"lift with your knees" I hear echoes of my mom's sage advice about lifting and I wonder if i'm going to give myself a bulging disc each time we venture out for a potty break. My back is tight and sore in the lumbar region from lifting Max my 75lb Bernese Mountain dog to carry him down the stairs.
Friends and family wonder "how's Max?" compassionately in conversations, phone calls and text messages. I cringe to answer, in part because I don't know what the answer is. There are moments every day often a few times a day when I think hopefully "he's getting better", but for each good moment there are 5 more painful moments where I'm certain it's over. This is an emotionally draining cycle that's been happening daily for the past two weeks. My reply to friends and family depends on where in the day Max and I are.
It started with fleas. I realized he had been itching not because he had skin issues, but because WE, not just he, had fleas. Not my finest hour as a pet owner. You'd think after 9.5 years together I'd remember to give him his flea medication, thank god I remember to feed him. I took him to the groomer for a flea bath and to be out of the house so that I could flea bomb. He stayed the night at Dog Days a place he and I both love. When I picked him up, I noticed his hips weren't working and hoped he was only tired, and in need of a rest. He's had dysplasia since he was born, I've always known this day was coming.
I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking raising a large fluffy dog in NC summers. Max is the only dog I've ever had, I never had a pet growing up and I doubt I'll ever have another, all though "never say never". After college I developed this visceral need to take care of something and to have company. Not being married and not wanting children at that time a dog seemed like the most logical companion. The problem was that never having had a dog before I was slightly scared of them. I took tests online to see what dogs fit my personality best. I knew I wanted a large dog, a cuddly dog and a dog that could hike with me. Lots of research went into this, research on the best breed, how to train them, what to have when you brought home a puppy, what types of health issues you might need to plan for and the list went on. I decided a Berner was best for me, the cute teddy bear like puppy pictures were certainly enticing. I was slightly conflicted about getting a dog from a breeder, but having not had a dog before this seemed more palatable. I wanted to raise a dog from a puppy, now that part wouldn't matter to me so much, I understand dogs much better these days and a shelter dog would probably do just as well. Just like the pictures that had lured me in, Max did look like a teddy bear when I brought him home from the North Carolina Mountains a pretty day in April 9 years ago.
My Berner also known as Bud, or Fluffy Butt has always been a strange bird, he had surgery for dysplasia in his elbows at 6 months old. Dreams of a dog that would go on long runs with me, that I could take hiking or camping died quickly. in the early years every now and again, I would get overly ambitious with him and we'd end up deep in the woods somewhere, him sprawled out, belly down touching the cool mud and me letting him rest wondering how long we would need to stop before we could venture home again. Walking has never been his favorite thing. Nuzzling a guest's knee or sniffing flowers are more his speed.
At almost 10 years old his hips are shot, we went to the vet a week ago and it was so bad that in the car ride over I knew I might not be bringing him home. I steeled myself for the conversation that I was about to have with Dr. Jones. I vacillated between complete denial and utter sadness with full water works. If I had been wearing mascara it would have been streaking down my cheeks. Dr. Jones the kindest vet around, always the optimist said "let's try a week of heavy anti-inflammatories and see how he responds". I felt better, was hopeful even.
About a week out now max doesn't seem in as much pain, but the state of things isn't good, not the recovery I'd hoped for. My house is lined with old bright orange yoga mats so that he can navigate the hardwoods with more grip and no sliding. He ends up pooping in the house at least once a day because it looks like bowelmovements might be painful but I'm not entirely sure the reason for this development. When I watch him walk his right hip curls his body into a slight C shape as if the hip was trying to walk off in a different direction. Squatting to relieve himself might end in him flopping down on his belly in a pool of pee because he can't hold himself up.
I'm sharing this painful and slightly disgusting narrative because it's the reality of a dying dog, and the worst part is that his mind is all there. Or at least as all there as it ever was. He wags his tail affectionately when I come home after an errand his way of asking me to walk over and pet him, he still follows me room to room even though it strains him to get up. All day I work and he sits at my feet sometimes looking up at me full of love with his big brown eyes and I wonder how I could think of putting down a dog that's still "all there" in mental capacities. I'm torn, is this too soon? Is he in a lot of pain, how long can we live like this and should we be living like this? I'm facing a life lesson I'd rather do without. A reminder of impermanence, a reminder that dogs are special guests in our lives and we don't get to keep them forever. We have another appointment next week with Dr. Jones, but I'm not sure this appointment will end with as much optimism. I'm praying for grace, and for the ability to know what the right decision is.