I’m sitting in Starbucks with a lengthy to-do list on New Year’s Day. I was going to make resolutions, but I don’t have time for that at the moment. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be back home in Illinois preparing for the year and some big changes. My husband is already there while I remain in Texas at my parents with my son and my two dogs, one of whom is the reason I’m still here and the reason I’m writing this. See, I can’t work. I came here intending to, but instead I’m trying unsuccessfully to distract myself until I just started crying and crying and realized I have to write this first, even though this is unlikely to help either. I’m kinda a wreck, just pretending not to be so I can get through each day.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

See, 2013 started out as a pretty good year. In fact, it’s been a hell of a year. We settled into our new home in Illinois. We bought our first house. I started teaching as a university adjunct professor, as I’d wanted to do for many years. I made a lot of new friends and a lot of new business contacts. I got published in some of the publications I’ve been wanting to write for for quite a while, and my journalism career is starting to take off. My mom/science/health blog has seen great success, including a viral post that broke the site for a while but also put me on a lot of people’s radar. I signed a book deal for a parenting book I’m both excited and nervous to be writing. Meanwhile, our family took our first vacation abroad in a number of years, my son’s first out of the country. I used to travel abroad every year, so skipping it for four years was tough until our nice week in Costa Rica. Shortly after that, I found out I was pregnant, which was planned and a source of stress until it happened. All pretty good stuff, and some significant life milestones.

Then, not too far into the second half of the year, it was as though the universe started making up for all the good stuff. Fortunately, the pregnancy has continued to progress healthily, so I am grateful for that. I have to say that first because I do recognize my fortune in the midst of the list I’m about to run through. Our new home required very expensive but absolutely necessary foundation work that nearly cleared out our emergency savings. I went through some crap at a job that isn’t appropriate (or worthwhile) to go into here but which was traumatic and deeply disheartening. I also experienced some serious prenatal depression and ongoing morning sickness that coincided with those events. The events also led me to set an ambitious and exhausting travel agenda in the fall with four conferences in six weeks. These were tough enough, but on the way home from the fourth, I received news that a close uncle had unexpectedly died following a car accident. Another weekend of travel was tacked on for a difficult event.

Not long after returning from that, just as I was hoping to return to some semblance of “normal,” my son became ill with a fever for several days. Not long after, I became ill. I’ve lost track of the number of times each of us became ill then – fevers, vomiting, pink eye for me and other fun times – but it was sort of a back-and-forth trade off. Then in early December after dropping off my son at daycare, barely a week after I thought I had recovered from what was supposed to be pink eye, I was driving down the highway when my eyes involuntarily closed and stung with pain. I immediately pulled off to the shoulder, but those were the first symptoms of what was diagnosed a day or so later at keratoconjunctivitis. It required several days of sitting in the dark without an ability to work, see light, drive or use any screen-based technology. I couldn’t even read. I couldn’t drive for more than two weeks, and during the second week much of what I saw was distorted by blurriness as my eyes slowly recovered. (I still must rely on outdated glasses instead of my contacts.)

That experience led right up until we headed to Texas for the holidays. The holidays have been nice for the most part, especially the gluttonous gastronomic holiday my husband and I have taken after being deprived of good food while living in Peoria the past year. And that brings us up to now. The past few months have been a blur of travel, illness, tragedy, depression and frustration, and I was so looking forward to the new year, as though the arbitrary change of days from one year to the year might actually hold some significance. Regardless, the universe had another trick up its sleeve.

I’ll just copy and paste this part from my Facebook feed since it’s difficult to write about anyway, and this post is a pathetic attempt at catharsis so I might be able to get some work done. Along with the photo here, I posted the following:

My son holds Casper while Ghost is beside him at the vet.

My son holds Casper with Ghost beside him at the vet.

“At this point (yesterday afternoon), we didn’t know how things would turn out. The vet literally said (twice) it would take a miracle for Ghost to pull through. Our 6.5 lb dog had eaten a full ounce bar of rat poison he’d found, and it was bromethalin, which attacks the central nervous system and kills with brain swelling; there’s no antidote or treatment. It was too late for stomach pumping: he’d eaten it at night without our realizing it and by morning, when we rushed him to the vet, he had unrelenting tremors and couldn’t walk. All we could do was transfer him to the 24 hr hospital for round-the-clock observation and regular doses of a med to help drain the liquid in his brain. Yesterday was really rough for all of us, including Casper, his littermate and companion since birth, who D’s holding. Today we found out Ghost lived through the night and was able to eat a small amount of food. He can’t walk at all or move much, but the worst appears to be over. The brain swelling is on its way down, and the vet is optimistic about his recovery. After he’s released from doggie ICU, we’ll have to syringe-feed him and inject liquids subcutaneously. So I’ll be in Texas a little longer than we planned.”

The outpouring of support was wonderful and greatly appreciated. The following day, yesterday, the same day my husband returned to Illinois for work, I brought Ghost home to my parents and posted this update:

I think the towel got worked into his mouth by accident during his vocalizing, so I readjusted his position.

I think the towel got worked into his mouth by accident during his vocalizing, so I readjusted his position.

“Update on Ghost: He’s home with us now and needs a LOT of care. I fed him with a syringe earlier and will be giving him fluids subcutaneously. He vocalizes, like an unending high-pitched yelp, frequently, and still can’t move much on his own except moving his head very slightly. (Not sure why he worked the towel into his mouth but vet said it was fine.) It’s basically like taking care of a newborn. We’ll feed him and flip him over every 4-6 hours. The vet said it will take several weeks before he’s even close to ‘normal.’ We’re not sure how long it will take before he can walk. Seems to be doing okay.”

I’ve tried to keep my tone matter-of-fact and neutral because of course I’ve been falling apart at this. It’s remarkable to me how pets squirm their way into our hearts. Animal stories often top the “Most Read” lists of different sites, and a post about a pet brings out others’ empathy like little else. I had gotten Casper and Ghost as puppies, a few months old, from a no-kill shelter the day before my first date with my husband. I trained them on my own, my first pets that were all “mine,” if you will. They were, in some small and silly way, my way of becoming more of an adult, attempting to take on a responsibility that might lead me down the path of being a better mom one day. When my boyfriend-then-husband traveled with me and I ever experienced anxiety, he reminded me to think of my puppies, and it calmed me.

When I had gone to the shelter, I was there for another dog, but someone else was already there for that dog. So they brought out Casper and Ghost. I had never seen long-haired chihuahuas before, and they were adorable. Casper licked me and crawled rambunctiously all over while Ghost trembled in my arms. The staff asked which one I thought I might want to take home. I nearly laughed at them. Which one? It was clear there could be no other choice than to take both home. I couldn’t possibly separate them. Family members said I was crazy – not one but two dogs?! – but they became my babies.

Ghost once got into the trash where an ink cartridge had been... with amusing (and annoying) results.

Ghost once got into the trash where an ink cartridge had been… with amusing (and annoying) results.

I kept their names from the shelter, but they had been misnamed. Ghost is actually the outgoing, social, gregarious one who would go up, wagging his tail, to anyone for a snuggle. He was also the one always getting into whatever he could and would eat anything. Casper, though it didn’t appear that way at the shelter, is actually the shy and uncertain one, though he’s come out of his shell over the years, due in part to a lot of work on my husband’s part. But both are love-slut lap dogs who crave attention and are incredibly affectionate. They crawl under the covers with me or curl on my legs or around my arms every chance they get, even while I’m working. They’re wonderful with our son, despite how he tries their patience. Everyone who meets them comments on how adorable and friendly they are.

I actually WAS doing a bit better after I found out the day before yesterday that Ghost had made it through the night. Up until then, I was grieving for myself, grieving for my son and grieving for Ghost’s brother Casper. I was listless, tired and red-eyed. I worried about how I would explain things to our 3-year-old and how we would manage Casper’s inevitable depression, which appeared to have already begun. It’s not important or helpful to discuss how Ghost got a hold of the rat poison in the first place, but difficulty related to those circumstances have lingered in the background as well. But at least he survived, and I had hoped we were mostly out of the woods.

Ghost is *incredibly* friendly, social and affectionate, so it's even harder to see him like this.

Ghost is *incredibly* friendly, social and affectionate, so it’s even harder to see him like this.

Now, I worry about something just as difficult – what it will mean if Ghost doesn’t recover. I don’t mean fully recover — I expect to see some permanent changes and he may have some brain damage — but there is always the possibility that he may not walk again. The vet hopes and expects he will, but we just don’t know at this point. Although I described his condition matter-of-factly on Facebook, his yelpy-whiny cries are heartbreaking. I don’t know how many of them are intentional or involuntary, though most do appear to be communicating something (needing to pee or having peed, being hungry, wanting to be held). I don’t know what he feels, physically or mentally, or whether I can do much to help him other than petting him, talking to him, holding him, and the care we were instructed by the vet: syringe feeding with a little water every four hours, turning him regularly to avoid bed sores, keeping him clean from urine and excrement, and administering subcutaneous fluids once a day.

I have to force his jaw open to syringe feed him, but he seems to have opened it a little more on his own a few times. He seems today to be reaching his tongue further when eating the food or drinking the water. He shakes several times a day, the way dogs shake to get rid of excess water. He has moved his legs while crying or shaking but otherwise seems unable to move himself or even lift his head. When I say his name, his eyes flit toward me for a moment, and he responds to startling stimuli with an expected jump, such as when something crashes to the floor. But I don’t know how much of this is subtle progress or how much is my noticing things that have already been there but haven’t improved.

And then I try to step back from all of this, to look it from a distance. I am in reasonably decent physical and mental health, (despite my eyes problem and other inconveniencing but not life-threatening illnesses), considering what so many others suffer. Most of those I love are alive and healthy. I do not live in some place like Syria or Congo, where life could be indescribably, unimaginably painful and tragic right now. We have anxiety-causing school loan debt but are generally financially stable and certainly financially better off than more than 60 or 70 percent of the rest of Americans right now.

We both have health insurance and paying work, even if mine is less stable, especially recently. And my goodness have I had some wonderful things happen this year – the house, the pregnancy, the book deal, the career advances. And yet, I’m going to pieces for this difficult time with a pet. I’m not trying to trivialize my own pain, though I admit it’s what my attempts at rationalization end up doing. It’s just remarkable, as my thought process telescopes in and out of my current situation, how the life of a creature now barely weighing 6 pounds can have such an impact in the midst of so many other positives (albeit no doubt exacerbated by this occurring at the end of a series of distressing events).

So, that’s my cathartic rant, disguised as a year-end wrap-up. I do look forward to 2014 (even as I find all the emphasis on a “new year” a bit tiresome and silly). The next 12 months will bring their own challenges, with bringing another child into the world, finishing the book and other big things still being developed or that are sure to come along. Some time in the next month or so, I hope to sit down and plan a few realistic, achievable, worthwhile goals moving forward. We’ll see. Right now, my primary goal is to get done the essential work I must get done and to take care of an adorable, inquisitive, thoughtful preschooler and a precious white ball of fur and his brother. And myself. I’ll try to squeeze that in there somewhere too.


UPDATE 1/7/13

On Friday evening, January 3, Ghost died around 10:30pm while he was on the dog bed on the kitchen table. His tail began flapping rapidly, which D found delightful. When I ran over to see what was happening, I knew something wasn’t right. His tail eventually slowed to a stop and then he was completely limp. The juxtaposition of D’s excited “He’s wagging his tail!” with the reality of what was happening was jarring. We rushed him to a nearby 24-hour animal emergency hospital, but he was already gone. His body could not hold out, I suppose.

We had not prepared for this because the vets had expected him to start recovering, or, at the least, not to be likely to die, but I am grateful that at least Ghost is not suffering any longer and that we will not be worried about his potential quality of life going forward. Those concerns, and the overall burden and emotional exhaustion of having cared for him over the past week, meant I felt a bit of reluctant relief, even as I was a wreck at the hospital that night. I also felt confident that we had done everything we possibly could have and made Ghost as comfortable as possible in his last week. Bringing him to the vet earlier on the day he died or even the day before would not, I am certain, have changed the result since there was nothing the vet could do that we were not already doing at home. I have shed tons of tears, that night and since, and I’ve tried to stop playing the “what if” games in my head as much as I can. I will be picking up his cremated ashes tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we have moved somewhat quickly to look at shelter/rescue long-haired chihuahuas needing adoptions because we wanted a companion for Casper (who has always had a canine companion since birth) and, frankly, a new dog would likely be good for D and good for me. We found online a cute, friendly 1-year-old pup named Pico at a shelter near Chicago who is good with kids, good with other dogs and tolerant of cats. We applied and put down a deposit, and he’ll be ours on Saturday.

We have not talked to D about Ghost or where he is because D has not asked. I’ve tried to come up with what I would say because I’m expecting he will ask at some point, but I think I’m just going to have to wing it when that happens. Neither I nor my husband are comfortable with talk of “heaven” or a “better place” or such, but I can describe things as simply as possible and note that Ghost is no longer feeling pain or suffering. I continue to remember little things about Ghost that I found adorable, and they often make me cry, but I know that will fade in the good sense.

I did not have much time to dwell on it the day after Ghost died anyway – as soon as I got up and walked into the living room, my mom informed me that my dad was in the hospital. He had driven up there at 5 am (just an hour after I’d gone to bed, actually) with chest pain and numbness/tinging down one side, both classic heart attack symptoms in someone with a history of heart disease and a quintuple bypass surgery ten years ago. Fortunately, after he was there a few days and did a stress test, he was discharged yesterday with normal results and no immediate danger related to his heart. He will be undergoing an MRI and ultrasound to look for other causes, such as a pinched nerve in his neck.

In the meantime, I have not been able to work – work can often be a solace or escape – because it’s just not been worth the effort with caring for D, processing everything, etc. The new year was intended to be an opportunity to readjust my professional career, but that is necessarily on hold, and I have little cognitive stores available for thinking beyond what simply needs to be done from one day to the next. To add to everything else, I found out today that my computer’s logic board needs to be replaced, which will require 3-5 days, so I’m going to be restricted from working anyway, for better or for worse. My mom, who was not cleared to drive from her knee surgery recovery until today, needed rides to/from physical therapy, and I’ve continued to be stranded in Texas anyway because the Midwest is literally frozen over. Although I’m not looking forward to single-digit (or negative-digit) temperatures and a much earlier setting sun, I am anxious to get back home to try to recapture some semblance of “normal life” as soon as the weather lets me.



  1. Oh what a way to end the year. As I write this with my 14 yeAr old Pompom on my lap, I am grateful I still have her. I am so glad you are still in Texas where you have help and moral support. Always good to have a nurse around. Hang in there my friend, 2014 will be great.

  2. Wow Tara! I will look forward to seeing you whenever you get a chance to attend Writers but gosh I’m really sorry for the loss of your little Ghost. I’ve walked that trail and it’s a hard one. Do take care of yourself and your growing family. Hope to see you in February.

  3. Can hugs go through the e-mail space? We miss you and hope to see you soon and help boost your spirits. Sue VW