Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Hershey, June 16, 2015

Hershey died Saturday morning.

Or, to put it another way: On Saturday morning before I went to work, I took Hershey on one last trip to the vet's. I pressed my forehead against his and assured him that the doctor was going to make everything all better as he injected the drugs that would anesthetize him and then make his heart stop.

He wasn't my dog, not really.  He belonged to the next-door neighbor. She got Hershey (a chocolate Cocker Spaniel) and Columbus (a Pug) shortly after she moved back into her house after her estranged husband died of a massive heart attack while doing some yard work in the summer of 2001. She also had several cats: Tinker, Romeo (an orange longhair who is currently trying to roll onto my ChromeBook as I type this), Juliet, and Baby Boy. Tinker ran off early and was never seen again. The other cats escaped with such regularity that she eventually locked them out of the house.

Columbus was hideously inbred, as are many Pugs, and was subject to numerous health issues. He was diabetic, his teeth were in horrible shape, his eyes were grotesquely popped out of his head (more than is normal for a Pug) and eventually stopped working entirely He was also insanely friendly and lovable. He died in the summer of 2011, and the neighbor lady's life went into a downward spiral. After numerous health scares, she checked into the hospital one last time in September 2011 as the first bands of Hurricane Lee began to brush Northeastern Pennsylvania. She never checked out. I don't know what she died of, but I think it was a lot of things at once.

My mom and I had taken care of Hershey during the neighbor's earlier hospitalizations. We also located Romeo and Baby Boy lurking around her yard, both surprisingly well-fed. We brought them back indoors and began feeding them cat food from cans again. Juliet was located sometime later, after the neighbor's sister had hired some people to clear the accumulated junk out of the house. It was on September 11, 2011. My mom called me over to see what had been uncovered on the enclosed back porch: the body of a brown longhair, strangely well-preserved. I felt like she was staring at me accusingly from her eyeless sockets: You saved them, why couldn't you save me?

Romeo, Baby Boy, and Hershey, November 29, 2011

After a while it was clear that the neighbor wasn't going to be coming home again, and we added a dog and two more cats to our household. Romeo and Baby Boy had both grown accustomed to life in the great outdoors, and for the first few months they ran away every chance they could. Romeo was a tick magnet, though the engorged ticks were easy to remove. (They may have been the source of the tapeworms he eventually let us know he had, in the most disgusting way possible. The trip with him to the vet to get him de-wormed was when we found out that he wasn't really a nasty, anti-social cat, as his hissing and fighting with the other cats suggested; he just wanted to be the center of attention. He was in absolute ecstasy as the vet and his assistants examined him.) Baby Boy (who has now taken over Romeo's position as roller-onto-ChromeBook as I try to type this) also performed routine excursions of several hours to overnight or longer. These ended when he got into a tussle with the neighborhood ferals and came home with a gash splitting his scalp open. (With home care the injury healed quickly and completely, and he never tried to run away again.)

Hershey was...special. He was not a smart dog. Actually, he was dumb. Really dumb. I frequently said that he didn't have the brains that the Good Lord saw fit to give to a gnat. He wasn't potty trained: if you let him outside he would stand around, baffled as to what you expected of him, and he would poop and pee wherever he happened to be when he got the urge. We realized that negative reinforcement wouldn't work to get him trained, so we adopted a positive reinforcement approach. We figured out what his favorite treat was - Pupperoni sticks -  and from that point on, he only received Pupperoni treats (and copious, effusive praise) if he pooped outside. If he pooped inside we treated it as an accident, and he received neither condemnation nor treats. He soon made the connection between pooping outside and treats. Maybe too well: I am convinced that he would turn a single pooping session into multiple pooping sessions to earn more treats. (Maybe he wasn't so dumb, after all!)

Hershey, October 23, 2014

Hershey wasn't a fit dog. He came to us fat, and did not care much for exercise, which was fine by me: not too many years ago I attended to the euthanization of a friend's Cocker Spaniel who had developed a lethally twisted stomach, probably caused by vigorous running soon after eating. Hershey was content to lounge around all day, and got along fine with his cat brothers and sisters. He was a picky eater, and would fixate on a single food for weeks at a time until suddenly he would decide he didn't want it anymore. We would then have to cycle through a variety of food types until he decided he liked one, and he ate that one variety exclusively until he decided he wouldn't anymore.

Of course there was always room for cat food, which he would steal every chance he got, even though it played hell with his digestion.

He preferred to eat his food directly out of cans, except when he didn't. He would eat with such gusto that he would bite holes in the aluminum cans, making them hazardous to rinse out for recycling. (I saw several cans with tooth marks in the recycling container on the porch where Juliette's body was found. I assumed that she, starving and afraid, trapped on a porch with no direct access to her old house - it was separated by a garage - has desperately bitten into the cans seeking the last scraps of food. Now I wonder if it was just Hershey doing his thing.)

Like many Cocker Spaniels, he was prone to ear infections. He made frequent trips to the vet, and everyone there got to know him. He also developed an eye condition where tear production in one eye dropped to almost nothing, and the other eye was lower than usual. The vet put him on a regimen of antibiotic drops and artificial tears, which he warned us he would be on for the rest of his life.

Hershey loved going to the groomer's. I called it his "spa." He would be a bit concerned as we drove there, but when he arrived he would become very excited, even when we went to their new location for the first time back in March or April. The groomer loved him, and he never gave her any trouble. He would usually be sound asleep when I came to pick him up again.

I took my mom for a routine mammogram in early May, and it revealed an item of concern. A second scan confirmed a small mass the size of a grapefruit seed. We had to set up an appointment with a breast cancer specialist to schedule a biopsy. The appointment was set for May 13, the same day Hershey had a follow-up exam scheduled with the vet. We had just enough time to run home after her appointment, run to the bathroom, pick up the dog, and run back to the vet. Ironically, the two offices were across the street from each other.

We had a bit of a wait at the vet's, and Hershey started to get antsy. I checked his eyes: they were much better than they had been. I patted his head. I scratched his ears. I scratched under his collar. I scratched his throat.

I found a lump the size of half an egg.

Uh-oh, I thought.

I told my mom before we went into the exam. I told the vet tech before the exam. I told the vet when he came in the room.

He checked Hershey's eyes. They were fine. We should keep doing what we were doing, but we would have to keep doing it for the rest of his life.

The vet checked Hershey's throat and grew visibly concerned. He began an exam of other parts of his body: the sides of his neck, his lower ribs, even a brief internal exam.

And then he told us: Cancer. Lymphoma. Without treatment, he would be dead in one to four months. With treatment - hours of treatment each week, thousands of dollars each week, hours of driving to a faraway facility each week -  there was a very slight chance that he might live a little longer before the cancer killed him.

We knew. We knew before he told us, and we understood what he was telling us. "Let a dog be a dog," we always say. Not some thing, broken and isolated and in fear in a desperate attempt to add a few weeks or months to his suffering.

The lymphoma would progress, the vet told us. The tumors would grow. Hershey would become more and more lethargic. (This made me laugh. How would we notice?) His breathing would become more and more difficult. He would lose interest in food, in water, in everything. Eventually he would lose the ability to walk, and to stand. He would begin drooling. His breathing would become rapid and shallow. He would become virtually comatose. And then he would die.

We took him home. We had been through this before, or variations of it. Haley had died of lung cancer in 2005.

Everything seemed normal for the first few weeks. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe the cancer had gone away on its own. Maybe he never had cancer. Maybe it was just mumps, or something else that caused his glands to swell. Maybe he was going to be fine.

Then he lost interest in dog food.

Fine. He doesn't want his food? We've been through this before. Cycle through every variety we have. When he showed interest in none of them, try the cat food. When that didn't work, I pulled out the roast chicken I had made for my lunch.

He liked roast chicken.

Fine, roast chicken it is. I bought chicken twice a week. Wash, add a thin film of olive oil to a nonstick roaster, toss chicken on both sides to coat with the oil. Lightly season with salt, pepper, onion salt, garlic powder. Add a little water. Roast uncovered at 400 degrees for an hour. Add more water and a dash of white cooking wine, cover with foil, roast another hour and a half at 325.

For several weeks he ate little more than roast chicken. We tried to mix other things into his diet, but he was uninterested. Maybe he would eat a little cheese one day, some pieces of a cookie another. Not much. But he loved his chicken.

Until he didn't.

OK, what next? We had some stew in the refrigerator, and my mom had made burgers, Turned out he liked the stew meat and, with some coaxing, the burgers.

I tried a London Broil. He liked that, too. I wondered if he was pulling a con akin to his trick for increasing his supply of poop treats, to be fed roast chicken and London Broil.

Over the past month I had doubled up his poop treats. I didn't want him to die with a bag full of treats he had never gotten. But the poop treats went too fast, and I had to buy a new bag. He lost interest in Pupperoni shortly after that.

Hershey, June 16, 2015

My mom's biopsy indicated a malignant tumor. It would have to come out, along with some surrounding tissue and some lymph nodes. Her lumpectomy was scheduled for Monday, June 22. There was a long delay in getting her into surgery, but the surgery itself went smoothly.

By then Hershey was showing less interest in London Broil. I tried Burger King. I got him some on Sunday, June 21. I also bought some Chinese that day, chicken and broccoli. He ate a burger patty, as well as the chicken from the chicken and broccoli.

By Tuesday, June 23 he was no longer interested in Burger King.

I bought some Nutri-Cal on Friday, June 19. It's a high-calorie paste for supplemental feeding. I began using it on Tuesday. I thought maybe it would stimulate his appetite, and would at least get something into him. My mom had also found that he would eat one specific cat treat, so we let him have as much of that as he would take.

Hershey was having a harder and harder time breathing. His breathing was shallower and faster. He also began to have a discharge from his nose. Clear liquid, like he had a cold.

He was still getting his eye drops and artificial tears twice a day.

For weeks Hershey had been panting, and I had worked out a solution: an air conditioner and a fan. He would lay between them, and after a while the panting would stop and normal breathing would resume. Even when he slept, it would either be in an air-conditioned room or with a fan on his face. In his final week, neither of these things gave him any relief.

He was having a harder and harder time sleeping, He would wake up several times in the night and bark to go out to go potty. Midnight, 2:00 AM, 4:00 AM. I would wake at the sound of his barking and let him out. His bark had become higher in pitch and more strangled as the tumors on either side of his throat, each now about half the size of a baseball, gradually crushed his windpipe.

By Thursday, June 25 Hershey was having tremendous difficulty navigating steps. His breathing had become rapid, shallow, and desperate. He had lost interest in pretty much all food, and would only drink water if coaxed. (I poked a hole in the cap of a water bottle and turned it into a squirt bottle to spray water into his mouth.) On Friday he seemed to lose his sight entirely. His eyes, once bright but clouded by cataracts, had become dull and gray. He wandered the house aimlessly. Or maybe he, like Haley, was looking for a place to die.

On Friday, June 26, my mom got the pathology report from her surgery: lymph nodes clear, no sign that the cancer had spread. The cancer was a preliminary Stage I and had been caught early.

Friday night Hershey didn't bark at all to go out. I woke at two and again at five to let him out. I walked down the steps ahead of him to catch him if he fell. I carried him back up the steps when he was done.

I sat with him Saturday morning. The vet would be open at 8:00 - I had checked the night before - but would close at noon. They wouldn't open again until Monday at 8:00.

Hershey panted relentlessly, the air conditioner at full blast, the fan practically pressed against him. He swallowed the Nutri-Cal, but drooled out the squirt of water. He lapped a little water from a bowl placed under his chin.

He began to moan. Then, quietly, softly, to howl.

I petted him and reassured him. I cried with him, I took him back to my mother's air-conditioned room and told her that I would go in for a shower now, and would be ready to get out of the house before 7:30.

I took my shower, dressed in a black shirt, and went up to check on him. On her. To get a final verdict.

It was torture to keep him going. We could do this thing now, or we could do it in forty-eight hours. Maybe in between he would die on his own. Maybe he wouldn't be in too much agony when he did.

I called in to work to let them know that I might be late, because I would be having my dog put to sleep.

I put on Hershey's leash to take him for one last ride to the vet. But then I remembered: he hadn't had his eye drops that morning. His antibiotic drops, I figured, we could skip. But I put a generous squirt of artificial tear paste in each eye.

My mom saw Hershey off, told him she loved him, told him he was a good boy. I apologized to him for all the times I had yelled at him for being so damned dumb.

I left with him, my lunch, my drink, my coffee, a blanket, and a box of tissues.

Hershey peed in his usual spot, once I got him down the steps, but he didn't want to poop again. He began to wander the yard aimlessly. I had to coax him down to the car. He seemed to catch on to what I was doing, and wanted to get into my car. But that wasn't the plan. My car had no air conditioning, and he would need that to be comfortable. We would take my mom's car. I opened the passenger side door, put the blanket on the seat, and lifted him into the car. He lay sideways across the seat with his head facing me.

I pulled out of the driveway and an alarm began to sound. The car had detected an unbelted passenger in the car. I obligingly clicked the belt behind Hershey and we continued on our way.

I petted him and talked to him the whole way. He seemed comfortable. He seemed like he was enjoying the ride.

For once, I didn't mind the red lights. They gave us a few extra seconds together.

We got to the vet's a few minutes after 8:00. Hershey wandered the parking lot aimlessly for a while, but eventually I coaxed him to the doors. Through the doors, one last time. They were ready for us.

We were escorted to a back room. Cool, warmly lit, comfortable seats, a soft blanket on the table. Hershey staggered slowly, seeming older and older with each step.  He lay down on the floor of the room as I went over the details with the vet tech. Yes to cremation. Yes, we wanted the ashes returned. I signed the form and she took him off to another room to install an IV shunt, to make the next steps easier.

Alone, I wept bitterly. This was it.

The vet and his team arrived with a suddenly revived Hershey. He was squirming, more awake and aware than I had seen him in weeks. Adrenaline, they told me, a reaction to having the IV shunt put in. I looked it up. Adrenaline is released in response to a stimulus. Usually as a reaction to fear.

Hershey wanted to jump off the table. He would have broken a leg. I held him in place, calmed him down, offered him words of encouragement. Told him that the doctor was going to make everything all better.

Hershey was panting like a steam engine again, as he had been since we got out of the car. The vet introduced himself. I had met him once before, years ago, shortly after he had joined the practice. He asked me if I had ever attended a euthanization before. I told him I had. He talked me through what to expect, what each injection would do. I spoke gentle words of reassurance and farewell to Hershey. Told him he would soon be with his mommy, and with Columbus, and with his old friend Haley. Told him to tell Haley that we would be seeing her soon. Told him that we loved him, and that he was a good boy.

The doctor gave the first injection. Hershey's desperate breathing became slower, less urgent, and then stopped. The vet tech gently lowered his body to the table. The doctor gave him the second injection. He waited half a minute, then put his stethoscope to Hershey's chest and assured me that his heart and breathing had already stopped.

Hershey was dead.

They left me with him for a few minutes. I talked to him some more, then folded the blanket over him. The vet tech came in and removed his collar. We talked for a bit, then I made my goodbyes. His ashes would be ready on Thursday.

I made it to work fifteen minutes early.

The next day we had a huge rainstorm just before sunset. A rainbow formed opposite the setting sun. From our back porch it looked like the rainbow was extending out of his old house.

Rainbow. June 28, 2015. Hershey's old house is in the foreground.

Hershey lived with us for less than four years. We tried to give him a good life and a good death. I hope we succeeded.

He was a good boy.