by Lee Eisman
It seems so odd to mourn the death of a loved one while they’re still alive, but when I found out that my beloved twelve-year-old German Shepherd, Marko, was terminally ill, my mourning began.
Marko was an integral part of our family. He was three-and-a-half years old when we adopted him from German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California (GSRNC) in November of 2002. It had been six years since we had a dog in our family, but we felt that at nine-years-old, our son, Jordan, was old enough for a dog.
My husband, Jay, and I had two Golden Retrievers several years earlier, but when we decided to bring a new dog into our family, Jordan said he wanted a German Shepherd. At first I was reluctant, but then I realized that as the dog’s primary caretaker, nobody would bother me while I was walking with such an intimidating looking companion.
Jordan and I visited a few animal shelters and and searched online for German Shepherds and found the GSRNC website. We looked at the available dogs, and were intrigued by the photos and description of Marko.
We completed the adoption application and a GSRNC adoption counselor visited our home to make sure that we were worthy of adopting one of their dogs and that our house and yard were dog-safe.
After talking to Marko’s foster parents, Joan and Jim, we went to meet Marko at one of GSRNC’s Adoption Days in the South Bay. Jay, in particular, loved the fact that Jim described Marko as a dog with “impeccable house manners”. The three of us were immediately taken with Marko, who was very affectionate, although a bit high-strung.
Before we could adopt Marko, Joan and Jim scheduled a visit to our house with him. As his foster parents, they wanted to ensure that we were the right “forever” family for Marko, who had already been in and out of foster care a few times. Apparently, Marko was adopted by his first family shortly after he came to GSRNC, but when the couple divorced, they returned him to the organization. The second family that adopted Marko also split up, and Marko somehow ended up in Chicago. Because he was microchipped, the shelter in Chicago where Marko turned up contacted GSRNC, which arranged to have Marko flown back to the Bay Area, where he was once again fostered by “Aunt Joan” and “Uncle Jim”.
When Joan and Jim brought Marko to visit us, we all took a walk together as they explained that Marko required more training and that he could be aggressive with other dogs. He also barked at cars and other fast-moving vehicles that he deemed too close. Joan and Jim had us attend one session of a GSRNC obedience class and commit to attending ongoing training with Marko before they agreed to let us adopt him.
Once Marko joined our family, we bonded quickly. Marko definitely had some challenging behaviors, and during the first few years we had him, we participated in both obedience classes as well as private training sessions. Marko continued to bark at cars and tried to attack them if he perceived they were too near him, but he did mellow over time.
Marko loved to go on long walks, both in our neighborhood and on the trails of the nearby East Bay Regional Parks. Walking Marko became a daily routine that both Jay and I loved. Marko also became the “mascot” of East Bay Moms. Each Friday morning, we went on a hike with the moms carrying their infants and toddlers in front carriers, backpacks, or strollers and me walking Marko on his leash. Marko always enjoyed these hikes and the young children always loved to see and pet Marko.
A few years ago, when Marko was around nine-years-old, he developed mild arthritis in one of his knees. It didn’t slow him down much, but we became more careful with him; building a ramp for him to get in and out of the back of our SUV, giving him Glucosamine for joint health and not letting him run too much. Within another two years the arthritis progressed, and our vet prescribed Tramadol for pain relief as well as Rimadyl, an anti-inflammatory. These both seemed to help, and Marko was able to continue walking, although the walks became shorter than they had been in the past.
In early March of this year, we brought Marko to the vet for his annual “senior” exam. Arnie, our vet, assured us that other than the arthritis, Marko was in good health for a dog his age (twelve). Arnie did caution us that this could change at any time, and that every six months a dog ages is comparable to four years for a human.
Then, all of a sudden in May, Marko began to vomit about once a day and became lethargic. Although he had always gone up and down the stairs whenever we did, he stayed downstairs when we went upstairs to go to bed one night. Although never a great eater, he became even less interested in his food. After a second day of lethargy, we brought him back to see Arnie.
Arnie immediately concluded that Marko’s arthritis wasn’t the cause of his discomfort and performed an ultrasound, which indicated that Marko had a tumor on his spleen and at least one node on his liver. During surgery the following day, Marko’s spleen was removed, his gall bladder was drained and Arnie found multiple nodules on his liver. The official diagnosis was Hemangiosarcoma, a tumor of the spleen usually seen in older dogs, especially German Shepherds and other large breeds. After further testing of the tumor, Arnie explained as gently as possible that the cancer had metastasized and that although Marko might bounce back for a while, he was terminally ill with just days, weeks or possibly months left to live. I remember that Arnie used the term “hospice”.
We were devastated. How could our beloved dog appear healthy one day, and be deemed terminally ill the next? Although Marko did rally for a few days, it didn’t last. I notified our friends and relatives that Marko wouldn’t be with us much longer. I cried daily and was overcome with grief, even though Marko was still alive. One of my friends, Ruth, told me that when her dog, Neil, was terminally ill, her vet told her to consider every additional day of his life a gift. So, we made the most of our remaining time with Marko, enjoying shorter walks with him as long as he was able and letting him know how much he was loved. We appreciated the last twelve “gifts” that Marko gave us and were grateful for the time we had with him. Jay, Jordan and I surrounded Marko, comforting him, as the life left his beautiful, brown eyes. His death has left a hole in my heart.
Marko and I had frequently enjoyed walks with my friend, Dawn, and her dog, Bomba. Dawn had adopted Bomba shortly after her former dog died, and she encouraged me to do the same. She assured me that I wouldn’t be replacing Marko, and that she believed the spirit of the former dog lives on in the new dog.
So, one week after Marko left us, we adopted another German Shepherd, Maizee. When I found Maizee on the GSRNC website, I felt that she was destined to join our family; she was the same age that Marko was when we adopted him and both of their names began with the letter “M”. They also shared some similar personality traits. She is a sweet, beautiful girl. Sometimes, when Maizee is lying in a certain position, she even looks like Marko. I do agree with Dawn that Maizee is not a replacement for Marko; no dog could replace him. But, Marko’s spirit does live on in Maizee, and I don’t cry as often anymore.