Friday, August 8, 2014

Sherpa ~ Part II

For Sherpa –

My apologies if this is a bit self serving.  I feel the need to write something down to remember my friend and companion.
Most everyone who knows me has also known my Border Collie mix, Sherpa.  She was adopted from a local shelter as a puppy in 2002.  This was a few years after the release of Disney’s “Babe” which featured working Border Collies, and puppy mills were busy churning out the popular black and whites to the unsuspecting.  She was a good puppy, and I love herding dogs.  But as she matured I got a taste of the nervous energy, willfulness, intelligence, and protectiveness that can come with the breed.  

It became clear that, from Sherpa’s perspective, there can be only one shepherd.   Everything and everyone else is just part of her flock.  She stood her post, erect and alert when the kids played in the back yard.  Playing “fetch” was beneath her dignity.  At leash-free dog parks, she was constantly herding groups of dogs together; barking urgently at them when they strayed off.  She would occasionally respond to commands from other people, if their voices were firm, but for the most part…she was MY dog.  And I was her shepherd.

In 2004, our family went through a drastic change.  Her flock became divided, and she and I were often alone.  At night I would wake up and see her sitting upright and alert at my side, looking out the window.  In the car she rode shotgun everywhere we went (the kids still in the back.)  She wore a path along the back fence line, warning whatever evil lurked in the 17 acres of public land behind our property, “You…are not OK with me.”  When the kids were home alone from school, she made her presence known at the front window, barking and gnashing at anyone who paused on the sidewalk.

As much as a she was such a bad ass…a switch would flip inside her the moment I allowed someone into the house.  Once I welcomed a visitor, she turned on the charm.  Sherpa was never exactly “affectionate” with me, but to our guests she demanded loving attention.  Anyone who sat on the living room sofa immediately had her at their side for them to scratch the scruff of her chest.
I grew accustomed to her quirks, but in 2006 when Kelly moved in, we both realized that Sherpa needed a partner.  Sherpa would regularly prance at my feet, tap-dancing her front paws as if begging me to “just…do…SOMETHING.”  Otter was adopted shortly after.  Although Sherpa maintained her Alpha status, she definitely mellowed and became easier to manage.

Sherpa remained fiercely loyal and protective to a fault.  She barely responded to Kelly’s (or anyone’s) commands, often waiting for my word to comply.  She could tell that the utility man I once let in to read the gas meter was not exactly a “guest,” and he earned a nip on his thigh.  No drama, just a message to “do your business, and get out.”  Kelly was happy to have Sherpa around when some pretty big dudes delivered a new dishwasher.  They left visibly shaken, having witnessed Sherpa’s ferocity as she threw herself against the screen door to try and get at them…Kelly knew Sherpa would always have her back.  On a camping trip, Otter found a cozy spot between the kids’ sleeping bags.  Sherpa however, spent the entire night at her usual post.  At the door of the tent, erect and alert.  Watching, listening, and waiting. 

With this trait came serious responsibility.  Walks to the park often meant holding her aside and away from children, eager to pet the dogs.  “Sorry kids, this one’s not so friendly.”  Otter always took Sherpa’s share of the attention.

The first chink in her armor was epilepsy.  She seized one night in 2008 and a trip to the Vet confirmed her condition.  Luckily it was very mild, no need for medication.  Organic foods reduced the frequency of the seizures, but they still happened occasionally.  I always held her, talked her through it, and saw the vulnerability in her eyes.  “Sorry Dad…I’m not your warrior today.”   Skunks were another issue.  When the dogs were let out at night, Sherpa always charged fearlessly into the darkness.  Sometimes she was met by a skunk and got sprayed right in the face.  By the second incident we deployed our prepared “skunk kit” and got her cleaned up outside, administering a late night dog bath in near freezing temperatures. 

Sherpa’s got pretty looks, but this is a tough dog.  She had no problem going toe to toe with Guinness, a pit bull mix in the neighborhood.  We agreed with the owners that, for both dogs’ sake, they shouldn’t be around each other.  It took at least a day for us to even notice when she broke her toe.  We think she got it caught up in a rug by the window, barking at a stranger on the sidewalk.  The vet put a splint on her leg and a cone around her neck.  Both of which were gone by the end of the day.  “F-you, I can walk this off.”

A strange cough appeared in Sept 2013.  I let it go for about 2 weeks before taking her in to the Vet.  I figured that even though she was just there a month prior for shots, maybe she picked up a little Bordatella / Kennel Cough.  At the weigh in, it’s noted that she’d lost 7 pounds that month.
The Vet examined her and said, “I have some concerns…”

Sherpa’s taken to the lab, and is gone for almost an hour.  Then we’re asked to join the Vet in a room I’d never been in before during our many visits.  It’s down a long hallway, away from the regular exam rooms.  It has nice comfortable chairs, a leather sofa.  And lots of tissues.  This is not the “good news” room. 

There’s a mass on Sherpa’s larynx, and all her lymph nodes are terribly swollen.  We’re given the diagnosis of somewhere between a stage-4 lymphoma, and full blown, end-stage, in the bone marrow cancer.  Either way, it’s too far gone to consider putting her through treatments, and we’re advised to make the most of the 4-6 weeks we may have with her.  She was just at the vet a month ago with no symptoms, and the cough was the only indication that something was wrong.  This is a tough dog.

The cough went away almost immediately, and we see no other symptoms.  I don’t question the diagnosis, but you’d hardly know how gravely ill she is.  Sherpa still lords over Otter and rules her domain.  If we hadn’t taken her to that day, who knows how long she would have kept us in the dark.  I start taking her on more frequent walks through the neighborhood, just the two of us.  I should have done it more often.  I’m sure I’ll be saying that to myself a lot.

Sherpa’s put on steroids to give her system a boost, help with the pain she’s been hiding from us, and perhaps hold the cancer at bay for a while.  The side effects are challenging; she’s ravenous and drinks several gallons of water a day.  We adjust the dosage to control her incontinence and find a happy medium; enough to help but not so much that she wets herself.  Even still, Sherpa now spends her nights gated in the kitchen, where I can at least clean up easier.  She and I are up a few times a night for relief walks.  She’s lonely and separated from her flock.  She protested a little at first, but soon accepts the new arrangement.  I’d say again that she’s a tough dog, but the separation has to be hard for her.   

It’s been more than six weeks, and Sherpa shows no sign of slowing down.  She occasionally has a “bad day” where she pants and exhibits some signs of discomfort.  But without the Vet’s grave diagnosis, I’d think “well…she is an older dog.”  Even our neighbors are skeptical about her condition, as they watch Sherpa run around with their young Yellow Lab, Riley.  I’m told that some dogs just suck it up and go as long as they can, and let you know only at the very end, when they’re done and can take no more.

After another four weeks, a mild limp shows up.  Mainly in the evenings and doesn’t seem too bad but certainly noticeable.  It can’t be too bad, since the mere sight of a squirrel or strange dog or the mailman has her tearing across the yard with no hint of the hitch in her gait.  The next day, no limping.  Go figure, she’s just shaking it off again I guess.

Two more weeks and I take the opportunity to get her nails trimmed and take her to the vet for a pre-Christmas checkup.  At the weigh in, it’s noted that she’s regained her fighting weight and then some.  A brief exam makes the Vet cautiously optimistic.  With the help of the Prednisone steroids, Sherpa’s immune system has bitch-slapped the cancer into a sort of dormancy.  Remission is not really a possibility, but it appears she’s forced a stalemate in her battle.  Although we’re reminded that the disease will eventually win out, even the Vet is happy with her status.  My warrior celebrates with McDonald’s Cheeseburgers on the way home.          

It’s been 8 weeks since her last checkup, a bitter Chicago winter has us all tucked indoors.  We’ve settled into a routine of pills 3 times a day, gallons of water, and tons of food.  Sherpa seems to have accepted the kitchen as her overnight domain.  She and I meet a few times a night for quick visits to the backyard, now covered in several feet of snow.  I’m reminded that she is due for shots in March, which we didn’t think she’d ever see.  She’ll also need to be boarded for a week at the Vet’s kennel while Kelly and I spend St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland; pretty impressive for a dog that wasn’t supposed to make it to Thanksgiving.

It’s now May.  The Ireland trip has come and gone, the snow is all melted, and warm days are becoming more common.  Our daughter is home from college, and Sherpa’s health is holding steady.  We’ve added another medication that helps her bladder control, and she’s back to sleeping up in the bedroom with us.  There are very few late overnight relief walks needed.  We’ve spoken to other owners whose dogs have taken a 4-6 week prognosis, and soldiered on for a year or more.  Sherpa looks to be joining their ranks, still showing no signs that the disease is inconveniencing her patrol duties.   

School is about to end for the summer, there are more kids out playing, more dogs out walking, and she lets them all know that this is HER house, HER yard, HER flock.  If I told you she’s dying…you’d ask to have my head checked.  This morning I found that she had broken into our daughter’s stash of lollipops – wrappers and sticks were strewn all over the floor.  At this point, there’s just no telling how far Sherpa will carry on.           

Excessive panting in a dog can be an indicator of several problems.  Dehydration, overuse of steroids, or extreme pain.  Sherpa woke us up several nights in June, panting at one side of the bed or another; whoever will listen to her.  The Vet adds some pain meds to help her out.  She is soldiering on but also shows signs that she is in a losing battle.  One day, Kelly notices that she has caught and killed an adult chipmunk in the backyard; an impressive feat for any dog, let alone one fighting for her life.
It’s July – Sherpa’s least favorite month.  Fireworks and thunderstorms; she hates them both.  We’re noticing however that this year, she doesn’t seem to be stressing over the noises.  She’s not charging into the blackness of the backyard at night.  She’s not warning passersby of her presence.  She’s finding more remote corners of the house to curl up and rest.  She’s hurting.  She’s losing.

July 5th, she isn’t able to stand without getting a boost.  Arthritis for sure, but something more seems to be sapping her spirits.  A quick visit to the Vet’s office and she stuns one of the new doctors on staff by her mere presence.  His only reaction after going over her charts is “Holy Shit….”  He explains that her immune system has spent the last 10 months unleashing hell on the disease.  Awesome, but clearly taking its toll.  He prescribes more pain meds to help with this new lack of mobility.

It doesn’t last long.  A few days later, Sherpa doesn’t greet me at the door, and refuses food and water for the first time in her life.  She’s unable to move without assistance, and her eyes plead with me not to lift her.  We take her in, and after a thorough exam, agree with our regular vet that her time has come.  Kelly, the kids, Otter, and I, surround her to say good bye; and Otter and I alone stay with her to the very end of her journey.  Sherpa departed calmly, without fuss or drama, having protected her flock and leaving them in good hands.  Her ashes lay at her post in the back yard where she so fiercely watched over the family that loved her, and she ruled all. 

I’ll miss you, Puppy.  See you on the other side.
Love, Shepherd.