When my dogs have a nightmare or when I have trouble sleeping I like to hold my babies and tell them their ‘story.’ This is the story of Oliver, my angel who returned to heaven too soon.
In 2006 I was living in New Jersey but flew to North Carolina to visit my mother with my twin sister. On the last night of our trip my mother told us to go next door to my aunts house and look at the puppies she had. The puppies were my cousins, she bred dachshunds.
We walked over to get our favorite thing, puppy kisses! When we walked in I saw the child’s playpen that was housing the precious angels. I said hello to my aunt and gave her a hug but out of the corner of my eye something caught my attention.
In this playpen of sleeping puppies sat one puppy away from the group sitting perfectly with wide eyes. He sat perfectly as if he was expecting something or someone. As soon as our eyes met his tail began to wag and his eyes dimpled as his patient perfect stance changed to overwhelming excitement. It was as if I was who he patiently waited for. It was then at that first glance that my heart filled like it had been patiently waiting as well. He was the most beautiful angel I had ever seen.
I immediately picked him up. He looked at me with the biggest eyes and our hearts spoke without saying a word, “there you are.” But in that perfect moment reality sank in. I flew to North Carolina and I have two dogs at home. I also knew I shouldn’t buy a dog with so many homeless babies.
Overcome by reality I kissed this perfect angel and returned him to the playpen with his siblings. As I walked out the door I looked back and once again saw him sitting perfectly away from the group but this time I could feel his sadness as he watched me walk away. My twin sister also felt the sadness as we walked away. I told her all of my hesitations and she listened intently without saying a word.
I went back to my moms and told her about the angel without realizing that my sister had not walked in with me. Fifteen minutes later she walked in behind me and placed my sweet angel on my lap. She said, “here’s your dog and here’s his plane ticket.” She bought him a ticket because she knew I’d never let him be checked as cargo. My sister had given me the greatest gift I’ve ever known, I’d return the favor years later.
Once again our eyes met and my heart filled with so much happiness that it felt like it was shouting with joy. I held and kissed my perfect angel and knew we were meant to be together. I asked my mom what I should name him and she said “he looks like an Oliver.” Oliver, it fit him perfectly. He was an 8 week old playful puppy who should have wanted to rambunctiously play but at that moment he fell asleep on his side right there on my chest against my heart with his little head tucked under my neck.
It was as if he had exhausted himself waiting for me. Even as he grew through the years to 28 pounds this remained his favorite way to sleep with me, against my heart.
The next day we boarded our flight together. He caught the eye of everyone in the airport. Everyone wanted to pet or kiss my beautiful baby boy. Oliver loved the attention and gladly took each pet and kiss but he always looked back at me. He only wanted to be where I was. This was also a trend throughout his life, while he liked other people he only really loved his momma. He never cared much where we were or what we were doing as long as I was with him, he was happy. We arrived home and as expected his new brother and sister welcomed him with wagging tails and happy kisses. His sister Bobbi and brother Zack couldn’t be happier with the newest addition to our family.
Over the years we moved several times and eventually found our way back to North Carolina. Our story would end where it had begun ten years earlier.
Oliver loved his family. In his lifetime he welcomed two younger brothers and eventually lost his older sister.He was our protector. He was a dachshund but he had grown to be a stocky fellow, lovingly earning the nickname of Monkey or chunky monkey. I liked to say he was big boned. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt his family, he didn’t even like when anyone stomped towards his momma. If he thought someone might hurt his momma he would put himself in front of me and bark or growl. His hobbies included lounging with his family, barking at the neighbor dogs, and eating.His favorite thing to do was to take his moms shirt or pants and carry them to his bed where he would lay on them like a pillow. I would always leave him one of my shirts before I left the house so he could still feel like he was with me while I was gone. If I left for too long on a vacation he would often go on a hunger strike until I returned. He loved to cuddle with his momma, just as he did when he was a baby, against my heart with his head tucked under my neck.
Oliver never really had any health issues except fatty lipomas that would pop up randomly. We had several removed when he was younger but as he aged we didn’t want to keep putting him under anesthesia. So we had the veterinarian test them and just kept a close eye on then for any growth. A few upset stomachs in his lifetime, but that was it.
Oliver was his wonderful self everyday until one day in March everything changed. I came home from work and as I did every single time I came home I walked in the door knelt down and kissed all my babies and told them all how I loved them. I went over to Oliver who was wagging his tail as he always did when I came home, but as I went in to kiss him and pet his soft fur he yelped. I thought maybe I petted him too rough but I checked him thoroughly anyway to be sure he wasn’t hurt. He didn’t appear to have any injuries and did not replicate the yelp so I assumed that maybe it was a fluke incident.
But the next day when I came home and he yelped again when I went to pet his head I knew something was wrong. I brought him to the vet thinking that maybe it was an ear infection, even though he had never had one and his ears were clean and did not appear inflamed. But other then the occasional yelp when you pet the left side of his head he was perfectly fine.
The vet did a thorough exam and then told me that he seemed to shake and quince when she rotated his neck downward. Since he was a dachshund and they are prone to disc disease her best guess was that he had a slipped or herniated disc in his cervical spine. She suggested X-rays but my husband and I are both nurses so we knew that an X-ray would not show soft tissue injuries and thus would be a waste of resources.
The only way to know for sure would be to get an MRI which would cost between $2500-$3000. So we decided since his pain was mild to treat him with activity restrictions and a short course of steroids and pain medicine. We returned home and began our nursing plan for his recovery. We built a ramp off the two steps off of the deck and began carrying him up the stairs to bed with us each night.
Our oldest dachshund Zack had a bout of back limb lameness two weeks earlier and the short course of steroids and activity restrictions worked wonders for him so we weren’t worried at all about Oliver’s recovery. After two weeks of medications and activity restrictions his pain never improved instead it seemed to worsen. So we returned to the vet who this time did a longer and stronger course of medications and added on a muscle relaxer.
She said that if his condition did not improve that we would have to get the MRI and possible spinal surgery (which was estimated to cost between $4000-$6000) At this time I already knew that something was wrong. After ten more days of medications his condition had worsened to the point where he no longer wanted to walk. We would carry him outside and place him in the grass but he would just lay there.
We knew we couldn’t let him suffer in pain any longer so we raised the money for his MRI and surgery and rushed him to the Veterinary school where they had the MRI machine and a neurology staff. The emergency veterinarians suggested that since he did still have sensation and deep pain in his hind limbs that we should try one more course of medications with the addition of fentanyl and gabapentin and strict cage rest.
We took him home and followed their instructions but once again I knew in my heart that something was very wrong. After two weeks of no improvement we once again brought him back to the Veterinary school but this time we packed his overnight bag because we would do and pay whatever was necessary to end his pain.
The next day the Neurologist called me during his MRI. She told me that to their surprise all of his discs were healthy with no signs of herniation. She said that when they did the MRI that “it lit up.” She said he had several masses with one pressing on his first cervical vertebrae.
She asked if I would like to get an ultrasound guided biopsy of the masses. I said yes even though I already knew what the result would be. I also told her that after the biopsy I would be coming to take my baby home since he did not need surgery. Together with his grandpa (my dad) we took him home. I knew that he would not want to be away from his family any longer then he needed to be.
The vet said she would call the next day with the results of the biopsy, but in my heart I already knew. The vet said to take him home and give him whatever he wanted and he no longer needed cage rest. She said if he wants to run let him run, I think she already knew as well. We took our Monkey home and he was so happy. His brothers sniffed him and kissed him as soon as we got home, they had missed him almost as much as I did.
We made him and his brothers a steak dinner to celebrate our reunion. Oliver slept that night and every night after cuddled up with his momma. I stared at him while he slept and I cried until morning. I had promised Oliver before that last trip to the Veterinary school that he wouldn’t be in pain any longer.
I told him that I had to take him to the hospital and he would sleep there a few days but that he would get surgery and he would come back home and be my happy healthy monkey again. I told him he would come home and his pain would be gone. But that night as I watched him sleep I knew two things, that my baby was still in pain and that I had lost two of my last nights with him while he slept in a cage in the hospital away from his momma.
The next day the neurologist called. I knew by the tone of her voice that the news was not good. She said that they had taken four biopsies from his thyroid glands, his nose, his salivary gland, and his cervical bone and every one came back as carcinoma. I fell to my knees and cried. She said that his cancer had clearly metastasized and was not operable or curable. She suggested palliative radiation since she did not believe chemotherapy would lengthen his life. It felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. My baby was dying and I couldn’t save him.
I was told that he had one week to three months left to live. Since we had never gotten a chest X-ray we didn’t know whether the cancer had spread to his lungs yet. I felt lost and broken, like I couldn’t wake up from an awful nightmare. We decided against palliative radiation since his cancer had already spread and my Oliver did not like to be away from me. The last thing he would want would be to spend his final days in and out of the vets office.
We decided to put on a brave face as not to scare our monkey and to keep him as comfortable as we could with pain medications and muscle relaxers. We made the decision to carry out his bucket list and spend all of our time doing all of the things he loved to do. We gave him all his favorite snacks, threw him a birthday party, took him and his brothers on walks and to the park, we sang him songs, rubbed his belly for hours, slept with him, held him, but most importantly we told him every single day how much we loved him.
Oliver started to tire easily now on walks but still wanted to be out and about with his family, so we invested in a dog stroller that could hold his weight. We even got him his own license plate for it, “LOWRYDR.” He was the envy of the neighborhood with his fancy new wheels. We were recent newlyweds and had our honeymoon booked for later that month. But my husband knew that the devotion and loyalty my dogs have for me is not one sided. He knew that his ‘stepchildren’ as we call them, are my life, and when we married they became his life too. I would be there with them from the beginning of their story until the very end. We cancelled our honeymoon and instead took Oliver and his brothers on a beach vacation. We rented a little house and took Oliver and his brothers to feel the sand in their fuzzy little toes. It was the happiest I had felt since that first yelp in March.
That trip was the best decision we had ever made. A day or two after we returned home from the beach trip Olivers neck pain seemed to diminish but he started having trouble using his back legs. Over the next few weeks he also began to lose his ability to hold himself up with his front legs. We would carry him outside and hold him up to go potty. He would tire easily but would try so hard to stay up long enough while outside.
It broke my heart to see him struggle. As the cancer took over he had more and more trouble breathing. I prayed he would go peacefully in his sleep because I did not want to make the decision for euthanasia. I called our vet praying she could help me or guide me with this awful decision. She asked what his three favorite things to do were and if he could still do them. I didn’t answer her, I just cried because I knew he couldn’t do what he loved anymore.
What he loved most was being with me, but each day was getting progressively worse. The vet said that the tumor on his spine was likely now compressing it which meant that soon he would either stop breathing or have seizures or both. Knowing what the future held nearly killed me. So I made the choice to not put him through the fear and pain of what would come next.
I held him that night and smelled him. I prayed I would never forget his scent or his big eyes and sweet loving heart. The next morning he had lost control of his bowels and took rapid shallow breaths like he couldn’t get enough air. I held him for hours while his father and brothers slept, in his favorite position against my heart with his head tucked under my neck. I told him his story and how I loved him from the first moment we met.
I told him I was sorry that I couldn’t take away his pain and I was sorry he never got to be an old man. I told him that he would live forever in my heart. I told him that he was going to heaven today and painted the picture of what I hoped it would be. I asked him to give his big sister Bobbi a kiss for me because I knew she would be there to greet him.
Oliver said goodbye to his brothers and we took him to the vet for the last time. I asked if we could be outside because I didn’t want him to be on a cold table. I wanted his last smell to be the fresh air. We laid a blanket under the trees and we got on the ground with him to talk to him as he took his last breath. I laid down facing him.
I wanted him to see me so he wouldn’t be scared. Under his head I placed two of my shirts. In his life he liked to have a piece of my clothes with him while I was away, I think it made him feel safe, like I was still right there with him. He was cremated with those shirts in hopes that maybe they went to heaven with him, so he would never be scared and I would always be with him.
Oliver died June 18, 2017, forty eight days after his diagnosis. Oliver was and will always be my perfect angel. No matter where he was he would always come running when I called him. I would get down low and say, ” Monkey come see momma” he would smile, wag his tail and come running towards me and I’d hug and kiss him. I know that’s exactly how he will greet me when we meet again on the rainbow bridge. Until then all I have is our story. – by Erin Petty RN