It used to be when I woke up in the middle of night, I'd toss and turn a while but then fall back to sleep. Now, in darkness, I lay still in bed and I listen for the sound of Stella breathing.
A soft, rhythmic hush of air, one breath every 3 seconds, no faster, eases my anxieties and as anxieties fade, sleep returns. For a while at least, I know Stella is comfortable, her lungs not filled with fluid. Anything faster, sharper, raspier immediately sets me on edge and I wait and pray for the breathing to slow down, hoping perhaps a dream is the cause of her rapid breath. But if it does not slow down, if it starts to sound like panting, then I get up and go downstairs and I prepare the pills, the furosemide, a diuretic which will dry out her lungs but eventually ruin her kidneys. Dilated cardiomyopathy is an illness of her heart but it is the fluid build up in her lungs which give her the most grief.
I take out a cube of raw beef, about an inch square and I cut a slit through the center. I jam the pills inside the meat. I feed the meat to Stella and she gobbles it down and I feel like I am feeding her poison but within an hour, her breathing is good again and my anxieties are pushed back.
Sometimes listening in the dark, I can't tell if the breathing I hear is coming from Rocky or Stella. Then I have to sit up to better discern from which direction the sound is coming. If Rocky yelps, whines or groans that is fine. He is an active dreamer more conversant in sleep than awake.
Such noises coming from Stella, though, tells me she is in discomfort. She has, until recently, been a mostly silent sleeper. If she groans and rolls about, it's because she's having a hard time finding a position which allows her to breathe properly. She likes to sleep on her side but it's often bad on her side and so she has to force herself into a sphinx position. She has a hard time balancing in that pose, tilting over to one side or the other. I imagine it's the equivalent of a person trying to sleep sitting up in a chair without arms.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw her in her sphinx pose, drifting off. Her head came down, eyes closed and she slowly rolled over onto her side. Her breathing started to increase rapidly and then suddenly she was panicking when she realized she was getting no air. I could see a moment of terror in her eyes as she startled up and coughed and inhaled big lungfuls of air.
Stella grumbles and I go over to her, checking her pulse, counting her breaths. She knows this is how things work now so sometimes she plays it up, grumbling when she wants attention. She'll look straight at me, breathing fine, and she'll grumble. If I don't move, she grumbles louder and longer and with more urgency. Almost always by the third grumble, my will power is gone and I am consoling her just in case there actually is discomfort. I guess she figures she may as well milk it.
Every week it progresses. The noises she makes could fill a melodramatic thespian's reportoire. There are high and low grunts. Extended groans of increasing then diminishing loudness. Sometimes there are sighs, long and so melancholic she is like an old woman remembering the better days of her youth.
There have been some bad days, especially at first when I over exerted her on a walk or when she spit out a couple of the pills without me noticing. Those two times resulted in panting, almost gasping and anxious visits to the cardiologist. Now she is on a more even keel. The dosing is appropriate. She only gets short walks. I try to make sure she doesn't get over excited.
This has unfortunately meant that we aren't able to continue with her tour of Toronto sites but it does mean much more time lounging in the backyard and that is perhaps just as well appreciated by her.
Day to day, the hardest thing to deal with is the amount of peeing Stella does because of the diuretics. She was spayed too young so she is incontinent as well and the incontinence seems to be getting worse. I don't want her lying in her own piss and I'm wary about using diapers because of possible infections so it comes down to getting her to go out every 3 or 4 hours or more. That means coming home from work twice during the day and waking up twice during the night.
She doesn't appreciate me rousing her up at 3 in the morning to go into the backyard. Who would? Then we stand around and I say, "Go pee," and she looks at me like I'm an asshole for making her do this at that ridiculous hour and then finally she goes and pees. She is a good sport.
Coming home from work twice a day has been fine up until now as work was only 5 minutes away but as of next week, work has moved much further away so I'm in the process of finding a dog walker to come by to give her the meds in the afternoon. It's a big stress trying to find the right one. I will be leaving her life literally in some stranger's hands.
So, life around here has changed. I've never had to deal with something like this before and while I would never begrudge Stella anything, it is, admittedly, draining and perhaps more so because I know the outcome will not be a positive one. Well, no, I'm thinking about it wrong. The outcome is her everyday well-being and that is what I am working at but the final outcome ... well, that is intransigent.
I wonder to myself, when the time comes, how it can happen. How can something - this life - be there one moment and then not be there the next especially when the vessel holding it will have hardly changed from that one moment to the next. Life doesn't make sense and death makes even less sense. Why doesn't life just continue?
There are moments when I lie awake listening to Stella breathing, I wish, like most pet owners I know, that when the time comes, she goes to sleep and just never wakes up. Then I'll know she was meant to go, that her life chose to move on of its on volition. Then I won't have to make the phone call for the vet to come over and wait with her while she is in some sort of agony. Then answering the door to let the vet in will be like inviting in the grim reaper and bringing the vet over to Stella and preparing Stella for the injections and saying goodbye and not knowing when to stop saying goodbye and when to finally let go. How will I know the right moment to say to the vet that it is time? I can only imagine that at the end, every second will be gold and how will I know when exactly to let go? How can I choose the last moment which will define her life and every moment after which will define life without her?
This is hard.
Right now, looking at her asleep, she is breathing well with maybe a slight tremor of her back leg from a dream she is having. She is breathing well and that is what I hold onto.