Keaton was my dog, and to anyone who's never been able to call a creature "my dog" that is perhaps a phrase devoid of particular meaning. The rest of us know better.
I trained him all right. He was always smart, maybe too smart. He could sit, lay down, stand on his hind legs, and come. Early in his life I whistle trained him. I took him out to run in a huge grassy basin in the back of my apartment complex every day. When I moved to the south of the city, I took him to the dog park every day. There was nothing more magical than seeing him bank back towards me 100 yards out and come sprinting back to my side when I blew that whistle.
He was a herding dog, and needed a lot of exercise. He got it, though that didn't stop him from being a hurricane of destruction that first year. I slept on a cheap IKEA futon at the time. It was basically a frame, some wooden slats, and not much of a mattress. One day I came home to discover that he crawled under the futon and chewed through two of the slats. As far as I could tell this did no damage to his teeth which, for the most part, stayed white and clean for most of his life.
* * *
One day, he didn't want to eat. Keaton was not picky. Among his many positive traits, I think this is what my mom loved best about him. A trip to his grandma's house meant multiple plates of Korean food - more than enough to satiate a full-grown human let alone a thirty pound border collie. But this day was different.
He stood in the middle of the room, looking eagerly at me while I set his food bowl down. He wagged his tail and pinned his ears back, maybe feeling a little embarrassed or like he was doing something wrong. He didn't approach his bowl. I brought it to him. He sniffed it but didn't eat it. Maybe weeks prior, I had noticed that he had been drinking large quantities of water and as a result urinating an almost obscene quantity. Polydipsia and polyuria. I learned lots of words like these.
The first big word was hypercalcemia. At the moment, I felt no particular panic when the vet called and told me that Keaton had elevated levels of calcium. She ran through the possible causes. Vitamin D poisoning, hyperparathyroidism, and "unfortunately" (I would be hearing that word a lot over the next few months) a very high possibility of cancer. I wonder now if she knew then and there that this was cancer. Of the hundreds, if not thousands, of cases she's seen over the years, how often does she see hypercalcemia and immediately know that she has some very bad news to share.
He spent almost a week in the hospital. He was given fluids, medicine. I was given bad news and bills. We began the arduous task of trying to find a diagnosis. One malignancy profile later, we thought we had ruled out cancer. No cancer markers were found. But test after test came back negative. It wasn't vitamin D poisoning. It wasn't hyperparathyroidism. It wasn't some rare virus that some dogs are infected with in this particular region of the country. Test after test until nothing fit anymore except cancer.
The day the vet called me to tell me that the most likely diagnosis was cancer, I was at work. I was between shoots, driving in the KLRU Suburban. I was a block away from the backyard party I was supposed to film. I pulled into the parking lot while my vet gave me all the information. I asked her how long he had to live. I wept when the answer came. "One to three months is probably a likely estimate." I took a few minutes after the phone call to pull myself together then headed to the party.
Within a span of a week, we went from a low likelihood of cancer to it being the only diagnosis that seemed to make sense. To this day, we don't know exactly what killed him, though that didn't stop us from spending thousands of dollars to make fruitless attempts at getting back to the status quo.
Subcutaneous fluids became easy. Keaton never squirmed. He hated it and any time I brought a bag of fluids out he knew it was time for me to poke a big needle into his skin and fill his back with water. He went to the couch or his bed in the corner or to the banana chair, laid down, and pinned his ears back anxiously. But once there he never fought it or ran away. What initially felt like a grave violation, an act of harm, became an everyday occurrence. 700 mL a day. By the end, we were taking him outside every hour or so to urinate and each time he peed what seemed like an endless amount.
He was six years old. Middle age for a dog. The injustice suffocated me, and still can if I let it. My girlfriend worked at Austin Pets Alive, an organization with the sole intent of saving as many pets as it could. After a friend lost their dog in a not dissimilar fashion, we had raised funds to cover the adoption fee so he could adopt the one-eyed, deaf pitbull we were fostering at the time. If our karma could be quantified as far as pet welfare goes, we should've had pets that lived well past their life spans, that could read and write, maybe chip in on rent.
I suppose I thought there'd be some miraculous turn of events. Maybe the lab had made a mistake and it turned out to be a disease that could be solved with a surgery. Costly, sure, but he could live as many years as he was supposed to. Maybe one day his symptoms would just go away. Maybe giving him exclusively distilled water would help. Maybe giving him exclusively tap water would help. Maybe a homemade diet was the key. Maybe zinc. Maybe slippery elm bark. Maybe acupuncture.
Mostly, for a dog that was dying, he did okay. The right mix of steroids and other drugs kept him as normal as he could've been. Most of the time, it was hard to remember he was sick. There were tells, sure. Once upon a time, the cat poop in the litter boxes were bountiful gifts bestowed upon him from his feline brethren. Now he never touched the stuff. There was also the way that the vets seemed to sprinkle in "I'm sorry" every few minutes when I talked to them. Then there were a couple of times when he would stop eating again out of the blue. We'd go to the vet, they'd do some blood work, see that his calcium was again elevated, increase his prednisone, his fluids, and he'd be "normal" again within a day or two.
The vet's cautious estimate was one to three months. But we had karma. He'd be one of those crazy cases where he'd live for years with a terminal illness, right?
* * *
I knew it in my gut. It was 2:00 am. I had just brushed my teeth. I turned around and Keaton was lying down a few feet behind me. I noticed that he was trembling. Only a few hours before, he was playing tug-of-war with us. He had a relatively new rope toy. He did what he always did: held it in his mouth, looked at us, raised it an inch, and then dropped it. Then he stared at it. If you tried to grab it, he'd grab it, too, quick as lightning, and you'd have to fight for it.
When he was well, you'd really have to fight for it. You could practically swing him around in a perfect circle while he growled and shook. That final time was mostly half-hearted. A few weak pulls, one weak chase when I threw it.
It never got better. I told my girlfriend that the vets probably couldn't do much. Maybe prescribe some pain meds on top of his current regimen of medications. I was being realistic. For some reason, throughout Keaton's dying days, it was important to me to be realistic. Maybe it was my way of trying to be brave when I would tell the vet that I fully understood that he was dying, that we shouldn't mince words. Maybe it was my way of trying to trick the universe. "See? I've totally accepted it and I'm totally pragmatic about it. Now would be the time to blindside me with a miracle."
A few hours later, he was still shaking and now he was breathing very heavily and quickly. He was in pain. We took him into the emergency vet at 5:00 am. When we arrived, he got out of the car on his own feet though clearly he was struggling. When the vet tech came around the desk to look at him, I saw him wag his tail. That was the last time I ever saw him wag his tail. They gave him a shot of something, which barely seemed to affect him. We went home and planned to come back later in the morning when the internal medicine doctors would be arriving.
He couldn't stand on his own, and so I had to lift him. When 7:30 am rolled around, we decided to head out. I tried to lift him, and he let out a yelp that I had never heard him make before. Long and high-pitched, his mouth open in agony. I gently laid him back down on the couch, found myself weeping, and said, "It's over." I clutched him and kept clutching him.
If this were a story I was writing, it would be a cleaner ending. We would've called in our veterinarian. He would've come to our apartment and we would've euthanized him then and there. But when you're deciding whether or not to say goodbye forever to your best friend, it's only natural to want experts to provide some more insight.
I found a way to lift him that didn't seem to hurt. We got him to the vet. She told us that they could add pain meds and see how that helped but it was pretty clear that even the powerful intramuscular injections of painkillers did little to dull the pain.
It was not as hard of a decision to make as I thought. He was in such obvious pain that the only humane choice was to let him go. Except - again, here comes that unneatness of reality - there was some last-minute data. Our other vet had taken some blood the previous week. There was a discrepancy in the initial battery of tests. Why did the ultrasound show a slightly enlarged parathyroid gland, yet his blood work show no elevation of parathyroid hormones? Doctors don't like discrepancies, and so it was worth another look.
That look yielded new, different data that seemed to contradict the old data. His parathyroid hormone levels were four times the normal amount. His ionized calcium, though, was normal. Typically, both levels are abnormal at the same time or both normal at the same time.
The vet did another ultrasound. His parathyroid glands were indeed larger than they were three months ago when the initial ultrasound was done. We were ready to let Keaton go, had decided to let Keaton go. It was only because I checked my voicemail and heard this new information that we suddenly had a decision on our hands. The door to the miracle we were waiting for popped slightly ajar.
I talked to my girlfriend. I talked to my sister. I talked to the vets. The parathyroid glands were an unknown. The irregularities in the data could only be resolved with surgical exploration. Surgical exploration was expensive. I was already maxed out on my credit cards, as the daily phone calls from creditors were keen to remind me. My sister said she would be willing to cover the cost if that's the path I wanted to pursue. It was a crapshoot.
But this was all in the hypothetical. In reality, the first living thing who loved me wholly, my best friend, the source of the purest love I had ever known, was buried so deeply beneath his pain that even calling his name barely elicited his eyes to twitch in my direction. He was ready to go, and far be it for me to try to borrow more time for the possibility of a half-alive state.
Selfishly, I wanted to fight on. The quivering mass that was the first love of my life wanted respite.
* * *
And here again, an anticlimax. I suppose in my head, there would be a clear moment when Living Keaton would transition to Not Living Keaton, and at that moment all the suffering that I felt and that he felt would come pouring out of me. But the transition wasn't clear. When did he leave us? When his pupils dilated? When his quick breathing finally steadied? When his normally pink ears turned a yellowish white hue?
Eyelids don't close in death. It's not like in the movies where you can close them. They pop right back open. And, to me, for the first few minutes after he had stopped breathing, after his heart had stopped, I did not see any distinction between these dead eyes and his living eyes. They just looked like his eyes and his fur felt like his fur and he smelled like he always smelled.
Certainly, after fifteen minutes or so he was unequivocally a body. You could not mistake him for being asleep. But in those first few minutes, I honestly couldn't tell if that invisible spark that ignites our life force was there or not. I expected something more mystical, I guess, even as a firm man of science. I thought that once he was gone, I would simply feel his goneness on some higher plane of awareness and be allowed to open the floodgates of grief.
I feel his goneness now, of course. I feel it in the way I pick up my keys and expect Keaton to pop up, eager for the mere possibility of a walk, only to be greeted by nothing. I felt it when the vet left after we had loaded Keaton's body in his van. As soon as we said our goodbyes and closed the doors, my first thought was, "I better take Keaton out to pee, it's been a few hours." And I can only imagine that I will feel it for the rest of my life in big ways and small.
It has been maybe five or six hours since he died. I haven't slept in over 24 hours yet every time I lay down I find myself staring at this Keaton-sized hole in my life. Where once I might expect him to hop onto the bed with me, to sleep at the foot, or if I'm lucky, to sleep by my side, now I have nothing. He was not just a part of my life but of my routine. I find myself unable to fathom what meaning my life has if there isn't someone counting on me to take care of them. Who am I living for? Of course, that's a dumb depressive question. I'm not an idiot, and I'm not inexperienced in grief. Eventually I'll arrive at gratitude for having him in my life at all.
But for now I dread waking up tomorrow morning, to not pick up his collar and leash, to not hear his eager footsteps - claws prattling on the hardwood floor. Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up and just wake up. I am facing a void, and I don't want to face it.
* * *
His name was Comet. That was the name the shelter gave him. I had picked the name Keaton before I ever met Keaton. I thought it was just a clever name, an homage to my favorite silent film star. Yet I can't imagine how, if I had picked another dog, that dog could've possibly been Keaton. His name was written into some greater tapestry of the universe.
Only this Keaton, my Keaton, my dog, could've met a broken, lonely man and loved him until he fixed him.