A week ago past was one of those weeks that was bound to come, but that’d been conveniently relegated to somewhere in the back of my mind — Shadow, my 14 1/2 year old golden retriever, suddenly became quite ill. I suspect, at her age, this is something that shouldn’t be surprising, but Shadow hardly seems her age. Sure, she’s slowed down a bit, her legs are a little shakier than they once were and she’s a lot more white now than she is golden, but her heart and enthusiasm are so deceptively puppy like that it’s easy to forget her age. Last Saturday I was reminded.
One of the things that’s plagued Shadow these last several years is that she has a compressed vertebrae in her neck (strangely at C 4-5, the very spot of my injury), which two or three times a year will flare up and cause her great pain and mobility issues from anywhere between 24 and 36 hours. Though there’s no cause to be found as the trigger, usually time, rest and some children’s aspirin are the best medicine. On occasion — depending on the severity — a cortisone shot is required, but this is something I try to avoid as the side effects can be rather harsh. Think a stiff neck multiplied by a hundred and you probably approach what Shadow is dealing with.
So, a week ago Saturday was another one of these incidents, but as the day progressed it seemed like something else was going on. It was clear her neck was causing her pain, but her countenance and spirit were unlike anything I’d experienced before. Even still, there was little I could do at that point, other than give her aspirin and hope that by morning she’d be doing a little better.
Sunday morning came and while she definitely wasn’t worse, she didn’t seem a whole lot better either. Of greatest concern for me wasn’t so much her neck — though don’t get me wrong, I was worried about it — but rather the fact that she wasn’t barking and didn’t want to eat. You see, if there are two things that make Shadow Shadow, it would be first and foremost her voice — she’s a talker and she barks about everything (even more so since losing her hearing; what she wants, what she wants me to do, what she wants others to do, etc.); and second, her love of food — she’s got an insatiable appetite and literally loves everything (fruit, vegetables, smoothies, popcorn, dog biscuits, etc.). Having one of these things disappear is alarming enough, but both was head spinning and a real challenge to my normally zen/chill, up demeanor.
On Monday, given where she was still at (or wasn’t at), there seemed like no other choice than to take her to the vet. It’d been 48 hours and if it’d been only her neck, then historically speaking, she would’ve been showing signs of recovery. Tuesday, when the doctor was at last able to see her, she was pretty much the same and still hadn’t barked. She was eating a little bit now (she would’ve been in the emergency room if she passed up her new meals of canned salmon, cottage cheese, orso, kibble and organic chicken broth), but was drinking more than normal and consequently had to pee in the house couple of times. It was this latter fact that concerned the doctor most and so she ordered blood tests to determine if something else going on in addition to her neck.
When I got the results back the next day, the initial prognosis was a deflating one; Shadow’s enzyme and protein levels were exaggerated which might explain her heightened thirst, but it also pointed to the possibility of intestinal and liver problems. What was clear, was that in order to find out anything further, more testing would need to be done and an ultrasound would be the primary tool.
Needless to say, I was disheartened by this news and was confronted with a decision; the ultrasound would be an expensive procedure to be sure, but money wasn’t the issue (I’d sell my left kidney for her if I had to), the issue was what would the ultrasound show and then in turn, what would be the steps following. The main function of the test would be to see if there was any sort of growth or mass and if there was, to perform a biopsy and/or surgery as the situation warranted. And while under most circumstances this might seem like the logical thing to do, for Shadow this wasn’t an option.
As I said, Shadow is 14 1/2 years old and at this point in her life I would never subject her to the dangers of this type of surgery and the painful, prolonged recovery that would invariably follow. If she were four years younger, perhaps, but at this stage it would only be traumatic for her body. Golden Retrievers typically live 10 to 12 years and Shadow is well beyond that. Quality of life is something I value tremendously and would never in a million years subject more pain and suffering onto a creature I love so dearly.
Now don’t get me wrong, given what I just said, I still wanted to know what was going on and struggled mightily with going through with the test anyway. I wanted to believe that it would show me something else, that it would show me there was a pill she could take that would make her better and surgery wouldn’t be necessary. And if this was true, then by all means, I would have had her belly shaved and lubed up in a heartbeat, but this wasn’t true and I had to accept that whatever was going to be would be. I made a decision that, while I believe was the right one, left me feeling incredibly helpless with little to do but watch and wait and hope she’d get better rather than worse.
And then it happened, on Thursday night, for the first time in five days, she came bouncing back into the apartment after taking care of her business and barked for one of her requisite midnight biscuits. I was shocked, but her voice — as discordant and abrasive as it can be — was like the trumpet of Gabriel announcing the return the angels and I couldn’t have been happier.
On Friday, though she was still in recovery mode, she was barking and eating and things were definitely starting to return to normal. By Sunday she was back out on the track with me and even did a couple of laps before retiring to her usual spot under the olive tree, where she would impatiently bark at me until I finished my workout.
Having her back to her normal, engaged, enthusiastic self after such a worrisome week was one of the most heart swelling moments I’ve felt in my life. To say I was grateful beyond measure wouldn’t even come close to describing how I felt and a large part of that was because I felt as though a bullet had been dodged.
I know as well as anybody when you’re in pain or not feeling well, it’s difficult to be yourself — eating, laughing, even conversation can be a challenge — and I know this was a large part of what was happening with Shadow. But that said, for me, her caretaker, not knowing exactly what’s going on because she’s a dog and can’t directly vocalize it, is a frustrating and worrisome experience, especially when it’s something completely out of the ordinary.
The thing is, Shadow is in tremendous shape — for her age or a dog four years her junior — and I suppose this is what made this whole thing so difficult — I conveniently haven’t had to face the inevitable consequences of her aging. But again, facts are facts, and regardless of how in shape, spunky, healthy, happy or genetically special she might be, she’s still pushing the longevity envelope of her breed and is most definitely in the twilight years of her life.
I’ve had a lot of dogs in my life and I’ve been very close to all of them, but I’ve never had a dog such as Shadow. There’s a bond here that’s difficult to describe — that goes beyond beyond the fact that we’re always together or that as a service dog she’s been an incredible help in my life — she’s this strange furry, funny creature that’s become an unlikely extension of who I am. But even more than that, she’s a friend, a family member and a source of tremendous joy. For many people I’m simply known as the guy who’s attached to Shadow, and for my friends, well, I’m not sure they even see us as two separate entities. Of course, I’m fine with either of these things, because the truth is, it’s difficult to imagine her not by my side.
In their short lives dogs give us so much, unconditionally and with devoted enthusiasm. But as Shadow ages — and she’s indeed aging — I know our time together will both change and come to an end. And while this will be an incredibly sad day when it does, this, I believe, is one of a dog’s final and greatest gifts — leaving us with the opportunity to see death not as a finality, but a continuation and essential part of this beautiful and ever changing world. In this way, they’re like stars who’ve gone supernova but whose light continues to shine long after they are gone. No doubt, Shadow is an incredibly bright star now so I can only imagine what will linger in her wake.
All this said, she’s still got a few more birthdays left to celebrate, and no doubt each one will be a gift.