Archive:  Year 5 - Wednesday, May 26, 2010 "Goodnight, Gracie"

This is difficult for me to write.  This is certainly closer to me than anything I’ve shared here before.  I’ve been keeping this blog pretty regularly for almost three years, exploring topics as intimate as my house, my work, my anxieties… my plumbing.  But when it comes to my personal life, this one may trump them all.

Because Gracie trumped them all.  Grace is why I moved aboard a houseboat, Gracie is why I started running, Grace is why I bought a kayak…  I always suspected that she was a powerful force in my life, but how powerful was perhaps not fully understood until I woke up this morning without her.  My god, what do I do?  A walk down the beach and then a swim feel positively vacant.  What is the fun of running errands without her riding shotgun?  Can I even paddle a kayak without a dog between my knees?  Sweet girl, she had wormed her way into every facet of my days and now they feel incomplete.

If it seems that this news of Gracie passing is very sudden, it certainly was.  When she was diagnosed with lymphoma in March, we were told she had 3 – 12 months.  Not enough time, certainly, but I had begun to count on one more summer.  Surely we would have one more full, lovely summer.  The prednisone that she was on brought her back to near-perfect health, and I even harbored secret hopes of a miracle, odds-defying longevity.  In reality, she started to be symptomatic before we even left on our road trip.

Ahhh, the road trip.

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On May 1st, Mo Perry, Gracie and I piled into my car and drove 3600 miles – to Maine and back.  We camped, we hiked in Acadia National Park, Grace put her feet in the ocean – and even ate lobster.  Mo and I joked that it was Grace’s bucket list – but we both knew it was truer than we wanted it to be.  She was utterly perfect from the car, to the truck stops, to the roadside juke-joint in Ohio where we had to take shelter from tornados.  She was sweet, and calm and didn’t give me a moment’s grief.  Good girl.  

Once home, I noticed that her lethargy and swollen appearance had gotten more pronounced.  I increased her prednisone but it only appeared to intensify the side effects, and not the tumor-shrinking it had done so effectively weeks prior.  My heart was already sinking.  All the same, we went back to the vet.

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As we had learned initially, after the prednisone stopped being effective, Grace’s only other viable option - because of the size and location of the mass - was chemotherapy.  I had originally ruled out chemo.  It sounded to me as if it would only prolong Grace’s suffering and even if it were to be as successful as possible, that 12-month timeline got no longer.  The clock was ticking, no matter what - the question was how did we want to spend the time.

But then here we were, a mere 6-weeks later and Grace, although clearly declining, was fuzzy and pink and fat and I could not simply let her go.  The vet, kind and patient as ever, reassured me (again) that chemo was not the same for dogs as it was for humans – she would not become very thin, her hair would not fall out, she probably wouldn’t have nausea.  Many times, my vet explained, the side effects from the chemo are far less than the unchecked cancer or even the prednisone had been.  Far more expensive, of course, and still no guarantees, but optimism.  And optimism was what I needed – so we started her on her first bout of chemo before I even left the clinic.  

It was Friday afternoon.  It was a shot of Elspar.  If this does what we hope, she will feel better fast, they said.  Within 12 – 24 hours, she may even want to play with a ball.  If she doesn’t respond, then the tumor has already become too resistant to medication and she would likely not respond to further treatment.  I heard it all, but drove home chanting “24 hours, she may even want to play with a ball”, “she may even want to play with a ball”,  “24 hours.”

The next day, she did not want to play with a ball.  In fact, she was noticeably still declining, could hardly walk, and, for the first time, had to be persuaded to eat.  It was the first time I really realized what my role was likely to be here, and how quickly it was going to happen.  I wept and called my friends who were instantly present.  Everyone, it seemed, grasped what Gracie meant to me and the great chasm I was approaching.  

But Saturday was not the day.  With the cooing and coaxing of friends and playmates, Grace rallied enough to have two more spectacular days.  I had originally planned on flying to Chicago on Sunday to spend a few days with my oldest sister, Anne, and her new baby.  I cancelled the trip, and as a result was uncommitted to anything but spending time with Grace and watching for the cue I knew she would inevitably give.  

On Sunday we went kayaking one last time.  It was a perfect sunny day, mid 70’s, and Rhiannon – the one who introduced me to kayaking - joined us.  For over two hours, we paddled up the River and through the backwaters.  Grace slept, as she usually does, and seemed to do so peacefully for the first time in days.  Monday, when we woke up, Grace walked herself to the River and seemed unwilling (and unable) to leave.  Which was fine, because we didn’t need to.  I went back to the boat and got blankets, sunscreen, books, and an umbrella and we spent almost 8 hours there.  When she got thirsty, she would go to the River to drink; when she got hot, she laid in the cool, shady sand.  Gracie’s best friend since puppyhood, a gorgeous rotweiller mix named Jameson, came over with George and we all enjoyed the beach together…  But we didn’t miss the signs.

Although not in pain, she had now refused all food – no matter how wet and delicious – and her breathing was always labored.  Her discomfort was growing, and it was obvious to me that whatever she experienced next was going to be suffering.  She will start to choke on that goddamn thing growing inside of her, and while I would bring her ice cubes and carry her home from the beach everyday – I could not spare her that.  Not forever.

There, in our perfect paradise, it was perhaps the easiest to see.  It was time.  With the sun on our shoulders and the River running between our toes, I began to arrange how we would say goodbye.  By the time I realized I was sunburned and we were shaking the sand from our towels, it was set.  The next day, at 7PM, an in-home euthanasia veterinarian was scheduled to come to the Marina and help us help her.  

Tomorrow.  Tonight was our last.  

For the two previous nights I had been sleeping on the floor with Grace.  I listened to her breath and made sure if she woke up suddenly, I could calm her, take her outside, kiss her back to sleep – whatever she needed.  But that night she was fussy and my touch seemed to increase her discomfort, so I slept on the couch next to her and watched from a distance.  That might have been the hardest night.

But another beautiful morning.  With some effort, she took herself down to the River, but this time she then left the water and climbed back up the hill to a large shady tree and refused to go any further.  Again, I followed her lead and set up shop on a soft patch of grass next to her.  It was the perfect place to love her and wait.  Most of the time she slept, but twice she shot up like a top and marched herself back to the River.  Stumbling and weak, but determined, she began to walk down the beach, away from the marina and into the woods.  It is a path well-tread, one we had walked together countless times.  She wouldn’t respond to my call and finally, I had to stand in front of her and order her not to go.  She stopped and looked at me.  Not yet.  Not like this.  She licked my face as I carried her back to the shady tree.  Then we called the vet to please come now, we didn’t want to wait until 7PM after all. 

Grace had her head in my lap and the sweet cooing voices of friends all around her.  I held her and kissed her and repeated endlessly that she was a good girl, I loved her, and she could go now.  

And she did.

The rest of the day is a blur.  I know we all plunged into the River and I wept and pounded my fists and made some very unflattering accusations against the Almighty.  We cried together, drank to excess, and told stories about Grace we all had heard a million times.  

Like this one:

Last summer I was doing dishes in the galley and heard one of my neighbors start his engines, preparing to go out on the River.  Suddenly I heard a chorus of ‘Oh!  Grace!  What are you… Dawn?!?’  

I ran outside to see what was happening.  Grace, who had been napping on the back deck of my boat, apparently also heard the neighbors preparing to go on a cruise.  Welcome in every room she enters, Gracie got up, went over to their boat, got on board and was sitting comfortably in the cabin before anyone noticed her.  They were about to shove off when someone said, ‘whose dog is this?’

The captain politely returned her with a pat and a treat… no wonder.

By the time the night was over and my dear friends finally departed, I was drunk, exhausted, and completely cried-out.  Good work.  Surely, the worst of it was over.

And then I woke up this morning and find I just can’t stop looking for her.

So I sat down here with my memory of what happened and my keypad to walk myself through it again.  Gracie is gone.  With painlessness, class and a lot of beauty, she went down a road we will all someday walk.  God willing it will be with as much love when it is my turn; and god willing, I see her there.

My deepest and most sincere thanks to everyone who has shown us such kindness in these last days – and throughout her life.  It wasn’t common knowledge how poorly she was doing, but the few who found out showered us with kind words, good energy, sweet toys and even chicken noodle soup (thanks again, Nora).  The loving prayers certainly reached us, and I am grateful.  

Pictured:  Some of my favorites.

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