This Rough Magic

Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure

Prospero, The Tempest, Wm. Shakespeare

Two weeks ago today, we lost our big male deerhound Magic.  It should not have been any surprise—he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in August and from the looks of his echocardiogram August 8th, his days were numbered.  He was with us for over ten years, a long life for a giant hound.  But the finality of death is always a surprise, isn’t it?

Can dogs perceive tragedy in their lives?  Do they grieve as we do?  If so, Magic had grief aplenty.  Acquired as a four month old puppy with his half-sister Angelina, he was fine until at six months, he fractured a metatarsal bone taking a corner too fast, and after surgery to pin the shattered bone he spent six weeks in a cast.  He recovered just fine, well enough to finish his championship at 18 months without a trace of a limp to suggest his prior injury.  From the time he was a puppy, we called him The Dog Who Never Did Anything Wrong.  He never got sick, never barked, never growled, and never EVER had an accident in the house.  Following the example of our older male Izzy, he was a friend to all—humans, dogs and cats.  Well maybe once he chased a horse, but after the embarrassment of being chastised, he never did it again.  He was a homebody, afraid of fireworks and thunder and lightning, but as long as he had his family about him, he bore no complaint.  When his sister and constant companion Angelina passed, he clearly had a period of sadness, but bounced back quickly.  But when we lost Izzy and in rapid succession the little dog Jack to old age, Magic lay down on the carpet in the family room between the coffee table and the chairs, head between forelegs, and there he stayed.  He ate his meals, and went out twice a day to do his business (“whether he needed to or not!” we joked).  But the exuberance and sense of humor that characterizes the deerhound personality was gone.

When we sold our home in San Diego in October, and decided to move to New Mexico, Magic was the dog we worried about the most.  Given his heart condition, we weren’t sure that he could make the transition to altitude and cold weather.  We worried and fretted and even considered putting him to sleep, but in the end, since he wasn’t in any pain, we loaded him, the two girl deerhounds and the little rescue Yoda into the van and off we went.  Our biggest fear was that we would have to find a veterinarian somewhere along Interstate 40 to do what we hadn’t been able to bring ourselves to do before we left.  But the big dog surprised us.  Here in Santa Fe, he seemed to take a new lease on life.  Suddenly he was interested in his surroundings—he ran, he played, and he discovered where the bunnies were hiding in the culvert.  He patrolled the fence line at sunset, watching for coyotes.  He assumed the role of pack leader for the first time in his life.  His two female consorts adored him, and he was The Man.  And, like a family member of any patient diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to have magical thinking:  first, let’s see if he makes his tenth birthday!  He did.  Then, let’s see if he makes Thanksgiving, when the kids come home!  He did.  And then, jeepers, maybe he’ll see Christmas, and even another New Years!  He did.  So then I began thinking about his eleventh birthday, next October.  As I said, death is always a surprise.

As we get older, each loss hits harder.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about this these last two weeks.  When we are children, the family dog seems to live forever.  He’s there when we start kindergarten, then junior high, then high school.  He comforts us when we’re sad.  Our lives, and his life, while not equivalent, are at least proportionate.  But as we age, the lifespans of our pets seem to shrink.  Now that I am 61, Magic’s life seems to mine a mere blink of the eye.  He was there, beside my bed, every night for ten years.  And now he is gone, and I’ll never again curse under my breath as I trip over him in the dark, and my life is much the worse for that.

Rest in peace, Ch. Caerwicce’s This Rough Magic, October 15, 2004—January 25, 2015.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart and you shall see that, in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”  Kahlil Gibran

Do Dogs Know They are Dying?

Labor Day, 2006, is a day I will never forget.  It was a gorgeous day here in San Diego—bright, sunny and nearly 90 degrees.  I decided it was a perfect day to give the dogs an outdoor bath.  At the time, we had Valentine, the matriarch at nearly twelve years old, Izzy who was four, and the two young  ones Magic and Angelina who were two years old.  We started with Valentine—at her age she’d had a little problem with urinary incontinence, and she needed her bath the most.  We knew that the coiled up hose sitting in the sun on that hot afternoon had enough warm water to bathe her in, so my daughter and I mixed shampoo in a bucket of hot water from the kitchen sink, and just outside the garage, we soaped her up.  She seemed to be enjoying herself, a nice soapy massage on a beautiful day, and then a quick rinse.  As I turned to get the towel to dry her, I heard my daughter say loudly and in a panic, “VAL, DON’T FALL DOWN!”  I turned back around and she was gone, down on the wet pavement, eyes blank.  She never felt a thing.   I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the driveway with my dead dog, brushing her hair until it dried and the crematorium people came to take her away.  Needless to say, no one else got a bath that day.

I once read an essay by an oncologist who said that she hoped that she would die of cancer.   I was baffled by this, because my personal preference would be to go suddenly, of a heart attack or a massive stroke, preferably while doing something I enjoy.  But her reasoning was quite clear:  she said that with cancer, when you know that your days on earth are numbered, you still have time—time to do the things you always wanted to do, time to say good bye, time to make amends.  This has actually been true for most of my patients—when they know that they are diagnosed with a life threatening illness, their priorities change.  If they have the means, they live the lives they always wanted to live, for as long as they are able.  They remember, they forgive and they forget.  The trivialities of daily life become unimportant, except insofar as they struggle to get through them.   Many become the person they always wanted to be, and I hope that if this is my fate, I have the grace to do the same.

Today we took old Magic to the veterinary cardiologist.  Magic is my eldest deerhound—a big male at 120 pounds, and nearly ten years old.  The last two weeks have been hard for him—we’ve had thunderstorms and he has always been afraid of thunder.  In desperation over his anxiety last week I called his vet for a prescription for a tranquilizer.  It worked temporarily, but on Tuesday we had strangers in the house and he was panting, salivating, and his heart was beating far too rapidly.  I laid a hand on his chest and I knew instantly that his big old heart was failing.  Today the diagnostic echocardiogram confirmed what I already knew—that my big guy has dilated cardiomyopathy, and that he is in congestive heart failure.  We started medication immediately, and I am hoping for a few more weeks, or a few more months with this grand old man who is, as my husband says, “the dog who never did anything wrong.”

Do dogs, like humans, know when they are dying?  I don’t think so.  And in fact, for their sake, I hope not.  Unlike us, they have nothing to apologize for, and perhaps their next meal, or a walk in the park, or in a dream a wild chase after a highland stag, followed by a soft bed and the touch of a human hand is all that they hope for and dream about.  As Magic slowly made his way out of the van today onto solid ground, he was greeted warmly by Queen, Quicksilver and little Yoda.  I can no longer promise him a life beyond his years, but I promised him today that every day from now on will be the best day I can give him—lots of treats, a comfortable place to rest, and with all certainty, no more baths.