During whimsical moments, mostly on evening walks on a remote beach on Whidbey Island, my husband and I wondered who our Beagles, Lord Byron and Lady Diva, would be if they were human. We imagined that Lady Diva would always be on vacation, sunning on a beach in a tight-fitting bikini, a hula skirt under her bulging belly, barking orders to Lord Byron to bring her another martini. Lord Byron, on the other hand, we imagined would be a professor, his bow tie a bit askew, and his kind, intelligent eyes, peering behind wire frames, glancing occasionally from his treatise on the ancient dialects of Egyptian cats, only to make sure Lady Diva was comfortable. So, when Lord Byron was diagnosed with an aggressive, advanced nasal carcinoma in February 2012, and, as a last hope to save his life, showed up at the VTH at WSU, it seemed a befitting place for the little professor.
This is Lord Byron’s story, but it would be incomplete without also mentioning his sister, Lady Diva, since it was in the context of their inseparable and loving 10-year relationship that Lord Byron’s character and demeanor shone at its brightest. We adopted them as young puppies from a prolific puppy mill. When we arrived at the breeder’s, the crowd of people discriminately made their selection. Lady Diva, the most physically attractive of all the puppies by thoroughbred standards, petite but proportionate, with deep brown fawn-like eyes that seemed lined in eyeliner and curious tri-colored coat markings, like a brown, black and white patchwork quilt, quickly waddled through the crowd to me and when I carried her, fell asleep in my arms within seconds. Although Byron would later become a handsome athletic dog, he was, as a puppy, plain and homely in appearance, with a disproportionate body, as if his head had been attached to the rest of his body as an afterthought, and a long tail with a bright white tip, like it had been dunked in paint. In fact, he was overlooked by all the adoptive parents that day and had slept through the entire bustling and competitive selection process. Realizing perhaps that he should do something or he would be left behind, he waddled over to my husband and we somewhat reluctantly, brought home the puppy that no one else wanted. This was the first lesson, of many to come, that our little professor Lord Byron would teach us: all dogs are beautiful in their own way.
Their regal titles soon fell to the side. Lady Diva, though she naturally assumed the diva part, was, well, no lady. Lord Byron’s gentle, impeccably well-behaved and laid back manner bore no resemblance to his namesake’s mischievous literary character, except for brief moments of ecstasy and indulgence, when he would escape from the yard and run down the beach to roll in smelly seal poop. If Diva’s motto was ‘you’re lucky to have me,’ Byron’s was, ‘I’m so lucky to have you.’ On walks, if a big dog approached, tiny Diva transformed into instant ninja dog, wielding her vociferous barking sword, as she leaped in front of the larger Byron, to scare the approaching unsuspecting dog. Byron on the other hand, a master in the art of tail wagging, and bearing the most unique tail around, would quickly engage the larger dog in play. In all our years with Byron, he never growled or was aggressive with other dogs; he innately valued friendships above all else. So, we would learn from the little professor that a friendly tail is mightier than the sword when your opponent is mightier than you.
On walks near a steep, eroding beach bluff, Diva, disregarding our warnings to come back, would run at manic speed up the bluff and then, too afraid to descend the steep incline would sit precariously and helplessly on the edge of the cliff whimpering at us to carry her down. Byron, unafraid of heights, would charge up the cliff and, in purposeful repeated herding gestures, would lead her down safely. After the rescue, as if in an effort to help her save face, he would give up his place as the leader of the walk, letting Diva lead the way. I think our little professor was saying that it is kind to let your loved ones recover gracefully from their mistakes.
While they were still puppies, there were times we came home to find our shoes had been chewed to ruins and, on one occasion, our couch destroyed with a red permanent marker which we gathered had become a chew stick, the red ink still visible around Diva’s lips, as if she had applied lipstick. Diva ran to Byron, and attempting to implicate him for her obvious crime, grumbled as she chewed on his ears. Byron seemed to go along with her deceit, always willing and ready to fall on his sword for her. And it all seemed worth it to him at night when they curled around each other’s bodies, like a cinnamon roll, and he would sigh deeply and contentedly. Byron seemed to know what really mattered in life.
My husband and I were impossibly permissive parents, laughing at the Beagles’ misdeeds and showering them with affection regardless, but secretly fearing that we were unwittingly promoting bad behavior and that we would someday be parents to the dreaded, ‘Bad Dog.’ Perhaps instinctively sensing that they would someday battle severe illness, and failing miserably as disciplinarians, we embarked on a lifelong mission to teach them courage. So, as puppies and into adulthood, we taught them that it was fun to take walks in the dark, on a beach illuminated only by the sparkle of far-away stars. We taught them that big dogs were their friends and purposely took them to dog parks where they learned to run unleashed with other dogs that were much higher up the food chain. We taught them that veterinarians were their best friends and we showered them with treats before and after veterinary visits. So, while it was not unusual that Byron would wag his tail when we pulled up to the VTH for visits and was never too enthusiastic to leave, we were humbled by the extent of his bond to the place that saved his life.
When we first met Dr. Sellon, a few days after Byron’s fateful diagnosis, we were still numb and dazed by the news. Dr. Sellon confirmed the diagnosing veterinarian’s dreadful opinion: that Byron’s carcinoma had invaded the calvarium and that even with radiation, assuming that he survived radiation, his life expectancy was likely only a few months, although the rare dog had surpassed that. Dr. Sellon exuded integrity and immense knowledge of Byron’s cancer. We noticed how he gently and thoroughly examined Byron, even detecting a faint heart murmur that no other veterinarian had detected. Byron, already exhibiting respiratory distress, relaxed as Dr. Sellon examined him. We boarded him for four weeks of radiation and as he left the room with his assigned veterinary student, Michelle Meyer, he wearily but courageously and in classic Byron professorial fashion, turned to look at us with an assuring look that everything would be ok. Each time, when we dropped him off after visits, he calmly and bravely walked away with Ms. Meyer, as if there was something to be done and he was volunteering to do it. Although we visited Byron on weekends while he was boarded, taking Diva along for Byron’s emotional support, the weeks in between were filled with uncertainty and fear and our home resounded with the emptiness of Byron’s absence; we were incomplete as a family. Ms. Meyer emailed us daily photos of Byron and gave us updates. We looked forward each night to reading her emails and they provided immense comfort for us. When she emailed us that Byron had snatched her donut when she wasn’t looking, we were elated and knew that he was doing well.
On weekends, Dr. Sellon told us that Dr. Janean Fidel and her assistant, Betsy Wheeler, were doing an outstanding job with Byron’s radiation. We had resigned ourselves to the possibility of blindness, but Byron had learned to enjoy walks in the dark and we knew he would be able to enjoy life as a blind dog. In fact, Byron only lost eyesight in the radiated eye and he retains excellent vision in his other eye, an outcome which we attribute to Dr. Fidel’s and Betsy Wheeler’s careful protection of his eyes during treatments.
Thanks to Dr. Sellon, who enlightened us on the many trails in and around Pullman, we looked forward to our weekends there when we would explore new trails with Byron and Diva and revisit familiar trails. We noticed how, when we picked Byron up for the weekend, he seemed torn to leave the VTH and we realized the extent of his bond, despite that it was formed in the throes of illness. Once, when we were leaving the VTH, he began whimpering and pulling us in the direction of a woman walking a dog: she resembled Ms. Meyer. The little professor Byron had now taught us that even in the depths of our greatest adversities, there are friends to be made.
After Byron completed his treatments, we continued to take him to see Dr. Sellon for three-month follow ups. Diva accompanied us on most of those trips, falling asleep in the room, as Dr. Sellon gently examined Byron. Six months after Byron completed radiation, Diva was suddenly diagnosed with advanced and intractable lymphoma and the veterinarian in Seattle who diagnosed her advised euthanasia. We were devastated that she was too fragile to travel to WSU for treatment. She received chemotherapy in Seattle for six weeks and, after consulting with Dr. Sellon and receiving his compassionate argument for euthanasia, we determined that she was merely suffering, would never respond to treatments and that the kindest gift we could give her was rest. Several days before she died, I took them on their last walk together. I told them, because I wanted to believe, that Diva would be going to a place where she could roll in seal poop all day, where tasty treats hung from trees and were hidden in bushes and where she would have endless walking trails; I told them that Byron would join her there someday. They listened curiously as I spoke and I like to think they understood. She died on November 1, 2012.
Diva’s death seemed the cruelest blow to Byron who, by this time had already outlived the early expectations for his life expectancy, but was still within the time period for recurrence of his own cancer. We helplessly stood by as Byron grieved for his life-long partner, searching for her for months in her favorite places, especially on walks, and listening apprehensively and concerned if I accidentally bumped her collar with its tinkling tags. In time, Byron, perhaps resigned that Diva was gone, settled into a new life with us. He became closer to us, wanting to sleep near us and, no longer looking for Diva, resumed his passion for smelling the tiniest, seemingly insignificant things on walks. Byron’s grief and acceptance of Diva’s death taught us that, despite the loss of those we love, tomorrow brings another walk.
Today, thanks to the outstanding dedication, compassion and brilliance of Dr. Sellon, Dr. Janean Fidel, Betsy Wheeler, Michelle Meyer and all the other courageous doctors, students, staff and friends at the VTH who deal with the sadness of ill and dying animals daily, Byron is nearly 18 months post radiation cancer-free. He is indeed a rare dog. The chances of his cancer recurring are now possible, but minimal. While we like to think that we taught our dogs to be courageous in their illnesses by teaching them to walk in the dark under skies illuminated by stars, maybe they taught us courage. After all, they always led our walks.