As I was growing up, it was burned into me that homosexuality was an evil perversion. Coming out automatically meant I would give up any fanciful dream of having a family. So my dogs became my "children."
While everything I knew about being gay has radically changed since then, my feelings about my dogs remain. And Thursday, my little Shitzu, Chu Chu, died.
It was a "loving" death - if you can say such a thing. She was at home, on my chest, with my hands holding her skinny body, letting go as I told her how wonderful she was - as my other rescued dogs, Charlie and Angel, looked on.
I think we were meant to find each other. Even though there were hundreds of dogs available for adoption, I just kept coming back to her picture. After I was properly vetted by rescuer Julia Pennington - an actress who often puts her career on hold to help rescue animals for A Dog's Life Rescue - I went to her Adoption Day to pick Chu up. Lisa, the volunteer who was caring for her, told me all these people came by and inquired about Chu, but Chu just turned her head away. When I came up, however, Chu "smiled" - that is, she raised one part of her lip like an Elvis Presley sneer - and Lisa said Chu knew I was "the one."
I immediately took her to be checked out by a veterinary internist. He told me she wasn't eight years old as Julia's vet had speculated - but guessing from her lack of teeth and her very serious enlarged heart - she was closer to 13 years old. I had two options, he told me: either make her comfortable and keep her quiet, or let her live out her life like a dog.
My heart sank, of course. The new love of my life didn't have long to live. I decided she should have a loving, nurturing home, and enjoy however long she had left. I didn't tell her any of this, of course. I just kept telling her how pretty and smart and wonderful she was, and how much I appreciated her being in my life. This morning and evening ritual helped ME through some very difficult and stressful times.
Things changed when Julia called with an emergency: a little mixed Poodle-Bejoin boy desperately needed a home. She found him wandering around the much-trafficked Beverly Center mall area near Cedar Sinai Hospital. Could I take him in just overnight until she found someone to adopt him? He had been hit by a car and his hip and back leg had not healed properly. I explained the situation to Chu and she and Charlie hit it off almost immediately. Charlie wound up staying, and became very protective of Chu when we were out walking. He would also try to "help" her by humping her when she felt ill, though he humped her whenever he felt frisky, as well. He's neutered, but that didn't stop him. Chu, who was spayed, sometimes would just sit there, bored, until I yelled at him to get off of her - or he just stood down, then returned to start up again. Sometimes, however, she would turn and snap at him and he'd leave her alone. She had power, this little one, and she kept it in check until she decided to use it.
Things changed again when another friend called and asked if I knew of a "good animal shelter" that would take in a 16 year old boy with a persistent cough. NO, I said; he'd be dead within days. It seems Angel's human mother had Alzheimer's and the apartment manager had to put her in a home. Angel and his cat sister were with a foster mother who loved cats but hated dogs, and Angel was in bad shape. I talked to Chu and Charlie and said we needed to help the little boy. So Angel, with his enlarged heart and the persistent cough that comes with it, moved in. And then there were three.
As Chu Chu's health declined, she started snuggling with Angel. Charlie would get jealous, but just in that competitive boy way. He and Angel had become friends, too, and they would race each other down the stairs when it was time to go out for a walk. After a couple of weeks, Angel became a new boy.
Chu Chu had a lot of health issues: a heart so large it seemed to fill up her whole upper body in X-Rays; no teeth, except those in the front for her Elvis Presley sneer/smile; Cushing's disease - though that was kept under control with some miracle meds imported first from Canada, then from New Mexico; a bad thyroid; a late developing itchy skin allergy; weird eating patterns; and finally, failing kidneys - which is what got her in the end.
And yet through it all, Chu Chu was one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met.
When she refused to eat anything at all about two weeks ago, I took her to the vet and we put her on a daily IV drip with glucose for several days. But her blood levels remained unchanged. The vet switched to another heart medication, thinking that might help. It didn't.
Last Monday - four years after the internist told me she would die any day - I decided that Chu had endured enough. Even though I brought her home after each day long IV treatment, I still tried to force-feed her food and water and her meds to keep trying to bring this miracle dog back to some form of health.
But she hated it and I finally decided it was time to just stop everything. I took her off all meds - though I still tried to coax her to eat and helped her drink water. I had just had my carpets cleaned - but I didn't move the furniture back in so she could wander around if she felt restless. I "baby-proofed" the place because she lost her sight and cleaned up after her if she suddenly threw up. I turned my apartment into a hospice.
Thank heavens for laptops. I created a space on the bed for her - sometimes shared by Charlie and Angel - and I basically moved my desk to my bed and continued to work throughout. Luckily, I get to work out of my home.
Yesterday around one o'clock, as I was pecking out an email response to someone displeased with my "WeHo Marriages Go On" story - Chu Chu threw her head back and stiffened on my lap. I knew what was happening. I immediately shoved the laptop to one side and brought her up onto my chest. She looked up at me - though her eyes were clouded, I knew she was trying to see me - and she started "purring." It was unusual for her - Charlie "purrs" all the time when stroked and Chu tried to imitate him upon occasion. But this time she was clear and intentional. I stroked her and started telling her how wonderful she was....Charlie perked up and watched from another room; Angel was at the foot of the bed.
Having been with and "helped" several friends of mine die during the horrible height of the AIDS crisis, I didn't panic. I held her closely and breathed deeply and talked to her as she started the "death rattle," her body shook and she expired. I couldn't believe that that big old heart of hers kept beating after she stopped breathing. I held her until her heart stopped.
It had been a long goodbye - days and long nights tending to the frail little girl who did not want to die - until she did. I talked to Charlie and Angel and then took Chu to Laurel Pet Hospital to handle the cremation. They had fallen in love with her, too, and were sad, especially Cathy who takes care of my children when I leave town.
So on this day - as Sen. Barack Obama announces his VP pick and the Democrats storm into their Denver convention before the most important election in our lifetime - I wanted to take a minute and remember Chu Chu, my little girl who made my world a little more loving.