Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Dog Named Decibel

"Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in."
~ Mark Twain

Piglet came first. Inherited from a friend, she was a gorgeous, pale blond Golden Retriever with a personality that reminded me of Harpo Marx. When her puppy-like energy began to congeal into laziness some time around her fifth birthday, Robert and I talked about getting her a playmate.

We went to a well-known Long Island animal shelter. Eventually we came to a cage containing a filthy little black ball of pathos with rheumy eyes, a gamely wagging tail and a look of total desperation. "What's wrong with her?" we asked. "Just a cold. She's almost all better," we were told. Yeah right. I'll never know exactly why we chose her, but we signed the papers, handed over our "donation" and went straight to our regular veterinarian. He listened to her lungs and immediately called in the student doctors who were interning that year. He said to them, "I want you to see this. For as long as you practice veterinary medicine you will probably never see a case of distemper as bad as this." To us, "I don't know if we can save her."

Somehow, with weeks of isolation, heaps of antibiotics and multiple steam sessions every day, we did save her. But because she was too sick to be vaccinated, she was quarantined for months in our apartment. Seeing Piglet come and go for walks drove her insane. When we left the house she would whine and squeal with anxiety; she was so loud and sounded so tortured, a neighbor reported us to the ASPCA for animal abuse. That's when I asked the veterinarian if there was anything we could do to calm her down. He gave me a bottle of valium and said, "It probably won't work, but you can try it." I should have taken it myself. And so we named her Decibel, DB for short.

Decibel was a one-dog wrecking crew. One day while I was at work, she chewed almost all the way through the legs of a table that had belonged to my grandmother. We bought a puppy gate, but she just climbed over it, so we bought a second one and stacked them. The next day I came home to find she had scaled the stacked gates and eaten the couch. It was an 82-inch, Tuxedo-style affair with lots of pillows and cushions, and she chewed through all of them. The living room was knee-deep in mounds of white pillow stuffing. It was a little like that Rolling Stones video for "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" where the boys are in sailor suits and at the end they're nearly swallowed up by bubbles. On that day I seriously considered taking her to the ASPCA and leaving her there. In the end, I bought a third gate.

When Decibel was finally well enough to go out, she turned out to be an athlete. She ran like a greyhound and caught balls like an all-star outfielder. But as we soon discovered, she was at least 75% Border Collie and the herding force was strong. She was an excellent playmate for Piglet, but when we tried putting her in the dog run she just ran after the others, barking and nipping at their heels until they cowered together in a corner. So much for that. If Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, had been around he would have said Decibel needed a job. Since he wasn't, we relied on long, strenuous play sessions morning and night on the local ball field; these were later supplemented with mad-dash races against our daughter, another strong runner.

Fast forward nine years. Decibel, not quite ten, was still in her prime, but the lovely Piglet, now fourteen, was developing kidney problems; her time was short. It was a cold late winter day when we finally let Piglet go. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that DB had a good five years left...didn't she? That spring, as the ground thawed and filled the air with aromas that make a dog's heart sing, Decibel seemed to smell Piglet everywhere. She ran through the park wagging her tail, sniffing the ground and searching expectantly. It was heartbreaking,

In early summer, Decibel's feet suddenly began to swell. Then her appetite dwindled and one morning she simply collapsed. I rushed her to the nearest hospital, Manhattan's big Animal Medical Center, where she was hooked up to an IV and tested for everything from Lyme disease to exotic parasites. Within 24 hours she was well enough to come home, but we still had no diagnosis. A month later, it all happened again. And then again. All those experts, all those tests and still no diagnosis.

Eventually, it must have been in September, I went to see my old veterinarian, the one who had helped us save Decibel the first time. He reviewed the tests done by the Animal Medical Center and said he needed to do two more, but he was pretty certain he already knew what the diagnosis would be: Lupus. Lupus? In a dog? He explained that canine Lupus is sometimes manageable with steroids, but it would all depend on how far the disease had progressed.

Decibel stayed with him about two days, long enough to confirm the diagnosis and treat her with steroids. When I took her home, the swelling was gone and Decibel was bounding around and bouncing off the walls like her normal self. For the next two weeks, thanks to daily doses of steroids, she was like a puppy again. Even our cat, Clyde, was happy.

But then, one bright autumn morning, we went out for our walk and she collapsed. I carried her home — she was unable to walk — and sat down on the floor, with Decibel in my lap. Clyde came and sat beside us. And just like that, she died in my arms. She was not quite ten years old.

Losing two dogs in six months was a devastating experience. I thought I would never want another dog. But lately I do. Tomorrow I'll explain why I don't have one.

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