Sunday, October 28, 2012

Goodbye to Abner


Today is October 28th 2012. Yesterday marked one month since I lost Abner to metastatic Osteosarcoma and while it has been a very hard month to get through, I did get through it. I think it will be a long time before I can think or talk about Abner without getting a little choked up but I wanted to publish what I wrote the day he died and sent to friends so they would know.

Abner was not just an extraordinary dog. He was my truly constant companion. Having spent most of my adult life living without live-in human companions the importance of my relationships with my three dogs has been inestimable. This has been even more than case with Abner because for most of his life I have been retired and we have literally done almost everything together.

What follows is a brief tribute to this amazing loving animal.

The attached photos were taken an hour before Abner left us for the last time. He looked happy.

Abner July 24, 2002-September 27, 2012

On July 17th of 2002 I suffered what I thought would be the greatest loss of my lifetime when I had to witness the death of my companion Harvey who was only 8-1/2 years old but had suffered degenerative problems in his spine for a couple of years. When that happened a number of my closest friends in Sacramento gathered around me for the ensuing days and weeks in an effort to support me when I was in a pit of grief. Many good things happened in that period but not much had a lasting impact.

As a consequence, in October of that year, out of a sense of desperation that I was not getting over the loneliness that set in after losing Harvey, I called a few Pyrenees breeders I knew of and began inquiring about perhaps finding a puppy. That series of calls led to a quick trip to the San Diego area to see a breeder there who had bred Harvey’s father and who had a litter of 12-week-old puppies, most of whom were spoken for.

When I got to her home and kennel and met the two male puppies that were still available, one was calm, attentive, playful, and most importantly forgiving. I had some fears of getting a new puppy so soon after Harvey’s death and in particular had misgivings about the possibility that somehow if I did, the new puppy would sense that he was supposed to replace someone who was irreplaceable.

I went home empty handed but for digital photos and a promise that the puppy that had snagged my interest would not be offered to anyone else for a few days so I could decide whether or not to commit in a setting that wasn’t as emotional as the one that is always there in a group of puppies.

I agonized for several days about this decision and pestered friends for help in deciding but in the end I opted to go for it. I couldn’t take the puppy home right away since I had to go to Mexico on business that month but made arrangements to receive him from the breeder shortly after my return in late October.

Another monkey wrench was thrown into the works when I returned and called the breeder to make arrangements to get my new companion. It seemed that he had contracted Parvo in the interim. She assured me that it was a mild case, that he was fine, and that he had only been at the vet hospital for one night in dealing with the disease but it still created misgivings for me. Most of the vets who had dealt with Harvey’s illnesses that had brought about his relatively early death felt that his problems all probably stemmed from a case of Parvo that afflicted his entire litter when they were 6 weeks old.

I found myself consulting every vet I could think of for advice and in spite of a recommendation from at least one of them to not take the risk, by then, without even having the puppy in my possession I knew I didn’t want to give him up. So, I went ahead and took the leap.

Abner was born on July 24th, 7 days exactly after Harvey had died, so he was about 14 weeks or so old when he was delivered to my house on a warm sunny fall day. He had already started to enter the awkward looking phase many Pyrenees puppies go through when their legs are too long and ears too big and floppy to go with the rest of their bodies. He was also stubborn and had a challenging, almost suspicious look in his eyes at first. For the first week I truly wondered if I had made a mistake and was fearful that I would never bond as strongly with Abner as I had with Harvey.

As most, if not all of you know, that was a ridiculously unfounded fear. All puppies have a way of forcing you to deal with them on their terms even if you did get them as a substitute for someone you had lost. Abner immediately demanded all my attention and efforts and in doing so, quickly erased the possibility that I would put demands on him that were unfair.

As it turned out he was a happy healthy wonderful puppy who, like most Pyrs, got into trouble occasionally and expensively in the first 6 months and then after that, never really did anything wrong for the rest of his life.

For the two years that I continued my architectural practice we were rarely separated for more than a couple of hours. I took him with me everywhere I could including job sites as long as they were safe for him to visit.

Then, on August 1st of 2004 I officially closed up shop and began the process of packing up our lives in preparation for the move to Asheville. None of the disruption even caused Abner to think twice. He just assumed that everything would go fine because for him, it always did. He was so incredibly beautiful, calm and gentle, that even people who generally didn’t like dogs were attracted to him so his only experience with humans was positive.

In January of 2005 we got into my Audi and hit the road for the 4 day drive to Asheville with a few of our possessions and the majority on a truck that followed a day later. Even though Abner had never been on a road trip longer than about 7 hours, he treated the cross-country trip as no big deal. He politely stayed in the back of the car for the very long days of driving and was quite comfortable sleeping in a different motel room every night.

We arrived in Asheville on January 17th, 2005 at about 7:30 on the coldest night since the weather service started keeping records for this area. When I opened the front door to my house I was shocked to find it bitterly cold inside due to several windows being wide open. The only furniture there was a bed I had ordered from Design Within Ready that was unassembled. I turned on the furnace and closed all the open windows but the house couldn’t really heat up very quickly. It had an old boiler and radiator system that were in pretty sorry shape, and I didn’t know that I needed to open a valve to let more water into the system so a few hours after it started, it shut off for lack of water.

I managed to get the memory foam mattress out of its shipping tube and got it to expand in spite of the cold. That night Abner and I spent in the master bedroom of this strange house. I slept in a sleeping bag I had fortunately left there when I had visited in December and for the only time in his life, Abner got on a piece of furniture and slept curled up next to me. He knew immediately that this was our home. . .not just another strange motel, and he acted accordingly. He peed and pooped in the frozen back yard and acted completely like he belonged in the house. . .which of course he did.

In the first few years of my being in Asheville almost all the people I met and with whom I ended up in friendships were because of this remarkable dog people simply couldn’t resist. Abner could and did charm everyone. Total strangers would drive by on the street and shout to him by name. The transition from living in a place for 33 years and having that amount of time to form relationships to a place where I knew no one was facilitated by having the companionship of this remarkable dog.

Things generally went well for Abner all these years from the early ones here until last winter. In December of 2011 shortly after I had come home from a very painful shoulder surgery, I noticed Abner avoiding putting weight on his right hind leg. I took him to see our vet and since there was nothing conspicuously wrong he suggested using an NSAID called Deramax. After a few days on that med he was fine and we went on with our lives, mostly involving my recovery and physical therapy.

Then about a month later the lameness recurred and the vet suggested over the phone that I just try the Deramax again and see how he does. Again, he was fine in a few days. The problem was that in early February he had the third episode and I decided the time had come to get to the bottom of what was going on.

We had some x-rays done that showed an odd halo of something around his right femur that the vet was not sure about. There ensued a whole series of blood tests, other x-rays, consultation with a close friend who is a veterinary oncologist, and ultimately a bone biopsy at a specialty clinic in Greenville, SC to try to find out what was going on. In the end, after a month of nothing conclusive, my oncologist friend told me that his gut feeling was that even without a positive diagnosis from the biopsy he was pretty sure that Abner had Osteosarcoma and that the only way to save his life was to amputate the leg and to do it quickly.

On March 5th, I drove Abner to the group in Greenville where they removed his entire right hind leg and sent the femur off to a pathology lab to determine whether or not the cancer was what we were dealing with. After a couple days I brought Abner home and began the long and sometimes difficult process of adapting to life on three legs. In less than two weeks we had a confirmation from the pathologist that indeed Abner had suffered from Osteosarcoma, a particularly aggressive bone cancer that for some reason tends to afflict larger breeds of dogs.

The odds of long term survival are much improved by following amputation with multiple sessions of chemotherapy so on March 20th of this year Abner had his one and only dose of chemo. It was devastating. Within hours he was completely exhausted. He once again couldn’t walk and in pretty short order developed three bacterial infections probably due to his immune system being compromised by the chemotherapy. It took a long time to recover from that one session so I elected to take our chances and not do any more. I didn’t think it was fair to him to make him sick for long periods of time in the hope that it would lengthen his life.

Things generally went pretty well through the summer until two weeks ago. I had been advised to have a 6 month checkup done on him just to see how he was doing, and one of the standard items in that checkup was a chest x-ray since the most common location of metastases from this cancer was the lungs. Sadly the x-ray showed three small growths. We didn’t really have a sense of how long they had been there but upon consultation with all the vets, I had reason to expect a few months before these would become a problem.

It was not to be. I got the x-ray results on the 15th and by the 18th he was limping noticeably and there was swelling on his right front leg. On the 19th we were once again at the vets, this time having his leg x-rayed and to my horror it showed the same halo type development that we had seen back in February.

At that point I just started looking into how to keep Abner comfortable for as long as we had. His disease progressed rapidly and by yesterday he had stopped eating and by last night was unable to stand or walk at all, even with help from me.

So, today, at 11:30 in the morning, I took Abner back to the vet hospital for the last time. We sat in the back of my car together for a while. I talked to him and he kissed me on the face as he had done a thousand times before. The vet injected him with an anesthetic so he would just drift off to sleep, which he did with his head in my lap. Then they took him inside to give him the IV that would end his suffering. Unfortunately it didn’t end mine.

I came home and have tried to keep myself busy this afternoon but decided to write this all down while it was fresh in my mind.

At some level I know that the raw and acute sense of loss I am suffering right now will someday pass. I can’t imagine how. I have never felt the closeness or affection for anyone that I have felt for Abner. When Harvey died I thought that I would never again feel the pain of loss I felt that day but this is worse. I think having spent almost his entire 10 years together every day has made this even a stronger bond.

Abner was magic. Everyone who knew him well knew it. I don’t imagine I will every feel this way about anyone again. I hope I do but I can’t imagine it. I miss him so much already and probably will for every day for the rest of my life.

All of you who had the good fortune to know him well were blessed. He lived for 10 years, 2 months and 3 days and for that period of time the world was a better place.

The last year and a half have been filled with difficult times for me marked not only by the loss of Abner but health issues that resulted in a shoulder surgery last December and a complex and lengthy neck surgery just over two weeks ago that involved, among other things, fusing 4 of the cervical vertebrae. Since, as a rule, I seem motivated to share the good stories in this blog I have had little to talk about for this period of time, and truthfully, doubt that I will be posting much soon since I am recovering both from my surgery and my recent loss. When things start to take a more positive turn I suspect you will all hear from me again.

Asheville is constantly changing, and I guess I am too, as are the people who matter to me. When I am up to it I will start posting stories again. Until then I hope whoever feels like reading any or all of this blog won't be disappointed in my silence.

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