Monday, October 06, 2003

R.I.P. Astra

My dog died today.

As much as that sucks, it was almost a good thing that it happened and how it happened.

She was diagnosed with a heart valve problem back in March. She had been coughing so I took her to the vet, and after an x-ray and ultrasound, we found the cough was due to an enlarged heart - the leaky valve meant that not enough oxygen was getting into her blood, so the heart had to pump harder, which in turn made it bigger. Eventually it started to crowd out her lungs and windpipe, hence the cough. The vet said if it was a human, they'd put her high on the list for a heart transplant. But you don't do that for a dog, you just try to make their lives more comfortable. So she was on a diuretic to control the excess fluid that was building up, and another pill to lower the blood pressure.

When I asked the vet how long she had, he said "Two days, two weeks, two months, who knows. But whatever happens, it'll be sudden." Six months later, she was still hanging in there. I spoke to the vet just last Tuesday about what I should be looking for in her demeanor, how I'd know when it was time for me to say "enough". I wasn't looking forward to taking her to the office to be put to sleep. I told him it would be easiest for me if I just came home from work one day and found her lying there.

So today at my parents' place we went for our afternoon walk by the lake. After a few minutes I heard a splash and saw some ripples in the water, and ran down the hill to see her swimming in the lake. She had done this a couple times before, where she leaned over too far while trying to take a drink. But now she was dog-paddling away, she didn't have nearly the strength she used to, and she was half-blind from cataracts. I yelled her name and clapped, but she apparently was disoriented and didn't swim towards me, more like zig zagging. I saw that her body was getting lower in the water as she paddled, so I took off my shoes and took my wallet out, then waded in to get her. Just as I got to her, she went under, and as I grabbed her to push her up, I felt her go limp. By the time I made it to shore and managed to climb up the slimy, slick lake bottom, she wasn't moving. I oriented her head down on the hill, so that any fluid in her lungs might come out. I don't know if any did, but I started some sort of doggie-CPR, compressing her chest. She coughed a couple of times and then that was it. Time of death, right around 6 pm. There were no machines to go flat-line, but it was obvious.

As the vet said, whatever happens, it was going to be sudden. I figure that the stress and struggle to paddle finally made her heart give out. Maybe I didn't get to her in time and she didn't have enough strength to stay afloat and she swallowed some water. Probably some of both, really. But of all the scenarios I had thought of, this wasn't one of them.

I mentioned that it was almost a good thing. It wasn't painful for her, like coughing and slowly suffocating would have been. I didn't have to suffer watching her get worse and worse, and I didn't have to make the decision that it was time to take her in to be put to sleep. She died relatively quickly - it wasn't more than a couple minutes from when she fell in to when I pulled her out - and I hope relatively painlessly. And she died in my arms, as I pulled her out of the water.

Right now she's wrapped up in a blanket in the garage. I hate the thought of her like that, alone outside instead of lying under my bed as usual. This is the first night I've spent at my parents house without her being with me.

She was 14 years and 9 months old, that's like 103 in dog years. I named her Astra, after the dog on the Jetsons, when I got her in May 1989 (if she was a male dog, it would have been "Astro", thus the female version "Astra") at the age of 4 months from the SPCA shelter. She was light brown with a white stomach, had really long fur on her tail, and long fur on her feet. She liked to go the park and chase squirrels when she was younger, and she was successful at it twice. She never really figured out "fetch", she'd go after something when I threw it but then she'd run away and start chewing on it instead. She chewed up the carpet in my old apartment when she was a puppy, which was pretty much the reason why I got her before I moved into a house. She used to like playing tug-of-war with a pull toy or a sock. She loved to go for a ride and stick her head out the car window. She never needed a leash when we went for a walk, she always wandered off just a bit but not too far. She'd always lick my nose when I got too close to her face. She missed me when I left and she was happy to see me return.

Dammit, it may be a good thing that she went quickly and I knew it was coming, but it still sucks. I asked the rabbi at services tonight if there was a prayer for this situation (it seems there's some sort of prayer for everything) but he said no, there wasn't. But he told me that the Mourner's Kaddish was still appropriate. Despite the name, it's not actually a prayer of mourning, it's a prayer praising God. Essentially, instead of mourning the person, the prayer thanks God for letting them be with us.

So thanks for letting her be my companion for the last 14 years and change.

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