Johnny Cash, our foster dog for seven months, quickly became a much- loved family member. To know Big JC is to love Big JC. He has the face of a kindly old bear; the body of a bull dog; and the temperament of a spoiled child who wants you all to himself.
We adored him. And so, last month, when we learned he had prostate cancer, it was a shock…the vet was pessimistic of his survival chances, but she put him on a course of treatment and we managed to bring him home for the weekend. We loved him as much as we could, despite him being mostly confined to his crate because of his catheter.
When he first arrived in our house, with his sister June Carter, Big JC took a little time to come around to us, his new family. But once he did, he leaned hard into us – literally and figuratively. From not being interested in hugs, he started to push to the front of the line. He was the one who would accompany each of us when we wandered out of the living room. No visit to the garage, to the mailbox, or to the bathroom took place without Big JC right beside us.
A 35lb lapdog presents its own problems, of course, but once he learned that he was allowed that close to his humans, he snuggled regularly. And we, despite the bruises and lack of oxygen, snuggled him right back.
He was never much of a kisser, but he learned to lick the hell out of the side of John Henry’s face. JH, being the passive pup he is, sat there and took it, eyes closed and body language screaming, PLEASE DON’T. JC would then look to Jordan as his next victim…and then think better of it. Every time.
JC needed to be first at everything. First to be greeted in the morning, first to be fed (whichever bowl is put down first was automatically his bowl), first out the back door to the yard, first back in. He was an old, slow pug until there is a line to be in, and then he found energy we would never otherwise have known he had.
He adored June Carter, and they came to us together as a bonded pair. If he was unsure and worried, he looked to June for support. Whether June felt the same about him is another issue entirely. She had recently taken to launching herself at him, tooth-first, and starting a general dog-pack ruckus. We don’t know whether she can smell his cancer and that’s thrown her off balance. But she seemed to know something was wrong.
So, the meds did their job and reduced the swelling in his bladder enough to allow him to pee. This was the first hurdle he had to jump and he did it with apparent ease. Then, after a visit to the doggie oncologist, he was put on chemotherapy pills. As a foster dog, the charity that rescued him picked up the bill. I dread to think what it costs to pay for the treatment of a dog with cancer.
We had to wear rubber gloves when we gave him his chemo pill. They’re tiny, the pills; it’s hard to imagine them being so powerful and, apparently, so toxic. His poop needed to be picked up with rubber gloves and we had to wear them when we cleaned up the mess if he accidentally-on-purpose went to the toilet in the house. He was significantly more toxic than pre-chemo Johnny Cash.
I started to say “toxic” a lot more than I used to.
Four days in and it seemed to be going OK. The change in routine was difficult to juggle – he had to pee and poop separately, so that meant getting him out while everyone else stayed in, then keeping him in while everyone else went out. It wasn’t difficult, it just took time. And juggling gets tiring after a while.
In himself, he seemed full of energy. He ran as much as he ever did. But maybe he looked a little thinner. And there were smudges of blood in his belly band when we took it off at night. He was ill, after all, and it was so easy to forget that. But while we had him, we were determined to do what we could to make him comfortable and make his hours (the ones he didn’t spend sleeping) stimulating and full of love.
But things shift on the tiniest changes, and the tiny change was a small increase in the size of the tumor in his bladder. Once more it grew large enough to block the path to his urethra. And that’s why, very early on a Monday morning, he ended up straining and panting from the effort of trying to pee.
He tried over by the bushes, against a tree, on the grass. Each time, I’m standing there, 4 o’clock in the morning, the flashlight of my phone aimed at his undercarriage, looking for any sign of flow. In my mind, I’m imagining what the post my neighbors will write for nextdoor.com will sound like. It would not be flattering.
But, back to the point – the big guy wasn’t peeing. And the chemo treatment was only worthwhile for his quality of life if he could pee by himself. This was a huge, and unexpected, problem.
My wife took him to the vet as soon as it opened. We waited. It was Presidents’ Day so I sat at home, not knowing what to do, waiting. Hoping there would be a solution, another approach the vet had been keeping for the darkest time.
There was not.
At noon, we drove to see him one last time. We hugged him, told him how much we loved him. And reminded him how he was absolutely not just a good boy but the bestest boy. That’s what he was hearing as we scritched his ears and stroked his side. As the wonderful, empathetic vet gave him the first injection, which calmed him, and the second, which stopped him from suffering.