Mortality’s Knocking

The northern view through my tall west-parlor back windows now displays a line of brilliant, yellow-orange brookside maples slowly shedding leaves in autumn’s variable sunny breezes, before the overnight cold quickly turns them brown and crunchy underfoot. Sitting and watching the leaves drop like feathers to the ground Wednesday morning immediately pulled my thoughts to Lily, a dear 12-year-old springer spaniel gundog and companion who’s fading.

Lily’s had another setback, and now it is clear that she will not see her 13th birthday on Aptil 28. No spring chicken but still rollicking with a joyful gait and tail-wag, and showing not a hint of appetite loss, Lily is, after all, pushing 90 in dog’s age. So, well, let’s just say mortality is indeed knocking on the door and appears to be creeping in with bird season here. Woodcock season opened last week and closes Nov. 19. Pheasant season opens Saturday and ends on Nov. 26.

So, will Lily hunt this year? A week ago I would have said yes, definitely, and she may well surprise me yet and rise to the occasion in the coming six weeks. But, as it stands right now, I’m not counting on ever again seeing her retrieve to me, head high and proud, a plump cock pheasant between her jaws. She’s endured  another troubling spell, one that has for now thrown her off-kilter, her motor skills affected, albeit slightly.

I witnessed her first seizure-like event just days after her 12th birthday on my daily morning trip out back to feed her and 5-year-old son Chubby inside the mouth of a backyard cook shed built to mimic a blacksmith’s forge. I had backed the truck alongside the barn, settling the back tires into a lawn depression to reduce the height the dogs needed to clear onto the tailgate, and could hear Lily barking enthusiastically for breakfast and our robust walk to follow. I dropped the tailgate and opened the wire porta-kennel doors before walking back into the cook shed, opening the covered plastic container atop a wooden table and dumping a scoop of dried food into both rust-brown Wagner skillets, — Lily’s a No. 7, Chub-Chub’s No. 8.

Upon freeing the dogs  by opening the kennel door, both of them sprinted eagerly to their breakfast plates as they always do.  Chubby dove right in but, curiously, Lily did not. Instead, she stopped a foot short and started acting in a peculiar manner, refusing to go the final inches to her food. It was as though a rattlesnake was coiled in front of the skillet, or perhaps something else that she didn’t want to tangle with. She started panting, smacking her lips, drooling and appeared to briefly lose her balance, never falling but stumbling to one side as she circled away toward a nearby stonewall. I thought maybe she had gotten into poison or been bitten by something on her  previous night’s ramble across the brook. Or maybe she had swallowed a hornet or spider, judging from the way it appeared she was feeling something uncomfortable in her mouth or throat.

As she stood next to the stonewall, still acting strange, she again stumbled a bit, looked like she was struggling with something in her mouth or throat, and circled to the left, around a twin bass tree to the back corner of the barn, where she stood straight, looked down and started smacking her lips and moving her head slowly from side to side. I called her and she came trotting my way, passing me to her food, where she stuck her nose down into the skillet and proceeded to eat at her normal pace. When done, as usual, she ran to the truck, showing a slight wobble in her gait, one that would take a keen eye to decipher, but she would not try to jump up onto the truck’s bed. I reached down to assist her and she staggered into her porta-kennel before quickly regaining her balance, standing and spinning around to face me.

“Hmmmmm?” I thought, perplexed. “I’ll have to see how she does on the walk,” which I must say surprised me. No. Check that. It stunned me.

After securing her in my arms and placing her on the ground in the hayfield we walk, she ran off as she always runs, displaying a light, happy gait and joyous tail, but still a little stagger here and there, which seemed to improve as we  progressed. By the end of our mile or more walk, she showed less sign of balance issues, though I did have to lift her up onto the tailgate to get her into her porta-kennel.

Once home, I kenneled the dogs and, because it was Saturday, my veterinary options  few, I went inside and immediately phoned the animal hospital in South Deerfield to describe what I had just witnessed to someone I surmised could diagnose the dog’s problem. No such luck. Maybe my description was confusing. I doubt it.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll just keep an eye on her and see what develops,” saving myself a bundle.

And monitor her I did that day and for many to follow, the athletic sporting animal showing steady progress to the point that, within two or three weeks, she was actually back jumping up into the truck and back down without assistance. I suspected a TIA or mini-stroke but, not being a doctor, couldn’t be sure. She could also have gotten into something. I continued observing her daily, and she continued to improve to the point of coming all the way back to her pre-seizure or TIA state. Honestly, all summer she was running up and down steep hills, through rivers, swimming, and getting in and out of the truck unassisted on most occasions. A miracle? Maybe, but I wasn’t quite convinced. After all, she is 12, old for a springer, the longest any of mine have endured.

And now this new development after a carefree summer of daily romps, river walks and ridge-top rambles. This latest harbinger of the end occurred noontime Monday following  a good, brisk mile walk. Visibly hesitant to attempt a jump up onto the truck, I was alert to her body language and gave her a little boost. She cleared the tailgate, staggered sideways and stumbled into the crate face first before standing up unsteadily and turning to face out. Hmmmm? What was that all about?

Since then, there’s been steady, slow progress but she’s not right, even though her appetite and happy tail-wag is normal, her light, happy gait altered slightly at times. I must admit I have intentionally kept her away from the steep edge of an escarpment we pass along our daily walk. I’m not eager to retrieve a pet that has tumbled down a high, treacherous, eroded sandy bank. It would be a project.

Who knows? Ole Lily-butt may just bounce back once again. Doc Schmitt himself called her a “tough bitch” with a fond twinkle in his eye after a birthing process gone bad. Not much has changed in the five years since, which were complicated by a bad infection along her ribcage from a beaver-pond puncture wound that required surgical intervention. She’s still plenty tough.

Although this recent event was not as serious of the one in April, I’m now confident she’s dealing with geriatric TIA’s, and that such an event will likely eventually take her to the happy hunting ground. If the final act is merciful, I’ll find her laying comfortably expired some morning on her soft, aromatic bed. Better still, maybe she’ll recover sufficiently to again accompany me in the field to run, jump, splash through black mud and flush birds to a flaming finale of sudden death by cardiac arrest from overstimulation and excitement.

We should all be so lucky. Few are.

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