a tiny box of graham crackers

He came home at seven weeks old.
We had picked out several possible names for him, a whole list crowd-sourced from coworkers and friends.  None seemed to fit.  As we drove up I-95 through light snow, I tried them out.  Winston?  Kalai?  And then a few minutes later, off-handedly to the poet, he smells like a tiny box of graham crackers.  He said, Graham? and I said, with only slight irritation to my boyfriend of about two months, Did you just name my dog?!
He was sugar-cookie-sweet right off the bat.  He learned how to sit at eight weeks old, peed on the Christmas tree rug at nine, charmed my dad into remarking, dogs are so much better than kids at ten. I would say that he was mine but the truth is, I was his.  Madly, deeply, immediately, I belonged to him.
He got sick when he was two, and everyone saved him.  It changed us.  It is hopefully not a lie to say that it made me a better person and it is all because of Graham.  We gave back everything that had been given to us and kept giving, time, money, love where nothing else would do.  To this day, every month when I write a check or click a donate button, I remember how sick he was and I hope that maybe now another dog can be saved, thanks to him.  

Never, not ever, has a dog been more spoiled.  He gets a piece of my bacon every morning, peanut butter at night, a small Dairy Queen cup now and then, a bite of banana, and nearly all the time I say softly to him while he chews, thank you for staying alive.  We have four dogs, and they each have their own place in my heart, but Graham is special.  I have a bond with him that is nothing like I've ever experienced, he is part of my soul, he is loved, cherished, honored about all other puppies the poet often comments when I save him from a truly terrible fate, such as having to get down from the bed at night so that we can rearrange the blankets for sleep.  As he has begun to show his age over the last year or so, he has been treated even more gently.  He goes on special trips to choose a new toy at the pet store, he picks me up from the airport and then rides in my lap the entire way home, he gets short walks almost every day, a certain overstuffed chair in our living room has been declared his, and he sleeps between us every night.  He trails me around the house all day while I work; he doesn't like to snuggle or be right on top of me like our other dogs, he only wants to be nearby, where he can keep tabs on my every move.  He watches me brush my teeth every morning, sitting patiently and waiting for me to join him in the day.  He can pick out my voice from anywhere in the dog park, when I leave the house he barks nonstop at the garage door until I appear back through it, and when I was so sick and hurt last year, drowning in depression, when I struggled to even get out of bed, he never once left my side.  

I wrote a blog post last week, I've been struggling to find my voice in this space but I spat something out and then left it, planning to return to do what I describe as a final spell/grammar/asshole check.  My hip/pelvis is acting up, I'm swimming a bit, I love my bike again, the normal nonsense of an athlete's life that now seems so trite and superficial that I can't even bear to open the post in order to erase it.  

I take my dogs all over the world with me, as much as I can and probably a few places where I shouldn't.  We go hiking, to the dog park, trails, swimming, everywhere.  My friend Emily rescued a dog last year and we've fallen in the delightful habit of meeting up once or twice a week to walk ours together and catch up on every minuscule detail of our lives.  On Sunday, I dragged my friend Lauren out of the house to join me in visiting what I described as the Sunday Boulder dog Coot Lake scene, we packed Graham and Hunter - who has a KILLER bellyflop - into the car and headed over.  We ran into Emily almost immediately and started walking towards the corner swim beach to let the dogs run and chase and splash it out.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of throwing tennis balls as far into the water as we could, we dragged them out and started walking around the lake in order to let them dry off, chitchatting the whole way.  Hunter was hogging all of the balls and I kept stopping to work one free and chuck it for the others.  There were a lot of people with dogs on the trail with as it was relatively cool and overcast, plenty of golden retrievers for our crew to investigate.  Graham doesn't run so much as he does a move that has earned him the nickname Mr. Prance-Prance, and he was thrilled to be out there.  I've been worried on taking him on longer walks as he's gotten older, but he was racing around happily trying to snatch a tennis ball out of Hunter's mouth.

We were around the back of Coot when he threw up.  It's not an uncommon thing when you live with four dogs.  About once every week or two we experience dog vomit time travel; one moment you're asleep, the next you're in the backyard, blinking, not sure how you got there but hoping that whoever is retching didn't hit the carpet on the way down the stairs.  Graham had actually been that dog the night before, but it looked normal (#realtalk) and we let him puke it out, then went back to sleep.  So when it happened on Sunday morning, Lauren - also an experienced dog mom - commented idly, lake water, and I said, yup and we kept on walking.  He bounced after us, but after a few minutes we noticed he was trailing, and then he started to look a little unsteady, and someone said something along the lines of, feeling a little drunk there buddy? and that was the last moment of levity.

He tried to walk, I called him forward and could tell he was trying, but he staggered a bit and then went down.  We weren't carrying any water - I carry a pack and a bowl if it's hot or we're going to be out for a long time - but Sunday we planned on a swim and maybe a thirty minute walk so I didn't have anything.  I gave Lauren my car key and she took off like a shot for the car to get a water bottle; we were probably close to a mile away so I knew it would be a while.  Emily and I tried to get him to walk to a nearby bench - maybe eight or ten steps - and he wouldn't even move.  I picked him up then, he weighs more than fifty pounds and I'm still a ninny about my right shoulder but I got him up and over to the bench.  We sat with him for a minute, saying his name and waiting on Lauren to return.  He gets a certain look in his eyes when he is in tremendous pain, I haven't seen it in six years but I recognized it straight away, a dark hooded look, and I think that's when it hit me that something horrible was happening to him, right in front of us as we watched.

I called Thom then, he was off hitting tennis balls of his own, normal Sunday afternoon.  I didn't realize how panicked I was until I heard my own voice, Graham has collapsed we're at Coot Lake on the south side please come quickly please come please hurry.  I picked him back up again and was horrified at his loose limbs, we walked a ways but I wasn't strong enough to carry him all the way back to the car.  I stopped to rest for a second and see if he was coming around but there was nothing behind his eyes.  Emily helped me carry him after that and we got him down to the first lake inlet.  I dragged him halfway into the water, hoping that the cold would revive him, but he didn't move.  Lauren got back with a bottle of water then, we tried to get some in him but he wouldn't drink, he wasn't responding to my voice.  She and I carried him together all the way back to the parking lot.  Hunter was running around and he lost me somehow.  I was yelling his name trying to get him to follow, I could see over my shoulder than he was at the lakeside, looking for me, but I was so panicked and scared and all this time Graham was nothing, a bag of warm water and limp legs, he hates to be carried and held and normally he'd be straining to get down but he was dead in my arms.  Dead.  I thought that he was dead.

We made it to the front of the lake and laid him down, people were so kind and friendly and asking if we needed help but there was nothing anyone could do.  Lauren went to chase down Thom who had looped out of the lot just as we came around the corner; these friends of mine are worth solid gold, the two of them helped save his life on Sunday afternoon.  I had read a long time ago to be calm if your pets are in danger so I was trying to stay quiet but I am sure that I was gasping, crying, in between shaking him and saying his name over and over, a litany, trying to tether him to this earth the only way I knew how. Thom showed back up and starting walking across the parking lot and I screamed hurry you have to hurry, wild, frantic with fear.  He got me into the car and then Graham onto my lap, still unmoving, not breathing, not blinking, not digging his paws into my legs every time the car moved like he would normally be, he hates the car, and I couldn't do anything, I couldn't help him, I couldn't save him.

I called the vet, not our vet, a vet in south Boulder that I knew was open on Sunday because we took our dogs there when we lived in Erie.  The miles couldn't pass quickly enough, I'm confident Thom broke dozens of traffic laws as we flew down the Diagonal, hundreds of hours passed, we were moving in slow motion.  Graham and I were both soaked, covered in mud and rocks and grass and sticks from the lake and the trail, I still thought he was overheated so we cranked up the a/c and I just begged him to hold on, trying to say all the words that he knew, trying to find something to hold him here.  Tennis ball.  Car wash.  Carrot.  Nigel.  Banana.  Bye-byes in the car.  Dog park.  Daddy.  Walk.  Mamas.  Please.  Graham.  Please.

When we got to the vet they were waiting, Thom handed him over to a very tall man who turned out to be a tech and they swept into the back and were gone.  The silence, the stillness, destroyed me.  We kept coming out to tell the receptionist things that I am sure didn't matter, he was really sick when he was little, he had an ear infection once, he hurt his shoulder a few years ago at the dog park, we were at Coot Lake maybe there was e coli, maybe he got bitten by a snake running around in the grass.  I kept asking if I could be with him even though I knew I couldn't, I didn't want him to be alone, if he died alone somewhere surrounded by strangers and I was ten feet away, I wouldn't be able to bear it.  I couldn't stand being in the small exam room, I thought I was going to explode with how terrified I was and I ended up back in the hallway leading to wherever they had taken him, my hands pressed against the window, crying and repeating like a prayer. Please.  Please.  Please.

It was an eternity until the vet came out, she was extremely kind and let us know first all the things that they had immediately ruled out.  Heart failure, a rupture, an attack.  There's no test for anaphylactic shock and she explained that it is diagnosed when you are backed into a corner; his blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously low, his gums were white, his pulse was low, he had vomited, he was barely breathing.  They treated him immediately with fluids & drugs, the only one that I could remember was epi, like on a TV show, trying to get his heart started again.  The tech poked his head in to tell the vet that she was needed and then no one came back for a long time and I walked circles in the floor, what had happened, was he crashing.  Another lifetime passed before she came back and said we could see him, he was breathing, he was alive.

He was very still on a countertop, surrounded by the detritus of saving his life, but when he saw me, his tail thumped just barely on the table, once.  I flew to him, still soaked with lake, he was connected to wires and tubes but he knew who I was.  He was fighting.  He fought, again, for us.  For me.

The vet explained again in detail what she thought had happened.  We didn't see him get bitten or stung by anything but that was her best guess, he had obviously had an extreme allergic reaction to something that had nearly killed him.  She said dozens of times that he wasn't out of the woods, that they were no longer a 24-hour center and he would need to be transferred to a critical care hospital where he could be monitored.  The scary part is not yet over.  He had gotten a lot of epi and his blood pressure was still low but his heart rate and respirations were coming up and she wanted us to move him soon, in case he crashed again once it wore off.  We arranged to take him to a hospital up in Longmont - ironically, an emergency vet that I had been at exactly one week earlier when Molly woke up limping and whining - and they helped us get him out into the car and back onto my lap for the trip.  He was more awake, Thom found a tennis ball in the trunk and he perked up a little and kept it in his mouth the entire drive.  He was able to walk into the vet himself and they took him, but I was calmer, I had seen him move and wag and breathe.

The next few hours passed in a blur, they examined him and then brought him into a small room where he could be with us between blood tests and medicine and whatever vet magic was being done.  He was hooked up to a fluid pump, lethargic, he wasn't walking well and didn't want to move, but we got him some blankets and I sat on the floor and let him sleep in my lap until they sent us home, late at night, to get some rest.  
I didn't sleep at all, I laid in bed, my arms sore and aching from carrying him, empty.  I called to check on him a little bit before 2am and the night vet let me know that he was having heart arrhythmias and his liver enzymes were very elevated and there was a lot of free fluid in his abdomen, none of which means anything to me other than, this isn't good.  She said he wouldn't be able to come home in the morning but we could come back after 6am to visit with him, so that's what I did.  He hadn't slept much overnight, he had ripped all the skin off his nose trying to burrow out of his crate and he gets really stressed in a kennel because he is the most delicate of flowers.  This dog.  I gave him breakfast and took him for a potty and then he curled up next to me, laid his head in my lap and went to sleep.  I sat there all morning with him, playing soft music when the normal vet sounds kept waking him up, talking to him about what had happened, where he was, what was going on.
I left around lunchtime to get something to eat and when I came back they were talking about letting him go home since he was pretty stressed out and there was nothing really to do other than watch him and wait.  It took a while to put all his meds together and discharge him, he has a lot of follow-ups to do to watch his liver and figure out what's going on with his heart and his belly, but he pranced just a little as we headed out to the car.
He crashed hard on the way home even though it's less than ten minutes of driving.  I got him upstairs and into the bed and he has pretty much been asleep ever since, snoring next to me while I work.  He isn't worse but he isn't doing well.  He's very sluggish when he does get up, he's walking very slowly and carefully as if he knows that he is made of glass, and for the most part all he wants to do is lay on his chair.  We've been tempting him with all of his favorite snacks, maybe a bit too many as the farting has been atrocious, but he just isn't my Graham.  I know that he went through something horrific but I'm still worried, and sad, and upset about all the things I wish I had done differently.  I wish we hadn't taken him to swim, or decided to walk around the lake, I wish I could have seen what was going to happen sooner, responded quicker, gotten him to the vet faster.  I let him down; I swore I would always take care of him but when something terrible happened again, I couldn't carry him fast enough, I couldn't save him, I couldn't keep the wolves from his door.
When he was sick all those years ago, I remember clearly that some not-at-all-well-meaning assholes on the internet made sure to point out to each other smugly that he was, "just a dog."  And I know that, he is not a human, but he is mine.  Or, more accurately, I am his.  I have been from the moment we met, he has changed my life in ways that I probably don't even see myself.  This weekend I got a taste of what my world looks like without him in it.  I'm not sure anyone is ever ready for a dog to move on, but I don't know how I am going to survive it, when the day comes.  I'm not sure how anyone who has ever loved a dog, survives it.  Right now, he is here with me.  His life the last two days has been a glorious buffet of every treat he has ever loved (although we probably need to slow down on the ice cream before the house catches fire from noxious dog butt fumes) as we watch him, and wait.  
I hope that this is not his time.  I hope that we have years left before I have to try to understand how to repair the hole he will leave in my soul when he departs.  But if not, he knows that he is loved.  And I know the same.  He fought for me once, and he fought for me again, and I'm not sure which of us is running through our theoretical stack of lives faster, but I am honored by every day that he chooses to stay by my side.  It may be his choice but the honor, as they say, is all mine.