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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.