R.I.P. Chewbacca “Chewie” Hutchison, 2009-2013

Chewie with a halo!

Chewie’s final weekend convinced me that we were doing the right thing.  It was a weekend where he slept when he wasn’t painfully coughing, and his only bright moments were when he got to eat snacks or chow down on some rotisserie chicken.  I tried taking him for a walk, and we could only go around the house on our corner and back.  It really drove home that he was suffering at this point, and his lurching attempts to roll himself out of bed and onto his feet made me regret that we had waited this long.

I took Monday the 26th off from work so that I could spend the last day with Chewie, and I was so glad I did.  He had a great last day! It started out with a car ride to drop off Melinda at work (she couldn’t get out of it, being the current team nurse).  Chewie loved it, as he has loved all car rides, and Melinda rode in the back seat with him so that she could soak up all of these last moments.  I did, however, have to lift him into the car.

When we got home, I took him for a walk in the cool morning air, and Chewie had so much energy that we went half a block!  I was certain that that would have wiped him out and he would need to doze, but Chewie kept hanging around me, wondering what we would do next!  I gave him a day filled with cuddles and treats on the sofa, a last nap on our sunny deck, and I even tossed his orange pumpkin squeak toy and watched him run for it!

After picking up Melinda from work, we spent our last hour with him and we pressed his paws into some homemade play-dough that she had made so that we would have impressions of his paw prints.  Then we headed off to Quarry Hill Vet to say good-bye.

Dr. Karen Lee and Gina were so kind.  They said that they had been sad all day, knowing that this was on the schedule.  Melinda and I took turns holding him one last time, while the doctor administered the drug.

I’ve had to do this before, for Melinda’s cat, Alley, and my cat, Natasha, when they had lived long happy lives and had fallen ill in their old age.  Those cats were so old, they predated our marriage.

Chewie had just turned four.

We bundled him in a beautiful old blanket, placed him in a plastic washtub that I had brought with, and we took him home.  I ran around packing the car as quick as I could, while Melinda brought a few of Chewie’s favorite things to be buried with him.  She lay down on the floor to stroke his head one last time.  Melinda couldn’t get off work, which meant I had a long lonely car ride north and Melinda wouldn’t have anyone with her that night.

Doris, our older cat, approached and investigated.  I believe she could tell that Chewie was dead.  We felt this was better than his sudden disappearance from her life.

I arrived at my parents’ farm three hours later, where I found that my dad had prepared a beautiful coffin and my mom had written on the lid.  I gave my doggie one last pet on his woolly head, and then I placed the items in his coffin: the orange pumpkin, a stuffing-free fox squeak toy, a ball, a chip twist, a chicken chew…and one of our business cards with the picture of the three of us.

(I am hiding these next pictures in a spoiler, for those of you who don’t want to see him in his casket.)

Show »

Chewie in the blanket
Chewie at peace
One last pat on the head
One last pat on the head

Chewie in his coffin with his memorial items
Chewie in his coffin with his memorial items

We buried him that night, and we finished seeding the grave the next morning. Chewie is buried under the limbs of a tree, and my parents are planting flowers nearby.

Chewie's coffin
Chewie’s coffin
Chewie's grave site
Chewie’s grave site

I don’t know what kind of afterlife awaits dogs, but it’s my hope that his spirit is chasing the rabbits around that farm at full speed, free of the pain that slowed him down.  Go, run.  Good boy!

Chewie’s Farewell Tour

Chewie was doing so well that we didn’t pick up on the return of his cancer for a while.

On July 3rd, I took Chewie out to the car.  He planted his feet as we approached the car.  That was odd, since he had once again enjoyed going to Leashes and Leads for doggy day care.  When he wasn’t feeling well, he was unhappy spending the whole day running around with other dogs.  It had taken a long time, too long, for me to realize that his balking at doggy day care wasn’t because of something at Leashes and Leads that he had grown to dislike, but because he felt sick.  Once he recovered from surgery, we found that he was delighted to have doggy day care again.

Now, I’m trying to get him in the car, and he doesn’t want to go.

Melinda hopped in, and we headed off to work.  I told her how I had to lift Chewie in. “Maybe he’s not feeling well?” she offered.  “He hasn’t been eating a lot… and I’ve had to clean his ears almost every day…and he’s had goopy eyes the last few days…”

“And he’s having a lot of dificulty getting out of bed” I added.

With every additional bit of evidence mentioned, we realized what it added up to.  “Uh oh.”

It’s odd how he could have eye infections and ear infections and a lack of appetite, just as he had in January and February, and yet we didn’t put two and two together.  It’s not like he’s not eating anything…just that sometimes he eats sparingly, or doesn’t eat in the morning but does in the evening.  But once you start saying the things out loud…they add up so obviously.

I made an appointment for the end of the day at Quarry Hill Vet, and sure enough, his white blood cell count was high again.  48,000 when it should be around 16,000.  Back in February, it was 160,000…so we had some time, but the cancer was definitely back.

July 4th, he spent the day laying around the house.  I was pretty sure that we would be taking him to Quarry Hill to be put to sleep within a few days.  But when we came home Friday, he greeted us at the door, tail wagging happily!

Since then, Chewie has had good days and bad days, but even his good days aren’t great.  We took him up to my parents’ farm so that he could romp around, but he would only be good for three throws of the ball before he’d set it down and lay on it, indicating he was done.  We brought him along to the Rineharts, the family that adopted our Labradoodle Layla, when they had a birthday party.  Chewie had a good day, he walked with Layla, he got a lot of attention…but he didn’t have energy to do much more than walk.  (Chewie usually jumps up on people he recognizes.)

And he has his bad days.  Panting, growling, and displaying more affection than usual are all signs that a dog is in pain… and Chewie has been doing all three.  He has had moments where the lightest touch to his belly while he is sleeping will cause him to yelp with the most awful cry, and yet we cannot duplicate this for the doctor when he is awake.  We told ourselves that “quality of life” was the deciding factor of when we would put him down…but as I write this on August 25th, almost two months since we realized the cancer was back, I realize how many times he was in pain.  What has stopped us from the decision was that he can seemingly flip a switch and suddenly be having a good day.  It may be that his pain meds were kicking in, or he got to ride in a car and it cheered him up, or he simply had a better day.

This last Tuesday, we took him to PetSmart to say goodbye to his trainer and dog-sitter, Marcia.  Marcia was the one who told us that his goopy eye was an eye infection and we should take him to the vet…and the very next day was the start of his cancer journey.  That day, back in February, was the day that Chewie passed his Canine Good Citizenship, which was supposed to be the start of a great new phase of his life…and seeing the picture Marcia showed us, of Melinda and I beaming as we held a smiling Chewie, was very bittersweet.  Yet Chewie loved seeing Marcia again.  His little sausage tail wagged furiously as he buried his muzzle between her knees.  He even gave a weak attempt at jumping up at her.  We then spent an hour picking out some supplies for the new kittens that were added to our household this last week.  (Chewie adores them!)  The entire time, Chewie was happy to get petted by strangers, greet new dogs, and explore the store.  Getting home at 7pm, we marveled that he had been “up” for two whole hours, and figured he must be near collapse.  I opened the car door…and instead of heading for the back yard, Chewie dragged me to the street to go for a walk on top of all that other activity!  We walked south past four houses, and then Chewie and I headed home.  The walks are not very long these days.

Chewie has also been having some hip pain, perhaps brought on by the cancer, perhaps not. Perhaps the cancer is saving him from a painful decade of hip dysplasia that he would have had anyway because he’s a poodle and they’re prone to that.  Who can tell?

In the last two weeks, the lengths of his walks has been consistently dropping.  Chewie, who could once tear across the dog park and run full tilt for a half hour, or walk ahead of me wanting me to go faster as we walked the length of Silver Lake Park and back to home, suddenly can only go around two blocks and back home.  Then he could only go down the street two blocks, turn around and come back.  Then he could only go around one block.  Then it was just down the block and back. Then half the block. Tuesday, it was only four houses down the block.

On Thursday, Chewie planted his feet before we were past the third house.  It was a clear message.  That was as far as he could go.  I wanted to see the damage from that morning’s storm and flash flood as a guy was pulling out items from his house to dry on the lawn, so I tugged him forward. He relented, and slowly walked forward one more house.  Then we went home.

Melinda and I decided.

On Friday, I called Quarry Hill Vet to see if we could get a 4 pm appointment for that day.  If we could, then we could take Chewie up to my parents’ farm to be buried.  Quarry Hill didn’t have any open times, so we have scheduled it for Monday the 26th at 4 pm.  This weekend, we’ve stopped all of his pills except for the two painkillers, and Chewie’s eating rotisserie chicken and hamburgers!  I wish I could say that Chewie is living the high life and getting one last hurrah.  Truth is, he’s mainly sleeping, when he isn’t indicating his growling and barking at his pain.

Friday, I barely made it through work.  I used up the box of tissues at my desk while I tried to focus on file comparisons and building new web pages.  But something my friend John Morgan Neil (the comic book writer who created Aym Geronimo) said really touched me.  Our pets rely on us for everything, including taking away their pain.

 

Dealing with doggy renal cancer

Two months later, here is where things stand with Chewie. He is, to use my wife’s phrase after his checkup last week, “healthy as a horse.”  He has boundless energy, and he’s all atwitter that the long winter has finally ended.  Taking him on a walk is like trying to hold on to a kid with A.D.D. who just downed 20 pixie sticks. He is constantly getting his leash wound around his leg and pulling full-strength.  This is the Chewie we used to know.  The little stinker even snuck out of the house and ran away a day ago.

If there’s a down side, it’s this: The dog who calmly almost-passed his Canine Good Citizenship test three weeks before his cancer adventure started? Gone. No way he’d even come close to passing. We’ll have to work on him some more.

A week after my last Chewie post, we took him up to the University of Minnesota to discuss chemotherapy options.

We’re giving Chewie an oral chemotherapy drug this month, but we don’t think we’ll continue it.  There is no way to tell if he has cancer short of finding cancer; it’s not like they can test blood and pronounce the patient cancer-free.

So…we don’t know if he has it or not (although it’s a safe bet that some microscopic cancer is still floating around somewhere).

If he does have it, we don’t know if the IV treatment ($600 every 3 weeks for six sessions) or this oral chemotherapy drug (about $300 a month) will do anything to prevent it.

We could spend no money at all and he’ll develop cancer and die, or we could spend tons of money and he’ll get cancer and die.  We could do nothing and get lucky.  It’s a very big crap shoot.

Dog Cancer Survival Guide

So we’re probably going to just give him homeopathic recipes from the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, watch out for foods that cause cancer, give him foods that inhibit cancer, and enjoy what time we had left.

A co-worker of mine who has two standard poodles of her own helped me gain some perspective.  If we hadn’t done anything, Chewie would have died a month ago of natural causes (i.e. cancer).  All the time we have left with him is a bonus over his original lifespan, which would have been a little less than four years.  It isn’t really “fair” that he probably won’t make it to 14, but we could spend a fortune and he won’t make it to 14.

Right now, Chewie is active and happy and loving the spring (that’s FINALLY arrived).

[simpleviewer gallery_id=”1″]