Losing Lexie


Sweet Lexie exploring at the base of a waterfall in North Carolina. What really made the camping trip memorable were the ticks.

After a long, tear-filled week, this afternoon I said a final goodbye to my almost-15-year-old dog Lexie.

Writing this elegy is easy and heartbreaking. Lexie lifted me on days I could not move; she loved me fiercely, and taught me how to properly cuddle. Telling our lovestory is like spinning a campfire tale. Her spirit leads me, like fireflies blinking into the night.

If Lex was anything, she was nearly human. As evidenced by her dew claws, the pup practically had two thumbs, and got into all sorts of trouble because of it. Right away, it was clear she was a master at stealing food. It was stealth skill I learned of in her first week with me after she ate an entire container of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I found her afterward, licking the Tupperware lid. Amazingly, she didn’t leave a crumb behind.

Lex could unscrew the lids of jars of candy or peanuts. She made an art of emptying the garbage can. She also knew how to magically remove full loaves of bread from the top of the stove. I often joked that she knew how to operate the step-stool, and honestly believe it’s a serious possibility.

Colorful journey

Lex was so loved that she even was dognapped once. I retrieved her a week later, and rarely let her out of my sight after that.

She loved being at home so much that she ran away just one time. I had woken up early, and somehow the wind had blown open our front door in the middle of the night. Lex simply walked out of the house. It was trash day, and Matt hopped on a bicycle at  6 a.m. to scour the streets. He found her about three blocks to the east casually sniffing a bush.

Lexie, showing her gray.

Lexie, showing her gray.

More than anything, Lex loved negotiating space on the couch with Matt. They always ended up in some contorted pile of pillows and fur, both of them snoring away.

Lex deeply loved her little brother, Charlie. She enthusiastically welcomed him into our family, and showed him the ropes to Big Dog World.

She didn’t like playing dress up, although when she was younger she did allow me to suit up her paws in doggie muttluks for our winter walks. Lex never quite forgave me for that.

Lex took part in a colorful journey, and was quite possibly more traveled than some people I know. Over the years, she accompanied me on numerous camping trips, morel mushroom hunting and a two-month odyssey driving from Detroit to Miami and back again. She demanded the front passenger seat when it was just us girls driving. Her eyes remained alert as we passed farms and skyscrapers. She didn’t want to miss a thing.

Saying goodbye

If anything, Lexie was a fighter. She came close to death last year, and unbelieveably fought her way through kidney failure. But she was no match for dementia and old age. She no longer knew who I was, and frequently got lost in the house. Her hind legs betrayed her, refusing to hold her weight. She frequently fell off her favorite chair, and recently got stuck behind our couch.

More than that, our vet  told us that Lex lived in constant anxiety, and that medication was not an option. We had simply come to the end of the road. It was time to say goodbye.

I learned early in my newspapering career, that not everyone equally values the death of a loved dog.

Once I was written up by an editor after I expressed despair upon learning the death of my dog, Barkley. I didn’t think my tears were out of line, but a coworker was upset and complained because she thought I had lost a child.

In many ways I had.

In many ways I have, in losing Lexie.

As a 43-year-old, never-been-married spinster, I know Lexie was a close proxy. The reality is that I may never have children, and she, indeed, was my baby.

Sleep well, darling. Mama loves you.

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Losing focus


Lexie rests after pacing through the house all afternoon.

Lexie rests after pacing through the house all afternoon.

It’s been almost a year since Lexie recognized her own name.

Slowly, her eyes lost focus.

Then she simply forgot who I am.

Each day when we meet, it’s as if for the first time. She opens her mouth wide, and gently nibbles my hands for a clue to who I could be. Some days she will lower her head onto my lap. Other days she simply walks away, to start her endless circling path around the coffee table.

Dementia has stolen our baby Lex. She hardly barks any more. A dog treat barely registers more than a mouthy snap.

For 15 years she has been my constant companion. So when symptoms of her dementia reared up this month —including her getting stuck behind our couch — I knew it was time to get her evaluated.

The vet was shocked at her appearance. Lex had lost 3 pounds since our last visit. Her eyes seemed distant. She was not friendly or open to meeting the vet tech.

During the physical exam, Lexie snapped at the vet. Before I could process the situation, the tech placed a muzzle on Lexie’s snout. She writhed and shed what seemed to be at least half of her coat. I put my hand on Lexie’s chest, and did my best to calm her. As her eyes rolled around the room, I could see the terror rise up.

The vet didn’t mince words. She said Lexie lives in a world of fear and anxiety. Sadly, anti-anxiety/depression medications would only lift her inhibitions, possibly leading to more dog bites. If Lex was her dog, she didn’t think it would be fair to keep her in this emotionally painful space.

The tears were falling into my lap before she passed me a tissue.

She offered to put Lexie down right then if I wished. I wondered if this was some sort of bad dream.

I told her Matt and I would have to talk, and that we’d get back to her with our decision.

My heart aches. I can’t imagine my world without my Lexie Doodle.

But I know the vet’s right. At this point in the game, it’s not a matter of if … but when.

FurFamHORZNTL

Hide and seek


Lex takes a nap after a rough night.

Lex takes a nap after a rough night.

Some days it’s hard to believe Lexie is almost 15 years old.

Other days, I can’t deny it. She struggles.

I’ve especially noticed her doggy dementia has progressed. Recently when a friend stopped by, Lexie growled and the hair went up on her back. This was surprising, and new behavior for her.

As we were setting up the spare bedroom for our new cat Cora, Lex had wandered in. Moments later, I found her stuck in the corner, unable to simply turn herself around.

Then something truly shocking happened.

A few days ago, we started watching Matt’s mom’s dog. The house felt like a zoo (three dogs and a cat, oh my!!!) but everyone seemed to settle in. Lex seemed nonplussed by the visitor, and chose to slumber most hours of the day.

In the bustle of activity, I must confess to not keeping tabs on each animal every second of the day. But sometime last night Matt and I discovered something awry.

“Did you hear that?” Matt said. I did. It sounded like three thumps coming from the side of the couch. I looked behind my recliner into the little corner cave where the dogs love to hide out. Charlie was stretched out on a dog pillow, twitching to a good dream.

“I think Charlie kicked in his sleep,” I offered.

Matt peered over the end of the couch, down at Charlie. “Hmm.”

We went back to watching TV.

About five or 10 minutes later, we heard some muffled dog noises.

“Is Lexie stuck behind the couch???” we both cried out at the same time.

Matt jumped up, and we both took an end of the couch, frantically pulling it from the wall. Lex stood there, somewhat bewildered and blinking in the sudden shift of light.

We guessed she had only been back there about 10 minutes, but that was enough to scare us and, no doubt, our confused pup.

When Lex initially was diagnosed with dementia, the vet told us there’s a medication that might be helpful. I put it off at the time because it all seemed so quick; I hardly believed the diagnosis to be correct.

But now I think I’m changing my mind.

This morning, I found Lex sleeping on her throne, with her paws tightly pressed against her eyes … as if playing a game of hide and seek.

My sweetheart is slowing down. I reached down to rub her ears then softly ran my fingers down her back.

She needs her sleep.

Vertigo


Lexie shakes off the dizziness. She's ready for another nap.

Lexie shakes off the dizziness. She’s ready for another nap.

It’s amazing how quickly things can fall apart.

Lex had just hopped up on the couch, and collapsed in my lap. The toxic smell of charcoal fluid washed over me. I leaned over, and could smell it all over her back. When I quickly put her on the floor and ushered her to the bathroom for a bath, she stumbled, and pulled her front left paw into her side. Her head jerked, and violently turned to the side.

Something was terribly wrong.

I frantically washed her, but discovered the fluid was only on her back, not in her mouth. I was terribly confused.

“We have to get her to emergency vet,” I told Matt, as he held her up.

We rushed her to the vet, and I silently wondered if I would return home without her.

The vet instantly ran some blood work, and came back with an unexpected development. Her kidney levels were healthy, all within range. When I explained how she was diagnosed with kidney failure last summer, and that she almost died, he said she most likely had acute failure. And this is something a dog can recover from, which apparently she has.

Then the vet offered his diagnosis. Lexie had vertigo, an intense dizziness that causes stumbling and twitchy movement. It’s unclear what caused the condition, but he said her dementia may have played a role.

Also, the charcoal fluid was a red herring. She most likely had a dizzy spell and fell on the bottle, which I had left on the ground.

Lexie paced the small vet room, as the doctor explained treatment options. She leaned into the wall, and walked all four corners, over and over again. The vet gave her a sedative so she would get some reprieve from the pacing, along with an antibiotic and a motion sickness medication.

Several hundred dollars later, we were headed home, Lex nodding off in the back seat.

Today, she is exhausted, and still experiencing the effects of the sedative. She had trouble standing on her own, and needs to be carried down the stairs so she can go outside.

It’s hard to know if she’ll come out of this, or what our next steps are. Lex is 14-and-a-half years old. She’s a gracious elder pup, who has lived a phenomenal life. She’s excelled as a big sister to Charlie, and a teacher to everyone around her.

As quickly as things fell apart, I’m desperately trying to piece everything back together.

I believe she’s still got something to give, and I still have a lot to learn.

FurFamHORZNTL

Homecoming


Charlie and Lex celebrate a seat up front on the ride home from Camp Bow Wow.

It’s only been six days, and I hardly recognize Charlie.

In the time he and Lex stayed at Camp Bow Wow, Charlie grew almost to Lexie’s height. This, after gaining only 1 pound in the first month we had him. Matt and I slip away to Florida, and he experienced a massive growth spurt.

All of this fades away when I crouch down and pull Charlie into my arms. He wiggles and writhes, melting into a bumbling mess of puppy kisses.

Charlie hops off my lap and slides next to Matt on the couch. He nuzzles Matt’s ear, and Matt gives in, pulling him closer.

Oh yes, I think I recognize this pup. How could I mistake his gentle energy? His uncanny ability to love his way into forbidden territory on the couch?

Lex comes in close, and I lean down only to be intercepted by her gaping mouth boinking off my nose. I’m not sure about this move, but in recent months she’s taken to this awkward show of affection. I silently wonder if it’s a symptom of her dementia. She looks good, her eyes seem clearer than usual. And her energy level defies her 14 years; she even tries to play with one of Charlie’s tennis balls.

Matt said the reunion at Camp Bow Wow was emotional, with Lexie jumping up in his lap, then spinning in circles. It’s hard for me to imagine her this excited, but I take Matt at his word.

Getting them in the truck was a bit of work (Lex missed on her first try, and tangled her legs in the running board) but once they were in they staked out a spot in the front seat. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it also must make the memory grow fainter. The dogs are supposed to ride in the back seat, but Matt allowed them to ride up front for the entire 15-minute ride home.

Knowing this was a special occasion, they behaved, and slipped in a few puppy kisses.

I totally know these pups. How could I be mistaken? Upon returning, Charlie would sniff out the front room, then grab his favorite plushie toy from his toy box. And Lex would hop into her favorite spot on the couch. Matt placed their beds back in the bedroom, marveling at how they were returned in one piece (well, almost). He would later boast about how the staff members at Camp Bow Wow said goodbye to the pups, and how they told him the dogs were model campers. Awwe, proud mama alert.

Yes, I know these dogs.

I’d know them anywhere.

Blood test results


Lexie in her favorite spot, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Tonight the vet called to deliver Lexie’s blood test results.

Ordinarily this would be no big deal, but when the actual vet makes the call it’s obvious something heavy hangs in the air.

The good news came first: liver, normal; red and white cells in mid-range, normal.

Then she paused.

The results indicated Lexie’s kidney values are elevated, meaning she is in the early stages of kidney failure. I know this is common in elderly dogs like Lexie. But I also know this officially marks the beginning of the end.

The vet told me I would have to stop giving Lex the Meticam pain killer/anti-inflammatory for her arthritis because it will accelerate the kidney disease. She said I can give it to her for two more days, then only when she’s really in need.

There’s a chance this can be slightly managed through diet, but the vet suggested this was just the beginning of a rough road. She told me to watch for weight loss, lack of appetitie and diarrhea. I’m to make a return visit for more blood tests in eight weeks.

In the meantime, lots of biscuits and doggy kisses.

I detailed Lexie’s dementia symptoms, and how they seem to have progressed in the last couple weeks. My brother and his wife, who are visiting from Florida, have mentioned how different she has been. Most times, Lex looks through them, opting to stare off in space than to engage.

The vet said there is a medication that has proven marginal success. But mostly, she said it is a quality of life issue that I will have to evaluate on my own.

My heart is so heavy weighing all of these things.

Charlie has been the best little brother. He senses something is wrong, and has toned town his rough-and-tumble puppy play. By far, Lex is his favorite part of joining our household. He follows her around, and reveres her like a mother.

This afternoon Charlie has kept busy pulling out all his toys and testing the squeakers.

They all work.

NEXT: Touring Camp Bow Wow: Planning for a vacation when we have a puppy and an aging dog.