Nature & animals


Toivo waiting

On Friday night, we put Toivo to sleep. After months of mobility issues and inexplicable infections, her final decline was swift and sure. Early Friday morning, Toivo was panting heavily in her kennel, so J took her outside, and she became uncharacteristically aggressive. By the time we arrived at the Angell Animal Medical Center, Toivo was listless, unable to walk, and had to be rolled into the critical care unit on a stretcher.

Bedroom eyes

While at Angell, Toivo did not improve. Instead, the ER vet said Toivo’s neurological responses were “inappropriate” and indicative of meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain tumor. By evening, it was clear Toivo’s condition was dire. When we arrived for one last visit before putting her down, Toivo was awake but unresponsive, staring with glassy eyes and not reacting when the vet moved a hand quickly toward her face.

Toivo guards the yard

Before she died, Toivo struggled to raise her head as I got settled on the mat beside her, as I had so many times during her week-long hospitalization in April. I’d like to think that in some corner of her brain, Toivo could still recognize the familiar touch of my hand on her head, my scent, and my voice telling her she was a good girl and everything would be okay.

Djaro and Toivo

We had Toivo for a shockingly short period of time–roughly a year and a half–but she had become deeply embedded in our lives, and closely bonded with me in particular. When we first brought her home in February, 2018, she acclimated almost immediately, as if she’d been born and raised with us rather than arriving as an adult dog. From day one, Toivo loved playing with our other dog, Djaro, leading me to suggest the best way to tire a Belgian Malinois is to bring home a second one.

Crazy legs

Initially, I hadn’t wanted a second Malinois. The breed is energetic and intense, and whereas J prefers tough and intelligent dogs–so-called “mean breeds”–I’ve always preferred floofy doofuses. What sold me on Toivo was her spunk. Too small to be a protection dog, Toivo was also too much of a goofball. Whereas the word that best describes Djaro is “intense,” the word that best described Toivo was “happy.” When her whole body wasn’t arthritic and painful, Toivo was a joyful, hyper little dog: a dynamo in a seal-slick coat who spun like a top when excited.

Toivo with toy

Although we’d chosen Toivo to be my walking buddy, what cemented our bond wasn’t the walks we took when she was able-bodied as much as the four months she was a Medical Mystery. Toivo was a fearlessly hardy dog for the first year we had her, eager to walk in any weather, but this past March, she was suddenly creaky and reluctant to move. It was as if she had gone overnight from being a dog of four to a dog of fourteen.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

After many diagnostic deadends and weeks of physical rehab, we finally learned that Toivo had immune mediated polyarthritis (IMPA), a disorder that caused her immune system to attack her joints. When we started her on steroids and an immunosuppressant, she responded almost immediately. Within days she went from being hunched over and limping to being her old self: active, energetic, and hyperalert, like a lion caged in a dog’s body.

One word we kept hearing throughout Toivo’s veterinary odyssey was “idiopathic,” which refers to a condition with no clear cause. We never learned why Toivo developed a huge abscess on her left hind leg in April, why she developed laryngeal paralysis after her release from the hospital, or why her face swelled up for no apparent reason in May. On Saturday morning, after we’d already put Toivo down Friday night, we learned a chest X-ray had shown three masses in her lungs: the closest we came to a smoking gun. If Toivo had a brain tumor that metastasized to her lungs, no amount of physical rehab or immunosuppressants could have saved her.

Toivo with cavaletti

But even a smoking gun can’t answer the question of why. Why did fate or chance choose this one dog–my dog–to struggle with so many medical challenges? Why did fate or chance choose to cripple then kill her so young? I’ll admit to feeling as much anger as grief these past few months. J and I would have done anything to keep Toivo safe and healthy, so why are there abusive and neglectful people whose dogs are still alive while my dog was taken in her prime?

Toivo stares

There are no answers to these questions; ultimately, mortality itself is idiopathic. If you allow yourself to love a dog, you know how the story will end: they will die first, unless you do. Looking through the photos and videos we took while Toivo was with us, I feel cheated to have lost her so soon, but even luckier to have had her at all. Even the longest-lived dog leaves too soon. I don’t know why we continue to open ourselves to the heartbreak of loving creatures who are destined to die, other than we have no other choice.

Yellow taxi birdhouse

Today something remarkable happened on Toivo’s morning dog-walk: my mind wandered. We’re still limited to short and slow walks in deference to Toivo’s injured leg, so by “walk” I mean a leisurely stroll past two neighboring houses, where the mouth of a woodsy trail gives Toivo a place to pee and poop on pine needles before turning around and walking back home. It’s the shortest outing you can take while still using the word “walk.”

Columbine

This morning after we’d walked two doors down to the mouth of the woodsy trail, as Toivo was nosing and sniffing through the drizzle-dampened undergrowth, my mind wandered. After months of spending every minute of every walk fretting over Toivio’s feet–is she putting weight on her injured leg, is she limping, is she panting or showing other signs of discomfort or distress?–I let my thoughts fall away while listening to the umbrella-patter of raindrops sifted through leaves. For the first time in months, my dog-walking consciousness was as free and unfettered as an unleashed hound wandering wherever she pleased.

Abundance

This is how Toivo and I used to walk, before her impairment. Toivo would sniff and wander on her end of the leash, and I would dally and daydream on mine. This is how Toivo and I used to walk before early March, when she first showed signs of lameness: back when we blithely took for granted the luxury of an able body.

Reading companion

Today Toivo is having an ouchy day. There probably is a more clinical term for days when Toivo is slow and stiff-moving–often, these are the days after we’ve taken a longer-than-usual walk, so perhaps I should call them recovery days–but the word I hear in my head is “ouchy.” There are days when Toivo is chipper and energetic and fairly mobile–popping up and eager to walk–and then there are ouchy days.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

One of the benefits of the month-long physical rehabilitation package we signed up for is a weekly appointment with a vet who knows far more about the rehab process than we do. Today Toivo and I will meet with Dr. P, and I’ll pepper her with questions. I’ll ask about pain management: should we be giving Toivo pain meds regularly, only when she’s ouchy, or not at all? How much exercise is too much: am I overdoing it by trying to take daily walks? And should we be giving Toivio supplements for the achiness she seems to feel in her other joints, not just the injured leg we’re rehabbing?

Lots of questions arise on ouchy days, and plenty of doubts. Am I doing enough to encourage Toivo’s recovery: should I be doing her passive range of motion exercises more often or differently, or should I be supplementing, medicating, and/or meditating more, more often, or more diligently? Or, on the flipside, am I doing too much, moving and massaging Toivo’s leg when she should be resting it, or walking her too much, too fast, or too far? Would Toivo be better off, in other words, if I just left her alone to sleep and heal and be as active or inactive as she wants without all this fussing?

Toivo relaxes before rehab

All of these questions, of course, are different permutations of a central set of coupled questions: am I to blame, and is there something (anything!) I can control? Nobody wants to be the one to blame, but everyone wants to feel they can control their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. If Dr. P. were to tell me that standing on my head and singing the Alphabet Song backwards would help Toivo recover more quickly, I’d drop right then to the floor and start singing, regardless of how silly it might seem. Ever since Toivo first started having mobility issues in March, I’ve been struggling with an unspoken existential question: if I somehow do things differently, can I unlock a magical formula where she will get instantly and entirely better and, better yet, live forever?

Before Toivo's physical rehab appointment

This, after all, is what I want for Toivo, myself, and all my loves: for us all to be forever young, forever able-bodied, and forever happy. And this, I know, is a guarantee I can never deliver, no matter how many rehab session I schedule. This stark realization–the undeniable fact that we are mortal souls in fragile bodies–is more painful than any physical injury: an ouchy no known opioid can cure.

As I write this, Toivo nestles her head on my lapdesk. On ouchy days in particular, I quit my desk and work as much as possible on the bed where Toivo is resting, encouraging her to snuggle up against me. Throughout the rehab appointments, the painfully slow walks, and all the enthusiastic exhortations to “Use your leg,” I cling desperately to the belief–the hope–that love, companionship, and lots of petting can work miracles–or at least provide some comfort in the meantime.

Lap dog

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday, and I’ve spent most of my time since then doting on the dog. On Tuesday, Toivo had her stitches removed from the surgery she had earlier this month to drain a massive abscess in one of her hind legs, and tomorrow we have a physical therapy appointment to figure out how to encourage her to use her injured leg again.

Toivo in the sun

I’ve never been to a doggy rehab appointment before, so today I filled out the necessary paperwork, read the rehab center’s frequently asked questions, and started doing some passive range of motion exercises I found on YouTube. When Toivo first came home from her hospitalization, I was afraid to touch her leg, not wanting to disturb any of her stitches, but at Tuesday’s appointment, our vet said her incisions are fully healed, so massage and manual manipulation of the leg would be okay.

Toivo with her new harness

The entire process of Toivo’s injury, treatment, and recovery has been a learning experience. J and I have nursed other dogs back to health after surgery, but Toivo is the first pet we’ve had who was hospitalized for a full week. Whereas our other dogs spontaneously started using their injured legs after surgery, it’s been a full three weeks since Toivo put weight on her leg: one week in the hospital, and now two weeks recovering at home. It’s not surprising that her muscles have atrophied during that time, so now we have to build those muscles back up.

Toivo!

When we first got Toivo, I bought a pair of grooming gloves I use to brush her fur, a process J immediately dubbed “mama-ssage.” Today, I brushed Toivo in advance of tomorrow’s rehab appointment, and as I massaged, flexed, and extended her injured leg, I hoped the power of TLC and some “mama-medicine” will move Toivo further down the road to recovery.

Bobbi lounges

This morning we put Bobbi the cat to sleep. For the past four years, we’d successfully managed her diabetes, but recently she had inexplicably lost weight, and after two stays in the critical care unit for hypoglycemia, pancreatitis, and liver lipidosis, this morning Bobbi was unable to walk, stand, or control her bodily functions: a sure sign her fight was done.

Bobbi is home

When you have euthanized as many pets as J and I have, there is nothing surprising about the process itself. There’s the same quiet drive to Angell, the sad transaction as you pay for the procedure, and the solemn walk to a euphemistically named meditation room, where you can cry and say goodbye in private.

In the meditation room, you reenact the familiar ritual of getting the pet comfortably settled until the on-duty emergency vet comes in, offers her condolences, and then carries the animal off to receive an IV catheter. When today’s vet brought Bobbi back to us, she was swaddled in a blanket, only her head and the end of an IV tube visible. I held Bobbi in my lap as the medication was administered and she went from being a small, compliant bundle to Gone. With the plunge of two syringes, a beloved but suffering creature went to whatever rest awaits her.

Back at Angell

After all this time, I still don’t believe in the Rainbow Bridge or other euphemisms of immortality; to me, it is enough to be free from suffering, a slate wiped completely clean. I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body; why would Bobbi (or any of us) want to return to a vessel that was failed and failing? When Bobbi died, she still had sprouting from her neck the esophagostomy tube J had faithfully used to keep her alive over the weekend: pureed food, water, and so many medicines pumped into her four times a day. Why would any creature want to return to that?

It's exhausting to be this cute

I have no wish for a feline afterlife or for some magically mythic realm where old souls return to young bodies. What sense would there be with so many creatures congregating in confusion, the lives that were lost mingling with ones that replaced them? It is the necessary and unapologetic way of this world that life goes on. Once the arrow has been released, it never returns to its quiver.

Bobbi chills out

Whatever comfort I find in the aftermath of another pet death lies not in an imagined future but in this stone-sure truth: for a brief and precious time, Bobbi knew moments of pleasure and peace: the bliss of a head-scratch, the delights of a sunny windowsill. Forever and ever, amen, such simple pleasures will be–must be–amply and abundantly enough.

The Celtics' laziest fan

When we put Reggie the dog to sleep seven years ago last week, the window of Angell’s meditation room revealed a square of blue sky on an impossibly beautiful spring day; the next day, I remember, our backyard tulips bloomed. We haven’t had tulips in our yard for years–the neighborhood rabbits find them too tasty–but this morning, I saw a cluster of daffodils ready to bloom by our birdbath. How fitting that flowers–nature’s most ephemeral expression–are the universal language of condolence. As go these blooms, so go the rest of us, eventually.

No tail, no problem

It was an impossibly beautiful day when Reggie died, and today–Bobbi’s last day–the sun also shines. On the drive home from Angell, everything I saw seemed transfigured by the miracle of April light: so many people headed off to work, their heads cram-packed with worry as if any of this matters. Looking up at the morning light basking upon a brick facade, I had to wonder why the Universe, which is merely temporary, would waste so much precious time on useless beauty. Knowing the ultimate end of all our days, why bother?

Does my cat have a drinking problem?

Bobbi was the first pet we adopted with a known diagnosis of diabetes. Before her, Snowflake the cat had become diabetic in old age, and realizing we could care for one diabetic cat, we adopted Bobbi in June, 2015, when her medical condition made hope of a forever home seem unlikely. Snowflake was a large, lovable lug; when it was time for his insulin injections, I’d spread a towel on my lap, and he’d climb on it, luxuriating in the petting that came after the prick. But Bobbi was different. A grumpy, feisty calico, Bobbi had no tolerance for cuddling: the best approach at insulin time was to distract her with food, then grab the scruff of her neck and jab her quickly. In her younger days, Bobbi kept the veterinary staff at Angell on guard…but more recently, her temper somewhat softened and she would occasionally crawl into my lap and press her head into my hand.

Small victory

Today, as I mentioned, is an impossibly beautiful day: impossible because beauty seems unlikely in a world intent on impermanence, and impossible because beauty insists on existing alongside heartbreak. Sitting at an intersection on the drive home, I saw a tattered plastic bag snagged on a stoplight, flowing and flapping in the spring breeze. The sight seemed too profound for words: a bit of rubbish caught and temporarily transformed into something unspeakably lovely. If you live gently and kindly enough in this ephemeral world, you eventually see our brief time here as enough, our souls snagged and tattered until they eventually float away.

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Stump and toppled trunk

Today was a bright, breezy, spring-like day, so after lunch J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery. Most of the snow has melted, leaving the grass bare and blanched: mud season, the awkward pause before spring.

Fallen

Throughout the Cemetery, there were fresh stumps and piles of massive trunks and branches: cleanup from trees that had either fallen in winter storms or had been preemptively culled. It was sad to see massive tree-corpses lying among the gravestones: if these fallen giants could talk, what stories could they tell?

Stump

The lesson of any Cemetery, of course, is that impermanence surrounds us. Seeds sprout, trees tower, and winds wreak havoc: even evergreens can’t stay green forever. A neatly landscaped grave creates the illusion of immortality: as long as a headstone stands, one’s name and memory live on. But aren’t tombstones ultimately like so many tree stumps: dead reminders of a once-living thing?

Toppled

In a few weeks, the earth will erupt in green, landscape crews will have cleared away the last of these toppled trees, and both the mallards and Canada geese that swim the Cemetery ponds will have nestlings in tow. The annual death that is winter, in other words, will miraculously transform into the resurrection that is spring. In the meantime, I like to think the massive tree stumps J and I saw today aren’t dead, but sleeping: their cellulose selves dreaming of sunny skies and chlorophyll-fed days.

Next Page »