradual decline. Over a fairly short period of time she went from unstoppable to barely making it up the stairs. Unfortunately, her arthritis was too defuse to be treated with a particular procedure so we were left with medications and trying to accommodate her. As I said above she was the most stubborn being we had ever known and despite purchasing a harness to help us carry her when she was having difficulty, over the three years we owned it I can count the times she actually let us use it on one hand. She was slow, but she never gave up, despite her clear difficulty she ALWAYS made it up and back down two flights of stairs every day.
With her arthritis also came an affinity for eating socks and on one fateful day she consumed my then 11-year-old boy’s knee high athletic sock with a speed and vigor I would have never thought possible. By the time we got her to the vet the sock that was now a softball unable to pass its way through her gut had obstructed and she needed emergency surgery. She did OK with the surgery but it was hard for her. We promised ourselves to try to never let that happen again so we cleared the main floor of all miscellaneous laundry and informed the kids that no one was to leave socks on the main floor. I know what your thinking, having teenagers to remember not to leave clothes lying around is like telling them not to eat snack foods right before dinner, it last for about a day then…. The only thing in our advantage was that Chestnut really couldn’t go up or down the house stairs by herself anymore, so we just had one area to watch out for.
As expected there were a few mess-ups, but no harm was done and at least she didn’t get a hold of anything she couldn’t pass. Being part of a family is a fluid thing and as one member’s needs change over time the family gives and stretches to accommodate. Just like work or school we get up earlier, we drive, we walk, we do whatever it takes to keep the homeostasis of the family unit. In Chestnut’s case it was her mobility. The price of living in the side of a hill is stairs and despite having our back yard renovated to help, there were still two flights of stairs. Three times a day we had to get her up and down the stairs. Twice a day she got her arthritis medicine, and throughout the day, as much love as possible. Despite her lack of mobility she would still have enough bark to warn off anyone, even though with one push she would be on her side. This also meant that the leash became a hazard to her falling down, so our walks looked more like the Beatles walking across Abby Road.
As with every story there comes an end and ours began with a typical Sunday morning walk, one of the first nice spring Seattle days in a very long time. Even though I was on call for the emergency room, I was able to sleep in, so after turning on the coffee maker, Sue and I got the dogs ready, Sue with Orion (our smaller King Charles Spaniel) and me with Chestnut and no leash. Aka George, Paul, Ringo, and John. As per usual after getting up the stairs (she ALWAYS made it up the stairs) Chestnut was done as we got around the block. So after doing her business I turned around to take her back so that Orion and Sue could have a longer walk. As we got home right after crossing the entry to the house, Chestnut, whom had seemed fine, before, puked all over the kitchen floor. She knew I was a upset as she waited till we had just entered the house to puke so instead of heading back outside as I tried to direct, she went into the living room where her bed was. Unfortunately, her bed was, unbeknownst to us, covered in puke and pee as it became clear chestnut was having trouble.
At this point Sue was home so we double teamed the clean up and checked out Chestnut who seemed fine other then puking and peeing all over the place. I called the emergency vet who advised us that if she was comfortable and had pooped this morning that we should give her a few hours to see if it was just something she ate.
Our complicated day was now more complicated, I headed off to surgery since I was on call and Sue took both dogs with her and the kids to run errands, one of which included looking at puppies for fun. My surgery, which was supposed to be later in the day, ended up being a little earlier so I was able to meet up with Sue and the kids and Chestnut, of course seemed to be doing fine at this point.
Denial is a beautiful thing, we all knew where this was heading, but she looked OK, so things were going to be OK. Chestnut had other plans. After getting Sue and the kids to the movies, where there were no cell phones, I came home to Chestnut puking up bile. So now, I am on call, Sue is unreachable and has the van (the only car Chestnut can get into) and her harness. So I look at Chestnut who can now no longer swallow her own saliva and we decide she has to go to the vet now. Chestnut takes a long time but she refuses help and makes it up the stairs, because she ALWAYS makes it up the stairs. She limps around the garage with me and we both look at the back of our Kia Soul. As I have stated before, she hates being picked up. In the corner of the garage is a ramp we brought 3 years previously that she also hates which is why its covered with cobwebs in the back of the garage. Not knowing what else to do, I got out the ramp and put down the seats for her.
I am not a particularly spiritual/mystical person, but as you can imagine events were moving forward in a way that I had to accept seemed to be predestined. After putting down the ramp instead of refusing to go up the ramp, as she has done every other single time, she very slowly begins walking up the ramp. After getting into the back of the car she lies down and looks at me signaling its time to go.
Twenty minutes later we are at the vet and I am considering how to get Chestnut out since the ramp was too big to fit in the car. Sometimes I am such a dumb ass, I knew this was going to happen, but now it’s upon us and I didn’t have an answer. Chestnut looks down at the drop to get out and we both know its not happening. Before running in to get help she looks up at me and I know she is OK with me picking her up. I know that sounds weird, but you would have to know Chestnut. She actually lets me pick her up and carry her to the front door.
Nobody who is in the emergency vet’s office on a Sunday afternoon is happy, but its quiet enough that no one is overwhelmed. I am terrified that my pager is going to go off and thank goodness they get us back to talk to the vet quickly. Chestnut looks pretty good, but the story is bad for a possible obstruction even though we never saw her eat a sock or anything else for that matter. In my heart I know that is what’s going on, but the vet appropriately wants an X-ray.
This is one of the moments in life when you appreciate how fluid time is, watching a great movie or reading a great book, hours pass by like minutes. Pacing in a ten by ten vet’s office, minutes feel like hours. By the time the Vet is back my mind has wandered so far I am startled by the knocking on the door. As expected she has a complete obstruction its either emergency surgery or euthanasia. Chestnut is going down hill quickly.
Sue is out of reach with no cell phone, so this 48 year old dude does what any son would do in a similar situation, I call my mom. No matter how old I am I will always be my mother’s son and despite being a surgeon making difficult decisions every day I don’t feel silly for a single second calling my mom. It helped so much to talk with her. I knew I couldn’t make this decision without talking to Sue so I asked the vet to give me a little time. There is one thing I left out earlier, Chestnut had oral surgery about one and half years ago to remove some bad teeth, and it was sooooo hard. Sue and I didn’t think she would make it after that and we promised her and each other that we would never do that to her again.
The thing about making promises like that is that it’s easier to say it then it is to do it. How do I make the decision to end a life? The Vet was wonderful and supportive, but….
Finally, I got to talk with Sue, my wonderful wife, Chestnut had been her protector for her entire life and no one knew Chestnut better then she did. Thank goodness I married her, we both knew Chestnut didn’t want this anymore. Chestnut told me in the car, I know it sounds weird, but you weren’t there….
I told the vet what we thought Chestnut wanted and she brought Chestnut in so I could wait with her while we waited for Sue and the kids to come see her. As I am writing this I can feel her head on my leg looking up at me with those beautiful eyes. Stupid blubbering dad and she was the strong one letting me know it was OK, she was tired.
No dad wants to see his family crying, but after being with Chestnut by myself for several hours I couldn’t remember more relief in seeing them. Sue and the kids kissed her gently and we sat with her till she lay down and made it clear she was done. My thoughts had always been that I was going to let Sue and the kids go while I stayed with Chestnut, always the dad wanting to protect them from a negative experience. Except that my son, who had grown up with Chestnut was not having it, he was going to stay to the end with every minute of his 14 years to bear on this decision.
I sat on the couch and he sat on the floor with her. The kind vet injected the anesthetic into her intravenous line so she would go to sleep and not feel anything. My son bravely sat with her, and before going to sleep Chestnut got on her haunches while the medicine was taking its affect she laid her head in my sons lap. As Chestnut went to sleep for the last time resting on my son he looked up at me and said, this was on her terms dad, She ALWAYS made it up the stairs, she ALWAYS made it up the stairs. I don’t know that I have ever cried as hard as that or felt more sad while feeling more proud of my son. I know there will be other moments in life that will stick with us and define us, but I will NEVER forget those words from my son.