Kirby is Home

The headline is the important thing here. Inverted pyramid style, I put the most important fact even above the lede. That Kirby is home is the most important piece of news I have to share this week. And then I can tell you how she almost didn’t come home.

Kirby is my family’s dog, a shepherd/husky mix. She has a drinking problem, but only with water. She has a bad habit of silently creeping from the room where the family is and slinking upstairs to see if anyone left a toilet lid up, so she can binge. Barring that oversight by a human family member, she pulls up the bathmat in the tub and licks from it Every. Drop. of Water. She loves peanut butter and ice cubes. She will stare fixedly at you if you eat in front of her. If she slips her leash, she approaches escape velocity and quickly leaves the zip code. She pulls hard on the leash, because, if you come from Siberia, everything and everyone looks like a sled. She has barked less than a dozen times in her life–about once a year. She talks frequently, especially if she believes it’s time for peanut butter and none has been delivered. (If you have never heard “husky speak,” visit YouTube and search the term. It’s enlightening.) More than one friend has referred to her as a “therapy dog,” because he very presence relieves tension and anxiety.

We adopted Kirby in the Spring of 2012. It was time. Our previous canine family member, Webley, had died quietly in her sleep a year before.

(Yes, “died.” Another journalistic habit of mine. My first news-writing teacher told me, “Never say, ‘passed,’ ‘passed on,’ or ‘passed away.’ Those are euphemisms meant to hide the facts. A journalist reports facts without emotional overtone.” ((This was before Rachel Maddow arrived on the scene.)) When I die, please take note, and tell people I died. Not “passed.” Not “passed away.” Not “passed on.” Do not sugarcoat an event that I have great confidence will be a vast tragedy in the eyes of all humanity.)

As with Webley, Renee found Kirby on Petfinder. She was in a shelter in Stevensville, MD with her sister, who was pure white. Her shelter name was Mia. We met Mia, her sister Lily(?), and a sweet pit bull named Noelle. I have no prejudice against pit bulls, but others do. I veer away from raising a pit bull in the vicinity of suburbanites, who, unlike pitbulls, deserve their reputation as the most vicious species of any animal on earth. (Noelle was smuggled out of Prince Georges County, which, at the time, had an order that all pit bull pups were to be euthanized on collection. I couldn’t see taking the poor thing back across the Bridge of Death. She was safer on Kent Island.) Kirby’s sister’s eyes were still closed because of a parasite infestation, so we thought she needed more time with her rescuers. And Kirby, at 16 weeks, took to walking on a leash better than the other two. She came home with us.

We named her Kirby after the great Marvel Comics creator, and because she looked a bit like Amadeus Cho’s wolf pup of the same name. For over eleven years, she has been healthy, playful and loving. A welcome addition to the family.

A week ago, we were prepared to say goodbye to her and facing the very real possibility of doing it without see her beautiful face again in this life.

It went like this:

On the fourth Friday in June, I took Kirby to her vet to board for eight days. We were going to the beach, and Kirby likes her vet better than she likes the beach. It’s like time at the spa for her. My grandson and I took her in, and everyone in the office paused in their work to welcome Kirby by name. She’s a popular customer. When she stays with them, she works the front counter and greets visiting humans, dogs, and cats. When we checked her in, I reported that she had had two “accidents” in the last 48 hours. Not unusual for a neutered female of her age, but I wanted to have her tested for UTI. I said goodbye to my happy, playful girl as she ignored me and went to schmooze with her friends.

Monday, our vet called to say that Kirby was “very sick.” The blood test for UTI had revealed a blood platelet count of 15,000. It should be at least ten times that. She had refused to eat or even stand up that morning, and X-Rays showed fluid in her abdomen. She had bruises all over her body that were not there the night before. She was being transferred to emergency care immediately. Possible causes were poisoning, tick-borne infection, or (of course) cancer. Without immediate and constant care, Kirby was going to die.

Tuesday, an internal medicine specialist was placed in charge of Kirby’s care. Kirby’s platelet count had dropped to zero. Her red cell count was dangerously low. An ultrasound showed reduced kidney and liver function and a mass in her abdomen. That mass could be an inflamed lymph node, a hematoma, or a carcinoma. It was impossible to perform a biopsy or aspirate the mass because her blood might not clot and she could bleed out. The doctor recommended a whole blood transfusion. She also said that euthanasia was a completely correct option at this point.

Well, I had been through a similar situation with Kirby’s friend Lazarus, my fluffy ginger tabby. I knew from that experience that you give the patient a chance to fight. Lazarus had lived two more years after a similar crisis point, because of conservative (but expensive) treatment. So we said yes to a transfusion and continued steroid and antibiotic therapy. But we said so expecting a call at any time saying that Kirby could not survive. We were ready to drive home and say goodbye, or even just let her go, to save her suffering an extra three hours drive time.

Why didn’t we drive home immediately? I asked Renee, “Am I being cold, not just jumping in the car and running to her side?” It was a tough call. This week at the beach was our first family vacation since 2019, and that last one had been a painful experience for reasons I won’t go into. Suffice to say that none of us were in good places, emotionally. Since then, we had seen our daughter-in-law Jessica through cancer and watched her die. We had mourned. We had wondered if our family was broken forever. Our two annual trips to Rehoboth were anchor points on which our family solidarity seemed to hang, and we had ended them. Now, six of us were back, and, miraculously, our family had added a new generation during those three-and-a-half difficult years. One of us was missing. Christian’s work schedule did not allow him to spend the week with us. But even missing one of your own takes on a different meaning when you do it as a family. We were together.

The idea of losing Kirby was painful. The feeling of being able to do nothing to help was almost intolerable, but it was sad fact. I asked her doctor if there was anything we could do for her if we came home. Her doctor said no. Indeed, she said visiting Kirby was not advised. She was so sick that the slightest excitement could tax her resources and bring on more bleeding. We stayed and waited for news, together. Because he was closest, Christian was prepared to go to her if she needed him, anytime of day or night.

Wednesday and Thursday we got updates and talked to Kirby’s regular vet. We decided against a second transfusion, if one became necessary, because it would only be prolonging a life that was clearly ending. Then we reconsidered as her condition stabilized, and a second transfusion might allow her to live and have some quality of life so we could have at least a few more days with her to say goodbye. Her doctor told us that patients with idiopathic Thrombocytapenia (ITP) can respond to treatment with sudden, exponential increase in platelets. She didn’t want to raise our hopes too high, though. She feared that the root cause of Kirby’s condition was a massive cancer.

Then came Friday. The morning call brought news that Kirby’s platelet count was around 115,000 and her red cell count was almost normal. She’d been for a walk (short, because of the poor air quality in Maryland) and her appetite was strong. Not only did it look like she would live to see us again, she was actually ready to come home. My chest started heaving and I could barely speak to ask questions. We could pick her up Saturday, with a follow-up ultrasound scheduled in seven days to determine the status of the abdominal mass.

We still don’t know if Kirby has cancer, or what caused her sudden illness; but she’s home. She moves a little slowly, and she sleeps more than usual. She’s on antibiotics and steroids until further notice. But she still jumps up (slowly) every time she hears the ice dispenser, still comes running (carefully) when she hears someone open a kitchen cabinet, still looks imploringly at us out of one brown and one blue eye while we eat, and still follows me up the stairs to bed every night.

Out of the blue, I spent a month’s salary and a month’s pension on emergency care. This after the IRS’s byzantine withholding tables caused me to have to clean out my savings account in April and reduce my monthly take-home pay by $1,000 toward next year’s taxes. Families are expensive. Governments are moreso. Oh well.

She’s home. For how long? We don’t know. We’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. We are here now.

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