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Gus is still here

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It is with guilt that I tell you that Gus is still alive. I say “guilt,” because literally hundreds of readers weighed in on my last few blog posts and Facebook posts, expressing the most profound sympathy for the death I told them was impending. For instance, on Thursday night I posted a photo of him with the caption “his last night on Earth.” People were very upset about that, as was I. Some of their comments moved me to tears. But, as I said, he’s still alive.

Let me explain.

On Wednesday, he started bleeding heavily from the mouth, from the gum area where the tumor is (and is getting visibly bigger by the day). I’d been waiting for weeks for “the next shoe to drop”—the symptom that would finally force me to have him euthanized. I had no idea what it would be. Could have been almost anything, given the presence of the tumor in his skull, where it could invade his eyes, nose, throat, tongue, or spread to his lungs. He’d bled a little bit from the beginning—in fact, that was why I first brought him to the vet, who gave us the diagnosis of bone cancer (osteosarcoma). But it was just a little. Wednesday’s bloodletting by contrast was horrifying.

So on Thursday, while on a long walk, I made the painful decision: It was time. I made arrangements for Friday, to bring him to the vet who would euthanize him. But them something happened. You see, about ten days ago, his regular vet had given me two new prescriptions for him: a more powerful painkiller than that one he was already on, and the corticosteroid, Prednisone. She said the more powerful painkiller would make him drowsy, something his existing painkiller wasn’t doing, while the Prednisone was an anti-inflammatory that would keep the swelling down.  

Well, his existing painkiller seemed to be working just fine, without making him drowsy, so it didn’t make sense to give him the more powerful one. The vet also warned me, in no uncertain terms, not to combine the Prednisone with the existing painkiller: there could be extremely serious contraindications. So I stuck the new painkiller and the Prednisone in the fridge and decided I wouldn’t use them until and unless things got very bad.

On Thursday night, with euthanasia scheduled for the next day, I figured, why not give him the more powerful painkiller and the Prednisone? Couldn’t hurt, might help. And that’s what I did. Gus had a very good night sleeping with me Thursday night. Just a few drops of blood. He seemed great on Friday morning. No blood! Pretty much as perky and hungry as ever, curious, happy to go out, responsive, looking for a belly rub. Clearly something, probably the Prednisone, had done something positive.

I did a little Googling on “Prednisone for dogs, cancer” and learned the following: It’s not a cure, but an effective palliative. It’s not intended for longterm use, but over a short period can provide pain relief, and a feeling of well being. Over a longer period—several months—Prednisone can have many serious side effects. But overall, it can be a marvelous drug, even for a dog dying of cancer.

Well, my mind was in a real quandary. I’d thought and thought about Gus for weeks, wondering when the end was here. On Thursday, I had made a decision—one of the hardest of my life—to have him put down the next day. Now, suddenly, it was the next day, and he was so much better. I talked to a few friends who had experience with Prednisone and animals and they told me how miraculous it was, at least for a while. So, late Friday morning, I changed my plans. No euthanasia.

My guilt is because I now feel like I unintentionally misled so many wonderful people, whom I’d told I’d be euthanizing Gus on Friday, people who loved and cared and suffered along with me. And now, I’m telling everyone I didn’t euthanize him. Please forgive me! I mean that with all my heart. Anyone who’s gone through this knows the emotional roller coaster I’ve gone through. You’re up one day, down the next, even further down the next—and then you’re back up. Tears, then hope, then tears, then hope, then…Well, as long as he’s happy and eating and enjoying life, and not bleeding or showing other symptoms of the cancer, how can I put him down now?

I don’t know how long this reprieve will last. Could be a day, or several days. For all I know, it could be a few weeks. It doesn’t seem likely to be longer than that, and as my research showed me, the serious side effects would eventually cancel out the benefits. In the meantime, I still have little Gus. He’s doing okay. I’m so grateful to you all for being there for me. I’ll continue to keep you posted.


Gus: a good dog

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It’s been a month since Gus got sick with bone cancer. The lump on the left side of his face has gotten a lot bigger; it looks like he has half a walnut shell under his jowl. When the vet gave me the diagnosis—we were in a little examining room—she gave him “a few weeks to a few months” to live. It’s been four weeks now. Nothing much has changed; Gus is more or less in a holding pattern. But the vet used the word “aggressive” several times to describe the nature of the cancer, the implication being that when things go south, he’ll deteriorate rapidly.

The skull is, of course, a bad place to get an aggressive cancer. If it had struck a limb, the limb could have been amputated. Where the tumor goes next is anyone’s guess. His respiratory system is vulnerable. So are his eyes, teeth and olfactory system. (I can’t imagine Gus not being able to sniff anymore.) The hardest thing from a managerial point of view is deciding when to have him euthanized. Although I have bouts of magical thinking in which the tumor miraculously starts shrinking, I know that’s not going to happen. Gus is going to die. But it’s extremely unlikely he’ll die a natural death, “in his sleep,” as it were. His death will be caused by an injection of pentobarbital, and it is I who will give the order to the vet to do the deed.

I’m reconciled to that. The question is “when.” I’ve had advice from literally hundreds of people about this question of timing. Many advise putting Gus down sooner than I’d like to, that is, while he still has a good quality of life, which he does. He’s always hungry, loves to go outside and sniff and pee, is interested in every person whom we pass on the sidewalk, observes squirrels with the canis intensity bred into his genes, greets me when I come home, loves to lick my hands and face, and enjoys finding a nice spot in the sun to nap. In other words, a good life (or should I say, “a dog’s life”?). The sooner-rather-than-later people say that it’s pointless and cruel to wait until he starts to suffer. It’s hard to argue with that.

Then there’s the other side, which includes people very close to me. They take one look at Gus and say, “How could you possibly even consider ending it now? He’s happy.” Instead, they advise waiting until something bad happens—he stops eating, say, or becomes unusually lethargic, or begins to constantly cry. That makes sense to me, too, but there are practical considerations that make me worry. I’ve spoken to a number of vets who could put him down, and they all warn me it’s liable to be two or three days before they can find the time to do it. My worst fear is having Gus be in insufferable pain and having to wait days for a vet appointment.

This is the horn of the dilemma. It consumes me every day, all day, the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night. I’m probably getting too much advice. All those opinions churning around in my brain, clashing with each other, don’t make it any easier to have clarity. But it helps me to talk to others, to listen to what they say, and besides, a lot of the people offering me advice have their own pet-euthanasia tales that are touching and often tear-jerking. It’s amazing this bond humans can have with their animals. I’ve never had kids, and I wouldn’t for a minute pretend that losing a dog is worse than losing a child. But even parents who have lost children share with me the inordinate pain of losing a beloved dog or cat. You can love your child but your child will still hurt you plenty over the course of your lives, whereas a good dog will never hurt you. And Gus is (as I tell him all the time) a good dog.

I really lucked out with him. We just hit it off from the first minute we met. He’s not only sweet, he doesn’t even bark. I know that, physically, he’s able to, because he’s barked maybe half a dozen times in our 11 years together. But he doesn’t, for some reason, and that’s a good thing, because I don’t like barky dogs. The other thing that’s on my mind is whether to get another dog when Gus dies. One fear is that no dog could possibly compare to Gus, and I don’t want to resent a new animal in my life because he or she isn’t as sweet, loving and well-behaved as Gus. Along those lines, an old friend told me that he’s had six dogs sequentially over the years, and he always worried about the same thing–the new one wouldn’t live up to the old one–only to find that his fears were groundless. He always found himself loving his new dog as much as the previous one.

But I’m making plans for the post-Gus period, which I guess is a sign of mental health. I’m going to remodel my condo. And I’m going to go someplace while the contractor is doing it—probably Palm Springs, where I’ve never been. I’ve begun researching that desert community, and it sounds like a nice place to stay, even during the pandemic. I think it will be healthy for me to get out of my condo and out of Oakland when Gus is no longer here. I can distract myself with other things during the grieving process. Then I can decide if I want to get another dog.

Anyhow, I’m looking at Gus now, in his little bed beside my desk with the computer I’m writing this on. The day is cool, windless and very foggy, with a ground fog that makes the big trees across the street barely discernible. I think aromas carry further on such a day; maybe the water particles in the air transmit them more efficiently. Gus certainly had a good time sniffing on our walk. One never knows what he’s smelling, of course, but he’s so intense about it. I like that in him, and I like the fact that he stops and looks up at every person who walks by, with his big, brown, trusting eyes; and usually, the people look back at him and smile.


Tears of joy, tears of sorrow

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Oakland went CRAZY on Saturday when news of Biden’s victory was announced. Spontaneous celebrations of joy erupted around the city, as they historically did in so many other American cities. The tens of thousands who turned out here comprised the greatest public demonstration of happiness since the last time the Warriors won the NBA championship. The streets around Lake Merritt were gridlocked with honking cars, flag-wavers, posters, people flashing the “V” sign, cheers, and above all, smiles.

I was returning from the gym when I heard the honks. I really wanted to get home and see how Gus was doing, but I just had to get involved. After taking a few pictures, the fever hit me, and I joined in the street dancing. Jumped up and down, waved my fists “Hell, yeah!”, and yelled my bloody arse off. Everybody was grinning and high-fiving, music was playing from every car stereo, and even the weather gods cooperated: a stunningly clear, blue sky, with mild temperatures and a clean, pure breeze. Biden weather.

Wasn’t it a pleasure to see the news reports from around the country? Millions of ordinary people turned to the streets just to express their sheer joy after the stress and tension of the last few months—no, make that the last four years. “Our long national nightmare is over,” were the words that occurred to me—Gerald Ford’s words–when the networks announced Biden’s victory early Saturday morning. I don’t think Trump was in the White House at the time, but if he had been and looked out the windows, he would have seen massive gatherings of citizens, celebrating his humiliating loss.

I just had to reach out to people. I made phone calls to friends, started conversations with perfect strangers. It occurred to me to buy a bottle of sparkling wine, so I went to Bay Grape, which my friend Josiah Baldivino owns. There was a line at the door. When it was my turn, the front door guy scanned my forehead for my temperature and let me in. I had some questions, so a floor staff guy helped me make my choice: a Cremant de Loire, made not from the traditional Chenin Blanc but from Cabernet Franc. As I was paying for it, I told the guy—he couldn’t have been more than 27—that he was witnessing an important day in American history. He said he knew. I was crying. Honestly, I haven’t cried as much in the last forty years as I have in the last three weeks. Between Gus (tears of grief) and the election (tears of stress), and then, when Biden won (tears of gratefulness and relief), I’m just a soggy old mess.

Which got me thinking. I find myself crying for two completely opposite reasons: Gus and Biden. But the tears feel the same: somehow, they’re both cleansing. Purifying. I don’t really understand it. I Googled “purifying tears” and came across this interesting comment. “The role of tears is to purify the souls of people in critical situations or of happiness. Tears help us to deeply penetrate into our being and to demonstrate [to] ourselves that we are capable of feeling something. The role of tears is well defined, because as there are tears of joy, so there are tears of pain. As a matter of fact, once with us, cry even our soul, which feels every emotion, every feeling. The tear is a symbol of joy and suffering and we must accept it because it represents our purification regardless of circumstances. The role of the tears is like rain, only that it does not wash streets, but souls!”

That’s what crying feels like to me: a washing of my soul. And it’s so strange that, in my life, two profoundly moving things are happening simultaneously: Gus’s impending death, and this miraculous election of Joe Biden. It’s almost too much to wrap my brain around.

Well, Gus isn’t getting any better. Sometimes, I put my lips on his swollen tumor, on the left side of his snout, and draw my breath in, to take the cancer out into myself. I know this is silly, but it can’t do any harm, and besides, Gus seems to like it. He’s always been a needy dog; he likes being with me, in close physical contact. But lately, he’s become even needier. Not in an annoying way. He’s an extraordinarily sweet little dog, with big, soft brown eyes, and his sweetness has been magnified over the last three weeks, like the elemental quality of sweetness in the Universe is coming through his body. I’ll have him euthanized when the time comes, but I find myself struggling with this dilemma: how will I know when the time comes? Marilyn told me she realized, in retrospect, that she’d kept her first dog alive too long, even when it was very sick, not for the dog’s sake, but for hers. “Don’t feel guilty if you put Gus down sooner than you think you have to,” she said. I think that’s a profound insight, but it still begs the question, how will I know? People say, “You’ll just know.” And I suppose I have to assume that’s right. I’ll just know.

But not yet. Maybe in the next few days, maybe a week or two. Then I’ll have to decide whether to get another dog. I can’t imagine coming home and not having Gus there waiting by the door. “Hi Little Baby,” I say, as he hops up with his front paws on my knee and looks at me, his tail wagging. But I’m old; I don’t know how much time I have left, and I don’t want to get a dog only to drop dead the next day. It wouldn’t be fair to the animal.

My wonderful next-door neighbor, Wendy, just got the cutest little puppy, Ish (short for Ishmael). I don’t know the breed. The little thing is so full of energy, a four-pound dervish of playful dogginess. Old Gus doesn’t quite know what to make of Ish. I see them together, and I think, “Gus is life leaving this plane, and Ish is life entering it. The cycle goes on.” Hardly the most profound thought, but it makes me cry. As do so many things these days.


Remembering Gertrude–a reader

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When she was younger, my mother, Gertrude, had a vivid imagination. For example, she took me to the park one day to feed the pigeons. I couldn’t have been more than three or four. I asked her why the birds were so afraid of us, who certainly meant them no harm. This is what she said.

“A long time ago, Steve, the birds weren’t afraid of people. People were kind and harmless. The birds and the people played together and had a wonderful time. But one day, there was a very mean man, and he hurt the birds. Ever since, the birds have been afraid of people. They don’t want to get hurt again.”

It was a touching story, and it involved a lot of themes that a little boy could understand and relate to: trust, fear, pain, hope, betrayal, friendship. I think she made it up on the spot. I don’t know where Gertrude got that spark of creative imagination. Maybe it was from her Southern upbringing, maybe from her reading. She read a great deal of fiction; even now, I can visualize her at night, curled up in her big, stuffed green armchair, her legs tucked under her, a novel in her lap. My sister, a judgmental shrew, often criticized my mother for her “escapism.” According to this theory, Gertrude could not embrace or deal with her real life, which she hated, so she retreated into a fantasy land of pretend. I thought this was harsh, although coming from my sister, a bitter woman who hated our mother, it was hardly surprising.

Yet as my mother aged, her imagination dwindled. I never again heard her make up a story, or show any evidence of an artistic inner life. By her 40s, she had lost that capability of fantasy. Nobody encouraged her, least of all the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, which mandated that women be “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.” Life was not kind to Gertrude; her marriage was in many respects not the success she’d hoped for, and she was stuck in a tenement in the South Bronx, a building with peeling paint and cockroaches, with increasing street crime all around. Gertrude may have decided that an inner life was hardly the antidote to her problems, a luxury she couldn’t afford. She needed all her strength to deal with reality, so she got down to the business of surviving.

My mother, who died in 2005 at the age of 90, would have made a good writer, poet, or painter. But although she encouraged these creative practices in me (I went to a high school that specialized in the arts), she herself seemed resigned to a dreary, routine existence. Had she been born ten or twenty years later, she might have pursued an exciting career. She might have gone into politics, always a passion for her. But these are coulda-woulda-shouldas. She did none of these things.

Was her fable about the mean man who hurt the birds really about herself? Someone or something had hurt her, and maybe when she lost her trust, she also lost the creativity of her youth. I’m getting in over my head here, but I think Gertrude sacrificed her imagination because it revealed paths she knew were closed to her. It’s easier not to see the possibilities, than to see them forever denied. So was my sister right? Was Gertrude’s fiction-reading “escapism”? I, myself, read a lot. I have at least two books going at any given time. When I read, I often think of my mother, who gave me the example of an adult sitting alone, with a book, content in that small act. Is my reading “escapism”? At this point in my life, I’ve stopped playing these rhetorical or sophistic games with myself. I read because it gives me pleasure. (Unlike my mother, I don’t generally care for fiction. History and memoir are more interesting to me.) I don’t waste time analyzing myself anymore, something I did far too much of most of my life. Besides, my inner life is boring, compared to the immense dramas playing out in America every day. Look at this current election. You couldn’t make this stuff up! Gertrude would have been glued to the television set (undoubtedly to MSNBC). And, as she did when George W. Bush was president, she would have muted her remote whenever Trump came on.

Here’s the last photo I ever took of her. She’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button.


All Things Must Pass

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We got word last night from Gus’s vet: the biopsy result is in, and it’s what we feared. An aggressive, malignant tumor in the skull.

His vet suggested I cancel Thursday’s appointment with the oncologist and surgeon. It won’t do any good, she explained. I just did that, prior to writing this.

His life expectancy? Weeks. He’s in good shape now, as I’ve written. No middle-of-the-night pain attack last night, thank goodness. He slept soundly by my side. Occasionally we awoke together and he licked my hand. The vet warned, however, that his downhill trajectory is going to be rapid. It might involve difficulty breathing, or chewing and digesting his food, depending on where the tumor’s tentacles spread. The pain will increase; later today, I’ll pick up some new, more powerful pain meds as well as a steroidal medication. The steroids, the vet said, will have adverse longterm effects on his organs, but there is no long term for Gus.

And so this is it.

I won’t blog anymore on this topic, until we reach the end. There’s no point in chronicling the day-to-day details of his decline. I’d like to thank, with a sincerity of heart difficult to put into words, how grateful I am to the many people who have expressed sentiments of sympathy to me. So many of you have lost your own pets. Many of you knew Gus and knew how much he meant to me. We made the rounds of wine country together for a decade—Gus was certainly a well-traveled dog!—and I used to joke that he was possibly the most famous wine-critic dog in California. Gus has trod many a vineyard and roamed over many hills and dales from Santa Barbara to the Willammette Valley. He was a lucky dog in that respect.

I have so many memories of these travels. I used to stay regularly in the guesthouse at Bien Nacido Vineyard, which as anyone knows who’s been there is a beautiful piece of land, surrounded by the limestone outcroppings of the San Rafael Mountains. The vineyard is intermingled with a working ranch, and Gus got to see and smell all the animals that grazed so peacefully in the fields, as well as the wilder ones who came out at night. Off-leash, he ran and frolicked in a way he can’t in the city, and I didn’t have to worry about cars.

There are many more memories. But I don’t want to look back just yet. Plenty of time for that in the weeks to come. I want now just to savor our moments together, which are still so sweet and pleasant.

Now the darkness only stays at night time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good
At arriving at the right time
But it’s not always going
To be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away


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