Just like I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, and the afternoon before that.
Rushing first, rushing, rushing, rushing….becoming breathless because in truth, I haven’t walked like this for at least two years.
I know why I’m walking. I know it. I’m looking. I know this feeling. I remember it.
I’m looking for her. But I know I won’t find her.
But I hear rustlings. I hear peeping in the thickets. I hear the swishing of the leaves. Or could it be her?…….
I haven’t been on this path for a long time, not since Skye’s elderly back and balance and strength would no longer allow it.
I haven’t been on it since I lost my first heart-dog, Riley.
Our visits had been clipped short. I would drive to our spot, the same spot we had driven to for the last 14 years, take out the ramp, open the hatch, help her up on her feet with her harness and slowly guide her down. She would wobble but right herself, walk to the same familiar entrance to the woods, sniff, pee and then return back to the car.
It was enough. She could do no more.
I remember coming to the same spot with Riley, 14 years before. She would not get out of the car. She was not even able to do that.
Today, things have changed.
This is our woods. But the memory has changed. It has been invaded. Defiled. You can’t stop me. I’m walking here. I have always walked here. Sometimes with another dog friend. But always here.
Through here was our spot. The opening to the water. The giant old willow that bowed down toward it. The same trunk that both Riley and I walked along, tip-toeing, balancing. When I started to come with Skye, it finally crashed down. And further along….
We would watch the river together.
…and then pause, discuss our plans before hopping the stream and walking under the railroad bridge.
But today, it is hushed.
I have to turn around and go another way. To where we used to play in the river.
….where the chunk of concrete was exposed in the early spring and Skye would search for sunken treasure, it is now submerged by late summer rains…
I turn away from the river and walk along the shaded paths, now grown over and unfamiliar…and I brush the trees and towering undergrowth away from my face…and feel the tears.
But wait…Do you see? Does the grass look like fur to you too?
I have walked these paths. I will walk these paths again. But today, this path is lonely and dark.
Some of this is planned, orchestrated, made better. Other times changes are borne out of circumstance that don’t necessarily fit into your idea of aesthetics.
Some time ago we placed mattresses on our living room floor so that our beloved Skye-dog would not be alone at night. You see, she can no longer negotiate our stairs and we didn’t want her to be relegated to the downstairs without us. So we all sleep in the living room together. She will be 14 this month and is a 5+ year lymphoma survivor.
For some, this would be anathema. For us, it is togetherness and there is a certain simplicity to it.
The living room is one thing. The garden is another.
As anyone with an aging dog knows, we must tweak how we live to accommodate them. This may mean mobility aids, raised dishes, night lights, shortened walks, regular vet visits, ramps and modified outings.
Our backyard was never doggie friendly. Years ago, when our beloved best friend was Riley, one day she exited the kitchen door to the backyard and leaped off the porch stairs — much like she had all her life — but this time to touch down in agony on the ground. Her anterior cruciate ligament was ruptured and she would need surgery to repair it. In Skye’s case, she could no longer negotiate the steep stairs and a solution for nightly potty breaks had to be figured out.
That’s when my wonderful friend Jo Hodgson stepped in last fall and built in one day our doggie ramp…which was a god-send to us throughout the winter of 2015-16 — a winter that was not supposed to be seen by Skye-dog at all…
But the garden! The garden!
It is a work in progress. And always will be … as circumstances change.
What is a garden worth? Does it exist without love? Without associations?
This garden will forever reflect this relationship.
On February 25th, 2011, we were given the news that our beloved border collie, Skye-dog, had lymphoma.
She was 8 1/2 at the time and otherwise perfectly healthy. Despite the grim diagnosis, we elected to move ahead with treatment which meant six months of chemotherapy.
My first dog Riley died within one month of diagnosis at the approximate age of 10. She had a cancerous tumour in her chest that stimulated her body to kill off its red blood cells, the ones that move oxygen throughout the body. I knew something was terribly wrong when she collapsed on her walk for no apparent reason. There was no cure and so despite several blood transfusions and loads of love, we had to let her go.
When Skye was diagnosed, we were told that with treatment, she would probably achieve remission and stay there for anywhere between 12 and 18 months. Then we could choose to repeat chemotherapy, but each chance of remission would be smaller and each length of remission would be shorter. The cancer would win in the end and we would have to say goodbye.
Fast forward 4 years and 8 months and 4 days and she’s still here. And I have been experiencing anticipatory grief for 4 years, 8 months and 4 days.
However, last Wednesday, Skye had a scary episode of the wobbles. Her head and upper body leaned left, her eyeballs darted from side to side and she basically wanted to fall over. The condition is called vestibular disease as it affects the body’s vestibular system, which controls our balance. Like vertigo, it wreaks havoc on our ability to sit and stand without falling over and because the world is spinning, we are nauseous and if we were interested in eating, could not even be successful in finding our mouths to eat or even drink. As you can imagine, it is not a nice condition.
Having already been dealt a blow to her mobility a couple of years ago with a condition called spondylosis, the effects of vestibular disease are not at all welcome for my lovely old dog.
Hence the pee pads.
On Day 6 of recovery, Skye now trundles around the ground floor, with my help holding her up and straight, on a pathway made of pee pads, she trying to convince me that she can go outside to pee. I say “Nope, sorry. Not yet.” So we trundle out of the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen where the back door resides, out again into the front hall and then back into the living room, where she flops down on her plastic and pee pad covered makeshift bed, exhausted from the effort and I’m sure, disappointment.
You see, as a border collie, not only is she sensitive but she is also easily shamed. Training a border collie means saying something once and they understand. It doesn’t mean they’ll do it mind you, but they do understand. In their minds, they will first contemplate the universe, consider the pros and cons, and make their own conclusions. If you have created a bond with your border collie, this will all take a split second as the bald truth is, they only want to please you.
So that moment I took teaching her how to use the outdoors as her washroom has stayed with her, and she considers any deviation from that to be heresy. Hence the anxiety centering around toileting indoors, on pee pads.
……and I’m back to anticipatory grief……
We all know it isn’t forever and we all wish for our dogs’ lives never to end, but we all know they will.
All I wanted was more than one month.
I was gifted so much more.
Fearless and flawless leaping.
Traveling to weird and wonderful places …
Or not going very far at all…
Does she see what I see? A full life, a life of love and care.
1584 borrowed days. And counting. Maybe grief can take a holiday for now…
There is still plenty of colour that belies the end of the gardening year.
This glorious plant is likely Chrysanthemum ‘Red Chimo’, also known as Arctanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’ or Chrysanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’. Poor chrysanthemum. The powers that be can’t seem to decide what to call you. First chrysanthemum, then Dendranthemum, and for this species, now Arctanthemum. Never mind. This cultivated variety of Arctic chrysanthemum is dead hardy at zone 3 and is the pink/purple/mauve version of the species that appears as pure white.
I favour the singles since the doubles just remind me of the seasonal annual “mums” that we can find at every garden centre in September.
In contrast, these hardy mums are loose and natural and shrub-like and a perennial that we should all embrace as part of our late season gardens.
Chill. Don’t cut everything down.
Even this Geranium ‘Rozanne’ wants to shine in the luminous light of September.
And the wild New England aster is giving its all ….
There is magic in these seasonal shifts…it is everywhere and doesn’t need our hand.
I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a fall leaf tapestry…
…even if it’s poison ivy!
I miss our walks in the autumn woods but Skye isn’t able to walk this far anymore. Another kind of season….shifts and changes.
In the world of canine cancer, I had not been lucky.
My first dog, Riley, a thick-coated and majestic border collie with a tail that swept up and over her back all day, every day, unless she had no prospects or saw a bath on the horizon, succumbed to a cancerous mass in her chest at the relatively young age of 10.
As my very first dog, all of those adjectives you hear over and over again applied to us too: soul-mate, best friend, partner and life-saver. After a childhood of gerbils, lizards and fur pelts to fill the void of a lovelorn existence, longing for a dog but allowed none, she picked me at the ripe age of 33. Opening her cage at the pound, she laid her head against my shoulder as if to say, “I’m home.”
The symptoms presented as anemia, more properly something called “auto-immune hemolytic anemia”, and results in the body’s immune system attacking its own red blood cells because they sense an invader, in her case, cancer. We were on a walk and suddenly she collapsed, struggling yet unable to right herself. I rushed to her and held her down to quell her panic until she calmed and was able to stand. Once home, she collapsed again and I knew something was horribly wrong.
Treatment consists of blood transfusions to bring the anemia under control and then addressing the underlying condition. In Riley’s case, a massive tumour under her ribcage. But surgery was never an option because even with the transfusions, her red blood cell counts never normalized. We lost her within a month of her diagnosis. I grieved for what seemed like a lifetime.
Fast forward to today.
The second furry love of my life has lived beyond what anyone has expected after her cancer diagnosis.
As I told her when she came home with me from the pound at the tender age of 7 weeks, she would have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Early on I told her she may never be the “best dog”, but in truth, she is tied for best dog.
On February 25th, 2011 at 8 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with stage III multicentric lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy.
She has remained in remission since her first week of treatment and next month she will turn 13 — an almost unprecedented 4+ year lymphoma survivor. She is everything one would ever hope for in a dog — smart, dedicated, funny, loyal, loving, independent, thoughtful, sensitive, eager to please and patient. She has taught me to be honest, true to my word, consistent and fearless. And so many other things…
I’m not exaggerating when I say these two wonderful dogs have been the single biggest gift in my life. Always there, always seeing me as someone they want to spend time with …. always happy to see me.
I am so grateful for them. Whatever unfolds, Skye-dog can count on me to make sure she is treated with honour and respect …. to her last breath.
I know there are a lot of dog lovers out there and it’s not just me. So forgive me if I spend this time to talk about mine.
You see, for about the last three years my beloved border collie Skye-dog has been living on borrowed time.
Some of you may know that in late February 2011 she was diagnosed with lymphoma. After we got over the shock of such a gut-wrenching diagnosis and put our proverbial ‘big girl panties’ on, and remembering that my first dog, Riley, lived only a month after her diagnosis of auto-immune hemolytic anemia brought on by a cancerous tumour in her chest, we were keen to fight and said yes to treatment. In the case of canine lymphoma it is chemotherapy.
Never having had a friend, family member or even acquaintance who had gone through chemotherapy, but only feeling scared and apprehensive, we asked about how it would affect her quality of life. We were told that most dogs do very well and show very few side effects: the possibility of diarrhea, perhaps vomiting, some inappetence and likely tiredness within a few days of treatment was what we should expect. So we and Skye-dog embarked on a six month course of chemotherapy.
Our goal was to achieve remission and to stay cancer-free for as long as possible. The veterinary oncologist said statistically the first remission was likely to last 12 to 18 months at best. If she relapsed, successive chemotherapy treatments could be given but the succeeding remissions would get shorter and shorter until such time as we would have to accept the inevitable. Our luck had not been good with treatment for a chronic condition so we did not have very heroic expectations. If Skye didn’t react well to the chemotherapy we could always stop.
However, she surprised everyone by not only flying through treatment but also by continuing to live without any symptoms of her lymphoma for what has now been three years and five months.
She is now just over 12 years old and still with us. I am happy to say that lymphoma is a word rarely mentioned in our house and we choose to believe that we have it beat. But she is now an old dog suffering from old dog ailments, the most serious of which is spondylosis. This is a condition that affects the spine, resulting in ‘bone spurs’, which are bony growths that manifest between the vertebrae. Some say they form as a result of trauma others as a result of a genetic predisposition — most common in older, larger dogs. This growth can affect the nerves along the spine creating pain, stiffness, limited range of motion and sometimes, lameness. If severe, treatment for younger dogs can involve surgical correction but for older dogs, it is simply pain management, restricted activity, relatively benign procedures like laser therapy, neural therapy (sub-cutaneous injections of homeopathic remedies), acupuncture and physiotherapy. We have done all of the above except for acupuncture and Skye’s first foray into hydrotherapy begins tomorrow.
Skye loves water so I’m hoping that she takes some pleasure in this new experience. Her first visit will include getting used to the environment (a long, narrow raised pool with warmish salt water) and the hydrotherapists themselves who will introduce her to the routine by first giving some underwater massage. She’ll wear a doggie life jacket to ensure she doesn’t need to work too hard and may not even swim at all until she feels comfortable. I’ll be alongside the pool during the exercise, praising her and encouraging her on.
For a dog who has always been fast, fearless and bossy, seeing her struggle with her back legs, choosing to bypass the stony beach and its floating dock on our daily walks and finding new hobbies like toad hunting and short-distance ‘two-ball’, has been a real transition for the both of us. As an older dog, I know her time left with us now is limited. I am so grateful that the lymphoma didn’t take her three years ago — but — accepting this ‘new normal’ of restricted activity, abbreviated walks and lots of snoozing is making me sad. I understand it can be characterized as anticipatory grief, and that we can become mired in it if we don’t pay attention.
So, we will be off to the swim therapy tomorrow, thankful that we are still a team, thankful that each day starts off with our walks and is marked by doggie meal and ‘pill time’, that our kitchen counter is full of her bottles and potions, that her beds are almost in every room of our house, that her snore is music to me and that our car will always smell of ‘dog’, that is, her. No matter what the future holds, she will always be my Skye-dog.