Good-Bye, My Sweet Siofra

I’ve been meaning to write this for awhile now. And I’ve written it, in my head at least. Lines and remembrances. Memories and silliness. Grief and joy. And, yet, sitting down here to finally write it and … I’m blank. There aren’t any words within reach. I don’t remember what I’ve come up with in my head. Nothing.

So, I’ll just start at the beginning and give up the pretense of trying to create some eloquent and memorable and just go with immediate and hopefully not terrible. 

The last time I updated this, it was to record the near-death experience of my dog, my Siofra, and celebrate her recovery. That experience was frightening and hellish and I really thought that we had lost her. Then we hadn’t. And, for a moment, we caught a break.

She recovered well from the chest tap and seemed to be her old self. Well, perhaps a little slower. But she was also nine and had just been through a hell of an ordeal. Her two-week recheck was great – no signs of fluid build-up, no signs of masses or other nasties in her chest. It seemed good.

About week later, we noticed she was breathing a little heavily, again. Like she just couldn’t get quite enough oxygen. She was still playful and goofy. Still eating like she’d never eat again. So we worried, but convinced ourselves we were dealing with overactive imaginations.

Until her four-week recheck. The fluid was back. And its recurrence in such a short time span wasn’t a good sign. It meant that, even if we tapped her chest again, she’d likely be back in another four weeks for another chest tap. Then another. Then another. The vet recommended surgery – remove most of her pericardium (the sac around her heart). This, he explained, would allow the fluid to drain directly into the chest cavity, where it could be easily reabsorbed. Mostly importantly, though, removing the pericardium meant that the fluid would no longer be able to crush her heart. If all went well, this could cure her. At the very least, it would make her well for a few more years, and at nine-years-old, a few more years is all we could hope for with her.

So what could we do? We had some money in savings, though it was meant to help towards a down payment on a house. Siofra, aside from the fluid in her chest, was acting like her old self. Affectionate. Playful. Alert. Curious. (Her curiosity. Dear Bob, she was curious about everything. And she puzzled things out, too. Irrepressibly inquisitive, that was Siofra.) For all intents and purposes, she was acting like a healthy dog. Except for the damned fluid drowning her heart. If we didn’t do the surgery, if we just went with a chest tap, we’d likely have to take her back in a month for another one. Then another one. Then another one. Then … is that any kind of a life for a dog? Never mind that each chest tap carries a risk of infection with it. That the chest taps could end up coming faster than a month apart. And she was so, so stressed every time she had to go to the specialist. Could we do that to her repeatedly?

Or do we tap into our savings and pay for the surgery?

Or do we make the decision no pet owner ever wants to take and euthanize her now? Now when she’s still Siofra, still acting like her self?

We decided on surgery. As if there was ever any other decision we would have made. If there was a chance to help her, to cure her, we were going to take it.

She made it through surgery with flying colors. The surgeon told us that if he hadn’t known better, he’d think he was looking at the chest of a very healthy dog. No tumors, no masses. No infections. No anything to indicate why her chest was leaking fluid and crushing her heart. Tissue samples and her pericardium were sent off for testing, to see if there were cells that would tell us something. And, that was that.

Siofra was on restricted movement for six weeks following her surgery. She couldn’t take stairs, so I stayed with her at my parents. She had to wear t-shirts to protect the six-inch long incision running the length of her chest. She had a regimen of medications to follow. She was crated all of the time, except for bathroom breaks, which were taken only on a leash. It was a lot, but it was worth it. I hated sleeping away from Terry. I hated watching Siofra – especially the first few days after the surgery – in pain. But we made it through.

And Siofra recovered beautifully. When we took her in for her last surgical follow-up, about six or seven weeks after her surgery, the surgeon said she was fantastic. “In fact, I think we cured her,” were his exact words. She was out of the woods in time for Christmas. It was all I could have hoped for.

About halfway through January, she started breathing heavily again. The fluid, the damned fluid, was back. Another chest tap. Discussions on what to do. Siofra, in spite of it all, was still acting like her old healthy self. She was slower, yes. Easily winded, yes. But she was herself in all other aspects. Another echocardiogram, another diagnosis of fluid, but without any visible cause. Our vet recommended trying prednisone, to see if that would halt the inflammation of whatever cells were causing the fluid build-up. We agreed – we had to try something – and began treating her with pred. We started her a huge dose, with the thought that we would wean her down and see if there was a sweet spot of the perfect dose with minimal side effects that would keep her fluid at bay.

But the prednisone wrecked her body. She lost muscle mass and coordination. She was constantly thirsty and ravenously hungry. She became little more than fur and bones – petting her was practically an anatomical lesson in the canine skeleton. She became weaker and weaker, hesitant to take stairs. She slept when she should.

But she was still curious. And alert. And affectionate and goofy and sweet. In so many ways she was still our dog, our baby girl. She was just wearing a horrific costume of fur and bones and weakness. It was so hard to watch her struggle, but impossible to imagine letting her go. Because it was the prednisone. The treatment was, for now, worse than the disease.

The weakness, even more than the boniness, was the hardest thing to deal with. It started off slowly – she couldn’t jump into her favorite chair – but seemed to bloom upward exponentially. She started having trouble standing up. Taking stairs began to stress her out and became a game of “Would she fall or not?” I can’t imagine how much it hurt her or tired her to come upstairs to go to bed every night, but she did it without hesitation. Because that’s what she was supposed to and her people, her pack, her world, were upstairs. I remember one horrifying morning coming downstairs with her and watching her balance and what little strength she had abandon her suddenly. As she took the last step from the stairs onto the hardwood living room floor, her legs gave out. She hit the floor hard enough to actually slide, scrambling all the while. She ended up partway under the entertainment center. It almost would have been funny, if she had been healthy. If she hadn’t already been so weak. If the panic and the fear radiating off her as she fell and slid out of control, weren’t palpable in the air. I tried to catch her, to calm her, to help get up. She did it on her own, though, then took the back stairs without hesitating.

She was my brave, beautiful girl.

After a few weeks of the prednisone treatment, we took her back and the fluid hadn’t returned. At least not to the levels it had been before. It seemed the prednisone was working. Maybe, just maybe, there was a light. Still, though, the cardiologist was cautious and unconvinced. She wanted us to talk to an oncologist, to perhaps try a chemotherapy drug that had some success. We talked to oncologist, then talked between ourselves. The drug they wanted to try could have the same side effects as the prednisone. They could be worse. And the drug itself wasn’t formulated for this kind of treatment, but it’d shown promise in other dogs.

We went around and around about it. Ultimately, seeing how wrecked she was from the prednisone, I couldn’t put her through more of the same. Plus, I wanted to try reducing the prednisone first, to see if we could find a happy medium of fewer side effects and no fluid. The oncologist agreed, but wanted a chest x-ray first to get a baseline image before we started lowering the dosage. That way, we could do a recheck in a couple of weeks, and see how she compared.

That was on a Friday. Her x-ray looked good, as far as the oncologist could tell. She wanted a radiologist to look at it, though, but they were having trouble transmitting the images. Once the system was up and running again, she’d let us know if the radiologist saw anything.

So, we started cutting back her prednisone dosage. I don’t know what I expected … I guess I hoped that after a couple of days on the reduced dosage, she’d start to bounce back a little. Instead, she seemed a little worse. By Sunday, I brought up euthanasia with my husband, because she just didn’t seem right. Even by the bare minimum standards we’d been holding for the last month and a half. She was more listless. She couldn’t get comfortable when she laid down, so she stood most of the time. The shine, the wonderful Siofra-light was dimmer in her eyes. She still ate and was still alert – especially when one of our cats was in the room – but. mostly, she seemed to be a listless shell of the herself. And she was still climbing the stairs every night to go to bed with us. And every night, she’d lay down and sleep.

But that Sunday, something was wrong. I couldn’t articulate what it was, because on the surface, not much had changed. But inside of me, something had shifted, and I knew the she wasn’t going to pull out of this. And I knew that sooner rather than later we were going to have to make that call. When we talked about it on Sunday, I told my husband I was 60/40, maybe even 70/30, in favor of euthanasia. He was the opposite of me. And I found comfort in his hope and in his willingness to give her more time. Plus, as much as Siofra was my dog and had been my dog since the first day I laid eyes on her in the shelter, she was now Rua’s dog, too. And making the decision to end her suffering, to put her to sleep, wasn’t just up to me.

Monday and Tuesday passed much as Sunday had. She didn’t seem worse, she definitely wasn’t better. We hadn’t heard anything from the oncologist, so we assumed there was no news to hear. And, honestly, I had forgotten that she said she’d let us know what the radiologist said. I was too worried about my baby girl.

Wednesday, though, everything changed. I came home from work, and Siofra was worse than I’d ever seen her. She greeted me at the door, she went outside, she ate her dinner. But she wouldn’t lie down. Or, she wouldn’t lie down for more than 30 seconds at a time. She just stood. She’d come to me for comfort and petting, constantly. Which, for her, was out of character. She was never a needy or clingy dog, but that night she was. It was if she was either trying to tell me something or hoping that she could find some kind of comfort and solace in the one person she’d known and loved the longest.

Then, at some point that evening – Rua was working, so he wasn’t home yet – she looked at me and I saw something in her eyes I had never seen before. She was drowning in misery. I had heard other pet owners say that their pets had told them when it was time to let them go. That they had seen it in their pets’ eyes. I thought it was hyperbole. An empty way to comfort having to make the decision to have your pet put to sleep. But that night. Oh, god. That night, I saw something in Siofra’s eyes that told me, without question, she was ready to go. Her beautiful, almond-brown eyes, which had always – even through most of this illness – been lit from within with a mischievous and intelligent light, were nothing more than pools of pain and misery. Siofra was no longer there. In her place stood a poor copy of my beautiful dog, one so wracked with illness and pain that she no longer was truly present.

Even then, I couldn’t do anything. Not until Rua got home and saw her. Heavy hearted, I waited. He came home, and Siofra greeted him at the door, as always. She followed him into the kitchen as he prepared his usual late evening snack. He snapped a picture of her on his phone. The last picture ever taken of her. I told him about her miserable night, that I thought it was time to make the call, he listened and argued that not yet. That maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Knowing that he had to come to the decision in his own time, I went to bed. Because maybe he was right. Maybe I was seeing dire where there was just discomfort.

About an hour or so after I went to bed, Rua came upstairs with Siofra and woke me up. He said, “She’s really bad and I don’t know what to do.” Siofra was starting to fall while she was standing – either partially passing out or simply falling asleep – we couldn’t tell. She collapsed while Rua was petting her, but got right back up. And he’d seen the same look in her eyes that I had. The look that said she was ready to go, but her body just wasn’t letting her. We talked and cried a little. It was 11:00pm and I suggested we see how she did during the night. I didn’t want to take her to MedVet in the middle of the night to be put to sleep. I didn’t want to take to her to be put to sleep at all.

Fifteen minutes later, I turned my bedside light back on. Siofra wasn’t able to lay down. She couldn’t get comfortable. She’d start to collapse and right herself. Whether I was ready or not, whether I wanted this or not, it was time. Whiel we numbly got dressed and tried to hold back our tears, Siofra stood, panting and miserable. We loaded her in the car and I called MedVet to tell them we were coming and why.

The drive too far too little time. Siofra didn’t want to get out of the car, but she never wanted to get out of the car at MedVet. (All of her specialists, procedures, and her surgery had been done here.) We checked in and waited. I sat on the floor with her in the waiting room. Petting her, talking to her, reassuring her, reassuring myself. Rua and I talked. The vet tech came out to talk to us, to make sure we wanted to go ahead with this. We did. She asked if we wanted to be present when they put her to sleep, I answered “yes” without thinking. I didn’t even consider it a choice. In her entire, short life, Siofra had trusted me implicitly and without doubt. It didn’t matter what I asked her to do or what she was faced with, if I was there, if I told her it was OK, she trusted me that it would be. I don’t think I’ve ever had another living creature trust me that much. But she did. And I wasn’t going to send her into the arms of virtual strangers to spend her last moments alone. If they had told me I couldn’t be there for her when the final needle went in, I would forced myself in the back anyway.

The vet tech took her to the back to prep her for everything (basically, inserting an IV for the drugs) and we were led to a room to wait. Siofra joined us in the room a few minutes later and were told to take all the time we needed with her. We sat on the floor with her, petting her, cuddling her, talking to her. We sat on the floor sobbing. We sat on the floor repeating to ourselves and to her, “Oh my Siofra bear, my baby girl. I love you so much. I’m so sorry we couldn’t make you better. I’m going to miss you so much. You the best girl ever.”

I honestly don’t know how much time we spent with her. It seemed both like hours and like mere minutes. But both Rua and I came to the same point at the same time, which was it was time. We could only sit there and hold her and comfort her for so long before it became too hard, Before we’d change our minds. Before we’d let her down by not letting her go as she needed to. We told the tech we were ready and the vet came in. He explained to us what he would do, what each shot would do, and what we could expect. The first shot would make her unconscious almost immediately. The second would stop her heart and her breathing. And then it would be over. Her eyes would stay open. But she’d likely just fall asleep and then quietly die as the second drug was administered. We nodded and said “OK.” Then we each took turns for one last good-bye. One last look in her eyes, one last kiss on her nose, one last whisper in her ear.

The vet tech brought in a blanket for her to lay on, but we didn’t use it.

Instead, the vet sat calmly on the floor with Siofra. Siofra, backed away from him and into my arms, where I held her firmly and whispered to her that it would be alright, that everything was OK, that I was so grateful to have had her love and her trust in my life, that she was and always would be my beautiful, brave, good girl, that I loved her more than words. I held her close to my chest, in my lap, as the vet gently lifted her paw to place the first injection. Rua sat in front of Siofra, murmuring his love and his good-byes, stoking her face. And, true to the vet’s word, the first injection took only a few seconds. After the plunger cleared the drug from the syringe, Siofra sagged in my arms, then gracefully, peacefully collapsed across my lap.

She was so warm.

She laid there, breathing lowly, slowly. I could feel her heartbeat. I could feel her weight on my legs. And I could feel the weight of the good-bye and the grief resting on my shoulders. Rua continued stoking her face, her ears. We continued talking to her. She seemed so, so peaceful.

The vet asked us if we were ready for the final injection, we nodded, too teary to talk. He placed the needle and pushed in the plunger. With my hand on her chest, I felt her heart go still, her lungs stop. And she was gone. Just like that. Her life, all she was, all she meant to us, gone. Two injections, a few seconds, and my dog, my beloved Siofra, the first dog that had ever belonged to me, was gone. The vet confirmed her heart had stopped, then told us to take our time with our good-byes.

It was so peaceful. At, for the first time in a long time, Siofra’s body didn’t look wrecked with pain. She looked peaceful. At long last. As much as it hurt me, as much as my heart felt ripped in shreds, I was grateful, so grateful, to see my baby girl at peace at last.

Rua and I spent a few minutes with our good-byes. I squeezed her fat paws for the last time, ran my fingers up her ears. I then leaned over, kissed her still warm face, and said “Good-bye, my Siofra-Bear. I will always love you and always miss you, my baby girl.”  As we got up to leave, the vet told us he would stay with her for a few minutes to pay his respects, if that was OK. Of course it was.

We walked like zombies out to our car. Our too empty car. To head back to our too empty house. I don’t think either of us slept that night, as exhausted as we were. We both missed her far too much.

The next few days were a blur of grief and tears and getting used to a life without our girl. We still had our pug and our two cats, but there was no Siofra, and our family seemed so incomplete. It still does. We left her food bowls out for awhile in her memory, kept her collar by the door. About a week after her death, we went out to dinner with our regular vet. She asked us about the radiology report – the one we never received and had forgotten about. She had received it the day before we put Siofra to sleep, and, for whatever reason, it had just never gotten back to us. But it turned out Siofra had a mass around her aorta. She would’ve died anyway. But, somehow, knowing that in retrospect, it helped us be more at peace with our decision. I never regretted or second-guessed putting her to sleep that night – I knew it was time, I knew she was suffering, and I knew that was the only we could do to help her.  Still, finally knowing that cancer was what had caused all of her misery, that there was a reason for her illness, helped somehow.

It’s been nearly two months now, since we said good-bye to Siofra. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss her so much it hurts. When I drop food in the kitchen, I still half-expect her to come running. When I come home, I still half-expect her canine-grin and wagging tail greeting me at the door. There’s a Siofra-shaped hole in my life and in my heart. But I’m also OK with that, because it reminds me that, for nine years, I was lucky enough to have the love and companionship of an amazing dog.

I’m sure that sometime in the near future, Rua and I will add another dog to our family. We like being a two-dog home. But we’re planning on moving in the next few months and it doesn’t seem fair to bring a dog into a house to just make them move again. And I know, that when we adopt another dog, it won’t replace Siofra – it will be a completely different dog, as it should be. And I know I’ll love that dog, too, and do everything I can to make sure it stays healthy and happy. And someday, too, I may write another blog about that dog’s life and death.

In fact, I can’t think of a better tribute to Siofra’s memory than adopting another homeless dog and caring for it as we did for her.

But, for now, I’m content to spoil my pug and my cats and move through the world without another dog. The wound of losing Siofra still feels so fresh, it’s almost like having her here. Well. Not really. But it does keep her close in mind and heart and I need that and want that. I dread the day – and I know it will come – when I don’t think of her for even a minute. Because then she’ll be well and truly gone. Even though I’ll still miss her. Even though I’ll still think of her with love. Even though thinking of her will always make me smile.

She was such a brave, good dog. Even up to the bitter end, her body failing, full of pain, she pushed herself to not let us down. In our time with her, she made us laugh, made us furious, made us cry, and made us a family. She outsmarted us, she loved us, and she protected us. But above all, she did everything she could to never disappoint us. And, on the rare occasions that she did, she never repeated the actions that led to that disappointment. She was our girl.

And she always will be.

I love you, Siofra.

                    

Siofra Louise

2002-March 8, 2012

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