Monday, November 2, 2009

Life Without Phoebe

I first noticed Phoebe's decline when she couldn't walk up the stairs like she used to. What used to be a steady stride up the 20 steps turned into a chore for her. Life now dictated that she slowly attack the first 10, then rest. I had a feeling of panic when I saw the look in her eyes as she rested before scaling the final 10. "Oh my God", I thought. "She's having trouble with those stairs. It must be arthritis", I remember telling myself.

Phoebe was 9 and a half years old, and I'd never experienced a health problem with her, save for the time she had an ear infection about 6 years ago. My beautiful Golden Retriever never spent a night away from Daddy for ten years, and he was accutely aware of any deviation from her normal behavior.

She was my child. And my dearest friend.

Me and Phoebe visiting my home place.

It was late 1999, in rural Virginia. The mountains have a sky full of grey, low clouds, contrasted with the ridges, hollows, and mountaintops full of bright oranges, purples, reds, and browns. I was travelling on rt 460, to a puppy farm of Golden Retrievers on the edge of Montgomery County. I turned right on srt 624, heading east on Mt Tabor Rd. It was only about 8 miles down this road where I found Phoebe's birthplace, a typical small farm with nice folks who ran it. I saw her parents: a masterful, barrel-chested father with energy, and her reddish-haired mother who showed great interest in this newcomer without any scent of other dogs on him.

The owner led me to the barn where the pair had given birth to 6 little beautiful pups. They said that mom and dad had just had a litter 6 months before, and that this one started right after that one. It was an "accidental litter."

There was a short segment on one of the news channels shortly before this, detailing methods of attracting the right dog for you when in one of these exact situations. Standing on the December soil, scattered with straw, I could smell the distinct mixtures of manure, wood, and livestock. At my feet were half a dozen squirming, cute, puppies. The temptation to fixate on the one with markings that appealed the best arose quickly in me, but I came with a plan from the experts on the news channel: I knelt down with them and licked my hand, then held it down among them.

I picked the one that responded the most to my hand: Phoebe.

She was with me during my 30's, a somewhat chaotic period. She slept on my bed for the first 5 years of her life. It wasn't until I moved for the first time during her life to Florida that I started the "no more sleeping on Daddy's bed" rule. She seemed bewildered at first, but not especially mournful, as the floor was something new to her: carpet. Her bones and joints weren't resting on the same wood floors she had known.

Phoebe was the best friend I've ever known. She never complained about anything, despite eating the same food every day and living life on a cable run. I would have let her run free, but I haven't lived isolated from others in 25 years, now. My family always kept at least 4 or 5 dogs at a time. They all ran free on those Blue Ridge mountains while they lived. Having known that life until 17, I never knew how special it was. How I wish I could have given Phoebe more, but it was beyond my reach to live that life again. She lived now with close neighbors, close roads, all dictating that I needed to keep her on a run when I let her out every morning.

"Im not sure what's wrong with her. I saw her begin to have problems with the stairs a couple of weeks ago, and I wrote it off to arthritis. I went out and got her some daily supplements for dogs with joint problems, and some better food", I told the veterinarian a few months ago.
"Was she having trouble chewing her food?" he asked.
"Yes. She just all of a sudden stopped eating her dry food not long ago. When the supplements didn't seem to help her with the stairs, I decided to bring her in."

The doctor took a blood sample, and asked that I wait in the front office with her while he did some quick analysis. It was then that I started to get a worsening anxiety about my dearest friend. We sat there in the July heat, me wishing that the little building had better ac, as I watched Phoebe pant continuously.

Then again, she'd been panting a lot lately at home, too.

This last year was rough on her Daddy. Having lost my job a year ago, we had to move because Daddy couldn't afford the rent anymore. Off we went to a one-roomed existance, crowded by not only the bed, but desk for Daddy's computer, a chest of drawers, and boxes. She never complained, or acted like it was less than another adventure that her and Daddy embarked upon: strange at first, but all ok because she was with her Daddy.

God I miss her.

"It looks like Phoebe's white blood cell count is down", the vet said. "Before I do anything drastic, which could even mean a blood transfusion, I want to prescribe her some medicine and see how she looks in a few days. How about Monday to bring her back?"
"Ok", I managed to respond.

I followed the vet's prescription exactly for the next few days. She actually seemed to respond positively to it. For weeks I had to carry her up the stairs every time she went out. Soon, I had to carry her down, as well. But after a couple of days on the medicine, she could actually go downstairs on her own. I momentarily had a glimmer of hope. The next visit dashed my hope and spirit, though.

"Her white blood cell count is dropping", he said sympathetically to me. "I'm afraid for the worst for her. I'd like to send a sample of her blood to a clinic nearby to do a full analysis, but it's a little pricey."
"I'll do it", I replied. The results came back; Phoebe was suffering from anemia, and she was dying. The only thing that could be done was to either euthanize her or try to make her as comfortable as possible until the end.

I somberly told the vet that I may be taking the route of euthanization if I see her in pain. He prescribed her some cortisone, and told me that a week would be most likely the length of her remaining days.

I crushed up her pills each day and put them in a syringe for her, in the morning and at night. The illness progressed, and I continued to carry her up and down the stairs for three more weeks.

Here was my closest companion for the last decade of my life, panting and gasping for her every breath, but trying to smile for me. I couldn't pass her without laying on the floor next her, coaxing a kiss from her on my face or nose. Many a time I lay there at her feet over these 10 years, needing her exchange with me. She would nustle her nose in my neck, then start to wag her tail. When I have been at my lowest, she was there for me. Something that made me feel like my life hasn't been such a waste. I have no child, no wife, no one who depends upon me except myself.

But Phoebe depended on me. And she showed me ten years of utter devotion and worship. I am a better person because of Phoebe, and her time here on Earth. She forced me to think of someone other than myself in real, life-or-death aspects. I never had to lay a hand on her, and my voice was never raised in anger at her. A truer friend a man couldn't get.

Phoebe finally passed back in July. My girlfriend fed her some leftover gravy she made for our biscuits that morning, and she loved it. I fed her that gravy until the end, a couple of days later. I was in shock and deeply affected when it happened, at three in the morning. I had told myself only hours before that I would finally have to take her in the next day, to be put to sleep.

She left before I had to make that terrible choice, though, and that fact provides me with only a small amount of solace in her wake.

I hadn't been sleeping well at all for weeks, and was in and out at 3am when it happened. I stayed with her while the death throes shook her, and for a short time after everything stopped. I couldn't look at her face. I carried her downstairs immediately in a burial blanket. For the next hour and a half, I dug her final resting place in the middle of her run path, where she was always at ease and amused with all of the Florida critters only feet away from her in an empty, overgrown lot that had it's own small ecosystem of birds, snakes, armadillo's, rabbits, squirells, etc, that kept her fascinated when she wasn't resting in the shade.

Phoebe's pssing affected me more than I anticipated, but who can know what life is like without our loved ones until it happens? I find myself thinking about her at least once during the day now, three months since she left us. The house is quieter, there's no one waiting for me when I get home, and there's no one who licks my face anymore.

I'd give anything to have her back.


Aunrea said...

I'm so sorry love. She had a very happy life with her daddy and she knew how much she was loved.

John Galt said...

Thank-you, babe.