Archive for the 'Gadget' Category

Two Years Later: Was Gadget the Perfect Service Dog?

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

ADBC #10

You know what’s odd? I wrote most of this post over a year ago, long before I had picked out a theme for this month’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. But since I so often get ideas for posts, start writing them, get too tired to finish, and then forget them, I checked my drafts for “perfect” posts and found this one!

This is not the post I’d originally planned for this carnival, but in case I’m too sick/tired/busy to write that one, I’m posting this (instead of or in addition to the one I’d planned to write.) Enjoy!

The post below was originally written November 19, 2011. All I did to finish it was write an ending and do some editing.

* * *

Today is the second anniversary of Gadget’s death. I’m on a list for people whose dogs have died after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma.* It’s called the Lymphoma HeartDog Angels list (LHDA). We talk about anniversaries a lot on LHDA: anniversaries of birthdays or gotcha days, anniversaries of diagnoses, anniversaries of deaths.

When we are facing an anniversary, it often brings up memories of seminal moments in our dogs’ lives: the diagnosis, the decision to do chemotherapy, the dog’s last day. Stories of how these dogs came into our lives often touch me, such as Susan’s story about Freeway, whom she found abandoned on the side of the freeway. Susan picked her up in her car and they changed their lives forever.

Bettina fell in love with a shelter dog when she was a teenager and begged her mom to adopt him. But when they got to the shelter, they found that the sheltie mix had already been claimed. It turned out Bettina’s mother had applied for him already, as a surprise. Thus began Bettina and Niko‘s relationship, which lasted over seventeen years!

When I think about how Gadget entered my life, what strikes me is how much random good fortune played into it — how I blithely adopted this dog who turned out to be an excellent service dog and my heartdog — and I never even realized how high the odds were stacked against that until much, much later. I lucked into the perfect dog!

Not that Gadget would have been everyone’s perfect dog. Unlike his predecessor, Jersey, who was sort of the poster dog of winning over people who disliked dogs, Gadget was very doggy — and unschooled. Literally his first act upon entering my home was to lift his leg and pee on the clean guest clothes I kept in a basket by the door. Whereas Jersey never pulled on the leash, Gadget would run to the end of it and keep going. During his first week with me, he pulled my mobility scooter over onto me. He had phobias of round things (colanders, hats, outdoor garbage cans) and was wary of men, especially men in hats.

He was a drivey dog, a dog who needed a job, and I think things might have ended badly for him if he’d gone to someone who didn’t have the skill and patience and desire to put in the training to channel that drive. He wore me out with his need for physical and mental exercise. He taught Jersey that she didn’t really have to come when called. He chased all sorts of creatures, including adult black bears. He nipped my landlord, a male friend, and my dog walker, all during his first year with me. I nipped this behavior in the bud (ha ha), and Gadget learned that nipping people was counterproductive and would not bring the goodies that other behaviors did.

When I knew he was the dog of my dreams was when we started clicker training, especially shaping. The service skill I taught Gadget first was the first behavior I ever taught with a clicker: I had trained Jersey to shut the front door, and that was my clicker conversion experience. It was so positive and went so smoothly that I thought it would be a good first service skill for Gadget, too.

Here’s how I taught Jersey: I took some orange construction paper and cut out a circle and taped it onto the door at nose height. Click for approaching the target, then nosing the target, eventually wait for touching to turn into nudging, then harder nudges, then multiple nudges until the door was shut, then click for only some of the nudges it took to close the door, and finally click only for the closed door. When this was solid, I removed the target and clicked for shutting the door without it, which required going back a few steps to reintroduce nudging the door with no obvious target. With Jersey, this process had taken five days of three short sessions per day. I had been very impressed with that!

I intended to follow the same lesson plan with Gadget, but he had other ideas. I put the target on the door. Gadget immediately went to sniff it, and before I could even click him (I hadn’t expected him to orient to the target so quickly since we’d never used one before), he touched the target. I clicked that. He touched it harder. Click. He nudged the door shut! I gave him a jackpot.

When I opened the door again, he started nudging right away, and it only took two or three clicks for him to shut it again. He was so excited that if I held off on a click, he’d try pulling off the target to retrieve it. So it ended up on the floor. Even without the target, he kept orienting to the same spot on the door and within a couple of clicks the door would be shut.

“Well,” he must have been thinking, “obviously the object of the game is to shut the door. Why didn’t you say so?” Because very soon he switched to using his paw — much more efficient without all that nudging business. Within three minutes of beginning the game, I could open the door and have Gadget shut it, over and over again, with just a single click when the door latched.

Gadget, in other words, was a conceptual thinker, which I’ve been told is unusual for dogs. Thus, I managed to train him to do several skills without really providing all the details most dogs would need; I learned to expect these mental leaps and became what is known in training parlance as a lumper. Gadget would quickly grasp what the end goal of the behavior was and just do whatever worked to get there. For example, when I taught him to go find Betsy to bring her a message, and he was confronted with her closed door, he decided all on his own to bark at her door (which Betsy was not thrilled about). I had not realized how special this was. I just thought, “He’s problem solving. He’s got a brain, and he’s using it.”

When I recently told this story to a friend who has trained numerous service dogs professionally, she said, “That’s a dog on a mission!”

It was Gadget’s gusto and independent mind that I loved so much. A smart dog who has been given tools and taught to think for himself is a joy — and a nightmare. After teaching Gadget how to open the outside door to let himself out to relieve himself, one day I discovered the front door open, cold air filling the house, and no Gadget to be found! He’d realized that if he could let himself out when I told him to, he could also do it when he decided to!

I called him, and he came in. I vowed to keep a closer eye on him. He managed one more “escape” before I realized he was gone. The third time he tried it, I caught him in the act. He sauntered to the door and began to open it. I told him, “No!” very sternly, and that was the end of it — until the last year of his life, when he took to letting himself out to find me if I went out without him.

* * *

It’s odd. Grief and memory distort; they magnify some things, blur others. Even though after Gadget died I was lost without him, and I still couldn’t imagine Barnum achieving the number of service tasks or the level of support Gadget provided, I still didn’t realize how exceptional Gadget was.

Not that I didn’t remember how special he was to me, how important. I remembered our perfect moments: When the humans didn’t know I was asking them to shut the door, but Gadget did. When he woke me up when the timer went off and I had food on the stove I’d forgotten. When he alerted me that I’d left the sink on and flooded the bathroom (even though I never trained him to do that). When a stranger came into my home at night and Gadget stayed by my side, barking and ready to attack, but followed my cue to down and stay instead.

I also remembered his “flaws”: that he never completely adjusted to the move to a home with other houses and cars on it, that he worked much more eagerly if he knew I had cheese with me than if I didn’t, that he would get so excited to do a task that he’d get sloppy.

But these were not the moments that made me miss him so much, that left me feeling utterly lost and broken, like a part of my body had disappeared with him. It was the dailiness: Letting himself out. Bringing me water from the fridge. Waking me up so I’d take my medication. Carrying messages to others in the house. Turning off the lights when I went to bed. Opening the doors. Carrying groceries from the van to the house.

Yet, I always thought, “We could have done better. I didn’t train him to real stimulus control on many behaviors. We were never free of the food reinforcers.”

Sometimes I’ve thought that I built him up in my mind to be more perfect than he really was. Especially as I became a better trainer while working with Barnum and achieved levels of consistency and proficiency that Gadget and I never had, I’ve wondered, “Was it really that Gadget was so amazing and special, or was it mostly that he was the service dog I needed to get the basic job done? Was it really more that I lucked into adopting a dog who learned solid public manners, assistance skills, and loved to learn — despite the issues he had when he arrived?”

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came across something I thought was gone forever — the one video I had of Gadget. Betsy and I made it the year before Barnum got cancer, and a friend of mine put it on Youtube, divided into two parts. A year ago, that friend closed his Youtube account, and I was so sad that I had lost this tangible proof of who Gadget and I were together. Then, when I was captioning videos for a recent post, I discovered that I’d posted and captioned the videos of Gadget before they were taken off Youtube. (You can see them here: Gadget and Sharon Part One and Gadget and Sharon Part Two. Or read the transcripts: Part One and Part Two.)

When I watched them again, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t focused on the skills themselves or on all the mistakes I saw us making. Instead, I noticed his gusto. He was so eager, motivated, and engaged. Yes, it sometimes took two or three tries to get something right, but he was determined.

He was, indeed, a dog on a mission.

It is good to be able to miss him for who he was and not for his supposed perfection or flaws. It’s good to see this side of him that I loved so much, preserved for me to celebrate and mourn. A dog on a mission to work, to keep playing the game, and — let’s face it — a dog on a mission to earn cheese.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

*I’m one of the few people on the list whose dog did not actually die of lymphoma. Gadget’s chemo was effective for lymphoma, and he was in remission. Unfortunately, he developed mast cell cancer four months into his lymphoma treatment, and that is what killed him six months after he got lymphoma.

Three Years Ago Today

Gadget died, November 19, 2009.

Gadget lying on his front on a brown couch, his chin resting on a red quilt on Sharons knee. Sharon -- bundled in a turtleneck and hoodie -- has her hand on Gadgets neck and is smiling a little fixedly toward the camera.

Gadget and me in November of 2009

It was a week before Thanksgiving. We knew his death would come soon, but I had hoped he would hang on till after Thanksgiving. I wanted to be grateful for his presence. But the mast cell cancer raced through him, consumed him like a brush fire, destroyed him on the cellular level so that the pathologist couldn’t even be sure if he was looking at lymphoma cells or mast cells. We took our best guess, but it didn’t matter, because there was no halting it. Gadget was ready to die a week before the “holiday.”

In my former life, Thanksgiving and Passover had been my two favorite holidays, which I had celebrated with my two best friends every year since 1993. They had stopped speaking to me, so the holiday was also full of that loss.

My parents and Betsy’s mom came and tried to give us a normal Thanksgiving. I just wanted it to be over. I was a dull, relentless pain wrapped around hollowness. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling OK again, or normal, or happy.

A lot has changed since then. I still don’t really have anyone to celebrate holidays with. Those two former friends are still gone from my life, just as Gadget is. But I have Barnum. I am much less sick. I have projects I’m passionate about. Barnum has taken me on a completely different voyage than Gadget did. Thank dog.

I’m not overflowing with gratitude today, nor will I be this Thursday, I expect. The only way the day will be different is that my usual Thursday PCAs won’t be working, and a couple of other PCAs will work backup. Ah, there. Something I’m grateful for: The PCAs who are covering shifts on Thanksgiving.

The thing about anniversaries is that sometimes they sneak up on you and you don’t know what’s wrong till you’re sobbing with snot running down your face, crying in confusion, “What’s WRONG with me today?” And other times you anticipate the day with dread and then it passes, like a wave that had already pulled you out to sea, so by the time it crashed against the shore, you only felt the slight pull, the rise and fall.

I’ve been swimming in the tumultuous ocean for the last few weeks. One or more of my tick-borne diseases are acting up, causing worsened cognition, emotional disturbance, and migraines. This has made everything harder. I’ve been very triggered. Too many reminders of the season — of the onsets of my illnesses, of the trauma of natural disasters, of the losses of friends to death or … what is a neutral term for friends who have decided they don’t want to be your friend anymore? Anyway, a season of loss.

Fortunately, I’ve been very busy, and not too sick. I am in the midst of some exciting interviews for Ability Maine. I’m working on my book project very . . . very . . . very slowly. I’m trying to figure out what will go here: sharonwachsler.com. So, there are new beginnings.

But, for tonight, kindness and gentleness toward myself. If you learned anything from Gadget or loved anything about him, please post it in the comments or send me an email. If you’d like to light a (yartzheit?) candle in his memory, you can do it here.

– Sharon, Gadget — forever in my heart — and Barnum, blessedly healthy SD/SDiT

When Your Service Dog Is Too “Smart”….

OK, so now you know I’m writing and blogging elsewhere, although I still plan to do my service dog blogging (and related stuff) here until I can get my own domain set up. Except for today’s post, because it turns out that won’t work. So I’m posting it on my writing blog, SharonWachsler.blogspot.com. I apologize for the inconvenience. Future Gadget- and Barnum-related posts will be back here at After Gadget!

You asked so many great questions about my experiences as a service dog (SD) partner and trainer that it is taking quite some time for me to write all my answers. I am also still finishing Barnum’s training. Until now I wanted to wait to train him to open the outside door to let himself out because I wanted to make sure he was really solid on having his door-opening behaviors under stimulus control. Which leads me to today’s topic.

Two of you asked about my funniest or most embarrassing experience as a SD handler, and that brought to mind this story which I’ve posted at SharonWachsler.blogspot.com.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT (who will hopefully know better)

They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs”

Brooke at ruled by paws is hosting Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #8 on the theme of “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum.”

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Marching to Our Own Drum!

Lately I’ve begun to realize just how much my current approach to training my service dog (SD) diverges from ideas, approaches, and perceptions of SDs in the larger US culture. Specifically, my main focus is on training my assistance dog to perform behaviors that assist me, due to my disabilities. This would seem to be not only sensible, but the very definition of an assistance dog, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is. If you read the service animal section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will find this:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Yet, more and more I am coming across individuals, organizations, and websites focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively, on training dogs in obedience and manners so that the dog can accompany its person in public. (Here is an organizational example of a focus that is primarily on public access. Here is an organizational example of a non-task training approach to SD work.)

It’s understandable that public access training (which includes a dog being obedient, well-mannered, and unobtrusive in public as well as being able to perform necessary assistance tasks in public) is receiving so much attention. Public access is a legal issue, so it’s natural that organizations and individuals are concerned about complying with the law. Further, there are more assistance dogs working and being trained than ever before, which means more SDs are showing up in public. Into the mix add that more people are partner-training than ever before (with a great range of experience and skill) and that many partners have hidden disabilities that make them more vulnerable to access challenges. Finally, and sadly, there are an increasing number of people who wish to commit fraud by trying to pass off their pet dogs as SDs — both people with disabilities who have not done the necessary training and people without disabilities who simply want the companionship of their dog away from home. The pressure on the SD handler to make sure their dog behaves with perfect comportment at all times is thus a very big deal in the assistance dog world.

Meanwhile, here I am, training my dog to help me around the house — open and shut doors, turn on and off lights, pick up things I drop, carry messages to my human assistants, etc. We are barely doing any public access training simply because I spend almost all my time in bed and very rarely leave the house, so training in public is very difficult, and having a working dog in public is much less important than one who helps me at home. Barnum has to be “on call” at home at any time I might need him. Fortunately, his personality and the way we have trained mean that he is eager to jump into action.

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Barnum opens the fridge for me.

I realize our situation is not that of most teams. In some cases public access is always crucial to the dog’s work. Guide dogs often work exclusively outside the home and are off duty at home. Their work involves assisting their human partners to get to and from work, school, restaurants, hotels, conferences, and subways. Thus, public work is essential for a guide dog.

For people with other types of assistance dogs, too, there is usually an expectation of public work — alerting or guiding or providing mobility assistance in stores, on the street, at work, etc. Most people with assistance dogs bring their SD with them everywhere for two reasons:

  1. The dog’s work is necessary or important for the disabled person in public, and
  2. The working bond between the partners is strengthened by ongoing work and training in a variety of settings and/or on a daily basis

Still, the proliferation of both SD fraud and poorly trained SDs have led some assistance dog organizations to require passing a public access test as proof that a dog is a service dog. For example, to be a partner member of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), I have to sign a form saying that my SD has or would be able to pass their public access test/definition. So, even though I have had two previous SDs and have been an IAADP member for a dozen years, now I’m no longer a partner member because Barnum and I don’t go out. I feel very sad about this.

Yet, Barnum is a working service dog around the house. You can see how much we’ve accomplished in this regard in just a month by comparing this recent post from July to this one from June.

I feel frustrated by this, and the irony does not escape me: the more disabled I am, and the more I need my service dog, the less I fit neatly into the category of a SD team. In fact, I can trace the changes in my disabilities in part by what my service dogs have done for me at a given time.

My first service dog, Jersey, did help me around the house, but the biggest difference she made for me was that she enabled me to occasionally go out by myself. I trained her to cart my oxygen tanks to and from the car, and to carry groceries from the van to the front door and then to the fridge. At doctor’s appointments or other occasional outings, her carrying my water and other things in a pack left my hands free to push my oxygen cart if I was walking. I went grocery shopping once every month or two with her and my mobility scooter, which was something I had previously not been able to do since I got sick. Before Jersey, I always needed someone to take me shopping.

[Note: I have some great photographs of Jersey working, but they haven’t been scanned into a computer yet. I hope to get the pics inserted by the time the Carnival goes up. Please come back in a week or two, and hopefully they’ll be here!]

Even the things she helped me out with around the house are different from the tasks I need canine assistance with now. For example, Jersey helped me fold and put away the laundry. But now I have human assistants do that. She also carted gardening supplies, which enabled me to garden. Now I’m much too sick to garden. Once, when I walked into my backyard to pick apples, I was too sick to walk back unaided, and she helped me get back home. Now there’s no question of me wandering out on foot into a field.

Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen canula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.

Gadget in a calm down-stay and paying attention to me while surrounded by little kids.

Gadget, my second SD, learned the same things Jersey did — bracing, carrying a pack, retrieving, loading and unloading groceries — but I also added some additional skills so that he could help out with more stuff at home.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house.

He learned how to alert me to the kitchen timer, to let the cat and himself in and out, to open and shut doors, to bring me the phone. When I got Lyme disease and became much more disabled than before, those skills became much more crucial than the ones for going shopping or putting away laundry. And then I taught him new things that were much more important — getting Betsy or my PCA when I couldn’t speak, turning lights on and off and bringing me water from the refrigerator to take my pills when I couldn’t get out of bed, etc.

Meanwhile, Barnum has learned to do things that Gadget didn’t. Barnum has a much more refined “go get person/deliver message” than Gadget did. He is helping me with undressing, which Gadget never learned. He alerts to my various alarms and pumps. And I still have plans for him to learn additional skills that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch about 3 inches by 3 inches velcroed to the back of his collar.

This is the pouch Barnum wears for transporting messages or small items to or from others in my home.

Some of you may remember that when Barnum was younger, I was concerned that he’d never make it as my service dog because he was such a distracted, hyper flake in public. The irony is that since he’s matured, on the occasions I have taken him into public to train, he’s done really well — especially considering his age and his bouncy nature. I could have passed Jersey off as a fully trained SD before she had finished her training because her manners were so perfect and calm in public. She could have been doing nothing to help me, and we wouldn’t have been challenged because we “looked like” a SD team.

I once read about a SD program which had a separate category for dogs who could assist their people in the home but not work in public (due to anxiety or distractibility); they called these dogs “companion dogs” and they were not considered service animals. That has always bothered me. A “companion animal” is a pet. Dogs, cats, birds are all referred to as “companion animals.” However, a dog that opens and shuts the fridge, turns lights on and off, helps with the laundry, and retrieves dropped items for her disabled handler is a service dog, not a pet. If that dog doesn’t do well in public, obviously the dog should be left home when the person goes out. But that doesn’t make the dog any less a service dog. Why not just call that type of dog an “in-home service dog”? It would be more accurate, and in my opinion, more respectful to both members of the team.

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Barnum turns off the lights.

Barnum is already, by legal definition, a service dog: he increases my independence and safety by performing assistance tasks, which is what assistance dogs are supposed to do. The fact that my level of function and my level of dependence on humans is more than most assistance dog partners (and more than my previous level) doesn’t change that. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say he’s a SD in the eyes of assistance dog organizations, because I don’t know if we’ll do enough training — if I, myself, will leave the house enough, let alone with him — for him to pass a public access test. I try not to let it get to me. In the scheme of things, what’s most important is that Barnum and I are happy and productive together. I do hope, though, to feel a greater sense of acceptance and respect from the assistance dog community one day.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum SD/SDiT

Flashback: Of Grief and Relief

I originally wrote this post on January 2, 2010. It’s one of several unpublished posts I wrote in the wake of Gadget’s death. I keep finding these drafts that are basically finished, but for some reason, I didn’t think they were complete at the time. My thinking was so fuzzy back then, I’m not sure what I thought these posts needed.

In this case, the original title, “Admission of Guilt,” suggests a pretty clear reason why I hesitated to post it. I’m glad that I can now grieve Gadget without feeling guilty about the complex feelings I experienced during his last days.

– SW

When the End of the End Doesn’t End

Gadget’s final week was an extension of the previous six months, and the dreams seem to be an extension of what I lived in those end days.

For about four months I fought with my brain, my body, my heart, and my bank account to defeat his cancer. I researched. I cooked. I researched more. I took him for chemotherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese herbs. I pilled him constantly and myself just enough to keep my exhaustion and pain sufficiently at bay to always take him for a walk, to always go with him to chemo, to always make sure he got the right supplements and medications with the right meals. Those were the days of hope, when I thought we would have at least a year, possibly two, maybe three or more.

Then, he took a turn for the worse, and I realized he probably was dying. Next were the weeks it was clear to me he was dying, but not to him. Finally, in the last week or two, he was actively dying, which was like all the months before, but brutally amplified.

Everything was more. More stress and anxiety. More effort to ensure each meal was delicious and totally digestible. More pinnacles of hope and plummets into despair. More pills and monitoring symptoms and needle sticks — all requiring more vigilance around and around and around the clock. More cleaning up messes that smelled of his body shutting down. More desperation to make him as happy as I could with trips to the pond, walks, doggy get-togethers, and to soak up as much joy as I could, myself, in his still being alive because every time we had fun or peace, I knew, “This might be our last time. . . Or this one. . . . Or this one. . . .”

I couldn’t shed months of habits overnight, just because there was no longer any purpose to them.

The first morning after Gadget’s death, I rolled out of bed, adrenaline banging through me, and began checking his status before I even realized he wasn’t there. I was ready: Had I heard gasping? Did I smell vomit? Was it time for pills or fluids?

What I was not ready for each morning was the nothing. Not only wasn’t he on his bed, he wasn’t lying in a cool spot next to the window or on the bathroom tile. He hadn’t wandered off in search of one of my personal care assistants to demand food and attention (not that much demanding had ever been involved — more like just showing up!). But, my PCAs hadn’t arrived yet because I should still have been asleep. There was nobody there. So there was nothing to be done. And I didn’t know what to do with that at all, because for six months, there was always more to do. More to try, more than I could do, more that made no difference in the end.

After taking in the nothing, I’d cry and go back to sleep.

Sleep was very big on my agenda the first few days after Gadget died because, in addition to the insomnia I have as a symptom of my illness, for the previous months, I woke up constantly to care for Gadget. During the days, I spent all my energy on two things: Gadget’s survival, and my survival (in that order). From the moment I woke to the moment I’d literally pass out from exhaustion, I was in the survival struggle.

In fact, for the first 48 hours after Gadget died, I mostly felt relief. I slept. I finally didn’t have to manage anything. I didn’t have to struggle against and fear the worst anymore because the worst had already happened.

Gadget napping on red quilt on couch.
Near the end, we both grabbed sleep whenever we could.

I’m fortunate to be able to admit this. What’s given me the courage is hearing it from other caretakers of a loved one with a long, terminal illness. It’s actually pretty common. However, it’s not an admission everyone wants to hear.

A year ago, I didn’t want to hear it from someone else. On January 6, 2008, Norm, one of my best friends, died after two agonizing years of illness. He often said to me, especially near the end, that he wanted it to be over, that he sometimes felt like it would be a relief to die. This was hard to hear, but I was sympathetic. This was because, along with understanding how it feels to be mired in pain and illness, I was keeping a promise I’d made to him a long time before, though he didn’t know it.

When Norm got sick, I committed to listening to and supporting whatever he felt. My goal was to be unconditionally loving and nonjudgemental. I think it’s the only time in my life I’ve succeeded at that.

Still, I didn’t want him to die. So, when he did, I was shocked and grief-stricken. It was a pure loss, which is what animal bereavement experts say is usually the case when a companion animal dies. They say that our relationships with our animals are usually so entirely positive, without the resentments, grievances, and other negative complications of our human relationships, that the loss is often more painful than a person’s death. I have recently heard from others whose dogs died of cancer that their grief and suffering is worse than when they’d lost a parent, a sibling, or even a child.

Norm was a dog person. He also shared my gallows sense of humor. At his memorial, I said that Norm would appreciate knowing that, to me, his death was as upsetting as if he was a dog.

This was not true for his wife, who also is disabled and with whom I was also friends (though not as close). His death was a terrible loss and a tragedy for both of us, but she had spent two years of physical and emotional agony taking care of him. I was protected by the distance of the phone line. His death for me was pure sadness. For her, it was also a deliverance: a release from the horrors of watching him suffer brutally for so long, as well as a chance to take care of herself again and to regain some of the life she’d lost before he got sick. I couldn’t stand hearing this from her. Her grief was complicated, and mine was straightforward. I didn’t want there to be an “upside” to my friend’s death.

Since Gadget’s death, I have a lot more empathy for what my friend was feeling last year. I have been met with silence, confusion, and outright denials when I mention the part clemency has played in Gadget’s death.

When he was dying, I went to an online anticipatory grief support group. When I admitted, with some guilt, “Part of me just wants it to be over.”

The host said, “That’s because you don’t want to see him suffer. It’s a completely unselfish feeling.”

I said, no, it wasn’t entirely unselfish. Seeing him suffer was horrible, and that was certainly part of it. But, I said, I was suffering too. I was exhausted, a physical and emotional wreck. I’d dug deeply into savings that I live on. The toll was enormous and seemingly endless. I wanted it to be over for me, too. I didn’t want him to be dead — not truly dead — but I also wanted it to be over.

The host continued to maintain that my only thoughts were of Gadget’s needs. She refused to hear the part of me that was saying, “I can’t take this anymore.” I didn’t mention it again.

Of course, when it was “over” — what we think of as over, his body buried in the ground — it was not, is still not, remotely over. I got my two nights of sleep, but they were laced with nightmares for far longer. And the grief, in one form or another, goes on and on. I’ve been told that in some ways, it will never be over, a thought that is depressing, exhausting, and strangely comforting. I guess because it means Gadget will always be in my life, in some form, even when that’s only in grief. . . .

I reach out for him to feel where his fur should be. I look to the foot of the bed, where his head should be lolling over the side. I listen for his snore, rumbling over the white noise of the air filter. I glance instinctively to the door, the light switch, the pillow I’ve dropped on the floor, for him to shut the door, turn off the light, pass me the pillow.

Gadget at a distance in a large pond.
At times, he feels beyond my mind’s reach.

For six months, I applied every life-affirming “treatment” I could. I didn’t just take him to chemotherapy every week, even when I could barely leave my bed the rest of the time. I didn’t only research and dispense herbs and supplements, create a special cancer-fighting diet tailored to his food allergies, consult a multitude of veterinarians and read multiple books on canine cancer. I took him on special walks — varied our routes, went to his favorite destinations (and pretty well killed my powerchair in the process). Even teaching him new service skills and relying more on his assistance felt like a blow against cancer, as if I was tethering him to life that much more tightly. How could such a necessary bond ever be broken?

More importantly, I tell myself that I still exist and matter. After more than eight years living as a “we,” a partner, an interdependent unit, an extension of another, I’ve become disembodied. The only thing that has ever been mine alone is writing. No matter how many people offer critique, proof or edit, type or transcribe, publish (or reject) a piece of writing, it is still a solitary act.

I was a writer before Gadget. After he entered my life, I often wrote to escape the demands of his training and exhausting exuberance. As the subject of some of my humor columns, I transformed scary, frustrating, or painful events with a wild young rescue into emotional release — and paychecks. Even when he curled up under my desk as I typed, the true connections happened in my mind. Writing has always been where I find myself, whether I want to or not.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, in the days before Barnum

Love for My Service Dogs

The Patients for a Moment (PFAM) carnival is up right now at Chronic Babe. The theme, appropriate for Valentine’s Day, is Show Me the Love.

If you follow After Gadget, you know I deeply loved my last service dog, Gadget, and all the aspects of our relationship that made him so special and important to me. However, I have never written specifically about what was unique and lovable about each of my service dogs (SDs).

It may seem stunningly obvious that most service dog partners are passionate about their SDs. For not only do they provide us with the companionship, comfort, and fun that pet dog owners experience, they also contribute to our freedom, independence, and safety. Still, not all SDs are created equal, and not all partnerships click as well as others. Every dog, like every human, is an individual.

I think most SD partners probably try to keep it to ourselves, out of a sense of guilt, loyalty, or a fear of being judged and misunderstood, but in my experience, we don’t usually love all our SDs in quite the same way; each dog has their strengths and weaknesses, in harness and out. Many might say, “I love all my dogs equally, if differently,” which I’m sure is true. It feels true for some of my dogs, but not others. Quite simply, there are some I’ve loved more (or the most).

It’s not that they haven’t each been equally deserving, but that we all have our quirks, and what makes us happiest is so subjective. There is the heart, and there is the mind, and no matter how much the mind may argue, the heart knows what it knows.

If you’ve seen my new About Sharon’s Dogs page, you know my history with each dog. That page is filled with a lot of facts about my first pet dog, my two service dogs, and my current service-dog-in-training, Barnum.

For this post, I’ve decided just to focus on Jersey and Gadget — my service dogs whom I have loved and lost.

Barnum is not yet my service dog, although I feel confident that he will be, eventually. I love him so much, I can’t imagine life without him, but I also know we have so far to go. Knowing that, having been on similar journeys in the past, I cannot predict in what ways our love will grow and transform. I only know that it will.

Barnum and I are a work in progress. The curtain has already come down on Jersey’s and Gadget’s stories, yet there’s always more to tell.

Act I: Jersey

Scene I: Arrival

Jersey was my first service dog, my first dog that I owned and trained as an adult, and my first bouvier des Flandres. As such, she will always be special.

Part of our love was forged by how hard it was for me to acquire her — how I had to convince the people involved in bouvier rescue that, despite my disabilities, I could handle the responsibility of a bouvier (or any dog). To say that she was therefore a sort of trophy does neither of us justice; it dehumanizes her, and it diminishes the very real relationship we had.

Nonetheless, the fact that we did so well together, that I did train her as a service dog, despite all the dire warnings I encountered and discouragement I received before I got her, was a vindication. Because this was my first time training a dog in a serious way, each little achievement was a joy. Therefore, a lot of my love for Jersey stemmed from my pride in both of us.

Scene II: Sit

I remember when Jersey “got” sit. We had been practicing sit, for a couple of weeks, a few training sessions a day, when one day, out of the blue, Jersey ran up to me and . . . sat! If she had been a human child, as her butt hit the floor, she would have thrown back her head and flung wide her arms, shouting, “Tada!”

I thought it was funny that she was offering the behavior before the command. This was before I started clicker training, and although I used food rewards, I was used to pairing the cue with the behavior as I taught it. I didn’t know yet that dogs learn behaviors first, and that attaching the cue comes later. I thought Jersey was a little silly for offering a sit without being prompted.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled. Fortunately, I knew enough to reward her for the sit, and to keep rewarding her for “throwing sits at me,” until I started discriminating and only rewarding those that were paired with, or preceded by, the cue for sit.

Jersey sitting outside, after finishing a walk

Jersey sits in the snow after a walk.

[Photo description: Jersey sits outside, her paws wet from a walk in the snow.]

This was the beginning of our working relationship, and the joy we both had in training — and succeeding — was a very strong bond.

Scene III: Nibbles

Bouviers are typically extremely devoted to their own and rather standoffish with strangers. However, even with their people, they are not terribly demonstrative. Typical bouviers are Velcro dogs who want to be with their person, no matter where their person is, following them around the house, just keeping an eye on them or being near them, but not needing a lot of physical affection, and even less often, soliciting it.

This description fit Jersey to a T. She was certainly friendly to everyone, dog or human, in a gentle, quiet way, but she didn’t really care about anyone but me and a few select people, such as her dog walkers. She was truly a “one-woman dog.” She followed me everywhere in our small apartment, and although she rarely sought out affection — she preferred to have her subjects come to her — when I did scratch behind her ears or under her chin, she would close her eyes and “purr.” Sort of a quiet moan of happiness.

The only time she showed outright affection was in the morning. Upon waking, I’d often find Jersey sticking her nose in my face to sniff me while I lay in bed, then “nibbling” my arm. Her other favorite nibbling location was the bathroom, when I first got up to pee in the morning.

Fortunately, I had read about nibbling on a bouvier list before Jersey did this the first time, or I might have thought she was trying to hurt me. It’s a show of affection where the dog, with their mouth almost closed, chatters their teeth against your skin, as if flea-biting.

Nibbling is quite a lovely behavior if you’ve got clothing or a blanket between the dog’s teeth and your skin. However, if she nibbled my arm in the summer, when I was in short sleeves, my skin got pinched between her front teeth, and it hurt! I tried not to exclaim with pain or surprise, because I could tell it startled her and hurt her feelings.

However, on one memorable occasion, the morning before I was to have a first date with someone I met through a personal’s ad, I was giving Jersey a hug as I sat on the toilet. Wagging her little stump of a tail, Jersey reached up and nibbled my neck — leaving a mark! I had told my date that I wasn’t seeing anyone else. What would she think if I showed up with a hickey? Somehow, saying, “It’s not what you think. My dog gave me this,” sounded worse! I wore a turtleneck.

Scene IV: The Stare

Jersey was a prototypical bouv in some ways, but in other ways, she completely defied the breed standard. For example, bouviers are supposed to be “fearless,” and were bred partly as guard dogs. Jersey didn’t have a protective bone in her body. She didn’t bark. She didn’t growl. If anything startled her — such as my falling down — her motto was, “Run away first. Investigate later.”

She was truly “the silent partner” in our relationship. That didn’t mean she didn’t know how to communicate with me.

Jersey eyes Sharon

Jersey keeps close to Sharon and keeps her eye on her

[Photo description: Jersey sits in profile, her head turned toward Sharon. Jerseys fall covers where her right eye would be.]

Jersey used “The Stare.” If she needed to go out, she stood near the door and stared at me. If it was time to eat (which was any time between when I woke up and she ate breakfast, and then again, any time after 3:00 PM or dusk, whichever came first), she sat and stared at me.

If I had friends visiting, and one of them moved between Jersey and me, Jersey got up and repositioned herself to make sure her Stare Beam was unimpeded.

Her stare was very intense and completely focused. She knew that if she just stared long enough, eventually I would feed her. Of course, I always did.

Having one eye — even when vision in that one was clouded by cataracts — did not make one bit of difference. If anything, it seemed as if Jersey’s stare was all the more concentrated, coming from that single orb.

Jersey peers over the futon

Jersey directs her stare beam at me.

[Photo description: Jersey peers over a green futon, her chin resting on it, one eye peeking out, her two black pointed ears in stark relief before the maroon wall.]

When I think back on my relationship with Jersey, my love for her is mostly that of gratitude for her forgiveness in all I didn’t know, her absolute devotion to me, and the smile that still comes to my lips when I see that one brown eye, staring at me.

Scene V: In My Dreams

After Jersey and I had been partners for a while — I don’t remember how long it took — I realized that she accompanied me not only in all my waking activities, but in my dreams, too.

When I try to explain what it’s like to be a service dog team, this is sometimes how I explain it. That the dog is truly an extension of me. This goes so deep that my subconscious knows it, too.

This is a kind of love that’s hard to convey, that of being two parts of one whole, physically and mentally.

Act II: Gadget

Scene I: Love at First Sight

I recently wrote at About Sharon’s Dogs how I fell in love with Gadget pretty much instantly.

Black and white of Sharon and Gadget looking into each other's eyes

Love at first sight.

[Photo description: Black and white photograph of Sharon and Gadget, ten years ago. Sharon sits on a wooden bench of a back patio, smiling down at Gadget, who stands looking up into her face. The sun highlights Sharon’s long, dark hair and Gadget’s curly, gray brindle coat. There are trees and shrubs in the background, beyond the wood railings.]

While Jersey was beautiful — she had, after all, been a show dog — Gadget was just too cute.

Despite the uneven color of his coat, due to digestive and allergy issues that had caused rusty-brown patches where he’d been licking and biting himself most of his life, and his chopped-off beard (which had been a straggly mess, apparently), Gadget was absolutely adorable.

He had that bright, inquisitive spark that animated every aspect of his facial expression: his brown eyes, his twitching nose, his ever-adjusting eyebrows, his long, expressive ears. His ears were soft and silky, and when he ran — which he did at any and every opportunity — they flew up and down, making him seem just that much more alive.

Black and white photo of a young Gadget, staring into the distance

A young Gadget stares into the distance from my porch.

[Photo description: Black and white photo of Gadget from the neck up. His ears perked, he looks alertly into the distance, birch trees blurred in the background.]

Jersey’s ears had been cropped, which always seemed cruel to me, not only for the pain she endured as a puppy for this pointless fashion statement, but also because every summer, the deer flies headed right into her exposed inner ears. Mostly, though, I just loved the feel of Gadget’s ears, how much he could communicate with them, and how much he enjoyed having them rubbed.

Gadget was very photogenic, and it was my good fortune that soon after I adopted him, I dated a photographer. I sent some photos of Gadget to a friend who lived across the country.

My friend’s emailed comment, upon receiving the pictures? “How can you get anything done with that face around the house?” (She’s so much more tactful than I am. When she emailed me a photo of her newborn baby boy, I said, “He looks like a baby!”)

Scene II: Energy

Yes, he was very cute. But even more than his appearance, it was Gadget’s energy that thrilled me.

For one thing, he had so much of it! One of the traits that made Jersey “easy” in so many ways was how gentle and laid-back she was. Gadget, super enthusiastic and uncontrolled, was therefore much more difficult — and much more fun!

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

All four off the floor! Indoor agility, anyone?

[Photo description: Gadget in mid-air jumping over a thin, yellow plastic stick about three feet above the ground, held up by a kitchen chair and a step-ladder. In the background are a kitchen counter and a refrigerator.]

I’d say I’m falling into sexist stereotyping in feeling that Jersey’s sweetness and manners were not as captivating as Gadget’s bad-boy charm, except that my first dog, Lady — as her total misnomer of a name makes clear — was female and also full of smarts and energy (and an aggressive attitude toward other dogs).

Gadget’s characteristics were due to his personality, not his body parts. Everything he did, he did with gusto: Training, thinking, eating, running. He was so hungry for life.

He wore me out, but I often laughed through my tears. I took him for walks that exhausted me, but they weren’t nearly enough for him. We went to my mailbox, three-quarters of a mile away, with me going at my scooter’s top speed (about seven or eight miles an hour) the whole time. Gadget ran back and forth all the way, so he really got more like three miles in than one-and-a-half. Yet, when we got home, and I was ready to hit the sofa and collapse, Gadget ran laps around the outside of the house!

Scene III: His Mind

Gadget was fleet of foot, yes, and he showed such joy in running I liked to say he must have been a greyhound or a thoroughbred horse in a former life.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house

[Photo description: Gadget runs down a black metal wheelchair ramp, his ears flying, with a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth. Sharon is behind him, at the end of the ramp, with her big green cargo van behind her. It’s a bright, summer day, with lots of sun and a green lawn on either side of the ramp.]

His mind was just as quick. Training with him was thrilling. He took to it so easily, and our communication was so effortless, that it is only now — when I have worked my butt off for a year to completely relearn how to clicker train — that I realize how intuitive and brilliant Gadget really was.

There are two myths about service dogs that cause a lot of anxiety, misunderstanding, and broken hearts: 1. That any dog can be a service dog, and 2. That only one-in-a-million can be a service dog. I’ll leave discussion of these myths for a future post, but I can understand why a dog like Gadget could make people believe that any dog can be a service dog.

Clicker training is a step-by-step process. To have a fruitful session, I, as the trainer, have to know ahead of time what my goals are for the session — what criteria I am looking for and reinforcing, and if those criterion are met, what the next step — the next set of criteria — will be.

Gadget on ramp with bag in his mouth, lowering it onto ramp

Gadget prepares to drop the bag in the right spot.

[Photo description: Gadget holds a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth, which he is lowering, ready to drop it on the ramp on which he stands. The presence of the railings on the ramp show he is near the house now. Sharon is on the ramp about four yards back.]

Training Jersey had accustomed me to following this slow, orderly process. Gadget, however, quickly taught me that it wasn’t enough to know what my criteria were for the first step or two of the behavior before a session. I had better know how the entire skill would be built, from steps A through Z, because frequently, after one or two reinforcements for the first step, he would move right to the next step, and then often skip several steps altogether, seeming to intuit, on his own, what the entire purpose of the session was.

I frequently started sessions with the idea that I was introducing the foundation behaviors for what would eventually be a highly desirable service task, and within a few minutes, he would already be performing the finished skill, with nothing left to do but put a name on it (so I could cue the skill in future), and generalize it to other locations or objects.

Because we were training service skills, these sessions were immensely gratifying in several ways. One was that I knew he would be making my life easier with these tasks very soon; this offered tremendous relief and hope. Another was that it made us both feel so good about ourselves and each other; I thought I was a great trainer and he was a great learner, and he loved to problem-solve and earn treats and have my undivided attention.

It also forged a connection that would be critical to us for the rest of his life: communication.

Scene IV: Communication

The adage about communication is that it’s a two-way street, but this metaphor is too simple for the kind of communication that took place between Gadget and I. A lot of people think that communication between dog and handler is about commands, but that’s such a small part of it. And when the handler is also the trainer, the communication goes even deeper.

It started with training and living together, with all that we learned about each other and how to ask and answer each other:

  • “What next?”
  • “Is this what you wanted?”
  • “I’m waiting for you to do this thing before I do that thing.”

Then, in our working partnership, communication involved all of the above, plus how to move together in a huge variety of spaces (familiar and new) and with a great variety of assistive equipment. Not least of this was how much my functioning in a range of areas (voices, legs, arms, stability, coordination) changed drastically, and fluctuated even within new “levels.”

We were so able to predict each other’s intent that I really took it for granted. I remember, after Gadget died, emailing with someone whose heart dog had also died of cancer. They were not a service dog team, but they were a working dog team — her corgi herded sheep. She was the first to point out to me how obvious it was from the videos of Gadget and me working together that we had had a long, deeply connected partnership: how we moved together, how we communicated, “the dance.”

Gadget Watches Sharon Read Poetry to Elementary School Kids

Gadget even paid attention to me when surrounded by a group of rowdy small children. (He seems to be paying closer attention to my poetry than they were...).

[Photo description: Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen cannula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.]

Scene V: Part of My Body, Part of My Dreams

The caretaking Gadget did for me when I got Lyme disease rose to a new level. When Gadget got sick, our bond became that much stronger. The caretaking I did for him when he got lymphoma rose to a new level, too.

We spent every waking moment together, and a lot of the non-waking ones, too. After he died, I continued to dream about him.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

[Photo description: Sharon lies sprawled, asleep on her bed, turquoise T-shirt and pink pajama pants. Her head lolls to the side off her pillow. Between her legs, with his head resting on her abdomen, lies Gadget, also asleep. One foreleg stretches across Sharon’s knee, the other is bent against her thigh. They lie on a bright red comforter, with a large beige cushion propping Sharon’s upper body against the wall. An overbed table on the left side of the frame shows paper, pens, water bottles, and a jumble of other indistinct items, making it clear Sharon spends her days and nights in that spot. Sharon and Gadget both look completely relaxed and unaware that they are having their picture taken.]

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Just like Jersey, when Gadget and I were working together full-time as a service dog team, he entered my dreams. Wherever I was, and whatever I was doing, in my dreams, Gadget was there, too. There was never an “I,” there was only a “we.”

After he died, I talked about feeling like I’d suffered an amputation, and having a sort of psychic phantom-limb pain. It’s not as metaphorical as it sounds. Just as one might reach out a hand to open a door and realize the hand is no longer there, I often turned to Gadget to open the door, to carry a message, to pick up something I dropped, and then realized he wasn’t there. The action was as instinctive as lifting my own hand would have been. It was a shock, over and over, that simple things were now so much more complicated.

At a pet loss bereavement chat online, a met a woman who lost her pet dog to cancer around the same time as I lost Gadget. She knew she would never get another dog. She told me her father, a widower, understood. It was how he felt about her mother. She’d been his one true love, and he didn’t feel the need to ever have another. That’s how she felt about her dog who had died.

I knew I would get another dog. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having a service dog and then choosing not to have another, although I suppose it must happen. Still, that’s why we use the term “successor,” and not replacement.

Barnum will be Gadget’s successor, but no matter how great our love or our teamwork, no dog will ever be Gadget’s successor.

My love for him always feels too big to fit into this little blog space, no matter how many posts I write.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, the spirit of Jersey, and my current clown and acrobat, Barnum, service-dog-in-training

The Dance Begins Again

Barnum is one year old now, and I am constantly pleased and impressed with his progress, and mind-boggled and discouraged by discovering new (and seemingly bizarre) problems. (Yesterday, Barnum refused to walk through mud, which he has walked through many times before in his life. So. . . . Huh?)

I love Barnum for who he is. (He is exceptionally lovable.) I probably won’t know for a very long time, however, if he will ever approach service-dog readiness, let alone Gadget-ability.

So, what worked so well with Gadget? What made him my yardstick?

He was a training machine, for one thing, and then we worked together so well as a service-dog team. We really had “the dance” down-pat. Not that we were perfect. We had our rough edges: Skills I trained at the end of his career, as new needs arose, were not 100 percent. I never shed my “clicker dependency” of not trusting that if I didn’t have it in a novel situation, I wouldn’t get what I needed from him. Gadget hated my van, etcetera.

Now I have introduced a different dance — Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance” protocol — with Barnum; because I foresee trouble if I don’t change our routine. In a nutshell, he’s in that bratty, teenager stage where he will try to get what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. Which is a typical teen thing, and a typical dog thing, and a typical, um, living organism thing, too. So, who can blame him?

Unfortunately for him, that lifestyle doesn’t fit in with my plans.

Part of the problem is that he is bored and under-exercised. I’m working on that. It will really, really help a lot when I get my bad-ass powerchair working, too, so we can go on long, winter walks.

Pchair with headlights

Since my chair is made of used, recycled parts, it hasn’t been clear how to proceed with replacement parts.

You’d have thought I’d have had it fixed by now, but there always seems to be some new minor crisis to contend with that prevents me from wrapping my head around the chair repair issue.

What does “The Dance” Barnum and I are doing now entail? Keeping him leashed to me throughout my waking hours (“the umbilical cord”), singing him a silly song (really!), practicing eye contact, obedience, and downs (all stuff we were already doing) and various other odds and ends. One key factor is to make my PCAs less exciting to him, and to make me the center of his universe — more than I already am.

That’s the nuts and bolts. The feel of it, though, is actually quite a bit like trying to drag an awkward teenage boy onto the dance floor: He doesn’t want to dance, it’s stupid. Why can’t he just hang out with his friends? Oh, well, actually, maybe this is fun. Maybe I’m an interesting dance partner. But no. “This is so weird, do I hafta? Oh, now that I’m focusing on the steps, actually, this is pretty cool. I’m awesome.”

Gadget was more like one of those young ‘uns who runs out onto the dance floor and has no idea that he is a hot mess. He yanks you here and there and flings you about, having a great time, with no idea that you’re not. But, he’s also got the rhythm in him, he just needs some tutoring, and he’s willing, very willing, if there’s something in it for him. He discovers he likes to move and that his partner is actually quite cool.

Over the years, “dancing” together every day, Gadget and I were like an old, married couple. We anticipated each other’s moves and moods. Was the relationship perfect? Of course not, but it worked.

To see how Gadget and I worked together — the smoothness of our dance as well as our stumbles — video is the best. I’m incredibly grateful that Betsy and I were able to make a video of Gadget and me showing off many (but not all) of his skills. My friend and former PCA, Ryan, put the video on youtube for me, divided into two parts.

In this captioned video, Part 1, Gadget retrieves the phone, brings water from the fridge, helps with falls, and more.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Now, for the exciting conclusion: Part 2! In which Gadget alerts me to the oven timer, turns off lights, opens and shuts doors, delivers messages, and more.

Here is the captioned version.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Will there come a day when Barnum and I can waltz as well, or better, than Gadget and I did? It’s possible. I’m listening for the music. . . .

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum

How I Sleep (Or Don’t) – A List, Part 1

Recently I looked up the topic for the December edition of the Disability Blog Carnival and discovered that it related to sleep.

“Hm,” I thought. “Didn’t I write something about sleep at some point?”

I searched all my blog posts (published and draft form) using the keyword “sleep,” and discovered this blog — in draft (unpublished) form. I wrote it the second week of February 2010, three months after my service dog, Gadget, died, and two weeks before Barnum, my puppy, arrived. I don’t know why I didn’t post it then, because it was pretty much done.

Actually, I do have some idea, now. I recently read a list of signs and symptoms of grief, and a big one was inability to focus or to finish simple projects. That’s been happening to me for a year, and I’ve been feeling guilty about it, wondering what the  heck was wrong with me that I couldn’t function even though, physically, I’m overall doing better. Now I realize it was probably the grief and not necessarily under my control.

Now I’m having grief-induced inability to sleep because of the anniversary of Gadget’s death, and another recent loss unrelated to dogs, which I will post about . . . eventually.

Of course, my sleep changed drastically once a puppy arrived on the scene. There was the oh-so-fun sleep deprivation due to puppy care, which I don’t think I documented — possibly due to being too busy and sleep deprived.

Reading this post now feels so strange. There’s so much I’d forgotten, or maybe blocked out. Reading about it brings it all back so clearly and painfully, like the night Gadget vomited all over the house. I can smell it when I read it. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I’m glad I wrote about it and saved it, because that was a critical turning point in Gadget’s life and death.

It’s important for me to remember what it was like then so I can better understand who I am now. Also, every piece of memory of Gadget’s life is precious to me, even the bad ones.

Of course, I’m compelled to write another post about how I’m sleeping these days, which I have started. . . But who knows when I’ll finish? Hopefully in time to submit it to the carnival. Meanwhile, here’s a chronology of how I slept — or didn’t — in the months, weeks and days before Gadget died, and then after.

February 13, 2010

Recently, Andrea Martin of It’s Time to Get Over How Fragile You Are told me that she often posts lists, because she likes to read lists, herself. I agree. Lists are soothing. They are a way to organize the world. I’d already started another post that was essentially a list, and now I feel I have permission to write more.

I’ve had insomnia since I got myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)/chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) in 1995, and since then, there have been variations on that theme, such as an even more extreme sleep schedule caused by chronic Lyme disease, which led some friends and I to call ourselves “The Vampire Girls.” Yes, I’m a vampirette.

Gadget’s dying and death caused further sleep changes. Here they are.

Gadget Is Sick, but Not Dying

  • I go to sleep after massaging him, loving him up, pilling him.
  • I wake up to pee throughout the night and morning (because I go to sleep late and wake up late), and every time, I check on him, pat him, give him some supplements or medications.
  • If I can, I go back to sleep.
  • If I can’t, I rest, take supplements and medications, and try to get myself as functional as possible to be able to take him for a walk.
  • If it looks like it might rain, I try to get a weather forecast to take him for a walk before the rain, because powerchair electronics can get fried by rain, and Gadget doesn’t like thunder.
  • I get between five and seven hours of sleep. Since I need ten to function decently, I build up a sleep debt.

    Gadget lies on hardwood floor

    A cool spot on the floor.

Gadget Is Going Downhill

  • I give him pills on at one- or two-hour-interval schedule all day, every day.
  • I snuggle him, cry on him, rub his ears, tell him it will be okay, we will get through this.
  • Eventually, either he or I decides he should get off the bed. When he decides to get off, it’s because he feels hot all the time now, and he prefers to lie on the cool floor, by himself. I ask him to get off when I can’t stand the (physical) pain of him touching me or moving the bed anymore.
  • I stay up trying to eat or take meds or write my PCA to-do lists for the next day until I literally pass out — see below — because there is so much to do to take care of Gadget, I don’t get to the other stuff.
  • I can’t turn my mind off. But my body takes over, and I lose consciousness propped up, pen or water or medication or food in hand or on my lap, glasses on my nose.
  • When I wake up, I’m confused. Why am I sitting in a wet spot? What time is it? Why is there food on my legs?
  • Once the confusion passes and I realize I passed out from exhaustion again, spilling my water bottle, dinner, pills, etcetera. I clean myself up and check on Gadget. If it’s a good time, I give him a supplement or medication.
  • I put my hand on his heart to feel it beating and reassure myself.
  • I sleep less than six hours a night.
Gadget lies on the couch with his head on Sharon's knee

We're tired (but I try to hide it for the camera).

Gadget Is Definitely Dying

  • I do most of the above, except that everything gets harder as hospice progresses.
  • I give him pills on a one- or two-hour-interval schedule all day, every day.
  • I snuggle him, cry on him, rub his ears, tell him it will be okay and cry because I know it won’t be.
  • He gets off the bed before I want him to.
  • Sometimes I go to lie with him on the floor, but that interferes with the coolness he has sought of lying alone on the floor (no longer on one of his dog beds), so he gets up to move to a cooler spot.
  • If he wants something I’m eating before I go to sleep, I invite him on the bed and let him finish my plate. For once in my life, I don’t have much appetite anyway.
  • I still pass out trying to deal with the things I couldn’t get to because all my energy has gone to Gadget.
  • I wake up multiple times a night to check on him (and to pee, and to put away or clean up whatever has spilled or was perched on me when I lost consciousness).
  • Near the end, he sometimes vomits during the night. In the beginning, I leap out of bed at the first sound to move his or my bedding out of the way and to clean up.
  • Later, I am too sick. One night he vomits at least twice that I know of — it is the smell that wakes me — but I’m so exhausted, I literally can’t move to clean it up. I check that he’s okay and go back to sleep. My morning PCA tells me he has vomited all over the house. This is a few days before the end.
  • I add anti-nausea shots to his routine, and he feels better. He eats again. He doesn’t throw up.
  • I still check for vomit every morning.
  • I sleep two, three, five, eight hours. Sometimes, if Gadget’s most-loved PCA is here, I can nap an hour or two during her shift. Normally, I’m completely unable to nap.
  • At the end, the nights are bizarre. Two nights in a row, he wants to go out at 2:00 in the morning. I go out with him, and he wanders to the edge of the yard. I open the gate, and we go for a meandering walk. I’m wearing slippers and no coat.
  • The last night, it is well below freezing. Gadget is always hot now, and he wades into a pool by the side of the road, breaking through the layer of ice to get to the water. Then he can’t get out. I get in to help him, my leg going numb, and I am stuck, too. I have believed the stories about mothers lifting cars off their infants. I believe my body will do anything I require to save Gadget. Betsy comes looking for us and hauls us both out of the water. There is more to this story, but I will tell it another time.
Gadget in his reflective orange vest, in the water up to his armpits

At the end, even in frigid weather, he waded in up to his armpits.

After Gadget’s Death

  • The first two nights after Gadget dies, I fall asleep, and sleep deeply, for the first time in months.
  • Then, the death dreams start.
  • Eventually, those fade.
  • I awake looking for him every day.
  • Sometimes I wake up crying for him. Then that fades.
  • Eventually I only look for him sometimes. When he’s not there, I feel a weak blow of sadness, then I distract myself.
  • I stay up much too late, even though I don’t have a good excuse anymore.
  • I can’t bear to go to sleep, because the room is so alone and empty.
  • Not just the room: I am alone and empty. There should be a Gadget here, and there isn’t, and I keep putting off sleep because my day feels unfinished — there was no goodnight massage, no chat or murmurs, no hand on his moving chest.
  • The room is too quiet, all the time. There is no breathing or snoring or barking. There is no sound of the door handle turning at 10:00 AM when Gadget’s favorite PCA arrives. She just arrives, and I sleep through it, until she enters the room, and then because of the too-quietness, her tiniest noise wakes me.
  • I notice the empty, and it makes me fitful.
  • I start napping again. I get migraines, or I’m just exhausted, and I go to sleep for a couple of hours. I wake up at the time a reasonable person would go to sleep (11:00 PM, 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM) and then I’m awake till dawn.
  • Someone from the job I left because I was too sick and grief-stricken to function, harasses me by email and phone. I wish I had my protective, loud, lion-heart in our den.
Sharon asleep surrounded by water bottles, computer, etc.

I pass out with my stuff around/on/under me

When I Cry

  • Normally I don’t cry, but when I do, it’s at night, before sleep.
  • I like to be alone to cry.
  • I feel closer to Gadget when I’m alone, because I see him, and there is nobody who can get in the way of my vision of him.
  • Tonight, I fell asleep at 9:00 PM, which is about seven hours before I normally fall asleep. Lights on, stuff strewn across my bed, no dinner or night-time meds administered, I just pass out.
  • My PCA leaves without brushing my teeth, because sleep is so hard to come by, we don’t want to wake me up.
  • I woke up at 11:00 PM anyway.
  • I started thinking about this list I wanted to write, this blog, and of course now I cannot fall back asleep.
  • It’s 2:00 AM. It will likely be several hours before I fall back asleep.

The gist

  • I used to wake up to someone who was overjoyed that I was awake.
  • No matter what kind of mood I was in, how I felt, what the plans were for the day, my waking up was exciting. It was an event.
  • It’s difficult to fall asleep surrounded by absence. It’s beyond difficult to go to sleep knowing there is no one to wake up to.
Gadget, mouth open, looks like he is laughing

Gadget's smile.

* * * *

Back to December, 2010, almost a year later.

I know I’m behind on comments, but I really do love and appreciate them. I’ve just been bogged down in, well, grief. But I will respond!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (someone to wake up to)

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Black-Bottom (Custard) Pie

I know a recipe for pie doesn’t seem to have much to do with the usual themes of this blog, but I’m posting it anyway because (1) it’s an awesome recipe that I semi-created, and (2) it tangentially relates to my loss of Gadget (and Barnum manages to make a cameo in the pie pics), and (3) my life has been kind of rough lately, what with the downturn in my health and the anniversary of Gadget’s death, and other emotionally difficult stuff (that I discuss at the end), so sharing one of my favorite recipes is a nice distraction.

Warning: This is no recipe for wimps! You either need to have a good arm (your’s or someone else’s) or some cool, labor-saving kitchenware (like electric beaters), or both, to make this pie. It’s been a few years since I could make this pie on my own (and even then, it required “a good day”). Usually what I do is “oversee” the baking. This means I tell Betsy or a PCA what to do, and they do all the actual stirring and lifting and measuring (and especially whisking!), and I watch and direct.

I’m a control freak when it comes to baking, so I periodically stick my hand in and make sure it’s just how I like it. For example, I take charge of adding certain ingredients (especially light-weight ones). Ironically, my controllingness involves me tossing in a lot of the ingredients without measuring them, because I like to use more of some things (chocolate and vanilla, for example) than the recipe really calls for, and I don’t want to bother with measuring. I generally eyeball most ingredients, actually.

Black Bottom Pie and Me

Black-bottom pie is a fantastic pie, unlike any other, in that it is so much better than pie normally is. For one thing, it has chocolate in it. I see little reason to eat dessert if it doesn’t have chocolate in it. Sugar is just a vehicle for chocolate delivery, in my opinion.

Almost equally importantly, it doesn’t have a normal pie crust. Regular pie crust has neither chocolate nor sugar in it, so it is completely pointless. I am not typically a fan of pie. Can you tell?

I made my first black-bottom pie when I was twelve years old, using a recipe my mother found in that year’s Boston Globe. It was one of three “not-your-typical-Thanksgiving-pie” recipes. I never tried the other two because once I made this one, I knew I’d reached pie nirvana, and there was no point in seeking further. I have been baking black bottom pie for Thanksgiving every year since then. That’s a lot of pies! (I won’t say exactly how old I am, but the Globe recipe is from the early 1980s.) I still use the newspaper recipe, even though it’s become difficult to read because it’s completely fallen apart; it’s torn, folded, blurred, and faded, as well as smeared with egg and chocolate, etc. I piece a lot of it together from memory, which is another good reason to post the recipe here. It will be saved from obscurity and the ravages of my recipe drawer.

The G-F/Dairy-Free/Food-Allergy Aspects

The original recipe was not in any way hypoallergenic or gluten-free. I made the adjustments myself, over the years, as I became allergic to more and more foods. I also tweaked it to conform more to my particular tastes. As you will see, if you have food allergies, you can modify the recipe to avoid anything that might be problematic, except eggs or sugar.

The way I make it, every ingredient (except gelatin, because I’ve never found that in organic form — if you know of an organic brand of unflavored gelatin, please post in the comments!) is organic, except the eggs, which are free-range. Chemical food makes me really sick, so it’s not an option for me to eat non-organic. I haven’t written “organic” in front of every ingredient, but if you have the money and the access, do yourself and the planet a favor, and buy organic.

I’m very fortunate that I can currently eat eggs, as long as they come from truly free-range, nontoxic hens, because custard absolutely requires eggs. I can’t eat factory-farmed eggs, and I don’t even do well with organic eggs. (This site explains the difference between organic and truly free-range eggs. Note: The second part of the explanation is in an uncaptioned video.) I get my eggs from a local teenager who has truly free-range, nontoxic hens, and they are awesome.

The crust recipe below also has nuts in it, which are a very common allergen. I am allergic to all nuts to some degree, but some more than others. However, I can “get away with” certain nuts on occasion. If you are allergic to nuts and can’t risk it, just make a different kind of crust. The best kind is chocolate-cookie crumb crust or graham-cracker crust. In fact, those are the traditional black-bottom pie crusts. Or you can make a regular pastry pie crust, too. It’s very easy to make a fast, gluten-free traditional pie crust with just a mix of g-f flours, canola oil, water, and salt. I’ve done it many times, just by converting the 5-minute crust recipe in The Joy of Cooking by substituting “pastry flour” with equal parts rice, millet, and tapioca flour instead. I don’t even roll it out; I just mix it right in the pie plate and press it into shape with my fingers.

Crust

A true black-bottom pie crust is made from chocolate cookies. As the name suggests, this gives the pie a black bottom. I have yet to find a chocolate cookie I can tolerate that would work for pie crust, so I use a nut crust. The nut crust has two bonus features: (1) It’s easy. (2) It’s tasty and retains its crunchiness longer than regular crust. I originally got the recipe from my friend Emily, a nutritionist and allergy gourmet. Then I lost it, so now I kind of wing it. You have been warned.

Crust Ingredients:

  • Hazelnuts (because they are the most delicious nut on the planet, but you can use any nut you like)
  • Rice flour (because I tolerate it, but you can use another type of flour if you want)
  • Millet flour (ditto)
  • Oil (I use coconut oil, because it tastes awesome and has healthful properties which are maintained at high heat, but you can use canola or any other vegetable, nut, or fruit oil you tolerate)
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Vanilla extract (because everything’s better with vanilla) (optional)
  • Cinnamon (ditto) (optional)

Crust Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grind up nuts (in a food processor or blender) until they’re somewhere between the consistency of coffee grounds, sand, or a fine dust. It’s up to you how crunchy or floury you like it. I use enough nuts to end up with about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of “nut flour,” but I use an extra-big pie plate. If you have a smaller pie plate, make less.

Pour the nut flour into the empty pie dish. Add the other flour. I use about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of each, for a total of about 1/4 to 1/2 cups g-f flour. This depends, again, on the size of your pie plate and whether you want your crust really nutty crunchy (less flour, more nuts) or more like a standard pie crust (more flour, less nuts). (If you want to use a gluten-free flour mix or other types of flours, instead of the rice/millet combo, that’s fine, too.)

Add 2 to 3 tablespoons oil and a roughly equivalent amount of water and 1 teaspoon vanilla. You want just enough liquid to get all of the flour moist. Stir it around, and if you need more moisture, add a bit of oil and/or water. When it’s all moist, pat it against the bottom and sides of the pie plate until it’s relatively thin and even all the way around. Sprinkle a little bit of cinnamon on it.

Put crust in the oven for 10-20 minutes. I usually check it at 10 minutes, then watch it and check it every few minutes after that. Generally, it’s done at around 15 minutes, but if yours needs to stay in longer, don’t panic. It should get just slightly darker tan/brown than its original color. Basically, it should be dry and hard (but not like a rock). If it’s still moist or soft, it’s not done. If it’s brown or black, you burned it. Try not to do that.

Once it’s done, take it out and leave it somewhere to cool. Turn off the oven. You’re done with the baking part. (That was the easy part.) Often I bake the crust one day and do the filling the next, to spread out the work.

Black bottom pie side view

The finished pie. Note the deep dish crust!

Incredibly Awesome Filling (Layers of Chocolate and Vanilla Custard)

Filling Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces dark chocolate
  • 1/2 packet (1/2 tablespoon) plain gelatin (The only brand I know is Knox, but do tell if you know of another!)
  • 1-2 tablespoons water
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons rice flour (or whatever flour you tolerate)
  • 2 tablespoons millet flour (ditto)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 cups milk substitute (see directions for your options)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Filling Instructions:

Break up your chocolate. I like Green & Black’s 70% dark. If you like intensely dark chocolate flavor, use more than 2 ounces. If you’re more of a “milk chocolate” flavor person, definitely use less (1.5 ounces or so). I often end up using close to 3 ounces, because I’m a chocaholic.

Put the chocolate on a plate, and put the plate over a pot of gently simmering water. Not a pot with boiling water, just gently warm the chocolate so it melts. If you have a double boiler, I suppose you could use that, but I’ve never used one, so I can’t give you tips. You can also just microwave the chocolate, only be careful that it melts evenly and you don’t scorch it. Set chocolate aside.

Put the water in a teacup or somesuch and pour the gelatin on it. Set it aside.

Separate out the first 3 eggs. I suggest cracking them one at a time into a bowl that you use only for separating your eggs, so if you get some yolk in your whites, or if one of the eggs is bad, you haven’t ruined all the others. You want to end up with five yolks in a large mixing bowl and three whites (without any yolk “contamination”) in a smaller mixing bowl. I usually use the remaining egg whites to make meringues with, or I did when I was less disabled. Now I usually just fry them and eat them with breakfast or give them to the dog. Both Gadget and Barnum love(d) raw eggs. When Gadget had cancer, I fried the white and gave him the shell and yolk raw. Barnum gets it all raw. (Warning: Raw egg causes horrific dog farts!)

Speaking of dogs, Barnum apparently felt I couldn’t let another post go by without him. When I put the pie on the floor to take a picture of it for this post, he came over to investigate (of course — Barnum is Mr. Curiosity). So, we played “pie zen.” Barnum approached the pie, I said, “Leave it,” and he laid down next to the pie, with his head on his paw, looking away, clearly realizing there would be no chocolate custard deliciousness for him. It was so cute, I had to take a picture.

Barnum and pie

Barnum practices pie zen.

Whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup of sugar. (Don’t use the rest of the sugar yet.) Add the flour. If you can tolerate regular (wheat flour), just use 3 tablespoons of that (and count your blessings, dammit). If you are gluten-free, and you have a g-f flour mix that you normally use for baking, use 4 tablespoons of that (and consider yourself relatively lucky). If you’re like me and you can’t tolerate most forms of starch/flour, just use whatever combination you like of those that adds up to 3 or 4 tablespoons. A mixture is usually better for baking g-f, which is why I use both millet and brown rice flour, but if you can only tolerate one form of flour, that is fine, too.

Add enough of the milk substitute — I usually add about 3/4 cup or more — to make “a thin mixture.” (Again, if you’re not allergic to dairy, you can use actual cow’s milk — and consider yourself really lucky.) (Dammit!) If you can tolerate soy, I recommend soymilk, as it’s the closest thing to milk in taste and ratios of fat and sugars and such. Other options are almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, or water. I can’t tolerate milk substitutes other than rice or hemp (or water). I use hemp milk because, even though it gives the vanilla custard an ever-so-slightly hempy taste, it’s thicker and more milk-like in its ratios of fat, protein, sugar, etc., than rice milk, which is pretty much just water and sugar made from rice. Plus, once you have all the various flavors melding together in the pie, you really cannot taste the hemp. (This is not just my opinion, but that of everyone who has tasted my pie.) (And no, hemp milk does not contain THC, so you cannot get high on it!) But, you can make this with rice milk or water. I’ve done it, it just takes longer during the whisking stage to thicken because there’s less fat, and therefore it’s also a little less rich and luxurious (but still good!).

Scald the remaining milk-substitute in a pot on the stove. “Scald” just means heat it on medium-high until right before it boils. You don’t want to burn it; that would be “scorching” it. I used to get those two terms mixed up. Then take it off the heat.

Pour the milk-substitute very slowly over the yolk mixture, mixing constantly. The best way to do this is to have one person pour the hot liquid while the other one stirs, but if it’s just you, you can just pour a little on, stir stir stir, pour a little on, stir stir stir. The reason you want to mix them very slowly is that if you just dump a lot of hot liquid onto the yolks, they will cook, and you’ll get scrambled eggs. If this happens, you might still choose to eat it (as I once did), but it’s very disappointing — trust me.

Now, take the yolk/liquid mixture and pour it back into your saucepan. This is where the work comes in! Whisk it constantly over medium heat until it comes to a boil and thickens suddenly.

Some important notes:

(1) Why must you whisk constantly? Because if you don’t, it will either burn, which will ruin it completely, or it will (again), turn into scrambled eggs, which will also pretty much ruin it, though it’s still edible if your standards are low, like mine. This is also why you should have your rubber spatula in hand to periodically scrape the sides and bottom, otherwise those parts will cook or burn in a way we don’t want.

(2) How will you know when it comes to a boil and thickens suddenly? It will boil (bubbles will form, pop, pop, pop), and then it will really, truly thicken, and become like custard/pudding. It’s exciting when this happens! How long it takes depends on your ingredients, your stove, and I don’t know what else. Sometimes for me, it’s just a few minutes, and sometimes it seems like it takes forever. (It takes longer if you, a chronically ill, fatigued person, do it, than if a healthy, energetic person does it. That’s been scientifically proven.)

When the above magic occurs, reduce the heat to low and continue whisking constantly for two minutes. By that time, it should be really thick and custardy. If you’re not sure, keep whisking it on low for another minute or two.

Remove the pan from the burner and add your vanilla. Pour half of the custard back into your mixing bowl from whence it came. If you’re like me, you’ll actually pour a bit more than half into the mixing bowl, because this will become the chocolate custard part, which is my favorite part. Also, we’re going to do something that will increase the volume on the vanilla custard part, so using more for the chocolate part makes it more even.

Anyhoo, divvy it up however you want and then add your melted chocolate to the part that’s in the bowl. Once it’s all smoothly mixed in, pour it onto your baked, cooled pie crust. Smooth it over, set it aside.

Add the gelatin (which will have hardened into a little gelatenous glob) to the still-warm custard in the pot. Stir it until all the gelatin has melted. Set it aside.

Add the pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them on the highest setting on your mixer, until they form soft peaks. Use a clean rubber spatula around the sides to make sure all the egg whites get beaten. Turn off the mixer and add the leftover sugar. (Remember that 1/4 cup of sugar you didn’t put in the egg yolks? Now its time has come.) Turn the mixer to max again and beat the whites till they are glossy and stiff.

Use the biggest rubber spatula you have (it’s okay if it’s the same one you used on the egg whites) to gently fold in a big spoonful of the custard into the egg whites. Then, take the egg whites and gently fold them all into the vanilla custard. Do this until no more white patches show. Then pour this on top of the chocolate pie, which should be firm by now.

Final Touches

At this point, you can either pop it into the fridge, call it a day, and go rest, or you can try to make your pie even more impressive. The simplest way is to make swirls or waves in the vanilla custard and/or shave some chocolate over the top, or sprinkle it with the same type of nut you used in the crust, or something like that.

Black bottom pie

My only decoration this time was chocolate shavings on top. I didn't even bother making swirls in, or scalloping, the custard.

The original recipe I have calls for a third layer, which is whipped cream. If you’re going to go for a third layer, you should do this part right before you serve it. Either way, you can make the rest of the pie either the day before or the same day you intend to eat it. It just needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours for the vanilla custard to set.

If you can tolerate real whipped cream, I will refrain from saying how I really feel about that, except that you can find a recipe for making whipped cream pretty much anywhere (hint: heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, whip it).

When I used to tolerate soy but not dairy, I made tofu whipped cream, which is quite lovely on this pie, too. It ends up being more of a sauce than a “standing up on its own” whipped topping, so I recommend not pouring it on as a third layer, but having it on the side instead (When Harry Met Sally reference!) so that you or your guests can spoon it onto their own wedge. Again, I’m not going to provide the recipe for this, because it would require me to get up and find my tofu cookbook, and I can’t eat it anyway. Hint: You use the soft or “silken” type of tofu for this. I’m sure you can find the recipe elsewhere. Try a vegan dessert site. It’s really easy. It just requires tossing all ingredients into a blender or food processor or mixer and going “whirr.”

The  Gadget and “Other Things” Tangent

What does pie have to do with facing life after the loss of my service dog? This is sort of like the game, “Six Degrees of Separation.” The connection is that Thanksgiving used to be my second-favorite holiday (Passover was my first), which I celebrated, since 1993, with my two best friends, and all of our friends, roommates, and lovers of the time. They were very dear to me, and I have many happy memories of Thanksgivings with a rotating procession of our lovers, roommates, and friends — and my rotating food allergies, and my various cats and dogs that came and went — but these two people were constant. And we called ourselves our “family of choice,” and they meant the world to me.

My life stabilized, as did theirs, with the same partners attending each year. I settled firmly into the service dog way-of-life, and Gadget was a central part of holidays for me. This was especially true after I became much more functionally disabled, due to Lyme disease and coinfections (other tick-borne disease), contracted in the summer of 2007. I relied on Gadget a great deal for my day-to-day functioning, and for a holiday, which required extra functioning, that was even more true. At some point, I began a tradition of feeding Gadget a bit of the Thanksgiving meal, especially turkey. I know this is a serious no-no for a service dog, but when you’ve been partnered for many years, you learn what you can let slide without dire consequences. I enjoyed being able to indulge him on a festive occasion.

Then my life started falling apart, in November 2007, right around Thanksgiving, due to Lyme. I lost a lot of function, I was in excruciating pain and other forms of bodily discomfort all the time, and I developed a lot of psych symptoms (that I was not aware at the time were psych symptoms). That made Thanksgiving a hard time of year for me.

Then, people started dropping out of my life. Some died, some had difficulty with the physical aspects of my illness — including my speech disability — but most were alienated by my altered personality, or a combination of the physical and psychological effects the new illnesses had on my life.

One of the people who dropped out was one of my two best friends. I am still in contact with the other, but only just barely, by email. We are hanging on by our fingernails, trying to see if we can rebuild what was lost.

So, last year, as Gadget was dying of cancer, Thanksgiving was looming. I felt very bleak about this upcoming “holiday” that felt like a gaping wound of all I’d lost — except Gadget. Gadget was still with us, and even though I knew he was dying, I desperately hoped he had another couple of weeks left.

It felt like the most ill-named holiday ever. Except that I was terribly thankful for the few people in my “inner circle” (Betsy, my parents, a long-distance friend I talk to on the phone, and another whom I email) who had not abandoned me, and I was grateful for Gadget. I was grateful that we had had some special months when he was in remission.

Betsy’s and my parents were scheduled to come for Thanksgiving, which was the first time that had ever happened, and I was grateful for them coming to try to cheer and support Betsy and me during a hard time. Most of all, as T-day loomed, I fervently hoped that Gadget would be alive, so that I could be thankful that we still had each other. I wanted so much to feed him some turkey and stuffing and squash, to drop my hand down to pet his head between rounds of gluttony. I felt that being able to say I was thankful for Gadget’s presence would help diminish the feelings of loss that otherwise overwhelmed me.

Gadget did not make it to Thanksgiving. He died on Thursday, November 19, and Thanksgiving was exactly a week later, Thursday, November 26.

I was desolate. I tried to be cheery for my family’s sake. I don’t know how well I succeeded. I’m not sure, but I think I made a black-bottom pie, despite it all.

Before we ate, I set up a little plate for Gadget of turkey (without bones) and stuffing and gravy and veggies, and I put it on the floor near where I was eating. Sort of like putting out a cup for Elijah on Passover. I felt embarrassed about it. The only person I’d told what I was doing was Betsy. She kept trying to get me to put less on the plate, I guess because of the waste. I don’t know what our parents thought of me putting a plate of perfectly good food down on the floor for no one. Later, when I had to throw it out, I really didn’t want to. It was an effort, like the rest of the day — a series of forcing myself from one task to the next.

This year, I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving. Betsy’s driving down to spend the holiday with her mom and her cat. I’m going to spend it with Barnum, trying to ignore that the holiday exists. I’ll probably try to get a lot of training in — or a good, long walk, if my chair and I are up to it.

However, my parents wanted to do some sort of Thanksgiving-esque thing with me, so this past weekend, they came out with turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing (all made without stuff I’m allergic to), and I made black-bottom pie, just like old times. I only cried once, the food was good, the people were kind, and I just tried to get through it and not think too much about Gadget and all the others gone from my life.

One good distraction was Barnum. He has to learn table manners, because normally I eat in bed, so he didn’t know he shouldn’t come circling around the delicious-smelling table. Betsy helped out a lot by finding ways to distract him that didn’t involve food when I was eating. Barnum’s very entertaining when he’s playing.

The best part of the meal was the black-bottom pie. After all, it has chocolate in it.

That’s what it all comes down to. Despite all this turmoil and loss, two things haven’t changed: Black-bottom pie is awesomeness in a glass dish, and the person I usually find the easiest to deal with in a social situation is the dog.

I would close by saying “Happy Thanksgiving,” except that that would feel dishonest, because I don’t feel happy about it. I think I have come to a place of moderate acceptance, and that’s pretty damn good, considering.

Instead, I say, “Happy Black-Bottom Pie.”

May your dogs not attempt to steal turkey bones. May those you love show up in body and spirit. May your custard thicken suddenly and spectacularly.

-Sharon, the must of Gadget, and Barnum (Pie Zen Master)

The Last Night: Under the Stars

A year ago today was my service dog, Gadget’s, last day. This post is about Gadget’s last night — which was adventurous, unique, and, ultimately, serene, all in one — much like Gadget was, himself.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had already known for over a month that Gadget was dying. I had never been in the position before of nursing an animal through a long terminal illness and deciding in advance to euthanize at home. Most of my animals had died naturally. In a couple of cases, they died in accidents. The only animal I’d euthanized at home was my cat, Ferdinand, who, seven years ago, had very fast-moving pancreatic cancer. I made the decision in haste and realized too late it was the wrong one. I was haunted by terrible guilt. Only recently have I started to forgive myself for how Ferdinand died.

With a similar situation looming for Gadget, I worried a great deal about how I would know it was “time,” and when I did make that fateful decision, if it would be the right decision. His illness, especially near the end, was grueling, but the idea of losing him was unfathomable. The thought of taking the life of my partner, my beloved, my best friend, an extension of my own self, was sickening. I hoped he would die on his own, quickly and peacefully. I kept handy the number of a vet who made house-calls, and then I tried not to think about it.

As soon as it became clear we would have just a few weeks together, I dedicated myself to making that time the best it could be. A big part of this was taking him to the pond. Fiske Pond is a town-owned public park less than a mile from my home. It consists of a medium-sized pond with a trail all the way around, along with other trails, forests, and fields of grass. When he was doing well, we walked there and back. When his energy started to flag, a PCA drove us in my van.

Upon arrival, I’d let him off-leash, and he’d run and run and run, his ears flopping. We zoomed along the paths (the few that were minimally powerchair accessible) and down to the water. He always waded in — usually up to his armpits — for a drink. This was a source of amusement for Betsy and me because generally Gadget refused to drink water from a bottle or bowl unless he was practically in danger of heat exhaustion. In fact, he could be panting like all get-out, and I’d offer him water in the van right before we got to the pond, and he wouldn’t touch a drop. But no matter the weather or temperature or length of his coat, he always wanted to drink pond water.

Gadg pond ball retrieve

Right out here is where the water tastes best. . . .

“Mm, pond. . . .” Betsy and I would intone, mimicking Homer Simpson, when Gadget lapped up the filthy pond water. We joked that we should bottle it and sell it to city dogs, because obviously pond water — this pond water — was the best-tasting water. “L’Eau du Pond” was my favorite name for our imaginary company. However, we both conceded that the bottled water would never be as good as the real thing, because obviously it tasted best only if you were standing in it up to your armpits. Or maybe it was just easiest to drink that way, without having to lower your head.

All of the pictures in today’s post are from visits to the pond. It was gorgeous there, year-round. We called it “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (No theme park could ever hold a candle to the myriad smells, the other dogs, the swimming, the running, the number of trees to mark.) We meant it was his happy place, but really, it was Betsy’s and my happy place, too, because Gadget was so jubilant there — and he was so gorgeous when he ran — that I was filled with joy just watching him. We both went as fast as we could over the bumpy terrain, up and down the hills, pushing our limits, reveling in the freedom neither of us had access to much of the rest of our lives.

Gadget runs ahead of Sharon across a field.

Even in his last days, Gadget races ahead of me at the pond.

Gadget knew that if I put his orange vest on him, it was recreation time — either a walk or some other fun outing. If I told him to get in the van in his orange vest, he was thrilled, because that meant the pond, for sure.

Gadget butt standing on forest floor

The orange coat signals adventure!

However, he generally already knew we were headed there because he knew the word, “pond.” We had to be careful never to say it unless we were about to go, because we didn’t want to raise his hopes falsely. We had a lot of conversations like this:

Sharon: I think I’m going to take him out soon, to the you-know-where. Do you want to come?

Betsy: To the p–

Sharon: (Interrupting) Shh!

Betsy: (Looking around for Gadget) To the P-O-N-D?

Sharon: Yes!

Betsy and I got quite silly about winding him up during his last year of life. If you said, “Pond,” around him, he would race around, bouncing and whining with anticipation. Thus, we developed “The Pond Song.” I don’t remember how it started, but one day Betsy or I discovered that if one of us howled just the right note, Gadget would join in. We encouraged him to turn the whine into a howl, and soon after announcing a trip to, “The pond! The Pond! The POND!” We’d all be howling, “The Pond Song.”

Sharon and Gadg Wade

In the days before I got Lyme disease, Gadget used to help me swim. Then I was too sick, until the summer before he died, when I managed to get in the water, if only to wade and play fetch.

As cancer started to take its toll, I was consumed by nursing him, night and day. Taking him for walks, feeding him his favorite foods, giving him his medication, and making sure he was comfortable in any way I could. When nausea first struck, and he didn’t want to eat, I gave him an anti-nausea medication that brought back his appetite. Eventually, when he was eating and drinking less, I gave him subcutaneous fluids. I checked on him constantly, night and day.

He seemed to be uncomfortably hot most of the time. He took to lying on the coolest spot on the floor instead of on his dog bed. He didn’t like to cuddle for more than a couple of minutes before he’d move to a new, cool spot. He drank a great deal. More than ever, he wanted to be at the pond. He still lit up when we arrived. He ran around, sniffing and marking. But he headed into the water with a swiftness and purpose that he’d never shown before. No matter how cold it was — even on days it was well below freezing — he waded all the way in and drank. Often he would go back in repeatedly to cool off and drink more.

Gadget swims

Gadget cools off and drinks the ultra-delicious pond water.

He became slower, and his appetite was more unpredictable. He seemed very tired, and sometimes didn’t wander far in the yard before lying down. The last full meal he ate was a portion of his regular homemade food, followed by fried egg and French fries off my own plate, with us both on my bed. Eggs had become a staple — one of his favorite foods; my surefire way to get him to eat anything was to mix an egg into it. That night, he stopped licking my plate when there was still egg on it.

The next day, he didn’t want his food. I managed to tempt him with just fried eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese, which I spooned into his mouth. He was more interested in eating something if it came directly from me than if it was on a plate or in a bowl. I bought vanilla ice cream, because I’d read that sometimes it was the only thing a sick dog would eat. Sure enough, the following day, all he wanted was frozen yogurt or ice cream, and even those I had to first put a dab on his tongue before he got the taste for it.

It was clear that Gadget’s time was coming, and Betsy and I frequently discussed when I would know it was time to call the vet. I really, really didn’t want to call the vet, but I also didn’t want to keep him living past the point he was ready to die, due to my cowardice and fear.

However, Gadget kept telling me he wasn’t ready. He wanted to go for walks. Sometimes I’d let him out to pee, and he’d head down the ramp to the gate and wait. I’d just let him out and follow him. Most of his walks around my home were off-leash anyway, because there was hardly any traffic, and Gadget knew to sit at the side of the road when a car came by.

Gadget stands in forest

Gadget once sussed out a surprisingly wheelchair-accessible trail that we followed into the woods around the pond.

In those last couple of days, even if he sometimes wandered and then seemed to collapse with weakness, so that I became scared he’d not be able to stand again, he always did; and if we went for a walk, he perked right up. His step was bouncier and quicker. He became alert to the smells, sights, and sounds around him.

In fact, two days before he died, my mother came to spend the day because we thought it might be his last; that morning was the first time he had laid down outside and then had trouble regaining his footing. However, when I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk, he did. My mother, Betsy, and I put on our coats, and we put on his orange vest and headed out. We saw a neighbor and told him Gadget was dying.

“He sure doesn’t look like he’s dying to me!” he said.

“Well,” I said, trying not to cry, “he is.” What I should have said was, “That’s because he’s Gadget.”

We moved along slowly, so he wouldn’t feel rushed. We turned around after a short time because we didn’t know how much strength he had left. He wanted to keep going.

That night, around 2:00 A.M., I let him out to pee before turning in. Although he’d been wobbly and unsteady that day, he went to the gate. He wanted a walk. It was bitterly cold, and I wasn’t wearing a coat, but he wanted to go for a walk, so we went. I just followed behind him. This was different from how we had walked even a week before. Normally, I raced along as fast as my chair could go, and Gadget was free to stop and sniff or mark something, and then come roaring past me before stopping to enjoy another roadside attraction.

However, I didn’t know how far he could safely go, and I didn’t want to push him beyond his limit of enjoyment or safety. I was concerned, too, that if he collapsed, I didn’t want to leave him alone in the dark while I went home to get help. Nevertheless, I let him lead the way, and when we got to a gully at the side of the road that was often filled with water — a vernal pool in the spring, and the equivalent in fall if it had rained a lot — he waded in. We’d had a wet fall, so the water was up to his belly. He drank and drank.

I was afraid he would have trouble getting back out, so I moved toward home and called him. To my relief, he made it out of the pool and followed me home.

The next day, he didn’t want to eat. Not vanilla ice cream, not anything. He didn’t show an interest in anything, except . . . the pond.

“You wanna go to the pond?” I asked him. And he tilted his head, lifting his ears. He definitely wanted to go. We put on his orange vest, and he headed right to the van.

At the pond, he was slower than usual, but he was steady, and he definitely enjoyed himself. We knew it was most likely his last time. We had already decided that I would probably call the vet to come the next day. I was still unsure, though. I kept hoping Gadget would somehow give me a sign. I didn’t know what to look for. Seeing him enjoying himself there, but so not himself, was bittersweet. I knew bringing him had been the right thing. I knew he wasn’t yet ready to go. I just didn’t know when I would know, or how.

Again, that night, when I let Gadget out to pee before bed, he went to the gate. Betsy and I debated whether we should take him to the pond. We weren’t sure what he wanted or what he was up for. We decided that I would just let him lead me, and Betsy would follow us in the van in case we needed a ride to the pond. She needed to get dressed in warm clothes.

It was twenty degrees out, after midnight, as Gadget made his way, and I followed. When we came to the fork in the road where we normally went right, toward the pond, he took a left. Again, he headed for the vernal pool. This time, I was concerned. He had experienced several episodes of difficulty getting up that day, and I was alone with him at night, in the cold and dark. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I knew he was going to go in, and I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t. I don’t know if I told him no and  he ignored me, or if I even had a leash with me or not. I’m pretty sure I didn’t, or I would have been able to stop him.

All I remember was the layer of ice over the leaf-filled clear water of the roadside pool, and Gadget wading into it, breaking through the ice and entering the water like it was a cool embrace. I was increasingly scared that he would not be able to get out.

I was right to be scared. When I called Gadget, he couldn’t get out. He didn’t flounder or sink, but he tried to climb up the bank and then gave up. He just stood there in the water up to his chest. He was very still.

At this time last year, I was not very mobile. I had improved vastly from the previous year, when I was almost never able even to get out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. However, I was still largely unable to stand or transfer myself or do anything beyond the one walk a day we took. Even that — riding in my powerchair — was something I had to push myself very hard to do. In fact, a couple of weeks after Gadget died, I crashed very hard for several months, perhaps because I overextended so long and hard to care for Gadget.

In other words, I was not in any condition to pull a wet, 75-pound dog out of a mud-bottomed pool. But there was no way in hell I was going to leave Gadget in that freezing water. I was trying to decide what to do when my van appeared. It was Betsy. I was so relieved.

I told her that he was stuck, and we’d have to pull him out. She was not happy about this. I tried pulling him out by the collar, without success. I didn’t have enough leverage. I put one of my legs in the icy water, shoe and clothing and all, up to my thigh. Then we were both stuck. I couldn’t get him out, and I didn’t think I could get myself out, either. I called to Betsy, urgently, to come help me get Gadget out of the water. She had to step into the pool, too, with both legs, which she was extremely unhappy about, and she lifted him out. Then she helped me out.

“I think he wants to go to the pond,” I told her.

It had seemed like an outlandish scheme so late at night, with a dying dog, but nothing really felt normal — or abnormal — anymore. We stood there in the road, wet and shivering, debating whether to go to the pond or not. We decided the first thing we all needed was to get warm. Then we would decide.

I sent Betsy ahead to get Gadget home and dry him off and warm him up. She had to lift him into the van because he was too tired to jump in. I didn’t want to slow us all down by using the van’s hydraulic lift to get my powerchair in and out. I rode my chair home, feeling extremely cold as I willed my slow chair to go as fast as it could. Mostly my mind was on what we would decide — about everything — when I got back.

When I arrived, Betsy had brought towels out to the van to dry Gadget off and bundle him up. He was on his dog bed and seemed to be okay. Betsy and I were both freezing.

If we were going to the pond, I didn’t want to bring Gadget inside. I was sure that his adventure in the icy roadside gully, combined with trekking from the van to the house and back, would wear him out beyond a possibility of going to the pond. If we were going to go, we needed to go right away, so Gadget could stay put until we got there. Regardless, Betsy and I needed to dry off and get into warm clothes.

I still couldn’t tell if it was a good idea to go or not. Yet, by now I was certain this was Gadget’s last chance to go to his happiest place on earth. We decided we would go, and if he seemed interested when we got there, great. If not, at least we would have given him the option.

I didn’t want Gadget to be alone in the van, so I went in the house to towel off and put on dry clothes, while Betsy watched over Gadget. Then I went to the van — blessedly warm and dry — to stay with Gadget while Betsy went in and changed. We were both equipped with flashlights this time — and a leash.

When she came back out, it was 2:00 in the morning. I asked Gadget again if he wanted to go to the pond, and this time he clearly indicated that he did. He looked more interested and engaged at the word, “pond,” than he had all day.

So we drove to the pond, Betsy and I wondering if what we were doing made any sense at all. When we got there, Betsy unloaded my chair (the one that did work with the lift), and we opened the side door. Gadget popped up and leaped out of the van! Apparently, we had made the right decision!

The sky was clear and full of stars. The air was crisp and dry and cold.

Gadget trotted ahead of us, all dog, sniffing everything, his nose to the ground. He marked his favorite bushes and trees to mark. Yes, he was moving more slowly than he had a month before, a week before, but if he wasn’t galloping, he was definitely trotting, sometimes running. He was happy.

Betsy and I were happy and sad, cried and watched him and talked a little. We looked up at the sky.

Then I saw a shooting star. I pointed it out to Betsy. Then there was another. She saw it, too. I wished on the star that Gadget would die that night in his sleep. I don’t really believe in such things, but it was my heart’s desire. It’s just what popped into my head, without any thought. (It turned out the shooting stars were meteor showers; I hadn’t known there were to be any that night.)

Gadget was in his element, and we followed behind. Betsy and I both felt a sense of peace and rightness. We agreed that I would call the vet in the morning. It was time. A last night at the pond was the right way for Gadget’s life to end.

We did not allow him to go to the side of the pond where we usually went, where there is a steep drop-off he could have taken to get into the water. Instead, we went around to “the swimmers’ beach,” which had sand and a gradual drop-off for safer wading. We were nervous about letting him go in, but we did. Gadget walked into the water, and there Betsy saw another shooting star above him. I told her that I knew things were going to be okay. When we called him from the water, he did come back. No more beach rescues.

When we got back to the car and loaded Gadget in, he settled right down in his bed. Betsy and I had already told each other we had felt a peace descend on us when we stood at the beach and looked up at the stars. Now, Gadget seemed to be exuding an aura of peace and tranquility, too. The restlessness I had sensed in him during the past week, and increasingly in the last couple of days, was gone. For whatever reason, he seemed ready, too.

Gadget did not die in his sleep that night. I slept very little and checked on him often, but he continued, resolutely, to breathe, though somewhat labored.

In the morning, we called the vet and said that we hoped he could meet us at the pond, as that was Gadget’s favorite place, and we wanted him to die where he was happiest. We told the vet we weren’t sure if we’d get him there or not.

In the early part of the day, I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he showed interest. But when we let him out, he wandered over to the side yard, not a place he normally goes, and as usual, we followed him. The trip around the house to the other patch of lawn appeared to have been all he could manage, and he sank down in the grass. I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he didn’t respond. That’s when I knew, absolutely, it was time.

Betsy and I sat on the grass, patting him and talking to him, scratching his favorite spots — behind his ears, under his chin, in his armpit. His last great effort came when the vet arrived. Gadget jumped up and barked at him. If you’d only seen him in that moment, you’d never have known he was sick. That he was dying.

Then he folded back into the grass. The vet explained what he would do — use an intramuscular injection first that was a combination sedative and painkiller, which would make him lose consciousness — and then give him the lethal injection which would stop his heart. Gadget went limp in Betsy’s arms immediately after the first shot. Unlike my cat, who had lingered and was clearly not ready to go, Gadget went immediately. He was definitely ready to die. Although I wasn’t ready to lose him, he was ready to go. He was tired, and he’d had his last great adventure.

Gadget stands at water's edge in silhouette with natural blue background.

His last great adventure.

A year ago today was my service dog, Gadget’s, last day. This post is about Gadget’s last night — which was unique, serene, and adventurous, all in one — much like Gadget was, himself.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had already known for over a month that Gadget was dying. I had never been in the position before of nursing an animal through a long terminal illness and deciding in advance to euthanize at home. Most of my animals had died naturally. In a couple of cases, they died in accidents. The only animal I’d euthanized at home had been eight years ago, when my cat, Ferdinand, had very fast-moving pancreatic cancer. I made the decision in haste and realized too late it was the wrong one. I was haunted by terrible guilt. Only recently have I started to forgive myself for how Ferdinand died.

With a similar situation looming for Gadget, I worried a great deal about how I would know it was “time,” and when I did make that fateful decision, if it would be the right decision. His illness, especially near the end, was grueling, but the idea of losing him was unfathomable. The thought of taking the life of my partner, my beloved, my best friend, an extension of my own self, was sickening. I hoped he would die on his own, quickly and peacefully. I kept the number of a vet who made house-calls handy, and then I tried not to think about it.

As soon as it became clear we would have just a few weeks together, I dedicated myself to making that time the best it could be. A big part of this was taking him to the pond. Fiske Pond is a town-owned public park less than a mile from my home. It consists of a medium-sized pond with a trail all the way around, along with other trails, forests, and fields of grass. When he was doing well, we walked there and back. When his energy started to flag, a PCA drove us in my van.

Upon arrival, I’d let him off-leash, and he’d run and run and run, his ears flopping. We zoomed along the paths (the few that were minimally powerchair accessible) and down to the water. He always waded in — usually up to his armpits — for a drink. This was a source of amusement for Betsy and me because generally Gadget refused to drink water from a bottle or bowl unless he was practically in danger of heat exhaustion. In fact, he could be panting like all get-out, and I’d offer him water in the van right before we got to the pond, and he wouldn’t touch a drop. But no matter the weather or temperature or length of his coat, he always wanted to drink pond water.

“Mm, pond. . . .” Betsy and I would intone, mimicking Homer Simpson, when Gadget lapped up the filthy pond water. We joked that we should bottle it and sell it to city dogs, because obviously pond water — this pond water — was the best-tasting water. “L’Eau du Pond” was my favorite name for our imaginary company. However, we both conceded that the bottled water would never be as good as the real thing, because obviously it tasted best only if you were standing in it up to your armpits. Or maybe it was just easiest to drink that way, without having to tilt your head.

All of the pictures in today’s post are from visits to the pond. It was gorgeous there, year-round. We called it “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (No theme park could ever hold a candle to the myriad smells, the other dogs, the swimming, the running, the number of trees to mark.) We meant it was his happy place, but really, it was Betsy’s and my happy place, too, because Gadget was so jubillant there — and he was so gorgeous when he ran — that I was filled with joy just watching him. We both went as fast as we could over the bumpy terrain, up and down the hills, pushing our limits, reveling in the freedom neither of us had access to much of the rest of our lives.

Gadget knew that if I put his orange vest on him, it was recreation time — either a walk or some other fun outing. If I told him to get in the van in his orange vest, he was thrilled, because that meant the pond, for sure. However, he generally already knew we were headed there because he knew the word, “pond.” We had to be careful never to say it unless we were about to go, because we didn’t want to raise his hopes falsely. We had a lot of conversations like this:

Sharon: I think I’m going to take him out soon, to the you-know-where.

Betsy: To the p–

Sharon: (Interrupting) Shh!

Betsy: The P-O-N-D?

Sharon: Yes.

Betsy and I got quite silly about winding him up during his last year of life. If you said, “Pond,” around him, he would race around, bouncing and whining with anticipation. Thus, we developed “The Pond Song.” I don’t remember how it started, but one day Betsy or I discovered that if one of us howled just the right note, Gadget would join in. We encouraged him to turn the whine into a howl, and soon after announcing a trip to, “The pond! The Pond! The POND!” We’d all be howling, “The Pond Song.”

As cancer started to take its toll, I was consumed by nursing him, night and day. Taking him for walks, feeding him his favorite foods, giving him his medication, and making sure he was comfortable in any way I could. When nausea first struck, and he didn’t want to eat, I gave him an anti-nausea medication that brought back his appetite. Eventually, when he was eating and drinking less, I gave him subcutaneous fluids. I checked on him constantly, night and day.

He seemed to be uncomfortably hot most of the time. He took to lying on the coolest spot on the floor instead of on his dog bed. He didn’t like to cuddle for more than a couple of minutes before he’d move to a new, cool spot. He drank a great deal. More than ever, he wanted to be at the pond. He still lit up when we arrived. He ran around, sniffing and marking. But he headed into the water with a swiftness and purpose that he’d never shown before. No matter how cold it was — even on days it was well below freezing — he waded all the way in and drank. Often he would go back in repeatedly to cool off and drink more.

He became slower, and his appetite was more unpredictable. He seemed very tired, and sometimes didn’t wander far in the yard before lying down. The last full meal he ate was a portion of his regular homemade food, followed by fried egg and french fries off my own plate, with us both on my bed. Eggs had become a staple — one of his favorite foods; my surefire way to get him to eat anything was to mix an egg into it. That night, he stopped licking my plate when there was still egg on it.

The next day, he didn’t want his food. I managed to tempt him with just fried eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese, which I spooned into his mouth. He was more interested in eating something if it came directly from me than if it was on a plate or in a bowl. I bought vanilla ice cream, because I’d read that sometimes it was the only thing a sick dog would eat. Sure enough, the following day, all he wanted was frozen yogurt or ice cream, and even those I had to first put a dab on his tongue before he got the taste for it.

It was clear that Gadget’s time was coming, and Betsy and I frequently discussed when I would know it was time to call the vet. I really, really didn’t want to call the vet, but I also couldn’t let him die before he was ready.

Gadget kept telling me he wasn’t ready by indicating he wanted to go for walks. Sometimes I’d let him out to pee, and he’d head down the ramp to the gate and wait. I’d just let him out and follow him. Most of his walks around my home were off-leash anyway, because there was hardly any traffic, and Gadget knew to sit at the side of the road when a car came by.

In those last couple of days, even if he sometimes wandered and then seemed to collapse with weakness, so that I became scared he’d not be able to stand again, he always did, and if we went for a walk, he perked right up. He became alert to the smells, sights, and sounds around him. His step was bouncier and quicker. I just followed behind him. This was different than how we had walked before. Normally, I raced along as fast as my chair could go, and Gadget was free to stop and sniff or mark something, and then come roaring past me before stopping to enjoy another roadside attraction.

However, I didn’t know how far he could safely go, and I didn’t want to push him beyond his limit of enjoyment or safety.

The turning point was when Gadget no longer wanted to eat anything — not even ice cream. He had also become unsteady on his legs and sometimes had to collapse where he was to rest before getting up again.

Well, for a dog like Gadget, if you can’t run, and you don’t want to snuggle, and especially if you don’t want ice cream, there isn’t much left. This happened Friday, November 18, 2009.

Further, Gadget was my most beloved of any animal (17 mammals, one reptile, hundreds of fish) I’ve ever had, including my previous service dog. He was my assistant, my heartdog, my partner, my beloved, my best friend, my other half.


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