Chapter 18

Amber

The Wedding Wagon was scheduled to marry us under the iconic Welcome to Las Vegas sign at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. I had to ask Dan a couple of times before he said yes. There were no huge romantic gestures, and no one was coerced by jewelry. I made my third and final proposal during a commercial break. I think we were marathoning past seasons of The Walking Dead. “I still think we should get married.”

“With my health issues? You don’t want to marry into that,” he deflected, just like the other two times. But his chronic illness and shit insurance coverage were precisely why I wanted us to get married. I didn’t want a wedding; I wanted the things my health insurance provider refused him unless the government declared him my husband. 

“We’re going to be together forever anyway,” I argued, “you might as well get some decent insurance coverage out of the deal.” I’d started a new job proofreading copy for an auto parts distributor two years earlier. Leaving the synagogue had been hard, but a freelance writing client turned a contract project into a full-time, in-house offer with health, vision, and dental coverage. A big pay raise sweetened the deal. Without fully understanding the significance of my choice, I went from “it’s no big deal if you’re three minutes late” to “we put a capital-O Occurrence in your personnel file every time you clock in at 08:00:01 a.m.”

For two-ish years, I spent precisely eight hours every weekday in a dark cubicle in the corner of a dust-coated, windowless warehouse where capitalism had hate sex with corporate fascism and gave birth to an ADA non-compliant safe place for men who aspired to fail upward. A long-timer with the company told me without a hint of sarcasm that I should be grateful women could wear pants now.

Anyway, I continued defending my position on marriage to Dan. “That BadgerCare you keep driving back to Milwaukee for every few weeks is a fucking disgrace. They’re going to deny you to death. Literally.” He couldn’t argue that. “Besides,” I continued, “I found this place called the Wedding Wagon. They’ll meet us under the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and marry us right there. I turned my laptop so he could see the website I’d been poring over for the last fifteen minutes.

Dan raised his eyebrows and dropped his jaw, impressed. He was finally on board.

I purchased two plane tickets—IND to LAS—booked the Wedding Wagon’s “Strip Ceremony,” and ordered the “Too Much Fun” sleeveless A-line dress in Island print from ModCloth. Dan coordinated with a coral short-sleeved button down from Kohl’s. Wedding rings weren’t our style. So, add in hotel costs and we were all in for about $2,000–and the honeymoon-slash-vacation was built in!  Couldn’t beat it with a stick.

A week or two before our wedding date, Taub started wheezing and became lethargic, and I wondered if he hadn’t caught a respiratory infection from one of the other dogs in the neighborhood. Dan took him to the vet the next day while I slogged off to work at Satan’s Auto Parts Emporium (not the company’s real name). Usually, I’d insist on going to the vet too, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my scheduled Vegas vacation by taking additional time off. “The vet did X-rays and stuff,” Dan reported via instant message. “His lungs look cloudy.” Dr. Aarons didn’t want to speculate too much and recommended we take him to the specialty/emergency vet up on 96th Street.”

“I’ll call them.” I was able to schedule an evening appointment, so I could go too.

In the waiting room of the animal clinic, I went over my travel checklist–apparently having forgotten everything I’d learned about traveling without an itinerary. In fact, I was so busy fretting about the flight schedule and the marriage license that I forgot to prepare myself for the possibility that Taubensee could be really sick. 

Dan and I stood up when the doctor came out to the waiting room. “It could be cancer,” the specialist said, sliding her hands into the pockets of her white coat. Her expression was sympathetic. Her words jolted me back to the present. “We could biopsy for confirmation, but it would involve aspirating his lungs. It would be very hard on Taubensee.”

“So, basically waterboarding.” Dan said.

“Well,” Dr. Aarons shrugged, “big difference is that we do aspiration tests as humanely as possible with the intent of helping animals. But the thing is,” she added, “the X-rays look pretty bad. If the tests confirm it’s cancer, there probably isn’t much we can do. And, yeah, the test would be painful.”

No way was I putting Taub through more pain, not after four years of forcing him to live under the same roof as an animal-bullying sociopath. “What I recommend is a course of antibiotics. If it’s an infection, the antibiotics should help. If it’s not, well, they won’t hurt.”

We brought Taub home with a bottle of antibiotics and two other prescriptions—a steroid and an anti-inflammatory—to make him more comfortable. Dan made a spontaneous stop at the grocery store on the way back to the condo, saying “I’ll only be a minute.” He bought several cans of wet food, a new plush toy, and a roll of braunschweiger. We moved Taub’s food, water, and a plate of treats next to his favorite chair. Then put fresh blankets down on the armrest he liked to use as a pillow. He had been a spoiled dog by anyone’s standards up until that day, but after? He was royalty.

Taub stood in front of the chair but didn’t climb in. “He’s too weak,” I said.

“Aww, c’mon Puppy Butt,” Dan scooped him into his arms and set him gently in his chair. I sat in the chair next to his, combing the smooth black fur atop his head with my fingers, noticing the sharp, delicate knot at the back of his skill. He seemed so tiny and fragile just then, despite being a respectable forty-pounds. I turned on Season 4 of Eureka in search of a light-hearted distraction. Taub snored.

 “Hello?” Dan paused the DVD. “What?” He stood from the couch and paced the floor with his iPhone to his ear. It was bad news, but what I couldn’t figure out was why the vet hadn’t tried my number first.

Dan hung up the phone. “Dad died.” We just stood still while grief filled the room. It was like in the movies, when the protagonist is trapped in a room filling with water. Only grief is thicker and heavier, so maybe it’s more like being swallowed up in liquid amber. There’s the added fear your sorrow will be fossilized.

My parents offered to drive from St. Louis to Indy to dog-sit while we were in Milwaukee at the funeral. “He won’t require much supervision,” I said. “Meals, meds, and bathroom breaks. He hasn’t really been in the mood for playtime.” 

“We’ll take care of him,” Mom said. “See you tomorrow.”

We were putting our bags in the car when Dad knocked on the front door. Mom and I hugged hello and Dan and Dad shook hands. “Where’s Taubensee?” mom asked when she let me go. He always greeted them at the front door, barking and wagging his entire back end. He loved it when my dad visited.

Giant-sized tears rolled down my cheeks. “He’s at the puppy doct–” My throat tightened and the words stopped coming out, even though my mouth was still moving. While I ugly cried, Dan explained how Taub was doing worse and we had to take him back to the vet that morning. They would give him IV fluids and round-the-clock care while we were out of town. “Sorry you drove all the way up here. I tried leaving a message.”

November 21, 2013

He’s Gone

As something like a foreword, I’d like to say this took me months to write, and it still feels like it’s not enough. I’m hoping the writing and publishing of it all will help with the grief. I still feel it plenty.

Tuesday night I had a horrible dream. I dreamed that my dog Taubensee was alive, but still sick. I dreamed he had somehow come back to life after being put to sleep. And in the dream I was overcome with grief at the realization that I had tried to kill him when he wasn’t ready to die.

If you’re a pet lover, I don’t have to explain why Wednesday morning was a serious struggle for me.

***

Taubensee was my first pet. I adopted him in 2000, and the only things I really knew about pet ownership at the time were: 1) I wanted a dog, 2) it was absolutely essential the dog have floppy ears, and 3) I was going to name whichever dog I adopted after my favorite Cincinnati Reds catcher–no matter what.

After visiting a few shelters and not feeling that thing, I found Taubensee in the back room of the Warrick Humane Society. I was twenty; he was barely four weeks. He was so young and so new to the shelter that he was being held in the quarantine area until a vet could look him over and make sure everything checked out okay. He could be adopted, but he couldn’t be taken home just yet.

He was the tiniest, fluffiest, shivering-est, ball of fur I’d ever seen. He was curled up in a towel facing the corner, all alone.

All alone like me on my first day of kindergarten. I couldn’t even see his face, but I understood him immediately: It’s not shy or anti-social if you just prefer being alone.  If Taubensee could have taken a Myers-Briggs assessment, he’d have been an INFJ like me. There’s no doubt in my mind.

***

In the early days, when Taub and I were trying to work out a schedule, I’d often have to let him outside in the wee hours. I’d crawl back in bed rather than wait for him to finish his business by the back door, because he was always pokey and I was always groggy. Besides, he’d let me know when he was ready to come back in letting out a bark or two by the bedroom window.

Until he came up with a better idea.

One night I was startled by the sound of a great thud! against the house right outside my bedroom window. It was immediately followed by the sound of something screeching and slipping against the aluminum siding. I went to the back door and found Taubensee sopping wet on the back stoop, more than ready to come inside. I toweled him off. We went to bed.

The next morning when I went out back there were puppy paw prints and streaks of mud on the siding under the window. Taub had jumped at the bedroom window during the night to get my attention. Unable to grab a hold of anything, he slid down the wall, trails of mud marking his descent. By my estimation he’d thrown himself at the house at least a dozen times.

***

When Taubensee was three, I witnessed him having a seizure for the first time. Watching my precious Puppy Butt on the kitchen floor convulsing was horrible. I didn’t know what to do, so I pretty much just resorted to hysterics.

The seizure eventually ended, I called the vet, and in relatively short order, Taubensee was diagnosed with canine epilepsy. He took phenobarbital morning and night for ten years. It always came wrapped in a tiny treat, accompanied by a head scratch and a “Goooooood puppy!” (said in that low, dumb voice that dog owners often use).

The medicine didn’t stop his seizures entirely, but when they did surface, they were shorter and milder. I was so relieved. When a seizure did break through, Taubensee’s ability to walk was usually the first thing to go. His joints wouldn’t bend, and his muscles just wouldn’t cooperate no matter how hard he tried. Still he’d paw and lean his way as close to me as he could get.

I’d meet him halfway–well, probably more–and I’d pet him and tell him I loved him until the shaking ended. When it was all over I’d say, “Want a treat?” and he’d run to Treat Station (the place where the puppy treats were stored in the kitchen, duh) like nothing had ever happened.

***

For thirteen years people told me I really had something special. And I knew it was true. Taub was the Best. Dog. Ever. He never drank from the toilet. He never sniffed a crotch. He only jumped up on family. He never ran away. He curled up in a ball and slept on car rides.

He climbed in the bathtub all by himself. All I had to do was run the water, call his name, and point to the tub. He’d reluctantly climb in and await further instruction.

***

Taubensee had been a snorer since he was about five, but it wasn’t the loud, disruptive snore of a 200-pound human. It was a soothing, sleep-inducing reminder that your best friend was close by and everything was right.

But one night in July I noticed Taubensee’s breathing at night was really loud and labored. I called the vet, Dan took him the next morning. They did X-rays, and his lungs looked cloudy. We tried a few things, but nothing really worked and so the vet didn’t delay in referring him to a specialist. Taubensee was admitted for some tests and kept overnight. He was clearly sick, dehydrated, and malnourished.

We left him in the care of the staff at the emergency vet, and spent the next couple of days in Milwaukee for a funeral. Dan’s father had passed away.

I called the vet to check on Taubensee while we were away. They’d put him on an IV, they were syringe feeding him. On our way back from Milwaukee, we stopped at the veterinary hospital to pick him up.

He wagged his tail at us, but his tail was heartbreakingly lower than usual. He was looking better because they’d been pumping him full of fluids, but he was still lethargic. Still struggling to breathe.

In the last few hours we had Taubensee at home, Dan and I carried him everywhere: outside, upstairs, downstairs, to his food bowl. We lifted him into his favorite chair. We tried forcing medicine and food down his throat, but he refused. His last night at home, I put an air mattress on the floor, and Taub and I slept side-by-side.

We took him back to the emergency vet the next day, where I explained we couldn’t get him to eat or take his medicine. When the vet tech interpreted what I was unable to say, I broke down in tears in the lobby.

Taubensee was 13, and to the best of our knowledge he died of cancer. They did a couple of different tests to try and verify what was wrong during the whole ordeal, but they were inconclusive. What we did know is there were lots of spots on his lungs, and he could hardly take in a breath. More tests weren’t going to make him feel better.

I know why they call it “putting to sleep.” Because he passed away peacefully, with his head in my lap. He looked me straight in the eye while I cooed at him, and then he became totally relaxed. His breathing eased, and Dan and I mooshed him and told him we loved him until the vet said, “He’s gone.”

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