maxwell (the best dog in the universe)

Saturday I ran a half-marathon. Your mind goes a variety of places on longer runs, dipping in and out of memories, taking inventory. I had an unfortunate recurring image of Maxwell laying dead on the floor at home in his spot under the window by the stereo. The reason I had this image was because the night before he vomited twice – once at midnight, once at 5 am – and he didn’t seem particularly well when we left the house. He was not himself. What could we do though? It was 6:20 AM. I had to pick B & C up and Margaret had to babysit their kids for a couple hours and then drive them out to root for us at the half-marathon finish line. My parents were coming too and my sister was out of town. Point being: there was no one who could zip over so early in the AM and check on Max. We calculated we’d be home by 12 noon and it would all be fine. I'm prone to overreaction and catastrophic thinking anyway. Still, that horrible image cycled. I beat it back and finished the race.

A little after 12 noon we walked in the door. Max was alive and greeted us at the door but he was not quite himself. His breathing was slightly labored. His eyes looked woozy. He had not thrown up any more though. We presumed that he most likely ate something the day before – he is a notorious grazer and will consume anything organic – and that he just needed to sit it out and expel it. I let him in the yard and he pooped and ate grass.

A short time later, at his spot under the window by the stereo he threw up the grass. It was mixed with bile and stomach fluid. We were getting nervous and called our vet. They had no space to see him at such short notice but they did not seem terribly worried about his symptoms. Dogs vomit all the time. They told us some things to look for and left it at that.

A short time later, at his spot under the window by the stereo Max threw up again. This time it was all bile. We brought him downstairs and made him drink some water. He flopped himself down next to the water bowl, clearly in discomfort. Our hope was that the water at least would replenish him, keep him hydrated until he passed whatever it was he ingested.

B & C dropped by w/ their kids to give us a kind gift – part for my birthday, part for Margaret’s help earlier that morning. We all sat in the living room. Maxwell did not come upstairs. He didn’t move. Not like him at all.

After they left, we walked downstairs and said to ourselves “maybe he’s better now” right at the precise moment that a geyser of vomit spewed from him. It was all the water he’d ingested thirty minutes before. He didn’t move or attempt to. He was laying in his own throw-up. We knew at that second we had to take him to the emergency vet. We also knew that it would be – at a minimum – several hundred dollars, not a penny of which we had. I called my parents and they graciously said go for it.

Walking to the car he seemed a little better but on the ride he just flopped down. In the vet parking lot he wouldn’t come out the car. I had to physically reach in and use all my strength to pull him out.

Inside the vet’s, in the waiting room. A tech came out and we explained the symptoms. She told us to sit tight and when the doctor was freed up they’d bring him back. We sat. Max was okay for awhile but then began to throw up again. It was dry heaves. Two techs came out and checked his pulse and gums and decided to bring him right back. We all tried to sweet talk him into standing and walking but he would not do it. They had to get a gurney and set him on it. They wheeled him away from us into the back.

It should be noted that at this point I had not slept since the half-marathon so I was in the throes of full-body exhaustion.

The doctor called us back and unleashed a maelstrom of possible scenarios, most of them terrible. We’d been in this spot before with Max (to say nothing of my own personal medical history), the spot where they have to disclose all the bad things and both times it turned out to not be the fright-inducing thing. Point being we felt prepped. The one that sounded the most dire and immediate was the sac around the heart being filled w/ fluid. We nodded and told her to do what she had to do – presuming still that Max had merely eaten something disagreeable. We stepped in to the waiting room.

I took Margaret’s cell-phone and called my mom to give her an update on Max and his condition and attempted to ballpark what the final cost would be based on what the doctor said. I walked around the block as we spoke. As we hung up I stepped back into the building, into the waiting room only to find that Margaret was gone. The receptionist looked at me “She went back already”.

I was quickly ushered back into the room I’d been in three minutes earlier – w/ the doctor and Margaret – and I suddenly understood that something was very wrong. It was in the air, in the direct glance of the doctor, in the way Margaret was sitting. There was fluid in Maxwell’s heart-sac. It would have to be extracted w/ a needle immediately. This would buy us some time so they could determine whether or not the fluid was being caused by a mass or not. {note: ‘mass’ is the medical euphemism for ‘tumor}. The hope was that the sac would not refill immediately with fluid but there were no guarantees. The doctor continued to move her mouth and make gestures and cite numbers but our minds were still back on the possibility of a mass. We agreed to the fluid extraction. and the doctor left the room.

We sat in the quiet. The air vent kicked in. We summoned all reserves of energy to not start sobbing. It was all so fast. Five minutes ago we were light and hopeful. We were suddenly plunged into darkness. A cynical, sarcastic voice from deep within me taunted silently “happy birthday”.

The doctor returned. She successfully extracted the fluid. It bought us time which was good. There appeared to be fluid in the lungs as well as the heart sac, which was not good. They would keep Max overnight. They would take x-rays and ultrasounds to determine what was causing the fluid, but it was most likely a tumor – given his age and breed. We were handed an itemized estimate, lowball and highball. We were to pay the lowball before leaving. It was over fifteen-hundred dollars. (the highball was twenty-three). I called my dad and explained the situation. He handled the payment with the receptionist.

Margaret and I drove home.

We sat in the living room and bawled. Every corner was pulsing with Maxwell’s absence. Every item was an artifact of the last nine years with him. We did not know if we would see him alive again or not. A flood of memories washed across us, accompanied by an endless reserve of tears.

* * *

The next day:

We were told that if we hadn’t heard anything by noon Sunday to give them a call. We had to kill time, to fill our minds with things that were not the possible death of Maxwell. We found ourselves on Hawthorne, at Powells, signing some guy’s clipboard, looking at vintage furniture. We found ourselves in NW, ordering smoothies at laughing planet so we ate something b/c neither of us had the slightest appetite. We found ourselves in Washington Park laying in the sunlight. Finally we called the clinic. We were told we could come down and visit Max.

Forty-five minutes later we were in an exam room and a doctor brought him in. He seemed unsettled but himself. His under-carriage was partially shaved (so they could scan the heart). His legs were partially shaved (so they could put an IV in) but he seemed himself. They let us take him outside, to walk him in the sunlight. We walked him around the block and inadvertently had a conversation about something other than what was happening around us. It all felt so normal, so natural to be walking with Max that we relaxed for the shortest of durations. It was like dry land, just to see him and be near him.

We brought him back inside the clinic. The plan was to leave him there for a few hours. They hoped to do the ultrasound that evening and call us. If he remained stable we could bring him home.

The thought of him at home with us got us through the next few hours.

But the call came, like we feared it would and hoped it wouldn’t. They did the ultrasound. The ultrasound revealed a mass on Maxwell’s heart. A node on his spleen. A node on his liver. Worst-case scenario. “The prognosis is poor”.

Somehow we managed to go back to the clinic. We managed to nod as the tech told us the stark facts. We managed to ask a question or two. We managed to nod when she told us that it could be anywhere from “days to a year” and that we are not to exercise him or get him excited and to focus mostly on his ‘quality of life’ in the spate of days that remain for him. We managed to call my parents and tell them that an additional sum would be required, bringing the tally of the previous 24 hour period to thousands of dollars.

They brought out the buddy. He seemed good. Glad to be out of that place. In the car on the drive home he stuck his head out the window and the wind blew through his hair. He looked happy. He looked like himself. Like the sweetest dog that you could imagine, happy to be alive, happy to be w/ his people, happy be drawing breath. I suddenly realized how blessed we were to get to take him home, to have a night of sleep with him in the house, how his heart-sac didn’t refill w/ fluid yet and how it could have gone in a different direction. How he could have died and we would never have been able to pet him and feed him and lay with him the next morning in his spot under the window by the stereo and rub his paws. Through our bottomless cascade of tears we realized that it was the best birthday present ever.


pat said...

i'm so sorry

Carrie said...

Brian you made me cry at work. I'm so sorry, I wish there was something anyone could do for your baby. You all and he are very much loved.

bp said...

i've been crying at work for two straight days. it gets awkward

Margaret said...

best dog in the universe.
best ever.
i miss you buddy.

GinaBObeeena said...

I just lost my baby to the exact same health problem. yesterday we said goodbye... I can't imagine life without my boy.
Thank you for your story, it made me feel like someone else out there can relate to all this pain I'm feeling!
peace & love to you and your family.

bp said...

i'm sorry to hear it gina. it's been 3 months and it still hurts.