Learning To Walk Myself

Yesterday was a bad day.  My 10 1/2 year old Golden Retriever went into respiratory distress caused by an advanced heart murmur that was progressing toward congestive heart failure.  Watching him struggle to breathe while eating his breakfast, I went into panic mode.  I had known this was a looming possibility when I got his diagnosis a few months earlier, but I did not expect it to happen so soon.

Over the past few months, Aslan had started to look different.  His belly swelled up and his backbone began protruding in spite of the fact that he was eating 4-5 cups of dog food a day.  He stopped being able to jump onto my bed, but I thought it was his joints, so I got him some glucosamine.  It wasn’t until I took him into a new vet to remove a growth on his foot, that I discovered the heart murmur. The vet strongly advised against removing the growth out of fear that he wouldn’t survive the surgery.

This new diagnosis finally explained the distended belly, the persistent heavy breathing and the muscular decline in his hips.  Aside from these symptoms, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was aging or in any way lacking in health.  In fact, the only clue that he was an old dude was his endearing white muzzle.  While he wasn’t a huge fan of other dogs, he loved people and continued to greet them like long lost friends.

Over the next few weeks, it seemed like he was getting stronger, but then he would falter.  One morning before work, we had a gorgeous snow storm that touched the Flatirons with fresh whiteness, so we headed over to Chautauqua to see it.  We got out of the car, and after a few steps, his back legs collapsed and he couldn’t walk.  He looked at me as if he didn’t understand what was happening, and I burst into tears.  A man who was parked nearby with his two dogs, got out and offered to help me put Aslan into my car.

Once I got to work, he was back to normal and was as friendly and happy as ever. As the days went by, he stopped being able to jump into the backseat of my Nissan Rogue, but could still manage the front passenger’s seat.  He became more and more anxious when I left the room for anything, and would start panting as if he had just run down the block.

Since he couldn’t jump onto my bed or the couch to sleep anymore, I got him a new bed that would hold both of us.  Each night, I would snuggle with him in his bed and fall asleep with my arm around him, feeling his heart’s heavy beats and listening to his labored breathing.  After awhile, I would quietly get up and tip toe back to my own bed. In the morning he would be sleeping on the floor in my room.

Yesterday, we got up and took care of his morning business without incident. I was preparing the coffee maker to brew my morning addiction when he started coughing and choking.  In reality, he wasn’t choking, he was struggling to breathe.  His sides were heaving from the effort of trying to get enough oxygen, and it was terrifying.

A few weeks earlier, I had taken the precaution of researching the speciality vets that offer at-home euthanasia.  As I searched for the number, I hoped I was over-reacting.  I could barely speak through my panicked tears and sobs, but after explaining the situation and his condition, I knew that I had to make a choice.  I could go broke trying to extend his life with an advanced veterinary cardiologist, ultrasounds, EKG, and expensive heart meds, or I could give him permission to leave me by doing what needed to be done.  I knew in my heart that if he had another breathing attack, it would only be worse.  I knew the choice I had to make.

I wasn’t ready though.  I needed time to say goodbye.  I cancelled my work plans and scheduled the vet to come later in the day.  I called my son in Texas, and we had a video call so that he could say goodbye to his childhood “brother”. Afterwards, I curled up on Aslan’s bed and we slept until the vet arrived.

She gave him a sedative, and within minutes, he was asleep in my arms.  She slowly administered the shot that would stop his heart, and even though I knew it was coming, I just I couldn’t stop crying when he stopped breathing. She gave us some time together to finish our goodbyes, his body still warm as I wept into his golden fur.  After she took him away, I staggered to my bed and fell asleep, the exhaustion of emotions finally taking its toll.

I got Aslan when my son was 10 and begging for a brother.  I knew I wasn’t going to have any more children, so we compromised and got Aslan.  From the beginning, he looked like a tiny lion, with paws that he never quite grew into, but it was his face that made people pause.  He had the kind of face that made you want to say hello and scratch his nose and behind his ears.  He literally loved everyone, even when they didn’t love him back.

After my son grew up and moved away from home, he truly became my emotional support pup.  We went through so much together over the years, and he took it all in stride. We moved 7 times while he was alive, but he didn’t mind.  As long as he had his people and his kitties, he was content.  Our former cat, Raven, taught him to love cats, and he taught the new kittens to love dogs when Raven crossed over. He was patient and tolerant, and pure love, and he tried to teach me some of these traits.

When we moved to Colorado, he became my steady hiking companion.  He protected me with fierce love and adoration, and he loved the snow.  If he barked, I knew it was because he sensed danger, and he wasn’t messing around.  Whether it was a mountain lion crouching in the shadows or coyotes howling in the dark, he let them know it was not okay to approach.   We camped out in Aspen and we watched the sun rise together from the back of my car at Palo Duro Canyon.  We crammed as much living as possible into the moments we had together, but it wasn’t enough.

As I look through all the videos and photos that I could not resist taking of him on the daily, it’s like I get to relive some of these moments and he’s right here with me.  These photos also show me how much he had changed in the last six months.  “I did the right thing,” I whisper to myself.  I say it over and over, hoping I did. He would have stayed with me and suffered silently just to be by my side, but I loved him too much to let him.  I gave him the permission he would never seek, to leave the damaged body that was trapping his soul.

After almost 11 years of walking him, now I have to learn to walk myself.  I need to remember to  stop and honor the sun, to walk barefoot on fresh warm grass, to pause in the middle of my never-ending to-do lists and watch the sunrise or catch the twilight blue of the ending day.  He was my bodyguard, my living teddy bear and my best friend, and I can’t believe he is gone.  Goodbye my sweet boy.  Please come visit, and take me for a walk.  I’ll bring your leash.

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