Sadie, my dog is in her usual position at the end of our king-sized bed. She’s stretched across the entire width in a diagonal angle which makes it tricky for me to find my own niche. I haven’t figured out how a medium sized dog can turn into one very long dog at bedtime.
I remember the first night I brought Sadie out of her crate to sleep with me. She was too little to jump up on the bed so I picked her up and placed her at the bottom corner. She was timid as she sniffed out her new quarters turning around a few times before lying down. Fascinated by the television she scotched on her stomach to watch it from the edge of the bed and fell asleep. I think she couldn’t believe her good luck at not having to sleep in her crate in the basement, but it had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with that I simply couldn’t stand her barking anymore at night. That was nine years ago and Sadie has slept with me almost every night since then.
From family visits, to vacation condos, luxury hotels, not so luxury hotels…you name it…if I’ve slept there…so has Sadie. She’s always hated having her picture taken, so instead of the normal photos in front of landmarks on our travels, I have tons of photos of the back of her head and of her sleeping in many different places. There’s something so peaceful about watching Sadie sleeping…almost tangible. Her presence fills our bedroom with serenity. Often during a hectic and stressful day I think of night and the calmness of watching Sadie sleep. Sadie goes into a deep and quiet place transcending the room and the house. Wherever she goes in her sleep…it must be a good place.
This particular night as I watch her sleeping…she is tranquil as usual, but I am uneasy listening to her soft breathing. What seems like years ago now, Sadie had been diagnosed with a heart condition. She took medication for almost three years and was pronounced better. No more pills…no more worries…until today.
We’d left very early this morning and made the familiar trip to Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital. We hadn’t been there since she’d gotten better, but her allergies had gotten the best of both of us so I’d decided to consult an allergy specialist vet. Sadie turned nine this year, so I’d have her cardiologist check her out as well. It would be routine and we’d be on our way home in no time anticipating our traditional special dinner after these trips.
I knew something wasn’t right when her cardiologist took the longest time to listen to her heart. She kept moving the stethoscope over Sadie’s body and stroking her back to keep her from moving. When she finished I knew what she was going to say. The unhealthy sound of Sadie’s heart was back…the arrhythmia…and it could mean a valve wasn’t shutting properly allowing blood to leak into her heart. Common enough in older dogs, but with Sadie’s history, it had to be checked further.
The familiar routine of years past came back quickly. They’d take Sadie off for various tests…I’d come back in a few hours after lunch. I went to the same restaurant I’d gone to that first trip to Blacksburg. It seemed like yesterday that I’d left my little puppy with the cardiac vet team and found this place. I’d taken a long time to order because I was nervous and unsure if I could even eat. My cell phone rang before I took a bite, calling me back for the not so good news.
Sadie’s tests had revealed she had an arrhythmia in her heart…sort of like pistons misfiring when an engine malfunctions. I wanted to know everything including why and what caused it. There were few answers and even those were speculative. She’d take atenolol, a human medication prescribed for a number of uses, but in Sadie’s case; to hopefully regulate her heartbeat and prevent heart failure. The vet cardiologist told me it had little if any side effects to watch for which made me feel better, and that she’d possibly outgrow this as she got older. Then he told me if Sadie had a heart attack which was a possibility, there would be nothing I could do. I took my little puppy and went home. Every morning for three years she stopped by our kitchen sink and waited for her pill.
Thinking all this over on the drive home exhausted me. Sadie slept the entire three-hour drive curled up on the passenger seat. I didn’t tell her about the leaking heart valve. We had a quiet dinner, went outside for the last time, and went to bed.
I look at Sadie as she starts to drift off to sleep and her forehead is furrowed in thought. I trace the rows of black hair above her beautiful eyes and smooth the wrinkles in her forehead. I long to know what she is thinking and I ask her. Did she hear what her cardiologist said? Is she worrying about her heart? Does she wish I would stop holding her tightly and go to sleep? My guess would be that if she is troubled…it is for me that she wrinkles her brow. She’d handled the initial diagnosis of her heart illness much better than I did…continuing to explore her puppy world without hesitation. And when she was pronounced better, for months she’d still stop at the kitchen counter waiting for her pill.
There is no medication this time. I have to watch her and see if she tires easily or doesn’t have the energy to walk as long as usual. Things that required no thought, like playing with Mr. Surfer dog or chasing after tennis balls will now be measurements of how her heart is working. I have to tell her vet if she sleeps more than usual, if she gets tired on our walks or doesn’t want to walk as much as she we usually do. If we’re to keep this heart disease predator at bay, these things have to be noticed.
I stayed up all night once watching Sadie sleep when she was sick from eating something inedible as puppies will do. The weekend vet wanted me to leave her at the emergency hospital overnight, but I couldn’t. After she received an IV for hydration and a shot for nausea, I’d taken her home and as she slept on our bed, I watched her all night. Was our future to be one long extension of that horrible night when I kept putting my face close to her nose to feel her breathing and my ear on her side to hear her heart beating? Those were some of the longest hours of my life so how could I do this every day?
I’ve read that dreaming and insomnia come on dogs as they age, but Sadie has always seemed to dream and emit strange little barks in her sleep. She often moves her legs, chasing some ethereal squirrel in her unconsciousness. Sometimes she wakes herself up from these nocturnal journeys, looks slightly embarrassed and promptly falls back asleep. It makes me smile and feel awe and gratitude that she’s my dog. But what about now? Will each sleep disturbance make me fearful that something is wrong?
It’s been a month since the new diagnosis. I watch her sleep. She sleeps often…in front of the fireplace…on the cool kitchen floor tiles…in the car…on the deck…under my desk. I ask myself, “Is she sleeping more? Should I call her cardiologist?” I feel like I’m spying on her…betraying her. Her Dad tells me I’m imagining things…dogs sleep a lot…I only notice it more now. I love him for saying it even if I don’t really believe it.
She chased rabbits on our walk tonight…which means I chased them too. In the business park where we like to walk, I won’t let her off the leash to possibly get lost. I protect her from things I can see and anticipate, but there’s is nothing I can do to protect her from harm lurking in her own body. I watch her. I make sure she eats good food and exercises, but I can’t make this go away. I can make sure she doesn’t go into the path of a car, but am helpless at regulating the beats of her heart. I can’t keep her heart valve from leaking or mine from breaking.
Watching her sleep at night is still soothing. It’s the one time I know she should be sleeping. The deer have triggered the motion lights and they shine through our window. The light allows me to see Sadie’s ears fanned out on the pillow bringing to mind a passage from a book by D.H. Lawrence.
In the book a man realizes his young wife is going to leave him. While she sleeps he sees her hair sprawled on the pillow “like a stack of neat letters that are sealed on their way to their destination.” He reached out to touch her hair and “his hand recoiled, realizing that he could no more touch her hair than he could her soul. She had crossed the threshold and he was neither able to pull her back or follow her through.” I reach out as I have done on thousands of nights and I stroke Sadie’s ears destroying the image of letters already sent. I am not ready for her to cross any thresholds. I don’t know where Sadie goes when she sleeps; I only know that I will be here every morning when she returns and even on that morning that will change my life forever…when she does not.
Causes Patti Lawson Supports
All causes that are kind to people and animals.
The Worthy Project
Animal Legal Defense Fund