Monday, February 21, 2011

At a Loss

Friday, Feb. 18th, 2011   8am. 
For the first time in 10 and 3/4 years of life, Riley hesitated at the food bowl.  It was slight, but noticeable, especially when you've breathed this dog in day in and day out since she was only 7.5 weeks old.  I called the vet and got in at 10:20am.  Something wasn't right.  I felt her neck and felt lumps... lumps aren't good.

Friday, Feb. 18th, 2011   10am. 
At the vet, Dr. B. at Round Rock Animal Hospital, a vet I love and trust.  She feels Riley's throat and I watch her face for signs.  Signs, of you know, hope... relief... a quick fix.  She furrows her brow as she continues to feel Riley's shoulders, her armpits, her inside thighs, the backs of her knees.  I know what she is checking and I'm still looking for her face expression to lighten. 

She says, "I'm concerned.  This is lymphoma.  Cancer." 

I quickly repeat her words silently in my mind, amazed at how fast I can process this to be different, like, "I'm concerned this is lymphoma, cancer...."  That would mean she isn't sure, right?  She's just concerned about it.  Like it could be that.  Not that it is for sure cancer.  "No, Jana,"  I say to myself.  Those were statements.  Facts.  She was matter of fact.  A quick flash of my life with Riley before my eyes and I wailed.  Not THIS dog.  Not Riley.

Dr. B. gently shared her own experience with her dog who went through this.  She assured me that there are options, but there is no cure.  We started Riley on prednisone to ease any discomfort and set up an appointment on Monday at the oncologist.  If Riley did not start eating after having prednisone, I was to call Dr. Brown (oncologist) immediately and she would meet me at Heart of TX Vet Specialty no matter the time.

Oct. 21, 2005   2:05pm. 
A little over five years ago, while teaching my 5th period English class, I felt a pain like an ice pick to my neck.  I felt tremendous pressure on my chest cavity and could not breathe.  I could not project my voice.  With a whisper, I quickly prompted my students to continue drafting and if they needed me I would be at my desk.  I made it through the class period desperate not to scare my 7th graders with what felt like my imminent death.  Death?  Yes, I felt like I was dying.  I was suffocating, struggling to breathe and could not get the weight off of my chest.  Slowly, I began to take in short breaths.  I made it through the day and kidded myself that it was heartburn or something.  I had no experience with heartburn, so that must be how it feels, and I'm just a wimp.

My husband's relentless urging led me to make an appointment to check it out.  After a chest x-ray and a visit to the cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon, it turns out that what happened to me was pretty serious.  My lung suffered a 30-40% collapse caused by a pneumothorax, a blister, called a blib, on my lung that had burst.  It healed itself, but the doctor said it could happen again in the future.  If so, we do surgery.

The point of that is to say, hearing the news of Riley's cancer felt like a lung collapse.  I know that pain and it scares me.  I felt my chest cave and needed air and couldn't get it.  Gutted.  It feels like impending doom and like your organs are shutting down.  Like a fish must feel out of water, drowning in air.  Gasping for the very thing that is hurting you.  And it scares you because you don't know how to make it stop.

Feb. 19 & 20, 2011  The weekend before the oncologist. 
The whole weekend felt like a lung collapse as I waited to hear possible worse news.  So, I cried.  Sobbed.  Giant gasps and gulps of air to keep my airways open, even though each gasp caused pain.  The prednisone seemed to help Riley the first night.  She ate dinner, slow wagged and slept pretty well.  Saturday she seemed very content.  She hung out with me, investigated the high chair for scraps and bits of macaroni and cheese as usual.  Pretty good day.  Sunday was a bit hard.  Her breathing seemed labored.  She acted as if she couldn't get comfortable. 

I spent the day wanting to feed my misery.  It felt good to read and hear other's stories of how they dealt with their dog's failing health.  I googled lyrics of every cheesy love song and found Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath my Wings" and Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" to be most fitting.  I cried and nodded as I sang the lyrics softly to Riley.  How can I make her understand how much she means to me.  How can I let her know that she is the best dog in the world.  That she made me better... a better listener, a better teacher, a better trainer, a better friend, a better person.  She made me better at dogs.  Every dog I have the opportunity to work with should thank Riley for helping me reach them. 

A dear friend, Jamie, who is an awesome photographer offered to take photos of Riley while she was still strong... before, you know.... 

I called her in a panic.  "We better do it soon, like tonight."  She came right over.  I will forever love Jamie for this.  This... the memory of Riley... before, you know.... 

Riley was awesome for her photo shoot.  She is so regal and proud.  She has the ability to stand perfectly still and just breathe life in. 



  1. Jana, you are one of the strongest people I know for even being able to type these words. To let us in to even read, and feel less then 1 percent of what you are going through. Riley has to be one of the strongest dogs I have ever met, and you know I have met a lot of dogs in my career. She can and will get through anything. Your blog has moved me in a way that makes me love and squeeze my dogs more then I EVER thought was possible, and for that I thank you. Thank you for sharing your most raw feelings with us. I love you both.--Megan

  2. All I know is that it's not fair that dogs don't live as long as people. Hatch is better to me than any person ever has been. Why does he have to go in a few years, when I have to stick around for another 70 without him? It's just not fair.
    Just know that you have a few people who surround you EVERY DAY (we kinda have to) who really care about you and Riley, and we're here.


  3. My heart aches for you Jana. Every day I wake up and look over at Mickey to see how he's doing today, wondering if one day I'll wake up and he'll be "older" or worse. The thought of my best friend moving on scares me to death. Riley is your soul mate, you love her. We all love her, but not like you do. I'll be praying for you both.

  4. I am hugging you from a distance. I hope you can feel it. Your blog is beautiful. I cried throughout and understand. What a beautiful girl.

  5. Jana, thank you for sharing this. It's been so long (too long) since I've talked with you, but your story reminded me what a wonderful care-giver you are... to dogs, students, friends. Reading this immediately brought to mind all the stories you used to tell us about Riley, who I feel like I know, and there is no doubt in my mind that that dog knows exactly how you feel about her and how much she is loved. How could she not? You have shown her every day for ten years. My thoughts will be with you both. xoxo

  6. OH Jana - I'm so sorry to hear of your & Riley's struggle - I find myself crying & reflecting on the loss of our first 2 kids. Ed & I lost our golden to cancer in July of 09 at almost 16. Dixie had been inour family from birth - she was my brothers until she was 5 & he'd picked her from the litter - there were pictures of her on my parents fridge as a little tiny on his oversized king sized bed & in the bonnetts when they were even taller than her. We thought we'd not get another dog as our lifestyle is pretty overcommitted (who's isn't right) - then we suffered a few more personal events & one of the girls that worked for me had a litter of 12 that she was looking to find homes for - we went out to Manor on a Monday night & the sweetest little bean boy picked us to be his forever home. I know we will out live Woody & he will never replace Dixie (or Max who went 5 years before her @ 15) but the stupid sign at the vets office is right - there is no better antidepressant than a puppy licking you face. When you feel like you need some face licking - let us know & we'll bring out little stinks (Woody) to school for the day. Nothing can mend the hole in your heart or the pain you feel & sucks to no end that dogs go before people - at least people get mean when they're old & leave us, dogs are just happy to be with you.