Sunday, February 23, 2014

Liam: A Celebration of my Sidekick and Best Friend

When my husband (at the time boyfriend) and I first got Liam he was around one, the shelter did not have an accurate date for his birthday but suggested a July 2005 birth.  We walked through the length of the Humane Society building and saw so many dogs we could love but when we got to the back and saw Liam he just grabbed our hearts: a spunky Lab/Pointer mix with paws that were too big and a wagging tail.  “You don’t want Liam” the worker told us but it was too late, after one glance we were already in love.  Liam jumped and played with us and even knew some commands. He was so happy and it was infectious.  He was such a good boy from the get go- he loved to chew chew chew chew everything, but what puppy doesn’t? Liam quickly became our best friend. 

As with any sidekick we began to need him as much as he needed us.  Afterall where would Pinnochio have ended up without Jiminey Cricket? Mowgli without Baloo? Robin Hood without Little John? He was more than just our pet, Liam quickly became our family.  The highlight of my day was the wag when I walked in and the silver lining on the clouds that rolled in were always puppy kisses and snuggles to dry my tears and warm my heart.  When I felt low or lonely or sad- he was there.  When I was happy and wanted to spend some times outside at the park- he was there.  When I wanted to snuggle on the couch and watch TV- he was there.  He was there when we moved in together and there when we got engaged, and was happy to meet our nieces and nephews and play any games they wanted.  At the end of the day all Liam ever wanted was our companionship and we were very willing to give it to him.

When Liam was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Disease it was after a long two weeks that began when he stopped eating and ended with exploratory surgery on September 21st.  It was really rough for us to go through and IBD is no joke (not to be confused with IBS).  The biopsy report can apparently be interpreted in many ways since IBD is subjective with no specific defined parameters.  All we knew at the time was that by October he was eating and had gained some weight back.  He was so happy in the two months following his surgery.  Before it got to cold we took him to the park, we had play dates with his cousin puppy, and he came house sitting with us.  We got him new food and toys and stopped feeding him table scraps.  He seemed to be in remission. 

Around Thanksgiving he started to get sick again, and stopped eating as much.  Just like the first bout he had diarrhea and we had to really coax him to eat.  Trying to be pre emptive about an IBD relapse we called the vet who prescribed a week of antibiotics followed by a week of steroids when that didn’t work.  By the third week he'd lost a third of his body weight, and was having diarrhea every couple hours all day long.   Plus he had not eaten in nearly two weeks and we were already weaning him off of the prednisone.  When we followed up with the vet again they recommended a specialist and we tried another antibiotic for a couple days.  It did not work so off we went.

When the specialist read his biopsy report he diagnosed Liam with Lymphangiectasia, a disease that blocks the absorption of all nutrients through the intestines.  I had hoped this appointment would be one where the specialist said that they could treat his IBD with some IV drugs and nurse him back to health with a feeding tube but instead we were told that we had a 15% chance of remedying this and it would not be a cure forever.  The specialist decided that we should try a slew of medicines for a couple weeks and go from there.  With heavy hearts we left the specialty center and tried to remain optimistic.   We snuggled him up with our blankets (especially his favorite that he rarely got to use: a Vera Bradley plush throw I got for my birthday) and would hold his cold paws (from going outside in the New York winter so often) until he fell asleep.  My husband whispered to him as he slept and next thing you know he would be off dreaming.  Dreaming of running and catching something as always, and then eating.  This in particular pulled at our heart strings even thought it was a frequent dream his whole life it carried more meaning now.  I could not help but think of something I teach my students about Egyptians and how they viewed the afterlife as a happy field of food.  I couldn’t help but think if I had to let him go a heaven described as a happy field of food seemed like the perfect place for him to be headed. 

Liam was only 8 according to our information from the Humane Society, but possibly he could have been slightly older or younger, when he was diagnosed.  Looking back at the seven years we spent with him prior to diagnosis I feel spoiled.  How did I get so lucky to have so much love in my life? Why were we the ones blessed with a dog who loved us so much and so unconditionally that he forced us to be better people? And worse, I wondered over and over if he knew how much he changed my life? Did he know how this inter-species friendship had been the best one my husband and I had ever had?  I went through the normal stages of grief bargaining in my prayers to do more and be better if God would just heal him.  I was also angry.  My childhood Dalmation, Dottie, had lived to be 14.  Why couldn’t Liam have a life like this? He would not get to see the yard when we bought a house or meet our child whenever we started a family.  I wanted Liam there for everything and no matter what the medicine did or did not do it seemed he would leave me.  I would be without my sidekick.

For months my only thoughts have been of him.  No matter where I go or what I do he is there and as a coping mechanism my thoughts of him somehow turned to the good stuff: how he looked that first day, the way he perked up when we told him we were “goin for a ride” and took him to the park or to a friends house, the way he actually was smiling the day we took him home and so many times after that, how he learned the command 'speak' at age seven (can’t teach an old dog new tricks, eh?), how happy a squeak toy made him, when he cocked his head to the side when he heard a noise out of place, the way the mailman was surprised he wasn’t much bigger after hearing his bark for years, the way he trotted around when he was happy (which was nearly all the time), how he looked when he was sitting and whip-wagging across the floor, how he was so smart and learned so much English we had to stop saying any synonym of the word treat because he understood them all, the way he curled up with all his paws together when he slept sometimes, how he loved to look at Christmas lights, how he was always so willing to dress up and pose for pictures, and that’s just what I have thought so far this morning. 

Liam died on Monday, December 23rd.  We had to make the decision ourselves because medicine had failed us and Liam's disease was rapidly becoming fatal.  Before we said goodbye we took Liam to his favorite park.  We walked to all his favorite places and all the places he had ever wanted to stop.  To make the rest of our time together a time of love and family we pulled the mattress off of our bed so he could snuggle up with us like he used to (he couldn't jump up anymore) and we all slept together.  We sang Liam his favorite songs and all slept and napped together... and my husband and I watched our boy dream some more.  My memories of Liam will always be with me so no matter what happens my sidekick will be here in my heart, because he is part of it.  

I have gotten a lot of unsolicited opinions from people about their pets in the last few months, many who surprisingly think we spent too much money on him and wouldn’t have given him another chance or another round of meds.  Many still who reassured us that we were doing what was best and not giving up.  One friend told me, “You’re really making a huge mommy effort for him.  I know you feel horrible but at the very least you know you’ve really really done everything you possibly can at the point.  You haven’t given up on him.  You’ve fought for him for months. I hope that makes you feel a tiny little bit ok.”  Another friend said, “Listen, feel like shit.  Go ahead. You are allowed to and don’t let anyone force you to not mourn.”  My father told me about how he felt when my childhood dog had to be put down and said, “Our dogs are not easy to lose.  They become part of our families and part of our life experience.  They give unconditional love and ask for very little in return, just some affection and playtime.  They wait patiently for us to return when we go out and always greet us ecstatically when we return.  Humans can learn much from dogs: patience, faithfulness, protection, and unconditional love.”  I keep thinking about how as I have told a few loved ones that "Liam has ruined me for other dogs" because his love is so special and our memories fill such a huge place in my heart that I don't know if I could go through this heartache again and I don't know if I could ever bond with another animal the way Liam and I have.  Then I think of a friend who told me "you have to build your home over the holes in your heart".

Mourning is mourning and I think about some of the lines from "Sleepless in Seattle" sometimes when I am having a rough day.  Just get out of bed in the morning, just breath in and out, and maybe one day the empty spot near my night stand and the empty feeling in my home won't hurt me in my bones.  One day I will see a puppy that reminds me of Liam and smile not cry.  One day I will feel the peace that letting him go brought him.  A lot of pain has come my way since I lost my Liam and I try to keep this in mind every single day.  A good friend told me in regards to another situation in my life "Dare to be brave." and that advice translates so far.  I have dared to be brave when I need to be honest with people and dared to be brave when I need to choke back tears or stand up straight or teach about the Ming Dynasty when I wanted nothing more than to run and hide.  Remember that when you find yourself stuck in a situation like this.  Dare to be brave every single day.  Days when you lose love or when you feel pain and heartache just be brave.  I promise you will find the strength.  

Love: that is real magic.  My puppy boy loved me unconditionally and every moment I spent with him I wanted to live up to that love.  As long as I can think I will think of him and it will remind me to be the kind of person he already thought I was.  Real magic isn't found in fairytales it is found in sweet snuggles, gentle kisses, and love that radiates so strongly that it does not even need to be spoken.  I love you Liam, my Liam boy, and I will see you again.  Remember you are a good boy (the best boy) and you are never alone (and to look for Dottie D). I wish you peace.

If you stumble upon this article of celebration and sadness in a state of your own doubt or loss, remember you will find clarity just keep your heart filled with love- I have not fully found mine yet but I know it is there.  If you have a friend who faced a loss like mine tell them you are there for them, tell them something special you remember about their Liam.  If you are dealing with canine IBD or Lymphangiectasia please email me if you have any questions.  We did a lot of research on both of these during Liam's treatment and I would be happy to help another pup if you need direction or advice- just remember to keep being optimistic, fight for your pet, do what he needs not what you do, and believe in miracles.

If you are here because you are a Picturing Disney reader, just celebrate your pets.  Celebrate their unconditional love and never take a wag or a kiss for granted.  Sing to them and play with them.  Snuggle them a little closer tonight. Leave me a comment and share your own special memory- if you know my Li maybe a celebration of him but if not your own special boy.  

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