death, dogs, Uncategorized, Xander

A grief that runs deep. On losing Xander.

If you are not a dog lover than you might want to stop reading right here.  This is a post about a great love, of the human-dog kind.

Xander was my most treasured dog, a beautiful, red golden retriever I had since he was 6 weeks old and a slight 5 lbs.  He was 2 month’s shy of 9 years old when we lost him.

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He was the kind of dog who only cared about us.  He wanted to be near us all the time, never separated and never left behind.  As a result, you could let him out off the leash for long walks and he would never run away, only stay within sight of us to run back and ‘tag’ us before playfully running ahead.  We would let him out front to sit on the porch with us and he would never run away.  He could totally be trusted.

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The only thing Xander loved as much as us were his beloved Frisbees and going out back to run and catch them.  He was an all star who could out run a Coaster disk and jump up in mid air and catch it.   We live on the corner and always got a little thrill when someone would be driving or walking by and witness him in action.  Sometimes he  would get a thumbs up or a beep of encouragement making us really proud of him.  He would carry that Frisbee in his mouth in such a way that it would flip over his nose and encircle his face like a bonnet.  If there was more than one Frisbee, he could stack them one on top of the other in the same direction and carry them all in his mouth.  It was amazing to see and a smart thing for a dog to do.

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Xander in full Frisbee mode. He loved playing and carrying it over his face like this. Not one paw is touching the ground.

Most of what Xander was to me and the rest of my family was a dear family member who in my mind is irreplaceable.   I loved that dog like crazy.  He was simply the best.  He was our companion who loved us unconditionally and we loved him just as much in return.  I would do anything for that dog because he deserved it.  Everyone we know used to joke he was the, “Best doggy ever.”  It was so true.

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Time passes so quickly.  I remember from the time he was very young,  with every birthday Xander had, we would be a little sad knowing he was getting older,  fearing what all dog owners inevitably dread.  We always hoped he would be one of those dogs who beats the odds and lives a long, long time.  Hoping to help him achieve that, I exercised him (not perfectly or 100 %, but more than most dogs ever get), fed him the best food I could find that I hoped would keep him healthy, took him for yearly vet visits and shots and watched him closely for any changes in his health and promptly took him back to the vet if something appeared to not be normal.  He was rarely left alone at home and there was always someone there to keep him company.

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Everything was good up until this past January when he started to get these little lumps under his skin.   Again, every time I found one, it was to the vet we would go to get a needle aspiration biopsy to make sure there was nothing bad going on.  The results always came back negative.  April came and he had his yearly physical and he had more of these little bumps and we had them all aspirated, as usual, to make sure all was well.  Nothing.  Benign.    Blood test CBC was done and his blood platelets came back on the border of being low.  The vet either didn’t notice, chose to ignore it or didn’t think there was an issue with it.  A few weeks later, I brought him in for another needle biopsy on some new bumps.  By now, when you ran your hand over him, it felt like he had huge mosquito bites all under his skin, only harder.  Benign they said.

June comes and Xander has a bad weekend.  He is not feeling well, vomiting often and continually coughing like he had something stuck in his throat.   On Monday my husband wanted to see if Xander felt like going outside to catch a Frisbee.  This would be a gauge to us as to how bad he felt inside.  When he saw the Frisbee in Larry’s hand, he was excited to go out, but he was slower because he didn’t feel good.   They are outside for 10 minutes or so and I go out to see how he is doing and my  husband is yelling to me to come out and help him because Xander suddenly lost his eyesight.  He started to act bewildered and bump into things and worse,  his eyes had turned red with blood and looked scary.  We immediately took him to our vet.  We were out of our minds with concern for our sweet boy who for no apparent reason went blind.

The vet suspected blood platelet problems and took another blood test.  This time the platelets were way below normal.  They were so low, his ability to clot blood was severely impaired.  The blood in his eyes got jostled around when he was playing, causing him to bleed out inside the eyeball which caused a temporary blindness.  The vet told us no more running around.  He has to lie still.  We knew that meant no more Frisbee.  Ever.  It nearly broke our hearts.  This was something our dog loved the most besides us and the thought of never playing Frisbee with him again was unbearably sad.  We were confused as to what was wrong with him causing this terrible problem.   Worst, while we were at the vet, she performed  another needle biopsy on a newer, larger lump she now suspected was cancer.  To be sure, she sent the cells to a lab.  A few days later, she called telling us it was a very aggressive form of cancer.  They recommended  we take him to the nearby VCA hospital with an oncology unit.  The  vets there were more experienced with aggressive forms of cancers.  Our vet had never seen anything like this and it was out of his scope of expertise.  My heart was in my shoes.  Cancer.  The word I feared hearing since I held him in my arms when he was a puppy.  And now we had to face the dread of what was to come.

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Friday, June 29th, 2018.

Two days later on Wednesday, June 27th, my son Jeff and I drove Xander to Aurora’s VCA hospital to meet with an oncology specialist.  On our way there, Stairway to Heaven began to play on the radio.  I turned to Xander who was in the back seat and said, “Hear that, Xandy?  …Stairway to Heaven.”

The oncologist had grave news for us.  He gave Xander a blood test and the results were staggering.  Xander’s blood platelets had dropped to half of what they were 5 days prior, when we took him to our vet the day he lost his eye sight.   Half from five days ago.  The vet told us Xander had a very aggressive form of cancer – histiocytic sarcoma.  And at the rate his platelets were dropping,  he would probably be dead in a week or two.  A WEEK OR TWO??!!  My dog, even though he had cancer, seemed fine, alive, certainly not on what I would consider death’s doorstep.  We left distraught, with the gut wrenching sadness that we were very soon going to lose our best friend.

The drive home was quiet.  No radio.  As I drove, thoughts of what Xander and I did together over the past 8 years flooded my mind.  Frisbee, walks in the St. Francis Woods-  It was our special thing to do together.  Trips to camp in the North Woods, swimming with Xander,  to little jaunts in the car to get the kids at school.  What did I do wrong?  How could I have done more?  And on and on.  Jeff, my  youngest, now 20, who was 12 years old when we went to the breeder and chose Xander, sat in the passenger seat crying the whole way home.  He was inconsolable.  Xander was in the backseat, unaware of his fate, living in the moment enjoying his ride in the car, glad to be away from the vet’s office.   I was a little more stoic, and in shock, still thinking there has to be something wrong about this diagnosis.  Xander was not in terrible shape, he was feeling much better and seemed okay, for now.  Prednisone  will do that.  It makes the dogs feel and appear better even though something much more sinister is lurking inside them.  The only thing we noticed was  his breathing seemed a little labored.

When we got home, I broke the news to my husband and the rest of my family and everyone was devastated.  To make matters more stressful, we had our yearly trip to Camp Nawakwa in 4 days and how were we going to handle Xander’s sickness and this trip we have planned and paid for?  We decided to go and bring him, but we would be careful to not get him over excited or have him running excessively.  Any of which could cause blindness or internal injury because of his rapidly dropping platelet count.  We just wanted him with us and for him to enjoy camp like he always did.  So we headed up to our lake house Wednesday night to stay there for a few nights before we headed further up north to Camp.  My son Drew was not going with us this year and he begged me to wait till he got home from work so he could say his goodbyes to Xander.  We knew that Xander’s time was limited and it might be the last time Drew saw him,  so we wanted to give them both that chance.  It was so sad.  Drew sat on the floor of the kitchen with Xander and hugged him and talked sweet to him for an hour or so, tears running down his face.  This was his buddy who he affectionately referred to as, ‘Old Man.’  The look in Drew’s eyes was heartbreaking.  Disbelief, sadness, anger, it was all there through a curtain of tears.  When it was time to go, Drew walked to the car and we gave him one last moment with Xander.   I watched him put his arm around that dog and hug hard and long.  It would be the last time Drew would see him alive.

We got to the lake house that night and Xander was fine.  I made sure to take lots of photos of him and videos, too.  I knew my time with him was short.  I wanted to capture as much as I could to remember him by.  I gave him lots of people food, and he ate it happily. He still had a great appetite.  Every chance I got, I held his head in my hands, kissed his big wet nose and told him, “Momma loves you.”

Friday came and I made a video of him rolling in the grass.  He looked like it was pure bliss to be lying on his back rolling back and forth, rubbing his face on the grass and enjoying the smells and sensations only a dog could appreciate.  Afterwards, I took a sweet photo of him when he came over to sit by me.  I am so happy I paid attention to creating memories with  him those last few days.

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June 29, 2018, after rolling in the grass, he walked over and sat by me and wanted me to pet him.

Every day that went by that whole week since our trip to the vet he became a little slower….or it seemed like he was a little off.  Saturday came and we left for our vacation.  We arrived at Camp around 10 or 11 pm and Xander had become remarkably slower over the course of the 5 hour ride.  It was as if travelling sucked something out of him.  When he got out of the car he just walked into the cabin and plunked down on the floor and didn’t want to get up.    We put the water dish and his food near him, but suddenly, he was no longer interested in eating.  He was thirsty and we gave him as much water as he wanted.  He was markedly worse.  I managed to get him into my room to sleep next to me by the bed.  On his way in, he wobbled on his feet and nearly lost his balance.  I wanted him  near us.  He slept with his head facing the wall and didn’t move.

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June 29th, 2018

Sunday morning came and I wanted to coax him outside to go pee and see if he was any better.   He managed to get up and turn around to leave, but 3 steps out of the doorway he collapsed and could no longer get up.   We knew this was a terribly bad sign.

We continued to give him water throughout the day but he couldn’t relieve himself.  He didn’t even have an accident.  He got worse over every hour that went by.  We all sat and kept vigil by his side, never leaving him.  My husband sat on the floor next to him and played his guitar softly and sang to him.  We all were with him stroking his fur and telling him we loved him and that we will play Frisbee tomorrow when he feels better.  It was visibly noticeable he was weakening with every passing  hour.  No vets were available on Sunday in the  North Woods.  If he was still alive on Monday I was going to bring him in to have him euthanized.  It was heart wrenching to watch.  But Xander did it his way.  He  spared us the pain of having to take him in and put him to sleep.  By 11:30 pm that evening he was near death.  We all had our hands on him, Wrigley our other golden was on the bed and Lily our beagle was under the bed.  Larry, myself, Jeff and Isabel (Jeff’s girlfriend) were all in the room with him, watching  him die.   He had his whole pack with him.  Jeff laid next to him on the floor with his arm around him.  If Jeff would move his arm away, Xander would look for him as if to say,  ‘Put your arm back, I like it there’.   Every last breath was slower than the last and more prolonged.  Finally, Xander took his last breath and we all just sat there sobbing and touching him and feeling so cheated.   I couldn’t believe my beautiful boy was gone.  Just like that, the life left him and he was no more.

Our friend Gregg and his daughter Amy were staying in the cabin next door to us.  I called over to Gregg and told him Xander had died.  He and Amy came over to see Xander and say goodbye to him.  It was so very sad.  Xander lay lifeless on the floor next to my bed for an hour or so after he died.  We had to carry him out and put him in the car so I could take him in the morning to the town vet to be cremated.  Xander had been lying on a fleece blanket and we had a little funeral procession-each person took a corner of the blanket, making a stretcher out of it to carry Xander out.   I led the way with a lantern to illuminate our way through the thick darkness to the back of the car.  We placed him gently in the back and wrapped him up so nothing could get on him.  My heart was fractured.   I came into the house and went to bed.  I couldn’t sleep, I just called Wrigley up on the bed and laid next to him.  Burying my face in his back and holding him tight I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.  I cried so hard, my son said it was like I was wailing.  It happened too fast, we hardly had any time to accept it, and before we knew it he was gone.  I felt cheated, angry and my heart hurt so bad.  Wrigley was good.  Within moments after Xander died, it was like there was a shift in his behavior.  He suddenly was not the naughty dog who was jealous of Xander.  He was calmer and knew he was needed.  He laid there letting me cry into his fur, and by the time I fell asleep, his back was soaked from my tears.  Xander may have been the best doggy in the world, but Wrigley is certainly the ‘Cuddliest dog in the world.’

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Xander died on July 1st and his loss is still raw and painful.  I miss him terribly.  We all do.   I keep his ashes in a box in our display case atop a stack of his beloved Frisbees.  On top sits his terra cotta paw print.  It’s all I have left of him now.  But he is home.

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”  With all my heart I hope that animals are in heaven, waiting for us to join them.  It just wouldn’t be right with out them.   Honestly, I can’t bear the thought of a heaven without Xander.  I am keeping my fingers crossed.  I hope he is there to greet me with a Frisbee in his mouth, propeller tail spinning, hoping that finally now,  after such a long wait, we can play together again.

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death, girlfriends, mothers and daughters, Mr. Big, Sex and the City

Girlfriends, cherish your time together

Mr. Big to Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte: “You’re the loves of her life and a guy’s just lucky to come in fourth.”

Big, of course, understood, (even if it was ficticious), that a woman’s friends are everything to her, especially as we get older and more independent. Sometimes, in some ways, more important than our love relationships with our men. We turn to our friends when things go wrong with our love relationships, our jobs or with other friends. Our girlfriends are our confidantes. Only a few friends of mine know EVERYTHING about me-secrets that I would faint over it they became public knowledge-Things I couldn’t hold in-but just had to get out. My truest friends are like living, breathing vaults. What I tell them gets stored safely and kept from being revealed. At my age, when I get stressed about things, and just can’t take them anymore, calling my mother is not what I prefer. Instead, I think about unloading on my girlfriends because I know they will always listen and won’t be parental. We encourage eachother to talk, divulge, and lend our shoulders to cry on and in some way, we kind of enjoy it. We are eachother’s therapist. I love my friends deeply and with all my heart. They know who they are. I look forward to being with them as much as I can, and treat my monthly gatherings like religious events-they’re not to be missed. Because being with the girls is important in keeping a woman’s soul content. It’s necessary for the health of my mind and my well being. Without them I’d be forever lost.

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My mom called me in the middle of the day last Wednesday with a pleading tone in her voice. “Would you please pick me up today and take me to the hospital to see Dorothy-she’s taken a turn for the worse, and they don’t think she’ll make it through the night.” Dorothy is my mom’s friend of 30 years and she is dying of lung cancer. I knew my mom had no way to get to the hospital on her own, because she has a difficult time seeing when she drives. I had so much to do that day-a doll to make for a Mother’s Day order and I was dug in and on a roll and I didn’t want to leave because I had a strong desire to finish and get it mailed out. But, more than wanting to finish that doll, I had a knawing feeling that I was the only way my mom would get to see Dorothy while she was still alive and I didn’t want to be the reason why she was denied that right, particuliarly since I was basically available and able to do it. I knew this was important to her, so I agreed to take her to the hospital.

While in the car travelling to the hospital, my mom reflected on her years of friendship with Dorothy and, through tears, told me Dorothy is her only girlfriend and she will be so lost without her. My mom is going to be 80 in November and Dorothy just turned 71. My mom kept saying, “I never thought I’d be seeing this day-I thought she would be burying me. Why does God take the good ones?” I really didn’t know what to say, so instead, I just lent an ear to her painful memories.

We got to the hospital and didn’t know what to expect, because she hadn’t seen Dorothy since before she got diagnosed with cancer just before Easter. With trepidation, we entered the room and saw Dorothy lying in the bed, asleep with her mouth wide open and drawn in, and she was beginning the shallow type of breathing called ‘chain stoking, which is characteristic of impending death. I recognized it from going through this when my mother-in-law was dying of cancer. They can hear you, all you have to do is go up to them and say their name and they open their eyes for a few seconds and acknowledge you then go back into what seems a semi-coma.

The tears came quickly for my poor mom. She absolutely hated seeing her best friend lying there helpless and ready to die. She just kept saying, ”What am I going to do without her? She’s my only girlfriend.” It tore my heart out listening to her. I imagined the future and being in her shoes. What if it was one of my precious girlfriends lying there dying? I would be absolutely besides myself with grief. My friends are so important to me-now more than ever in my life, I have needed them like a daily dose of vitamins. What is my mom going to do?

I urged her to go by Dorothy’s side and talk to her-to let her know she’s there and that she should tell her the things she wants her to know before she passes. This was her only chance. She stood there, stunned, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks. All she could do was gently and lovingly rub her friend’s arm from elbow to wrist, incapable of saying a word. “Mom,” I encourged, “Talk to her. She can hear you.”

“Dorothy…it’s Ann. I’m here. I love you.” Dorothy very briefly awoke, nodded her head and told her, very weakly that she loved her, too. Oh, my God, it was so sad. Tears welled up in my eyes and it was all I could do to keep from crying, but I had to be strong for my mom.

We sat there for a few hours and watched her rest. I sat at the foot of her bed and watched Dorothy’s chest rise and fall, and I could see her heart beating through her hospital gown. Her poor heart was working as hard as it could, but soon, very soon, it would beat it’s last. Her breaths were distant and long, and I found myself breathing in time with her. I felt short of breath because her breathing rhythm wasn’t enough for me to sustain myself comfortably. I imagined if that’s what dying felt like. (Trust me. In a quiet room with a dying person, there’s not much to do and your imagination can run away with you.) Each breath was followed by the next in what seemed like an eternity. She appeared to be gasping for air because she was only breathing with one lung-the other was full of cancer and wasn’t functioning. As she lay there, I got fearful, and kept thinking she was going to die right in front of me. I watched her and thoughts flooded my mind of when she was healthy-she was so funny, and full of life. She and my mom were both career waitresses. Dorothy had just quit working less than a year ago. These women both worked hard their entire lives and had a real commonality. They understood eachother. They confided in eachother, cried together, and shared laughter and joys. It was all about to come to an end.

The nurse came in and asked Dorothy if she wanted her to call her daughter from Pennsylvania, and she slowly nodded her head yes, and said very stongly, “I love her!” I won’t ever forget that. I plan on telling her daughter Diana what she said. I know it will make her feel good.

My mom called me yesterday and told me Dorothy passed at 7am while her priest was praying over her. She died peacefully and with God. Now my mom is friendless and my heart truly aches for her. What is she to do? She’s almost 80, and it’s probably too late for her to make new friends, at least the the kind with deep bonds of trust that’s shared between two women that only comes after a long time of sharing and caring. After 45 years of life together, my mom and I have the same elements of a friendship, hewn from decades of familiarity, and from weathering difficult stages of life together, finally popping to the surface in one piece and still loving eachother. We see eachother as equals now. I’m still ‘the kid’ but in some ways, my mom is now seeing me as a confidante-a friend. I find myself turning to her at times of stress. I love her. I enjoy her company. It’s time for me to step up to the plate and take her under my wing. My mother needs a friend now and that friend is me.