BY KRISTIN CATALANO, FREELANCER
Ten months have passed since my soulmate has left me. I don’t believe in anything anymore. I don’t trust anyone anymore. I feel as alone as I did the day of his diagnosis. Even more so now that he is gone.
Otis was my first dog. I never even planned on getting a dog. He came into my life because a privacy fence that I put up in my yard offended my neighbors. I remedied the situation by getting a 12-week-old puppy. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. The first week was filled with sleep deprivation and Google searches on “puppy training.” By the second week, Otis and I were joined at the heart.
Wherever I went, Otis went. And if Otis wasn’t invited, I would show up very briefly or not at all. As one of my friends put it, “Otis got to experience more in his life than most children.” He went on three road trips where he saw half of the country with his head out the window, ate cheeseburgers, stayed in fancy hotels, got to swim in the Atlantic Ocean and ran free on sandy beaches. I took him to friends’ houses, restaurant patios, coffee shops, bars and festivals. His wagging tail would swirl around in a circle while he would do a two-step walk-dance followed by a gymnastics routine each time he encountered a person in his path. He just couldn’t believe that everywhere he went, people were always throwing a party—just for him!
It’s hard to say if Otis liked people or dogs more. He would lie down and wait to say hello to doggy strangers on walks and would play “chase me, chase me, catch me if you can, my name is Otis” when his friends came over. When I would dog sit or foster, Otis was so patient and kind always offering up his beds and toys and even his bones to our guests. And when we were alone together, we did the simple things—multiple walks, “treat game,” sniffing and swimming at our lake cottage in the summer and sniffing and exploring in the snow at the Seminary Woods in the winter.
My dad always told me that Otis never took his eyes off of me. Ever since he was a puppy, he would follow me with his eyes. When I was on the computer, I would get startled when I’d turn and see him just staring at me. He would just appear, staring at me, like a ghost. When I’d leave the house, he would watch me out of the window like an abandoned child. When I left him at a friend’s house, he would watch me drive away with a look of horror. Otis’s eyes always looked so familiar to me like I knew him from somewhere…but I could never figure out how. I thought maybe his eyes looked like a famous person like Barack Obama or George Clooney, but they weren’t. They were just his. And I knew them. I remember one of my cousins telling me that Otis would live a very long time because of the deep bond we shared. I believed her. But it was a lie.
Ten years. That’s all I got. Ten years. What did I do wrong? Was he absorbing the stress from my unhealthy relationships? Did he die to get me unstuck—to get me to move on with my life? I don’t understand. Why do most people get 14 years or even longer? He didn’t have hip problems, eyesight issues or bad hearing. He wasn’t overweight. He was spry and limber. He was a 5-year-old dog in a 10-year-old dog’s body. I gave him vitamins. I avoided unhealthy treats. I bought him the best food. I avoided pesticides. I sparingly gave him flea and tick medicines. I brushed his teeth. He got plenty of exercise. I let him be himself. I never forced him to do anything he didn’t want to do (besides a bath and the vet). If I treated people the way that I treated Otis, with zero judgment and total acceptance of who they were, everyone in the world would want to be my best friend. I remember having a thought once, as we ventured out of the house together, that I would never feel guilty about how I cared for Otis. Now, all I feel is guilt.
In March, Otis started using his front legs to get up more…but my friend said her dog was the same age and was also having joint issues. In April, Otis threw-up once, was acting scared and his gums were pale. But then a few hours later, he was totally fine and eating and playing. In May, Otis had a limp for a half a day. When the vet checked him out she said his joints looked great. And what about the time even way before that in October when his legs were shaky and he laid down after playing chase at the dog park? But the vet said it was probably just a pinched nerve that resolved itself. “Humans get those too,” she told me.
On July 10, I made a same day appointment for Otis to go to the vet because he didn’t get up for breakfast. That was extremely abnormal for him. For two weeks, he was intermittently acting lethargic, was breathing heavy at times and was sometimes being finicky about his food. But I had just changed his food, there was a heat wave in Milwaukee and he drank the lake water when I took him swimming. Everyone I told chalked it up to the 100-degree weather or swimming in the lake because their dogs were also panting from the heat or got sick after swimming.
That morning, before I took Otis to the vet, I took him for a little walk. We got three houses down when a neighbor dog darted out onto the sidewalk and attacked him. This was the second time this same dog attacked Otis. This time the injury was more than just a puncture wound. It was a deep bite wound that needed stitches. These were strict COVID times, and I couldn’t go inside the vet office with Otis. I tried explaining over the phone to the vet what was going on with him for the past couple weeks, but the vet was more concerned about the dog bite and just gave him an antibiotic. He said the antibiotic “should clear up anything else that was going on with him.” I wasn’t satisfied with that answer because Otis was also running a 104-degree fever, so I requested a blood panel and a fecal exam. The fecal test was clear of parasites, but the vet didn’t take the time to evaluate the blood panel, and he didn’t take the time to feel on Otis’s abdomen. All he told me was that Otis was anemic and “let’s just wait and see if the antibiotic clears everything up.” Otis was so sick over that weekend. I stayed up with him putting a cold washcloth on his paws, trying to bring his fever down.
So much needless suffering.
On Monday morning, when I was able to get a copy of the blood test, I sent it to my friend who is a vet. She said that the results pointed to internal bleeding and that I should bring him to see her right away. She felt something on palpation, so she did an ultrasound. She found a grapefruit-sized mass attached to Otis’s spleen. The dog attack ruptured the tumor, and he was bleeding internally. The following morning, Otis had the mass removed. I prayed and prayed and prayed that it would be benign. But God didn’t listen. Does the power of prayer really work? If I would have blasted Otis’s disease on social media and asked everyone to pray for him, would he still be alive? I’ve seen people do that. Does it really work? Is that what I did wrong?
The Silent Killer
Hemangiosarcoma is a cancer of the blood vessels, and because the symptoms are never obvious, it is also called “the silent killer.” I call it the silent killer because it crept into my heart and stole the love of my life. The survival rate for hemangiosarcoma with surgery alone is 1-3 months. With chemotherapy it is 5-7 months. Only 10 percent of dogs will survive for one year. I wanted to try oral chemotherapy, but I had to wait three weeks for an appointment with an oncologist, and within that time frame of frantic internet searches, I got sucked into hemangiosarcoma support groups on Facebook. At the time, I felt blessed to find these groups, since veterinarians view hemangiosarcoma as a death sentence. I didn’t have anyone supportive in my personal life to help me navigate.
I was soon brainwashed into believing that chemo doesn’t work…but herbs and supplements and an immunotherapy vaccine might. When I hear my thoughts, it sounds like I am pushing blame, but I was so overwhelmed with vulnerability and desperation. I lost 20 lbs. within a few weeks, and my body would physically shake when sitting perfectly still. My mind was like a pendulum. I would go from staring at the computer searching for a cure for Otis’s cancer to staring at Otis to make sure he was still breathing. Back and forth. I was obsessed. I was a zombie. I was unable to figure out anything on my own. All I wanted was for someone to say, “Kristin. Let me help you. Let’s look at all of this medical information together, read everything we can and come up with a plan.” And that’s what a bunch of strangers on irresponsible Facebook pages did. I listened to bad advice because nobody else was speaking.
Two weeks before Otis passed away, he had a clear ultrasound. No sign of cancer anywhere. The day before he passed away, an ultrasound showed that his liver was covered in tumors. He was bleeding to death internally. I tried so hard to save him. I was on the phone with the Facebook people who were telling me to try other remedies. It’s asinine looking back. He couldn’t breathe. He had no oxygen. I couldn’t let him suffer like that. I begged my vet to come over in the middle of the night to help him pass. He died in my arms. I was not able to hold it together. He was so scared, and I couldn’t be strong for him. Three months and one day after getting his spleen removed, Otis was gone. It was like we both died on October 15, 2020.
I am a shell of a person now. My soul has left with his. And yet, I am told to move on. I am told to move forward and to just get over it. I am trying and failing miserably. I cried for six months non-stop. I discovered that biting down on the insides of my cheeks until I tasted blood helped to hold back the tears when I was in public. I hit “pause” on certain friendships and relationships. I came to realize that the type of friends that I wanted and needed were those who knew how to “listen” rather than those who preferred to tell me what to do, tell me what to feel, flood my inbox with pictures of their living dogs, or tell me that they understood what I was going through. But how could they? What nobody seemed to understand was that I didn’t have children. I didn’t have a husband. All I had was Otis. When I say that he was my everything, I truly mean that. He was my everything. A lot of people talk about how their dog was their heart dog or soul mate, but it’s not the same. It’s not even close to what I had with Otis.
I tried coping creatively. I wrote a screenplay, I started a novel, I even created a meditation so that I could talk with Otis. And it did help, but my environment was tormenting me. I couldn’t be in my house surrounded by Otis anymore when he wasn’t there. Everything was a reminder. I couldn’t live a few houses away from the dog that attacked Otis and see him happily walking past my window with his owner. It gave me PTSD.
I had to remove myself from what was once “ours.” In a matter of two weeks, I made a decision to leave. I moved across the country, I got a new job, I rented out my house, and I broke up with my boyfriend. I even got a puppy to see if what everyone said is true. “Just get another dog and that will ease the pain.” But, if anything, it made it worse because I am unable to love him the same.
Someone told me once that we have chapters in our life, to keep on moving through, and I’ll find love again. But I am trying and it’s not working. The only thing that will fix this hole is having Otis back. And with that, I wait. I wait to see those familiar eyes. If reincarnation is real, then I will see him again.
“Goodnight Oatsie. Mama loves you the most.” Is what I said to Otis every night before bed. I would press my forehead against his and say, “Sleep good. Have lots of dreams about squirrels and other fun things, OK? I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.” I’d end our ritual by giving him a bunch of kisses and then asking him for a kiss in return. I wrote that identical message on his urn. I still say the same thing to him every night before bed. Only now, I can’t feel his kisses.
I always thought the phrase “life is short” was odd. It’s not short. It’s long. And it’s excruciatingly long when you have to live it without your best friend.