Personal Musings

I Know You Can’t Live Forever but When You’re Ready, I’ll Be Here

On Friday night at 6 PM, my dog Motzie had a seizure. She’s an older dog at 15 years old. Her first birthday was May 21, 2009 — the day my dad died. She turns 16 this May. To our knowledge, it was her first seizure. When it happened, I was upstairs getting ready to take my son to basketball practice where I coach his youth team. My wife who first witnessed it ran upstairs to get me.

“Can you come look at Motzie? She’s acting strange.”

At first, I thought she was choking. That an object was blocking her windpipe. She was standing on all fours with her midsection hunched and her head down. Her stomach and body were stiff and her teeth were clinched shut. I thought she was dying. We laid her on her side and realized she was seizing.

“Call the vet hospital,” I said.

A few weeks ago, I posted a handful of humor essays related to the holiday season. I wasn’t in a laughing mood when I started writing any of those essays. As a family, we were dealing with a difficult situation — a situation no parent ever wants to find their children or themselves in. In order to get my mind off the ordeal, I sat down and began writing about my feelings privately.

It’s important to look deeply at your feelings as opposed to pushing them away. Writing about my feelings usually helps me, but not always. Writing about what we were going through was only making it worse. Sometimes the feelings can be stronger than you can handle in the moment. I needed space from the difficult emotions I was experiencing. I needed a little distance.

So I pivoted.

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown — seeds of compassion, joy and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation at the Base

Christmas was a few days away. I decided I’d inject a dash of humor into the holiday season. I needed to water the seeds of joy within my store consciousness. These seeds had been overtaken by fear which had risen to the surface, overtaking the garden of my mind like a weed.

One of the functions of our brain is to solve problems. If it sees a threat to our safety or to the safety of a loved one, it sets off an alarm. Our brain focuses on the object of our attention and churns out ways to keep us safe and protected. But sometimes your brain can’t solve for the problem. It cannot make sense of the senseless. It is out of our dichotomy of control.

In 2014, shortly after the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, ABC News published “What’s the Deal with Comedians and Depression?” The essay examines the “mask of depression” many comedians wear on stage and in the public space. The mask is what it sounds like: a face projected onto the world that hides the terrible struggle within.

Writing about Christmas and publishing the essays I did made me feel better. It got me out of my head. In ways, I was wearing a mask. I knew I was wearing a mask and I was okay with that. It kept me insulated from fear-based thinking. The mask allowed me to rest my brain. It allowed me to maintain the distance I needed from the situation and to be in the present moment with my family. It provided me the opportunity to bring the wholesome seeds within my store consciousness to the surface, to nurture them, while allowing the unwholesome seeds to sink down below until I could address them mindfully.

I am wearing a partial mask right now as I write this. It’s halfway on and halfway off. Don’t mistake this mask for me being a fake or a phony. I wear this mask because I want my dog to be okay. I don’t want to think about her eventual death. She’s older and I know it’s coming sooner rather than later. Death is an inevitable part of life, even for my dog who I wish could live for the length of my own life.

I want her seizure to have been a fluke or at the least something that can be treated with the medication we received upon her discharge at the vet hospital Friday night.

Despite being carried in, she walked out of the vet hospital Friday night under her own volition as if nothing ever happened. Her bloodwork came back normal, outside of a few slight elevations which can be attributed to her age. It’s possible she has a brain tumor the hospital veterinarian told us. But she’s too old to undergo anesthesia and imaging.

On Saturday morning, I called Motzie’s established veterinarian. I let the vet tech know what had happened and if her normal vet, Dr. Peppard, could give me a call Monday. I hold Dr. Peppard in high regard. As a vet, he’s been more than I could have ever asked for over the years. He even has English Springer Spaniels of his own — the same breed as our dog.

My wife Allison and I still laugh to this day because the first vet we took our dog to when she was a puppy wasn’t Dr. Peppard’s office. It was another vet who gave her a physical and then looked at us and said:

Because of her underbite, she’ll never be a show dog.

A vet we went to only one time

As soon as we got in the car, we both looked at Motzie and then back at each other and laughed: “Well, there goes our riches,” I said. That’s when we found Dr. Peppard.

While speaking with the vet tech, I mentioned the vet hospital said it could be a brain tumor. The tech stopped me mid-sentence.

“Don’t go down that path,” she said.

While the possibility is there, I appreciated her saying this to me.

It’s not impossible for it to be a brain tumor. She’s older and that’s what’s often suspected when a dog her age has a seizure whereas younger dogs who are epileptic tend to start between the ages of one to five. My old dog, Jello, who I had when I was a teenager, was a seizure dog and took medication his entire life.

In doing my own research on seizures in dogs, one ingredient I keep seeing pop up that may be problematic — although correlation has not yet been linked — is rosemary. Rosemary extract or Oil of Rosemary, as it tends to be listed, is a natural preservative used in many dog foods and treats. About a month ago, I began giving my dog a supplement for her mobility. Hip dysplasia is common in her breed — English Springer Spaniel — and she has arthritis as well, which has made getting up and walking more difficult the past year.

She struggles with slick floors like tile and hardwood, which of course is what we have in the downstairs of our house. A few months ago, we added numerous rugs to help her with her balance. She struggles going up inclines like hills and banks. If I take her out front, where our yard is the antithesis to level, I find myself constantly picking up her hind legs because she drops to the ground. I wonder if my neighbors judge me or say, “That poor dog.” My wife tells me no one thinks this and she’s probably right. But if someone is, they don’t see her like I do. They don’t see her when I take her out back behind the tree line where the surface is soft and level.

She may start off slow, but once she pees, she’s off to the races. I can’t keep up with her. She digs her paws into the earth and sprints forward like a puppy with her whole life ahead of her. She can no longer run at length for extended periods like she once did. But she still has her 1/4 mile bursts and the ability to bounce and spring about like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh.

She gets exercise daily — more than many dogs half her age and far more than 90% of human beings I know. She’s no longer the fierce protector of the household like she once was, ready to brawl if the moment calls for it; but she’s still an active dog at 15 with a voracious appetite that knows no end.

There are a number of reasons she could have had a seizure. Whether rosemary is the culprit, an undiagnosed metabolic disease (granted, her bloodwork looks normal for her age), low blood sugar, a brain tumor, or something else, the purpose in me removing rosemary from her diet temporarily, if not permanently, is to ensure if it is that, that I don’t unintentionally cause her to have another seizure so soon from her first.

It’s hard to say and I may never know the cause. Even mold and outdoor allergens can be a trigger. Not to mention raisins, chocolate, xylitol (found in many candies and gum), etc. Motzie hasn’t gotten into any of these as far as I know, but if you know my dog, she loves to eat and I’m constantly removing something from her mouth while on a walk. A few weeks ago, I caught her sniffing tobacco pouches someone had dumped near our walking path. On Friday morning, she ate something of unknown origins while I was walking her.

It may have been pieces of a squirrel turned roadkill scattered about. It wouldn’t have been the first time. More like the one-hundredth. It may have been an acorn. I have no idea and I couldn’t get it out of her mouth because she’s cash for taking one bite with her teeth then swallowing whole.

It may have been her sense of smell picked up on a household cleaner we had used in the kitchen. It may be none of these things at all.

Out of superstition, and that’s what it is if I’m being honest, I typically avoid writing about my pets. I’m scared I’ll jinx them. Better to steer clear of that in my subject matter. When my dad was sick with leukemia, I once wrote a short story called Dandelions. It was my way of coping with his illness. A way to talk about my dad and to give hope to the situation. It was written as if it was fiction. But the main character in the story was my dad clear as day. I wanted there to be a happy ending.

I’m guilty of thinking happy endings are the point of the story — the resolution to it all. Happy endings aren’t the point. The point is the beginning and middle all the way to the end. You’ve heard the expression, “It’s not the destination, but the journey” as I have. Deep down we all know it’s one of the truer statements out there in life.

It’s why we steer our ship toward family and friends in times of grief. Why we find a reason to laugh when all we want to do is cry. Why we write essays about Christmas cookies and gift wrapping when our minds are overtaken with panic and worry. We do this when sadness and sorrow and fear surface from our store consciousness. Because if we didn’t, our despair would know no end.

On Sunday, after I took my dog for a walk, my wife and son were in the kitchen making a pecan pie for dessert later in the day. Motzie did well on her walk, even running like the wind as usual. As she drank water, I sat in the corner of my writing room on a bed on the other side of the wall from the kitchen and cried quietly. No one knew. My dog lingered back over toward me. I could hear her collar jingling from the kitchen coming toward my writing room. She walked to where she could see me and looked up in my direction as tears rolled down my cheeks into my beard.

My dog was born a year prior to the day my dad died. Her first birthday was his last day alive. Because of this, she’s always held a special place in my heart that goes above and beyond what may be typical of a relationship between an animal and a human. For me, she’s both a link to my past — before I was married, before I had kids, before my dad left this world — and a symbol for the continuation of life for the past fifteen years. I don’t know how much longer she has and I become immensely saddened when I think about waking to a day she is no longer here with me.

But I want to be there with her when the time comes. I want with all my heart for her to give out doing what she loves so much doing: running like a furry maniac while I run behind, leash in hand, saying, “Slow down, slow down!”

For now, she’s still here. She’s here as I write this now, fast asleep at my feet — my writing buddy, as she has been since 2008. My best friend with four legs: Mozzarella Cheese aka Motzie. Her belly full of chicken and boiled eggs and wet dog food as if nothing at all happened Friday night.

My mask is off now. These are my words. My tears visible to the world.

A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. [My dog] taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things: a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.

John Grogan, Marley and Me

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