Nearly nine years ago, I made a decision that would change my life: I decided to get a puppy. It had been a little over a year since the golden retriever my family had loved for 14 1/2 years had passed, and I finally felt ready - and I finally had a place that would allow me to have a pet.
As I began the search for the perfect puppy, my enthusiasm grew ... rubbing off on my parents, who decided they, too, missed having a dog in their lives. We decided to get littermates, and one fateful spring day we headed off to meet a litter of golden retrievers.
The instant I saw those tiny furballs, my heart melted. I had no idea how I would pick just one, but luckily for me the decision was taken out of my hands. After watching all of the puppies for a while, we started picking them up one by one. When my mom and I traded puppies at one point, the one I handed off to her tried to crawl back to me. When I took him back into my arms, he snuggled right in. At that moment, I knew he was meant for me.
We had noticed right away that two puppies seemed to share a special bond, and the one who picked me was one of them. My parents didn't want to break up a "matched set," so they adopted the other one. Because they were so close, we thought it only appropriate they share a name: Sammy (and) Sosa.
And while they lived in different houses, they saw each other often - and that unique bond never faded. Before long, we came to see them as almost one entity - and my parents and I loved both boys as if they were our own.
I can't even begin to describe the love and laughter they brought into our lives. But life can change in the blink of an eye, and when the boys were barely 6 years old, Sammy was diagnosed with bone cancer. My parents and the amazing vet staffs at Dunlap Vet Clinic II and the University of Illinois small-animal hospital tried everything, but 14 months after diagnosis, my brave Sammy, by then a tripawd who was faster on three legs than Sosa was on four, lost his battle.
We were all heartbroken - especially Sosa. So much so, in fact, that I didn't think he'd make it a year without "his other half." He did - barely. The weekend after Thanksgiving, I noticed Sosa wasn't eating as much and seemed tired. I thought he was probably just exhausted from spending several days with "his puppies" - Wrigley, my parents' new golden, and Yoshi, Wrigley's littermate who lives in Chicago with my brother.
Still, paranoid pet parent that I am, I made an appointment. After a round of antibiotics failed to return his blood counts to normal, we were again referred to the U of I. Once again, we were told it was cancer. This time, it was histiocytic sarcoma - a rare and fast-growing cancer with a particularly poor prognosis, especially when the tumor was in the spleen, as Sosa's was. Without treatment, Sosa would have two to four weeks, we were told. With treatment, we could expect two to four months.
Page 2 of 3 - Two days later, Sosa went back to the U of I for his first chemo treatment. He seemed to tolerate the treatment well, but his appetite continued to decrease. Before long, even cheeseburgers and prime rib were passed up ... although he'd lick his lips before turning his head away, as if he really wanted to eat but just couldn't. His oncologist prescribed anti-nausea meds but nothing helped. I spent hours every day trying to entice him to eat, offering a variety of options from special prescription dog food to grilled chicken, ham, hot dogs, cookies, ice cream ... even baby food. I'd finally find something he'd eat, but by the next day that was no longer palatable so we'd try something else.
Still, other than that Sosa seemed happy, and his oncologist assured me he wasn't in any pain. The morning of Jan. 4 we went to the hospital for one of our regular therapy dog visits. Sosa always loved going room to room to see the patients, but this time his energy was sapped and we had to pause for frequent rests. In one patient's room, he had a mini-seizure. I knew then that something must be very wrong, so we commandeered a cart to roll him out to the car and headed straight to the vet.
His blood counts were really low, so his oncologist suggested we drive to Urbana. I thought they were merely going to stabilize him and get some fluids in him. I was totally unprepared for what came next.
A few minutes after Sosa was taken off for examination, the doctor and a few staff members took me into a consulting room to tell me what they'd found: No internal bleeding, they said, but his condition was grave. He told me there were two options: a blood transfusion and a splenectomy, or euthanasia.
My first instinct was to do whatever needed to be done to save my baby, but the doctor gently explained that while it could briefly prolong Sosa's life, his chances of surviving the surgery weren't great and the recovery would be somewhat painful. Even if he did survive, it might only give him a few days or weeks, and the cancer could, and likely would, spread even more before they could even begin to think about another round of chemo.
Heart breaking, I asked the oncologist what he would do if he was in my shoes. He said because of his experiences with this type of cancer, he would euthanize.
I asked them to let me see Sosa and spend some time with him. Stroking his soft fur, I decided that making him endure that just to delay his fast-approaching death would have been for me, not for him. So I gave the OK, signed a few papers and told Sosa how much I loved him, how smart, sweet and wonderful he was and that Sammy was waiting for him. As he did on the day I met him, Sosa again snuggled into my chest and sighed. He then died in my arms and crossed the Rainbow Bridge to be reunited with Sammy - almost 13 months to the day after we lost Sammy.
Page 3 of 3 - I'm still utterly heartbroken, and in the minutes, hours and days since I have questioned my decision over and over. In my heart, however, I know it was the best way to honor Sosa, and to repay him for all of the sunshine and love he brought into my life.
I know that I will miss him every day of my life, just as I still miss Sammy. But I like to think that somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, Sammy and Sosa are happily playing with all of their friends who went before them - tails up and walking in unison, as they did so often did in life - and waiting for the day when we are finally reunited for good.
Amy Gehrt may be reached at at email@example.com.