Part 4 (of I don't know how many) of Roo's last week


Roo’s oncologist had warned me that if the low-dose chemo drug she was on didn’t produce results in two or three days it wasn’t going to work. She had her first dose of it on the Wednesday a week before she would die. It did nothing to prevent the lumps in her throat and chest from hardening and every day she was becoming weaker. 

At one point it seemed to me that the swelling in her arm had gone down a little. Not the big lump at the top of her arm, the one the veterinarians had misdiagnosed, but the swelling of the lower part of her arm and her paw. Was this the prednisone? Was the  Panacur producing a miracle? Was the chemo drug kicking in? Or was I just imagining this? No, the swelling had thickened her whole arm down to her paw, and I was sure that was improving. A swollen paw is hard to miss. Now it seemed almost normal. Nothing else was improving, though, and I spent every second trying to hide from Roo how worried and sad I was. I doubt those things can be hidden, especially from a dog who has been with you for virtually every second of so many years. 

We spent most of our time in the camper, though she did want to go outside and lie in the driveway once in a while.

On one of those last nights, Roo asked to go outside. It was around midnight, when the dark normally kept Roo inside, but now, as soon as I opened the door, and without even taking the time she usually did to sniff and listen before risking a nighttime sortie, she went right down the two steps to the driveway and moved quickly – not running, but the fastest she had walked in days – toward the street. It’s a quiet neighborhood and there was no traffic and the last thing I wanted to do was to tell her not to do anything she wanted, especially because she seemed happy about something, so I didn’t tell her, the way I had ten thousand times, not to go in the street. I followed her. Her tail was up and wagging and in the dark it looked like her old tail, the way it did before the chemo and the return of her allergies had lately stripped it of much of its fur. At first I thought she might have caught the scent of one of the foxes around here. But then I recognized that she was a little disoriented. I’d like to think she had a beautiful dream so realistic that she followed whatever she dreamed outside. She was so strangely happy. Something was off, though. It was the first time I’d ever seen her like that and in spite of her happiness it felt like another part of the progression of her disease. I didn’t want to risk going too far down the street because sooner or later she would have to lie down and there would be no way to get back to the camper.

When I said, “Maybe we should go back, Chig,” she didn’t seem to hear me. It wasn’t a case of selective hearing. It was more like she was sleepwalking, wandering aimlessly. She walked into the street and turned around a few times, looking this way and that. I stayed by her side, turning in step with her until she slowed down and when I suggested it again we headed back to the camper. 

Over the years, any time she went out at night, when we got to the door of the camper I leaned down to hold her and rub the fur on her sides and pat her belly and chest to congratulate her on what a brave bear she was to go out in the dark and tell her how proud of her I was. Now she stood there with her ears back and a big smile, wagging and enjoying the praise the way she always had. It was a great moment, a throwback to all the better time. Roo’s good mood lasted. It was a little difficult for her to climb the steps into the camper and I offered to help her, but she didn’t want any help and inside she lay in the spot by the kitchen sink and beneath the cabinet where her treats were to let me know that she was ready for a treat. I gave her all the turkey and soft jerky she wanted, all broken into small pieces that would be easy to swallow. I topped it off with some cookies. She began to eat them but left the pieces on the floor. Swallowing them hurt her throat. The lumps were getting too big.

Ever since the first lymph node appeared in May, and especially after the swelling was reduced when Roo was supposedly in remission, I was always terrified by the certain knowledge that the day would come when another lump would appear when the cancer roared back. Every time I touched her I was conscious of it. That fear had been realized and gone now that there were so many, every one of them a reminder. The big one at the top of her left foreleg. Another in her chest. The lovely pink skin under her arm with impossibly delicate folds where some fluid seemed to be gathering. Then, first one, then two hard ones growing to the size of ping-pong balls in her throat. I knew there were probably more inside. When I touched Roo I made an effort not to check these lumps. I worried that dwelling on them would communicate my dread of them to Roo. At least they weren’t painful to her. To me they were constant reminders, a string of slow-motion alarms that couldn’t be shut off. But the most comfort Roo got came from my holding her, petting her, scratching her and brushing her. She especially liked being gently brushed. It also helped her to massage her head and legs. And that was how I spent what time we had left. Sitting or kneeling on the floor with her, talking about what a great dog she was, about all the places we’d gone, all the mouses she’d killed, about how brave she was and how much her daddy loved her and always would. In return, she would sometimes pick her head up and look at me and when I put my face close to hers she would lick it in the way she had only started to do in the last weeks of her life. There was a lot she wanted me to know, things that are lodged deep in the heart of every dog.

  • * *

For the last seven years, I’ve loved listening to Roo’s soft snoring. Ever since a severe head injury I received 35 years ago I’ve been unable to sleep soundly, and so all through the night I had the good sound of Roo’s snoring beside me and the feeling of the movement of her limbs, enough at the height of her dreaming to make the camper bounce on its suspension. I loved her occasional whimpering or the halfway barks coming out of the back of her throat when she dreamed and the way her snoring always deepened just a bit before she woke when her dream ended. Those sounds always made me hold my breath so I would be sure not to miss any of them. When she dreamed in the overnight I would feel her shift position a little in her bed, sigh and go back to sleep. When she slept on the floor in the hours before I went to bed, she would usually look up at me any time she woke up and ask with her eyes that I come over to say hi. When she was well, and though this was irresistible, I wouldn’t come over to her every time, knowing that she would go back to sleep in a few seconds. Recently those looks had become more imploring. She needed to be held and talked to.

  • * *

Since our first days together in Los Angeles, Roo’s chosen place to sleep was next to my bed. She did the same thing in the houses we rented and in all the motel rooms we stayed in, even when she had to squeeze beside a motel bed only inches from a wall. She almost never wanted to sleep up on the bed unless there were thunderstorms. I think this was a relic of her confinement as a puppy and because she felt more secure hiding in a den when she slept. When we got the camper, the spaces on either side of the bed were too narrow for a dog of Roo’s size. She could fit in them, but they were only 18 inches wide and so she couldn’t lie on her side or curl up. I had the platform the bed is on rebuilt so that on one side it would fit her full size bed, and I slept on that side so that I could stay close to her. The sound of her sleeping, her gentle breathing and her light snoring, were to me the greatest luxuries. I could never get enough of them. Dogs establish rituals around bedtime. Roo’s was that she would sleep closer to me on the floor of the camper until she saw that I was getting ready for bed when I closed the laptop or got my toothbrush and only then go to hers. Once in a while Roo took a nap in that bed, but rarely. It was her overnight bed.

As soon as Roo got sick she began to avoid that bed. At first, she would still go to bed there, but then get up and go to the other side. At first, she stayed for a hour or so, then a few minutes and finally she didn’t want to go to bed there at all. The other, narrower, side of the bed had always been a hiding place for her, the place she went if there was noise she worried about – she never got used to things like mu drinking the holding tanks. She hid there if someone was talking or maneuvering another camper outside. She went there to hide from reflections. To get in there, she would enter head first but then have to turn around so that her head would be at the opening, where she could keep an eye on the rest of the camper instead of being in the corner. To turn around, she had to sit and lift her front paws off the floor and press her back against the wall while she twisted. At the end of the maneuver she dropped herself on the floor like a sack of bones. There was only room for her to lie on her belly. Sometimes in her sleep she moved to her side, but then she had to keep her legs bent and tucked in close to her. It looked awfully uncomfortable, but I never believed in trying to tell a dog where to sleep, and it was up to her. 

But now this question of the bed began to obsess me. What was making Roo avoid it? She had always been worried by the sound of the air conditioner kicking in as it cycled and I had made the mistake of having her bed built on the same side of the camper as the air conditioner before I realized how much it bothered her. Maybe it was that, because the air conditioner had to be on in the summer nights, especially now that Roo needed it to be particularly cold to help her with the panting the prednisone caused. There was no way to change the position of the bed. I tried taking her memory foam bed out to see if its softness was uncomfortable for her as the lumps grew inside her. I put the big cotton bathmats she liked to sleep on in the space. I tried two of them. I took them out and tried bare floor. I tried luring her in with treats. She still wouldn’t go in. She had had it with that bed.

Typical of the lousy Amish workmanship of this camper, the platform the bed is on is a stapled-together mess of the cheapest type of particle board. Some of the staples had come loose and begun to squeak and creak. I’m handy enough to fix just about anything, but I could not figure out how to get the staples to stop squeaking. It looked like the entire bed would have to be removed and that was more of a construction job than I thought I could do without risking making things worse. Almost every day I moved the mattress aside or pulled it onto the floor when Roo was outside – any kind of work on the camper while she was inside was frightening to her – and tried to figure out how to get the damned squeaking and creaking to stop. I could see the staples that had pulled out where the cheap wood had separated. I tried filling the gaps with shims. I tightened everything I could. I cut socks up and jammed them into the spaces. I spent hours trying to identify the specific place the squeaking was someone from and clipping out the pulled staples there. Nothing worked. I became more and more convinced that the squeaking was what was driving her out of her bed and not being able to get it to stop grew in my mind to represent another infliction of pain on her, compounding the permanent and fatal error of moving into the camper to begin with. It drove me crazy. I spent hours and hours trying to track the problem down. Nothing worked.

I found that by crawling into the bed in a certain way, like someone stepping through a minefield, I could limit the worst of the creaks. That was while Roo was still choosing that bed for the beginning of the night, but it wasn’t a sufficient solution. What sleep I get is restless and tortured, I roll around and get tangled up with my own scrawny arms wound underneath me like a spool of fishing line and getting them extricated is difficult because of injuries and inevitably this movement made the bed creak. Whether it was this noise or not, Roo’s decision, once taken, was firm. The sicker she became, the less willing she was to risk it and finally she would only sleep in the narrow space on the other side of the bed. I did not move to that side of the bed to stay closer to her. I knew Roo. From her earliest days she had always sought out space of her own. Now, becoming more uncomfortable with her illness, I thought that if what she needed was space there was no reason for me not to let her have the few feet of space there was. But knowing that she was extra uncomfortable added to my sense of failure about having consigned her to live, and now be dying, in this camper. I spent the nights lying as still as I could. Every creak and squeak felt like getting knifed with a further example of the sorts of things I had done that made Roo’s life harder.

In the final days, whatever was hurting Roo was making it difficult for her to do the turning maneuver in the narrow space. I think it was something swelling up inside her. She would go into her little space and sit in preparation for the turn and then look at me.

“I don’t know what to do, Little Bear,” I would say. I had to be careful about asking her if she wanted me to help her because she insisted on her principle of not wanting physical help unless absolutely necessary until the end and trying to help her would only make her hurry. Eventually she would make a difficult effort and with a grunt succeed in turning herself around.

Normally I turn the lights off around two and try to get to sleep myself around three. This stopped working. All I could think about was what was happening to Roo and the noise of the bed and instead all night I would check on Roo by moving to her side and watching her. She was sleeping less and often just lying there, sometimes panting, and then I would help calm her by petting and talking to her. Now her beautiful snoring was changing. It was becoming more pronounced as the lumps in her throat grew, and when I heard that, in the moments when I was sure she was asleep, I had to force myself not to risk letting her hear how upset this made me. I struggled constantly to try not let on and began to fear letting her down by failing her at what was by now the clearly approaching moment of her death. The idea that the last emotion of mine she would sense was misery scared me badly.

Sometimes she would become too cramped and move back to the floor where she could stretch out. In the last days, she seemed more comfortable lying on her belly. The same thing had happened to Orville on the day he died from lymphoma and I couldn’t help remembering that. I found that by kneeling over Roo with her shoulders under my right arm and my elbow on the floor I could support her head by letting her chin rest on my left forearm. This relieved her instantly and she would go to sleep instantly. I began to do this for hours at a time so she could sleep, resting my face in the fur at the back of her neck. When finally I had to try to get some sleep as dawn approached I hated myself for leaving her alone on the floor.

I could not tell if Roo was in pain. She seemed more tired than anything. The one time I had given her morphine – on the Wednesday before the one on which she died – she reacted so badly to it, panting and looking crazed, that I didn’t want to give her any more.

The drugs weren’t working. It was obvious by that weekend that Roo was nearing the end. Still I hoped – by this point this had become plainly stupid and I knew it – that maybe the low-dose chemo drug or the Panacur would kick in. I may even have started to become deluded when, I think on Sunday, it seemed that the swelling in her arm was going down. It did go down a little. Either I was sure of it or I convinced myself it was true.

“Look at that, Chig, the arm is getting better!” I said to her, scratching her forearm. And for one of the last times she batted at me with that paw, as if she agreed.

That tiny improvement equipped me to sound like I meant it when I said things to her while I was holding her head and she was trying to get to sleep, like, “I know you’re very sick now, Little Bear, but you’ll feel better. You’ll see. Everybody gets sick. Even your old daddy has been sick. You’ve been sick before and you always felt better. And you’re the strongest, toughest bear in the world.” I knew it wasn’t true but somehow it didn’t seem like I was lying outright. I hope I wasn’t. No dog deserves to be lied to.

I worried that she could read my mind, though. She knew me well. I didn’t really believe there was any real way to hide the truth from her. Instead I just kept skating around it.

All I could do for now was kneel beside her and keep her head elevated. At least she was able to get some sleep. In the hours I held her like that I started thinking the same awful thoughts. I began to fear that I would fail her by breaking down when the time for her to die came. And it was coming, and I knew it.