August was a rough one, friends.
Yes, I realize that it’s already almost mid-September and I’m just getting round to telling you about August. That should be a pretty good clue as to how my August went.
My mom had a stroke at the tail end of July. We were very lucky as it could have been far worse, but it still left her with no use of her left hand, heavily slurred speech and trouble swallowing due to weakness along the left side of her mouth and throat. We were also very lucky that it happened one evening while she and my dad were sitting up visiting with my aunt and uncle. Had it happened while my mom was home alone, or even worse, driving…yeah. It’s not fodder for pleasant contemplation.
Anyway – there was a lot of driving back and forth between home and hospital, then home and rehab facility, for about a week and a half. I was also trying to keep an eye on my dad, as he has a habit of running himself pretty ragged when my mom is unwell (which we know from experience the last few years with her being in and out of hospital so much). It was busy, full of stress and worry, and just all around not a great time.
And then things really took a nose dive into the deep end of the shit whirlpool.
Our beloved Maltese, Junior, had been having some problems keeping his balance for a couple weeks prior to all this. It started out as just a little bit of wavering when he’d cock his leg to pee, and the occasional stumble while going up the stairs. When it got so that he was almost tipping over when he squatted to poop, was losing his back legs out from under him while just walking across the floor, and when he stopped even trying to go up the stairs at all, I knew something was wrong.
Two days after my mom’s stroke, I took Junie to the vet to be checked out. The vet hemmed and hawed and decided it was probably arthritis in his trick knee. She sent us home with a bag of joint supplement chews and orders to not jump up on stuff or tear around crazily for a while. We dutifully administered the chews and kept things to a dull roar for a week but things kept getting worse. Junie would get up on the couch next to me and basically not move for hours, which was very unlike him. I kept trying to convince myself that it would just take some time for the joint supplements to kick in and then he’s start feeling better, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more going on.
Instinct finally won and I made him another vet appointment. We saw a different doctor than our normal vet that day. He had me put Junior down on the floor so he could observe Junior walking around…or skittering and face-planting, as it turned out. He watched him quietly for a couple minutes, then shook his head and told me that he was pretty sure it wasn’t his legs but rather his spine that was causing the problem. Tight-lipped, the vet referred us to a doggie neurologist and told us to get there as soon as possible.
The next day, the neurologist looked him all over, did some x-rays, and determined that it was either granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME for short), or lymphoma. The treatment would be the same either way: steroids and chemo. In order to confirm it was one of these things and not a brain tumor, Junior needed an MRI. In order to have the MRI, he needed to be put under anesthesia. In order to have the anesthesia, he needed to have an ultrasound to make sure it was safe, because he has a congenital heart defect that has been getting progressively worse. Junior just turned eight at the end of August, by the way. He’s not an old dog by any means.
We brought him back to the specialist the next day for the ultrasound. They cleared him for the MRI, with the caveat that we sign a waiver saying we understood that there was up to a 20% chance that the anesthesia may kill him. We signed the waiver and sent him off with the doctors to be prepped for the MRI. Mark and I then proceeded to spend the rest of the day floating in our own private banks of fog. We went to get food, we went for a scenic drive, we went to see Wonder Woman…all so that we could try and distract ourselves from the very real chance that we might get a call saying our dog had died. Not our most enjoyable day ever.
We were at McDonalds forcing ourselves to eat when Mark’s phone finally rang. He stood up and walked away from the table to answer it, and I had to sit on my hands to keep them from shaking while I strained to hear any words at all from the other end of the call. I distinctly remember thinking, “well he hasn’t burst into tears yet, so hopefully things aren’t TOO bad”.
And they weren’t, at least not entirely. Junior had survived the MRI and there was no brain tumor, but there was a lesion or tumor on his spinal cord. Now he needed a spinal tap to try and determine whether it was GME or lymphoma we were dealing with. The spinal tap ended up being inconclusive, but the doctor was leaning toward lymphoma over GME. We got sent home with a whole bunch of meds and a boatload of anxiety.
The problem, you see, is that it doesn’t actually matter if it’s GME or lymphoma, because neither one is curable. If it was lymphoma in some of his actual lymph nodes, it may have been possible to do an operation to remove them or radiation to shrink them. But the lymphoma is in / on his spinal cord…it’s called CNS (central nervous system) lymphoma. We can’t even do a biopsy of the lesion because it would probably kill him or paralyze him. Also, while the steroids have helped him to be able to walk again, they’re very hard on his already faulty heart. And the chemo that we have to give him every 3 weeks to try and shrink the lesion? Very hard on the heart. As if this all wasn’t enough, we also found out from some tests last week that it’s very possible Junior also has a liver shunt. Quick physiology lesson: your liver cleans your blood, and metabolizes many of the medications you may take. A liver shunt is where some or all of the arteries that are supposed to feed your blood into your liver for cleaning aren’t actually in the right place and are instead diverting some or all of your blood around your liver rather than through it. When stuff doesn’t get cleaned out of your blood by your liver, it just keeps recirculating through your body and eventually build up to toxic levels. So it’s possible (and currently looking probable) that all the heavy duty steroids and chemo Junior has been getting are building up in his system rather than getting cleaned out of his blood. This even further limits our treatment options. Best case scenario, the remission we hope for is being measured in weeks at this point, not months or years.
Rather than dwell on feeling sad and angry and guilty and who knows what else, I’m trying like hell to find ways to learn from this experience. I’m getting a crash course in sitting with my own discomfort, for one. My M.O. is to fix things but there is no fix to this thing, and that makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t know how to accept helplessness as a valid state of being. I’m also getting a refresher on the fundamental impermanence of life. Just because you’re not old and frail doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a lot more time. To paraphrase Xzibit: yo dawg, I heard you like feeling helpless so I put some more helpless in your pile of helplessness. And lastly, I’m finding a whole new motivation for trying to be more present, for acknowledging and appreciating what each moment holds, rather than dwelling on the inevitable.
My mom’s doing well now, by the way. She’s got quite a lot of use of her hand back, her speech is much better and she’s having a much easier time swallowing. She still has a lot of serious health issues but if I let myself start to worry about those on top of everything else going on, I’m pretty much guaranteed to go the way of Artax and get sucked down into the Swamp of Sorrows…and that doesn’t do me or anyone I love a bit of good.