On Losing Duke
I have survived twenty eight days of horrible heartache and I don’t know that an end is soon in sight. It’s the kind of pain you cannot accept, that burns inside of you, that is constant. I have experienced extreme sorrow, anger and helplessness all melding together in my mind. It feels much longer in duration, but it has been four weeks since Duke died.
Tears fall from my eyes daily, mostly when I find myself in a moment where Duke should be. This void is indescribable. Spending time at home is quite painful, yet I don’t feel capable of confidently carrying my emotional self out into world for lengthy periods yet. I can see him clearly in my memory no matter where I find myself within our house. Indoors or out, I have visions of Duke as a healthy dog and as a dog whose body slowly failed him no matter how hard we loved, the expense we paid or the specialized care he received. It’s hard to believe that after just one year of living in this house that I could possibly have made so many memories, yet I see him everywhere I turn.
Duke did not die of old age, nor did he live a life full of many days. Duke died just shy of 5 years, 6 months old. Though his life was unfairly cut short, he lived in ways that many dogs will never have the opportunity to. After his passing, a friend told me how silly and sweet she thought him to be and that he was so very lucky to have us to adventure with. Although I imagined I would have so much more time with him for many more adventures, I do believe this to be true.
In the time we did have, we spent summers swimming in our backyard pool and taking dips in ponds we discovered. We went on long walks through our neighborhood and made frequent visits to local dog parks. We tried our best at obedience class but spent much of our time rough-housing on the living room floor. We even tried cycling together before Duke pulled me over the handlebars of my bike and we decided that maybe it wasn’t for us after all. He experienced snow, thunderstorms and sunshine, Texas summer heat and a Southern California earthquake. Once we moved to San Diego we frequented the beach and Duke swam in the Pacific Ocean, more times than I can count in fact. He chased seagulls in the sky and ate sea life that washed ashore. He ran through the sand and it never slowed him down; Duke was always so very fast and strong which is ironic considering how he left this world. We went backpacking, hiking, camping and kayaking together. We even went on dates to restaurant patios around San Diego. Living in California has been a dream with dogs as they are encouraged everywhere, so everywhere we went.
Duke’s last day was spent in bed with me, one of his favorite places to be. I held him and cried for hours on end before calling my husband home from work in fear that Duke’s time was nearly up. We cuddled him together for a few hours more while we tried to keep his fever down. After phone conversations with veterinarians that cared for him before he was released to us from intensive care that weekend, as well as our neurological doctor, we decided together that we would put Duke to rest that evening. After seven months of caring for his difficult health condition, there was nothing further that could be done for him. It completely broke our hearts to leave home with the intention of returning without Duke. This was the absolute hardest thing I have ever decided to do; I recall struggling immensely at the task of putting on my shoes.
Duke was ready though, regardless of us not wanting to let go. He was unable to walk or stand, yet he still acknowledged us with a twitch of his paw and his eyes followed us every time we moved. I clearly remember the last time I looked in his eyes, the sun glimmering through their amber color as he looked up at me, his head resting on my husband’s chest. And a moment later, he was gone. He died on his own, peacefully on my husband’s lap, wrapped in his arms. No needle was needed, no intervention made. In fact, we did not make it to the animal hospital with him before he passed. Dutch was with us through it all, and for that I am grateful.
After we surrendered his body for cremation, my husband, Dutch and I went to the beach together. We walked the shores where she used to run with him as salt water met salt water. When the sun began its descent we watched silently and heartbroken as a family short one member until it sank below the horizon. Duke was really gone.
Dutch looks for him. After a day spent at the office with me she darts into the house, searching from room to room, always disappointed at the outcome. Her energy is completely different now that he is gone; she saw her best friend become ill, fight his illness for months on end and then ultimately die. We struggle to get her to eat most days, she is reluctant to go outdoors which is completely unlike her, and we try our best to keep her company by visiting dog parks in the evenings for some socialization. Needless to say, it’s been a major adjustment for all of us.
Duke’s diagnosis was a challenging one as there were no clear cut answers to what had initially caused his decline in health. That was until it was too late. Throughout the course of his treatment he was suspected of having a stroke due to his consistent head tilt, an inner ear infection, Vestibular Disease, thiamine deficiency, or possibly Cushing’s Disease. However, none of these things were able to be confirmed through various blood tests, urinalysis and multiple medical examinations.
When Duke became deaf within a matter of one day, that’s when we opted to work strictly with a neurologist and perform a CT scan of his brain. The lesions discovered in his brain tissue were directly causing the lack of coordination throughout his body and an MRI also revealed an infection in his spine called discospondylitis. A spinal tap was preformed as well to find out specifically what kind of infection we were dealing with, however, a culture did not grow in the laboratory. Aggressive drug therapy in the form of shots and pills ensued over the following months which helped reduce the swelling in Duke’s brain and managed his symptoms, however, it was a bumpy road with highs and lows from the day he became ill all the way until he passed on.
During his treatment we were notified that there was a recall on the frozen vegetables we used to buy for the dogs while they were consuming a raw diet. The vegetables were contaminated with Listeria bacteria which happens to cause severe neurological damage to anyone who consumes it, and if not treated quickly, death. Brain swelling and lesions, spinal stiffness and pain, lack of coordination, fungal infections, vomiting, muscular weakness and deterioration, and a compromised immune system were among a few of the symptoms that directly correlated with Duke’s condition. Can you imagine the feeling of taking care of your pet the best you know how, in the most species appropriate way, and as it turns out the food you had been providing him was contaminated with a deadly bacteria? I can tell you first hand that it is absolutely awful. Why Dutch did not suffer in the way Duke did is unknown, but there were signs of health issues in her as well when Duke first became ill - hers just resolved in a different manner. We are currently in the claims filing process with Pictsweet see if there will be any justice, but no settlement amount could ever replace my baby boy. We have discussed donating a potential settlement to a charitable organization that helps dogs live longer, healthier lives such as the FACE Foundation.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Duke was meant to live on with his sister Dutch for several more years. He was going to be there when I became a mother. He would be there at the edge of the highchair, eating any morsel of food that the baby would drop. He was going to be there when that baby grew to become a toddler, and he would be the pillow to rest on for watching cartoons. He would be at birthday parties held in the backyard, soaking up every pat on the head and trotting along with children playing in the grass. He would be there when I tucked this little person in at night, wanting to cuddle with them under the covers in their bed. My child would use their imagination for playing dress up with him and his sister Dutch. And as Duke grew old, this child would grow up and know him as their dog. And maybe, just maybe, we would be fortunate enough for it to happen twice. But Duke has gone long before we ever expected him to. And sadly, none of these things that I dreamed of him will become a reality.
Not a single hour passes that I don’t think of him; memories constantly flood my mind and I make it a point to write each one down in fear of forgetting any detail that I can cherish of Duke. If I could emphasize just one thing in having to live through this life altering experience, it would be to never take a moment for granted with the animals you love. If you’ve been meaning to take your four legged friend to the park but just haven’t found the time, do it today. Do it now. Time nor health are promised to any of us and we should never take these things for granted, especially considering how briefly our pets are with us in comparison to the length of our lives.
Just one week after Duke had passed, the family dog that I grew up with, Dottie, passed away too. Though she lived a life of 14 years, the heartache my family has experienced, and that you may have suffered in the past as well, is of the same kind. We’re never prepared to let go, are we? Duke now rests on my nightstand in a cedar box the color of his coat. And some day, when it’s Dutch’s time to leave us behind as well, their ashes will be spread together. Brother and sister, my heart and soul.
Thank you to everyone who sent flowers and cards over the last few weeks. Our hearts have been warmed to know that you thought Duke was as special as we knew him to be. Your thoughtfulness, kind words and caring gestures have meant so much during this difficult time for my family. Thank you all.