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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hearts Stop

Paco was a little purebred chocolate Chihuahua. He weighed 9 lbs. He was born on April 14th, 2001 and passed away on June 7th, 2010.

Paco had issues. He was taken away from his mother too soon and probably not treated all that well for the first 4 months of his life. I suspect he got hit a lot. By the time he came into my life he was very timid, terrified of noises, strangers, and human hands. I have pictures from the first day when he came to live with me. All he had was a large pink, stuffed animal named Mr. Bunny and a stuffed toy shaped like a banana. The banana was bigger than he was, or at least it appears so in pictures. Mr. Bunny was much loved. Because Paco had been taken away from his Mother too soon, he had this habit of ‘nursing’ on people’s clothing, especially my white t-shirts. Or Mr. Bunny. He also developed this habit of dragging Mr. Bunny out whenever I had company, proceeding to hump him while nursing on his ears or neck. It was cute, obnoxious and embarrassing… but it made Paco happy. I can’t speak for Mr. Bunny.

Because Mr. Bunny was so beloved, he didn’t last very long. In the nine years of Paco’s life he had three Mr. Bunnies. The last one was actually a pig, but it was made of the right material and the same color as Mr. Bunny I and II, so even though it was a pig his name was Mr. Bunny.

Paco was somewhat house trained when he came to live with me. I couldn’t understand why he kept going down the basement steps and doing his business at the bottom. Then I learned that he had been living in a second floor apartment with steps – so he had been trained to go down the steps and do his business. He was simply doing what he had been taught. They never let him play outside, so my fenced yard was pretty intimidating for him at first, but soon he was barking at everything in sight, racing up and down the length of the fence. Like most dogs, he loved to lie in the sun.

He was easy to train; smart, but stubborn. He could sit and shake hands, stay and lay down. He had a very sharp temper, snarling and snapping, especially when he was tired or if you made the mistake of putting your hand over his head. He would also jump up behind guests and try to nip them on the butt, but mellowed as he grew older. He was a monster, for sure.

But he was my little monster.

I remember taking him to a field near a favorite park and allowing him to run around off-leash. He galloped and raced around like a little madman, so happy. He got excited anytime he got to go for a walk or ride in the car. In the car, for the first half hour of a trip his nose would be pressed up against the glass of the passenger or driver side window, but after that he would curl up in my lap into a tiny ball and snooze.

He had a good appetite and loved treats. He ran to greet the garbage men every Monday and they would give him a big treat. The mailman was a different matter. He hated the mailman and barked the moment he was anywhere near our block – somehow he just sensed him.

For as snappy and nippy as Paco could be with most people, he had this odd knowledge when it came to the frailty of others. A friend of mine suffered a stroke at a rather young age, and whenever he came to visit, Paco was very gentle with him, sitting on his lap while being petted or nuzzling in beside him. He was the same way with my father once Alzheimer’s had robbed him of many of his abilities.

One Sunday last fall, I came home from breakfast and found Paco under the dining room table, terrified and shivering. I tried to coax him to go on a walk or to take a treat. Sensing that something was very wrong, I took him to the emergency vet, who thought maybe he had fallen and strained his hindquarters. Now I recognize that as the day Paco had his first heart attack. By mid-January I knew there was something wrong with Paco. Despite his incredible appetite, he had lost a lot weight and was struggling when we went on walks, frequently stopping and asking to be carried. An ultrasound revealed that he had a torn heart valve and that his heart, having to work overtime, had grown enlarged. I noticed that for every intake of breath one of my other dogs would take, Paco would have to take four. He also had a partially collapsed trachea. He was put on meds and a special diet immediately. He quickly put weight back on, but continued to struggle to breathe and swallow. By early June it was apparent that he was getting much worse. So much so, that he had difficulty finding a comfortable position to sleep and his appetite began to wane.

His muzzle became a lot whiter as he grew older. Because of it people mistakenly thought he was the eldest of my dogs. I think, because his heart beat so fast, he was aging at a much faster rate. Chihuahuas can live to be as old as twenty-two years, so losing Paco after only nine and half feels like a cheat… like we have both been cheated.

I’m haunted by the loss of this dog. I want to see him everywhere. He was such a tiny animal, but he took up so much space in my house. Now the house seems so empty, even with the other two dogs still there.

I don’t have anyone to steal my socks or run off with my slippers. When we go for walks, our pace is slower now – with Paco there was always such urgency. Leaving the house and turning on the alarm is no longer accompanied by the drama of howls and yaps. He was also always the first one to greet me when I came home.

It’s been almost a month and I have finally started to part with some of my t-shirts that Paco chewed holes in. My weekly laundry is about a third of what it used to be, because I no longer have to put on special clothing for him to nurse on. Sitting on the couch, watching television, there’s an empty space on the couch. I miss the security of having him beside me.

His ashes came home a week ago. I put him in the wooden urn I had planned to use for my own ashes. Putting away his dish, his collar, and his leash was hard. I put his favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Bunny, on the pillow in the spare bedroom. It still smells like him.

I keep reliving the last day of his life. I left work in the middle of the day in order to ‘take care of the situation’. Paco was sunning himself on the deck. I gave him a treat. Then, gathering Mr. Bunny and his favorite blanket, we went to the car. A good friend of mine drove me. I rolled down the passenger window so Paco could stick his nose out. He was very happy. Once we got on the highway, he curled into a ball on the blanket in my lap, just like he always did for long car trips. Once at the vets, Paco did not seem nervous at all. He used to dread going, snapping at the vet techs as they would try to clip his nails or examine him. They used to muzzle him, but in the past few months, as vet visits had become something of a norm, Paco relaxed around them and soon there was no need.

We entered through a back entrance and came into a room I had never seen before. I brought Mr. Bunny and his blanket with. The vet was very kind. She warned me, told me what to expect. Letting go of him was hard; physically giving up control, handing him over to the vet tech, allowing him to be placed on the table. And then… things just happened so quickly. I thought there would be more time.

But then, I did, where Paco was concerned. I always thought there would be more time.

The vet gave him a shot in his left paw and down he went. It was like a watching a tiny horse go down, or a balloon silently lose air. His eyes didn’t close and I couldn’t get close enough to him. I wanted to be among the last things he saw on this earth. I kept telling him how much I loved him. Trying to touch him. Did he know it was me? That I was still there? The second shot. His heart stops and he’s gone. No more pain. No more struggle or panic. His eyes still open, I position myself in front of him, unsure… when does he no longer see me? The vet and the vet tech leave. I hold his paw. I feel him. His front and behind are cool to the touch, but his center… I can still feel the warmth of the sun on his back. That heat. He seemed so peaceful sitting on the deck that morning…

I don’t want to leave him there. I don’t want him to be alone. I keep trying to leave the room, but I turn around and I look and I need to touch him again. I need to look in his open eyes… does he see me? Is he gone?

But I have to leave, which means, I have to leave him, lying on that table… alone. I walk out of the room and close the door and look at him through the window in the door. I try to leave, but turn around and look again, and again, and again.

There is some relief on the ride home. And then the doubts creep. Was it too soon? He seemed so happy on the ride there. So happy lying in the sun on the deck. He still had an appetite. Some. For treats. And then, days later, more questions. Where did he go? Where is he? Is he alone? What happened to him… that unique little being who took up so much room in my house?

I had an 8X10 close-up photo I had taken of him the week of his diagnosis. I took a lot of pictures of him that week. I made my friend take me to the dollar store so I could buy a frame for it. I set it in my line of vision, on the floor, right near his bed, for many days. One day my friend comes and places the photo on top of my china cabinet. I wait forever for his ashes. Putting away his dog leash, his bowl, his collar… the tears come. And suddenly, a song that I have always loved, and one that I heard on my iPod at the gym the morning before I took Paco to the vets for the last time takes on a new meaning… the lyrics...

Where the cars go by,
All the day and night,
Why don't you say,
What's so wrong tonight?
Pray for me,
Praying for the light…*

He used to love sitting on the back of one the chairs in my living room, in front of the big bay window and watch the cars go up and down the street.

I worry about my other dogs, Beau and Mona. Do they miss him? Mona didn’t know Paco very long, but they got along really well, playing together a lot. Beau, my oldest, knew Paco for nine years. And for all that time, they did everything together. I can still picture them wandering around that open field, near that park. Like brothers…

I know a place,
Where everything's alright,
Let's go out tonight. *

They were such good buddies. Paco would clean Beau’s eyes and ears every week. I saw Beau run around the yard the day Paco died, trying to find Paco’s scent. But then the rain came and… washed him away.

These past weeks I rerun his final day over and over again, like scenes from a movie.. I think about all of his last times… the last walk, the last meal, the last night – sleeping beside me, the last morning spent basking in the sun, his last visit to my Mother’s house, the last time we played tug of war. The night before… we sat on the couch side by side as always and he began to nurse on a pair of shorts I normally would not allow him to nip away at, but… how could I refuse him? And what difference would it make in the big picture. What difference, tomorrow? The next day, the shorts would still be here, a little more worn and marred, but he would be gone. Now, I look at the tiny teeth marks and I’m glad I let him chew them.

For a long time now, I’d thought I’d made my peace with death. The idea of it. And for myself, I think I have – it doesn’t bother me, and I don’t fear it. It’s not like I haven’t lost others – lovers and friends and family – before. But Paco’s death… losing him… it has me questioning a lot about my life and the choices I make, how and where I spend my time. What is this life? I question, too, what happened… where did he go? Where is he? The hole left, so much larger than the size of his tiny body. I look at pictures and see how he used to let me hold him, like an infant – he trusted me so much. And, while I know that it was time… that he was suffering, there remains a tiny voice of doubt that wonders if I made the right choice. Did I betray that trust?

I stopped writing that day. I tried. But it all felt forced and barren, like writing a shopping list. My usual self-imposed deadline for this blog loomed in front of me and I felt powerless, unable to commit thoughts to paper or entertain the hollowness of the clacking keyboard. So I gave myself permission to not write that week. And that lapse turned into three. As this month’s end grew closer, I knew it was time to attempt something.

I’m not editing this post very much and I don’t care if it isn’t perfect or well written. Maybe this piece doesn’t do Paco justice. Maybe it doesn’t tell the whole story or shed any light on what happened or capture any great truth.

Except, maybe one…

Hearts stop.

They break, too.

*(Let’s Go Out Tonight – written by Paul Buchanan)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010