Our Days with the Dragon Dog

“So, are we getting a puppy?’

We’d agreed, of course, that we wouldn’t. Not until … well, we had a list of things that would need to be true before we allowed ourselves the addition of another dog to our family. And none of them were true. So we knew the time was not now. But still …

“It looks that way.”

I’m a realist. Sometimes. But mostly I knew my husband, and he knew me. We had been married nearly 20 years. He knew, and I knew, that we could not say “no” to this puppy, and we’d never even met her.

Our friends knew us too, that’s why they’d invited us over to meet their new puppy. Half boxer — the mother was a purebred whose breeder/owner had not been pleased when her star bitch felt randy a little ahead of schedule and struck up a short lived, but productive, relationship with the Labrador-Rottweiler mix next door — their puppy was little and wiggly and brown.

“Her sister needs a home,” they said. “She’s just like her, but she’s black.”

The black sister in question was the last of the litter, and the owner wanted her gone like yesterday. She was due to go to the pound if someone didn’t speak for her fast.

Of course we said “yes.”

“So is it like when a couple is having a rough time and they decide to have a kid?” he asked.

“Maybe, but we’ll know a lot faster.”

We laughed. But we’d been loving each other long enough to know it wasn’t really funny. We were still loving each other. But we weren’t really with each other anymore. Hadn’t been for a long while. But love makes up for a lot, and we weren’t ready to give in.

Love didn’t cut much ice with the black puppy that joined our family. She was big for a three-month old, not little like her sister. She didn’t wiggle like her sister either. She didn’t much care to be petted. Or snuggled. She did like to play. Rough. And she liked to eat. Pretty much anything. But if either of us reached out to touch her, especially on top of her glossy round head, she flinched away.

That was our first clue that she had been abused. There were more to come.

For instance, she didn’t like men. Especially young, tall, lean men. She sat back on her haunches and roared her distaste, then hid behind me, looking anxiously up as if to say, “I warned you, NOW what do we do?”

Gradually a more puppy-like personality emerged. She liked to watch herself in any reflective surface. Our black oven door was a favorite. She liked to chase. Anything. We threw balls and sticks until our arms threatened to fall off, she never tired. She liked to be in the middle of everything. So we put a dog bed in the middle of the kitchen/dining area tile floor and walked around it as though it were the kitchen island we had said we’d install someday.

She blossomed as she began to trust. She entertained us with physically impossible antics, she fell in love with our little neighbor boy who had to be encouraged NOT to feed her sticks through the fence since she would obligingly eat anything Mason offered her. Her Rottie heritage showed in her contemplative expressions as she evaluated each new situation. But as her sense of safety grew we saw more and more of the Boxer impulsiveness and the Lab goofiness.

And she learned to roar.

Seriously. Not just the vocalization of fear and dislike she used when she encountered a man she didn’t trust. Her roars became conversational. She would look intently into our faces and say “Rawr, aw rawr, raaaawrrrrr,” as though she fully expected an intelligible answer. She started begging by sitting up on her haunches, pulling her front feet in tight to her body, flattening her silky ears (which thankfully, had not been clipped, although they did bob her tail) and throwing back her glossy head while telling us, in what sounded like dragon-speak, that she would really, really like a bite of our dinner. “Nowwwaarr.”

With her smooth round head, laid back ears, and snout pointed to the skies, she looked like a cartoon version of an adorable baby dragon. We nicknamed her the “Dragon Dog.”

But her real name was Moira.

We pronounced it “Meera.” The Greek version rather than the Celtic. Because the Greeks used Moira to mean destiny or fate. The Celts used the word to mean bitter. But the Celts pronounced it “mara.” So we didn’t.

Not only did she learn to roar, she learned to love. And as her bond with us developed, her quirky wisdom became more and more evident. She knew me. Not just my habits and tendencies – she knew my moods before I did. She responded to my emotions no matter how hard I tried to hold them back. When I was feeling good the world was right. When I wasn’t, the world was wrong and someone needed to do something . Nowwwaarr.

Tom was her favorite playmate though. She’d wrestle with him for as long as he’d tolerate her play growls and she’d run after anything he threw.

We were in love.

She came to us in March. By July we knew our relationship, as we’d defined it, was dissolving. We “separated,” which is to say we divided the house. We were great roommates. Other than having to choose a room to sleep in, since he and I had separate bedrooms, Miss Moira considered her pack intact. Our delightful baby dragon was diplomatic with her attention and tireless in her devotion. She vacillated between us, entertaining, cuddling, demanding walks and bites, and adding a sense of normalcy to the shifting landscape of “us.”

I moved from the suburbs into St Louis city. Tom moved to Kansas City. But we continued to be family, and Moira’s pack. She was our comfort as we grieved our changing relationship, and she was our reason for keeping a relationship anytime we thought it might be easier to fight than it was to love.

But it soon became clear that her days of incredible athleticism were coming to an end.  The ligament that in humans we refer to as the ACL had dissolved in both of her back knees. Tom joined me in the search for a vet with a solution that would last more than a couple of years for an 80+ pound, very active, and very stubborn dog.

Finally we took her to Missouri University’s Veterinary Hospital, a two hour drive for each of us, meeting in the middle in Columbia, MO. The students and doctors there were a dream team. Professional and determined to see her run again. Loving and human and willing to share in our emotion as we faced two surgeries and four months of care and rehab. They performed “TPLO” surgery on the right knee and I brought her home. Tom built an elaborate ramp so that she could reach the back yard for her “business” without going up or down a single step. We dragged the mattress off the spare bed down to the dining room floor so that I could sleep next to her, her leash wrapped around my hand so that I would know if she moved in her sleep. That way she didn’t have to sleep in her kennel with the dreaded “cone of shame.”

A month later they performed the same surgery on the other knee. Another month of sleeping on the floor, icing the knee, administering meds, watching anxiously for swelling, for fever, for any sign that the healing was not going to plan.

But the healing DID go according to plan. Better than plan. She and I started the rehab phase, walking daily. Then walking up and down inclines. And finally tackling the steeper hills in the park. The haunches that had gotten so thin and weak from disuse became powerful enough to take her weight. She never again sat up on them with her front feet tucked in close, but she’d balance on them briefly to wave her front paws at me. And she still looked like a baby dragon.

After two intensely painful long distance romances, the unexpected happened. I fell in love. It snuck up on me. Love does that. Moira’s human pack expanded to three.

Her furry pack changed too. A few months after Philip moved in with us, our little tomcat, already a senior when Moira joined the family, and now quite aged, started a decline. We let Suki go that winter, after months of nursing and giving him all the cuddles he could handle. And within three weeks we were adopted by Orion. He was our “end of world” baby – finding us on December 21, 2012. The world didn’t end, but it certainly changed for us. Now we had two glossy black fur balls, both with traces of white. Moira was suspicious of Orion’s talons, Orion was suspicious of Moira’s size. But they learned to dance together and entertained us with their antics. The hunter and the dragon – a couple of mythical creatures coming to play in our human world.

Tom visited frequently, he and Philip were clearly kindred spirits and I was often the “odd man out” without a chance to get a word in edgewise. I couldn’t have been happier and Moira was never so content as when all of her human pack were under one roof. The only thing better, in her doggie wisdom, was when her human pack took her for an outside adventure. Now THAT was life as it was supposed to be lived.

Then one night, just over two years ago, Philip and I took Moira for an outside adventure and her pack expanded yet again. We drove to one of her favorite parks, a place with a large open area where she could chase sticks, running and leaping like the bionic dog she’d become after her surgeries were healed, and just as we reached our usual parking place Philip swerved the car to the curb shouting, “That was a puppy.”

Without a thought I was out of the car, waving my arms at oncoming traffic, and looking for a sign of a puppy. And there, straddling the middle line in the road, was a small figure. All I could see, after dusk and in the headlights of the cars now swerving to miss me, were two glowing eyes and a stream of urine. The poor baby was frozen in fear, peeing, with no hope of not being flattened if he moved off that line even an inch.

I tried to herd him off the road, but he ran right for me, launching himself at me so that we ended up on the ground together with his nose buried against my chest. Moira came to see what the fuss was about, and he instantly adopted her as a surrogate mother.

She wasn’t sure what to think of that.  She was a dragon, a force to be reckoned with. She was used to looking after her human pack, and to keeping the feline members mostly in line and following the rules. But a puppy? What was she supposed to do with a puppy?

She figured it out. She taught him to roar, and wrestle. She also taught him that you never, ever, eat before the Alpha has had hers. They tumbled and tussled, sounding for all the world as though they were bent on ripping each other’s throats out. They wallowed around, while he chewed her ears and neck in little flea-bites and she pressed her open mouth against his neck without ever touching him with a tooth. They sounded like a bear den invaded by mad bees, but when they stopped for breath their laughing faces melted our hearts.

And that was our pack. The Dragon Dog was in charge, except that she deferred to me in almost all things. And her two guys, she knows them by name and will go and find them if I ask her to although she always gives me a look like, “They aren’t LOST you know, you could find them yourself.” And Mishka, the “failed foster dog” who we weren’t going to keep, then couldn’t give up after Moira adopted him. He looked just like a baby bear when we found him, expect for the long Shepard’s ears, but now looks more like a lean wolf or an elegant Shepard. And Orion, our little hunter cat, who has his own views on who exactly is in charge.

Except that her “Daddy” didn’t stay with the pack, sometimes visiting her in St. Louis and sometimes taking her to Kansas City to spend some time with him, her world was complete.

Until a day just over two weeks ago. When we came home to a mess, and a sick dog. We took her to the vet, but there was nothing obvious. So we came home with a probiotic and a couple of antibiotics, and the suggestion that if she didn’t get better we’d do xrays.

She seemed to get better, for a couple of days. Then she crashed. She tried to be happy to see us when we came home, but she didn’t have the energy. She went down the two steps from the back porch, her personal ramp had been torn out after she recovered from the knee surgery nearly five years ago, and she did her business in the yard. But when she reached those steps to come back in the house she just looked up at me with a look that said, “Yeah Mom, not today.”

I grabbed my phone and Philip grabbed the keys. We went to the vet.

They did a blood draw, and while we waited for results they set up subcutaneous fluids. We sat on the floor with her while the liquid dripped through the tubing, and we watched the doctor peering at the smear of blood under her microscope.

White blood cell count through the roof. Platelet count next to nothing. I tried not to let my imagination run wild. I know just enough to make some educated jumps to conclusions that I hoped would be wrong.

Our Dragon is such a charmer. Everyone at Banfield loves her. An hour and a half after they were supposed to close not one staff person was willing to go home. They milled around, anxiously waiting for the doctor to come to her own conclusion. They were willing to clock out, but they would not leave. Not until they knew what there was to know.

Moira began to perk up now that she had some fluid in her system. So she gave her signature kisses all around, and we waited.

Finally we had to agree there were no conclusions we could draw on what we could see. We’d need x-rays, a sonogram, and a specialist’s opinion. We made plans to go back to MU’s hospital the next day.

I drove the two hours to Columbia with Moira in the back. Just like going for an outdoor adventure, but not. Tom met me at the Vet Hospital. Just like the days when she was going through rehab after surgery, but not.

They redid the blood work. The results were worse than the night before. They took her back for x-rays and a sonogram. Tom and I went to lunch without an appetite. And we waited for news.

At last the supervising vet and the student who was working with her came to tell us what they knew. We knew what they knew before they told us, because they were both fighting tears and had that defeated look that doctors only get when they have to tell you that your loved one is preparing to leave their body. We knew.

But we weren’t prepared for knowing.

Our beloved Miss Moira had cancer.

I had hoped to be wrong. I didn’t want to be right this time. But I’d guessed as much.

It got worse. She had a tumor on her spleen that was bleeding. Which was why she was so severely anemic. The x-rays only showed the lower part of her lungs, but the view suggested that it had already metastasized.  If it hadn’t there might be hope that surgery and chemo would get us a few weeks, even months. If it had, well, there wasn’t much they could offer. They asked permission to take more x-rays. We said yes, and we waited some more.

The cancer had spread to the lungs. The bleeding was killing her. Surgery wasn’t a viable option. If the bleeding wasn’t stopped we could lose her in a day or two, maybe before we could get her home. If the bleeding stopped her time would depend on how she did living with severe anemia, and how long the cancer gave her before it took over her body. But her blood count, and the cancer, meant nothing if the bleeding didn’t stop.

We took it in, or tried to. Tom and I have been through a lot. The death of my father to cancer. The Parkinson’s-related death of his father. We were medical management consultants together, and Tom had been a pre-dental student before deciding to go a different direction with his career. We’ve been through medical situations that were personal, and professional, and we could understand the clinical ramifications of what we were being told.

But we couldn’t process the personal ramifications. Moira, our roaring, goofy, wise, ferociously loyal and beyond beautiful Dragon Dog was leaving us. We might have days. We might only have hours.

They brought her back to us, and we tried to govern our grief since she has always taken her emotional cues from us. Her sides had been shaved for the sonogram, but her face was laughing and happy to see her people. She passed kisses around to us and the doctors, and both of them tried as hard as we were trying not to break down. If it hadn’t been for their sorrowful smiles and her shaved tummy we could have convinced ourselves that we’d imagined the diagnosis. Our Dragon Dog wasn’t acting sick, she was only intent on spreading her love around as liberally as possible.

They’d given us one ace, a remedy that we had some hope would trump the bleeding and give us a few more days of this laughing, licking, joyful spirit. A Chinese herbal remedy, a top-secret concoction that has been used on the battlefield to stanch life-threatening wounds, called Yunnan Baiyao.  It wasn’t an “official” recommendation, but since we had no other hope, we were willing to try.

Tom wasn’t about to be parted from his sweet girl so he left his truck at the clinic and the two of us loaded our now tired, but still happy, black beauty into the car for the drive back to St. Louis. Philip would just be finishing teaching his yoga class when we made it home, and the three of us could decide together what we would do. Provided she made it home. They’d warned us that she could bleed to death any time.

She did make it home. And her human pack hugged and cried and vowed to do all we could. The next morning was a free-for-all of phone calls as we tried to track down a local source for Yunnan Baiyao. I called a Chinese Acupuncture business number and repeated, again, “I’m looking for a Chinese herbal remedy. I don’t know how to pronounce it. But something like Yunnan Baiyao.”

“Yunnnn Yannn By OOOOO” came the enthusiastic answer. “Good stuff!”

“Do you have it?” All three of us had stopped breathing.

They did. They were open. We piled in the car and headed out.

That will be two weeks ago on Wednesday. It hasn’t been all clear sailing. The nights are hard, and our once imperturbable Dragon Dog wakes us often with her labored breathing. But when I get her to get up and move around, take a few deep breaths, and settle in again, she gets through the nights. And her days are mostly good.

We took her back to the Banfield clinic last Wednesday, more than a week after our panicked phone calls, a week after we feared we were down to only a day, or two if we were lucky. She bounced in, did her usual routine of jumping on the scales and licking every face within range in between giving meaningful looks to the nearby bowl of treats. She had lots of visitors – doctors and team members who weren’t scheduled to see her still stopped into her room for kisses and to reassure themselves that she really was feeling like herself.

The blood work wasn’t all encouraging. Her platelet count was actually worse. But she was getting oxygen into the blood, and she was holding her own. Stabilized anemia. But maybe, with the bleeding stopped, she might start to regenerate red blood cells.

They prescribed a steroid. She got tired after the blood draw and all the attention and laid her head on the floor for a nap – completely relaxed, secure that her people were doing what was right. Philip sat down with her, and Dr. Boyle joined them while I perched on the bench provided. We talked of random things, Dr. Boyle’s dog, Bacon, and how Mr. Mishka is holding up with the changes at home. Moira snoozed while Philip massaged her back and Dr. Boyle stroked her smooth round head. The pack was in good hands, and Moira let us take over while she rested.

Tom had to go back to Kansas City to take care of his clients. But he’s back now for a few days. He’ll keep coming back. For as long as she is here to greet him. And after – we’re always going to be part of the same pack.

Moira has a new nickname – the Dragon Dog is now Miracle Moira. She enjoys walks, although she doesn’t pull on the leash quite as impatiently and she is more likely to trot through the grass than run. Yesterday her three people took her and her and brother Mishka to our favorite little lake. We didn’t know if she would want to swim, or just doze in the sun, but she exuberantly explored the tall grasses and swam a bit while Mishka fetched his Frisbee over and over out of the deep water. Once in a while, when we invited her to get the Frisbee and threw it only a short ways into the water, she waded out to fetch it, bringing it back with a stern shake and smug grin.

On the way home we even stopped at Starbucks for “puppy pops.” Usually we make them share, but today they each got one all to themselves.

We know the time is coming. The time when we will have to let her spirit leave the shiny sleek black body, let the light die out of the round chocolate eyes, and let ourselves mourn her physical companionship that has meant something different to each of us, but so much to all of us.

But that time is not now. Now is the time for treasuring her. For celebrating every expression of joy that crosses her face. For cuddling her close and stroking the velvet ears and kissing that little indention right between her eyes. For laughing at the pure pleasure of air, and grass, and water, and watching her move through all of them. Now is the time for smiling when we ask if she is hungry, and seeing her wiggle nearly out of her skin. Now is the time for not despairing when her breath comes hard and short in the night, or when she doesn’t jump up so quickly to follow us when we move from room to room.

Now is the time to pour all the love that she has given us in her seven years on this earth back into her daily existence. And we find we are not treating her any differently than we did when we thought we had years, not weeks, or as we now hope, months, of having her in our pack.

For her pack, she is a part of the fabric of our life. Whether her physical form is with us or not. And never will we think of her as fate. And certainly there is nothing of bitterness. For us, Moira will always be a reminder that love survives. It survives separation, and it survives adversity. And certainly, it will survive death. That time is coming. But that time is not now.

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