Thursday, December 23, 2010

Goodnight, Major

This was written December 20th, 2010.

Tonight is Major's last day on earth. Tomorrow, he'll be peacefully put to sleep as a result of his battle with cancer, which has already cost him a leg, and has taken his breath as it moved into his lungs. Major is my Alaskan Malamute, my friend, a "sibling" to my daughter, and someone who has brought joy to nearly everyone who has met him. Dogs certainly are man's best friend, and Major is no exception.

If you'll allow me, let me tell you about Major.

One of my favorite pictures is of Major in Lake Tahoe, California, peering into the frigid water during a winter vacation. He loved the snow, he loved Tahoe. He was fascinated with the water. He could play in it for hours. That picture sums him up well - strong, curious, playful, beautiful.

Hopefully the rest of the pictures and words I've included will give you further insight into this amazing dog. Maybe it will encourage you to give to Canine Cancer research, such as the work done at the Morris Animal Foundation. Maybe it will encourage you to adopt a dog from a shelter, like Humane Society Silicon Valley. Or maybe, it will do nothing at all; but I need to write this for me, to get onto paper what a wonderful companion he has been.

Major was a rescue dog, who was found wandering the streets of Fresno, California. What a big, hairy, friendly Malamute was doing in Fresno, I'll never understand. It's even more mind boggling that someone would let a dog like Major go free. But I'm happy they did, because it lead him to me.

He eventually made his way to the Bay Area, where we found him online. Major is my second Alaskan Malamute, and just like his predecessor, Sitka, he had all of the wonderful traits of a Mal - loving, loyal, independent, vocal (including howling at every ambulance or police siren that passed him by) and unbelievably patient. He surpassed me in everyone of these qualities.

The last few months have been an emotional roller coaster with Major. When he was first diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock. He was acting a little funny, laying down in places he would not normally lay down, walking a little differently. Within a few days, there was a positive diagnosis of cancer, in his shoulder; within three weeks, his leg was removed.  While the days on the calendar passed quickly, this was an agonizing process that felt like it took years. Each day was a physical challenge for Major, and a emotional challenge for  those of us that loved him. Did we do the right thing?

People expect each other to get married, have children, change jobs - of course, these are all huge decisions. However, while I've done all these things, somehow, in retrospect, the choice to amputate felt like the first "adult" decision I made in my personal life. One that literally meant life and death. It was agonizing.  It was clear he was in tremendous pain, but the idea of life without him was just hard to fathom. The decision was made to amputate, and try chemotherapy to fight back the cancer.

Thankfully we met the wonderful people at VMS, who did an amazing job supporting both the humans and the animals. However, it was not perfect. Major actually had to have three surgeries. There were infections, issues with the dressings. It was painful for him to go back and forth.  I should say again that despite these issues, I always felt VMS has the best interests of the entire family in their work, process, and decision making. It was just the unfortunate reality of surgery and healing.

The hardest part was the recovery from the surgery. I will tell you now, I do not wish those days after his surgery on my worst enemy. The overwhelming feeling of guilt, of making the wrong decision, of putting all these human emotions on to Major was nearly unbearable. As an arctic breed, he is vocal by nature. The crying after his surgery, the despair in his eyes, you cannot possibly describe this or express to someone how that feels; this blog certainly will not correctly convey that, and if you are considering such a surgery, no one can really prepare you for it.

I cannot remember a time in my adult life breaking down like I did that first time seeing him after the amputation, being so sure of making the wrong choice, of putting this poor friend through hell. Maybe the worst was, though, the fear on my daughters face seeing him after surgery. To understand this, you have to understand their relationship. Mackenzie does not have a sibling, she has Major. I cannot really describe their relationship any more than this, but I think pictures can still expand upon the story - I am sure you can tell this spans many years - same child, same dog.

This may have been Major's greatest gift. Not only for Mackenzie, but for every child he met, Major instilled in them a confidence that animals were friends, partners, and to be loved and respected. Major earned that love and respect because he gave it out to people, who naturally returned it.

Despite his massive size and wolf-like appearance (always a big attraction to little boys at the park!) there was only one possible risk of Major being aggressive - if you were a stranger, and got close to Mackenzie, well...all bets were off. He was extremely protective of her, always on the lookout. If you were a jogger and he and Mackenzie were coming down the street together, it was best to change sides, less have Major think you're running at Mackenzie. Otherwise, the only real risk of Major doing any harm would be his rather gaseous post-meal releases, or if he rolled over on top of you. I'm still not sure how we didn't loose a cat that way.

The nights after surgery, when he came home, I slept outside with him. For two days, he cried constantly, unless he was medicated heavily. The medication sapped all his spirit, personality, and his very being. He did not want to get up, he did not want to go pee, he did not want to eat. He cried every time we tried to move him. I was sure he'd never move again. I ran over scenarios in my head over and over - how to move him, how to get him comfortable, how to keep if from getting sores or suffering from incontinence - nothing worked.

I cannot say to you that I made the right choice, that amputation was the best thing for him. I don't know. The early days, I had my doubts - very significant doubts - but over time, he recovered. It was amazing to watch him do re-learn everyday things, how to eat, go to the bathroom, even go for short walks at his advanced age. As you can see, he regained his composure, pride, and even his role as "king of the dogpark". Here's a picture of him lording over his domain.

One of the greatest experiences was taking him to the Morris Animal Foundation  K9 Cancer Walk in Los Gatos, California. He got to meet lots of other cancer dogs, some survivors, and many amputees. He was the star of the show! He me everyone, and everyone knew him. As always, he was calm, happy, peaceful, and a great ambassador not only for his breed, but for dogs in general. It was certainly the highlight of his post-surgery life, where we were able to raise money for a great cause, and he was surrounded by love and support. At the K9 walk, I met people from Tripawds,  an organization dedicated the quality of life for amputees, providing information, retail items, and  support to the large community of canine amputees. If you are considering such a surgery, you should visit their site, follow them on twitter, and join the community. It will help you.

Tomorrow is the end. It's the right choice. As much as for selfish reasons I would love to make it to the holidays, maybe one last trip to the snow, it's clear that his quality of life and his pride need to be considered. He has given so much love and respect, he deserves the same in return. The entire family will miss him immensely. I am so blessed that my daughter was exposed to such a wonderful animal, and that I've had years of joy with him. I hope I made the right choices about his amputation, and his quality of life these last few months has been has high for him as it has for those that know him, having him around.

Goodnight Major. I love you.