In 2000 when I loaded all my belongings into a twenty-foot truck with my car in tow and headed to Washington, D.C., Mika was there. She rode in the cab for the four days and the nineteen states it took to get us there. Looking back it seems like it would have been a lonely trip, but it wasn’t. I had lots of music and Miss Mika who sat next to me in the cab. The first night we pulled into a motel in Montana that allowed pets. I found that the rooms they stuck us in were always smelly and a little dirty. Neither Mika nor I were smelly or dirty. For the rest of the trip I decided to take my father’s advice. Being an active RV-ing senior, he knows all of the travel tricks. He told me that lots of RVs pull into Wal-Mart parking lots at night while they are on the road. The stores are usually located off the interstate and Wal-Mart encourages the practice of RVs overnighting in their parking lots. All those visiting seniors then go shopping the next day. Everybody wins.
On day two, I ended up somewhere in the mid-west—probably South Dakota—and at sunset pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot off of I-90. There were a few cars near the entrance but we were all alone in the back-lot. After Mika and I had dinner and went for a short walk, we bedded down for the night. I flopped my futon down in a clear spot in the bed of the moving van and pulled the door closed and locked. We curled up together and fell asleep. The next morning, I awoke and opened the back of the van. Sometime during the middle of the night we were encircled by several shiny motorhomes and campers. As I stepped out of the back with Mika, a grey-haired woman was descending the steps of her RV and greeted us. From that night on, we stayed in the Wal-Mart Hotel.
After arriving in Washington at our new house I discovered that Mika had a fear of heights. She had always hated to be put on exam tables, but as I found out, it wasn’t just because it was the Vet’s office. It was the four-foot height of the table off of the ground. In all the time she had been with me, she had never had to climb more than a stair or two. The townhouse in Washington had several flights. I remember the trouble she had ascending the first flight of stairs at the front door, but it was the open staircase to the second floor that really got to her. She refused to climb the stairs that night in our new home. I was not about to let my traveling partner of 4000 miles sleep by herself downstairs. To her horror, I picked her up in my arms and hauled her 90 pound body up to the second floor. When faced with the alternative the second night, with a little coaxing she decided that facing the stairs herself was preferable.
I have recounted before how the day after 9/11, Mika was responsible for bringing Darrow and I together. It is a beautiful story and neither Darrow nor I will forget the brilliant role that Miss Mika played.
Mika has always been the queen of the house. She has been in charge of no less than eight other animals in my household over the years. I miss the days when she would play with the feline members of the house. Her long-time playmate and play-nemesis, Miss Nikita left us at the ripe old age of thirteen. For five years the two of them chased and batted each other, scrambling across hard wood floors and leaping onto sofas. For Mika, Nikita the kitty was not only someone to play with, she was someone to herd, direct and generally lord it over. The two never drew blood and though they seemed to get on each others’ nerves, I believe they were pals.
Mika always asserted her dominance—the supreme pack alpha. Her reign now is over the two younger male dogs. The three of them trundle along together in the yard and will gather in the front hall sounding the alarm when someone comes to the door. In the last year or so though, Mika has been reticent to enter areas of conflict with Milo and Rocky. It’s not that she defers to either of the boys. I think that she fears taking a spill, which she does more and more frequently. As a senior, Miss Mika has settled for risk avoidance and most of the time chooses to live under the radar rather than have to face a challenge.
It is clear that the mighty Mika is beginning to fade. Her age is catching up with her and with us. Her eyesight is waning as she looks at me with white whiskers on her face that now can no longer betray her years. Mika is sixteen. Her hearing seems a little dim, though sometimes I’m not sure if it’s hearing or stubbornness. In the last few years Mika has become creaky. She falls on occasion, her back legs and hips have weakened—the result of arthritis. The dogs have always slept on the third floor on big dog beds in our family room. In 2008 Mika decided that she was no longer willing to make the trek up there. Every night Milo and Rocky fly up the stairs and take their places on the beds. Mika slips underneath the dining room table and curls up on the rug. She has also decided that the tile floor in the kitchen is too risky. She now eats in the dining room rather than in the kitchen with the two other dogs. Her appetite has also dipped. Though always a hearty, stout dog, in the last few months she has lost weight.
Sometimes she seems a little lost. When I let her out now, she heads toward the street and appears confused when I try to coax her to the yard, until she sees the other two other dogs bounding inside the gate. In the house she occasionally enters a room, heads into a corner, then just stands there as if she can’t quite figure out to turn around. With her senses a little dulled by age, she sleeps heavily. She no longer wakes when I enter a room. I know that her time with us is limited. A few weeks ago Darrow and I had the talk—when—when should we make the decision to put her down. How do we do that? How will we know? Will she be able to tell us when it’s time? And most importantly, how do I not let my fear and sadness interfere with the needful? How do I ensure that I honor the pact that I made with her—that when it’s time to say goodbye, I have the will to do it.
After returning from a short vacation we came home to a dog who was seriously disoriented, whose mobility had become very labored and limited. It was just a few weeks earlier the vet had given her a pretty optimistic outlook. Now, in order to have her go outside, we were having to pick her up off the porch and lower her gently down the few brick steps to the yard. She went back to the clinic and after examining her, the vet told Darrow that it was time. Her health had deteriorated in a way that wasn’t evident a few weeks ago. The new mobility issues were related to what was thought to be a stroke. He referred us to a vet who makes house calls and specializes in end of life care.
A few days later, the mobile vet arrived to a house full of anxiety. The sensitive one of the bunch, Milo had for days been lying next to Mika under the table. He and Rocky were both out of sorts, with Mika the pack alpha in distress. That evening I felt a bit of the wringing of the hands, restless and fearful but determined to face that night. I was looking for someone to confirm that it in fact was time—time to say goodbye—and help us do it in the gentlest way possible.
As she began to examine Mika, she was able to quickly rule out the earlier diagnosis of stroke. Mika responded positively to everything that the vet threw at her. Then she began to check Mika’s limbs to understand the nearly complete loss of mobility. She discovered a large black growth in between the pads of one of her front paws. She began to manipulate the growth and finally with one twist, pulled it off her foot. I shuttered and turned away, but Mika oddly did not seem to notice. What we discovered is that something big had been lodged in her paw and removing it miraculously gave her back much of her mobility.
Though she left the decision up to us, the vet believed that with a small adjustment to her pain medications and some food encouragement to gain weight, her condition could improve. It was the thing I had not expected to hear. I thought that with her age and deteriorated condition that this was it. It was the thing that I needed to hear. It is a gift that I will take for what it is, more time and the ability to improve the quality of life for the last days of Mika the dog.