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A Tribute to Merlin Upon His Death

The following is a tribute that I wrote the day after Merlin died on August 13, 1987. I posted it on the Canine VAXnotes conference on Digital Equipment Corporation’s internal network. For many years, I presumed that I failed to keep a copy of this tribute, but today (November 29, 2013) I found it.

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Yesterday, I lost my best friend.

Like many of us who lose our 4-legged kids, I need to talk about it, and about him.  I am grateful for all of you out there who support this conference and who can understand and share this with me.  I hope you can bear with me as I ramble on about Merlin and the events of the last month.

I got Merlin just a little less than 12 years ago.  Astolat’s Myrddin Emrys, named after the Merlin as depicted in the Mary Stewart books—a name that portended much of what he was.  Merlin was special by any criteria.  I mean, I love Shelties in particular, dogs in general, and animals even more generally; and I know that Ellie (my other Sheltie) is also special.  But Merlin was raised as my child, expected to comport himself as a human, act responsibly, help with the chores, and so forth. He was greatly loved by all who met him (well, there’s this one lady in Denver whose dog could never quite score higher than Merlin, but…), had a high genius IQ, understood over 500 words of English and a fair amount of French, plus a little German, Hebrew, and Greek.  Ah, but I get nostalgic…

This wonderful little guy was an obedience natural.  He loved his obedience work, and going to a dog show was second only to playing in the snow on his list of fun things to do.  In his relatively short career (only about 4 years from his first trial until his retirement) , he won over 500 ribbons and trophies.  He scored several 199½ scores, but never quite got a 200.  He received a “Will Judy” (a/k/a “Dog World Award”) for both Novice and Open (CD and CDX), and just missed it for his Utility title. He had his UD at 24 months, and his OTCh at 36 months—and this was living in Utah where shows are few and very far between.  He was the first dog in the Rocky Mountain region to earn the OTCh title.  Several times, he was rated in the top 5 dogs in the country in terms of competition, and placed several times (as high as 2nd in Super Dog competition) in the Gaines Regional and Classic events.  In short, he was a true wizard, helping his daddy through obedience (he was my first obedience dog).

Ah, but that wasn’t all he ever did.  He could rock climb at about a 5.1 or 5.2 level (if I helped him with the long reaches!), swim all day long, and teach his little sister bad habits.  He loved hiking and climbing, adored going cross-country skiing, helped train new dog handlers in ring procedure (I could send him into a ring with anybody and he’d do wonderfully—helping new handlers learn how to do things), was very well traveled (went to about 42 states and several Canadian provinces, though he never made it to Europe), and was a fun date at the drive-in.

About 3 months ago, Merlin had a cataleptic seizure, a “petit mal” event. It really scared me, of course, to have this wonderful kid of mine suddenly get “unplugged” from the world for 15 or 20 seconds. So, naturally, I called the vet immediately.  The vet tentatively diagnosed epilepsy and wanted Merlin brought in for examination.  He ended up prescribing Primidone as a way to control future (inevitible) seizures. Well, I gave Merlin the Primidone, but he turned out to be pretty sensitive to it and was easily over-sedated by it.  But the alternative was too much to risk, so we juggled dosages and figured it was under control.  Over the next couple of months, he had what I called “micro-seizures”, where he would just sort of “zone out” for a second or two, but wasn’t really cataleptic.  I began to get confident that we had it under control.

Well, about a month ago (5 weeks ago today), I got home from work really late and found Merlin having a grand mal seizure.  I have never been so terrified in my life!  If you’ve never been exposed to that, I hope that you never are.  It is horrible to see someone you love so much shaking and screaming like they’re in agony (though medical literature assures us that individuals having such a seizure do not feel it as pain).  The seizure only lasted about 6 or 7 seconds, and it was after midnight on a Friday, so I thought I could wait until morning to call the vet.  Not so!  Just an hour or two later, he had another.  This time, I called my vet immediately.  Of course, I got their answering service, but said I had to talk to the on-call vet immediately.  The vet called me back in about 5 minutes, but was tremendously UNhelpful.  He basically said “there’s nothing I can do about it, so bring him in tomorrow.”  Screw that! I called the local animal emergency hospital as soon as I hung up. The vet on duty there was much more helpful, but felt that he didn’t have the skills to do anything but sedate Merlin.  He, however, recommended a clinic in Denver which had a resident canine internist and a resident canine neurologist (one of only 10 or so in the country!).  I nursed Merlin through about 4 more (smaller) seizures that night, and called my vet back at 0800 sharp.  The vet who had most often dealt with Merlin was not there, so I asked them to have him call me.  The answer?  “I told you, he’s not here.”  I suggested that with the hundreds of dollars I had spent with them that I bet he could afford a phone at home.  Well, they put me on hold, came back and told me that my vet was out of town, so I should bring Merlin in to see someone else.  I refused and asked that the “someone else” come to the phone.  When he did, his first words were “Mr. Mellon?”. Wonderful—he doesn’t even know my name.  So I asked if he had looked at Merlin’s chart.  His answer was “Who’s Merlin?”  That angered me, as you might guess.  I suggested a couple of anatomically impossible acts and told him that I only called to give them the courtesy of notification that I was going to another vet.

Then, I called Denver.  The doctor with whom I spoke there, Dr. Colter, was the neurologist.  My descriptions of the sequence of events and of the symptoms let him to think that the internist, Dr. Roger Pitts, should see Merlin first.  I took Merlin right up and left him there in hands that inspired confidence in both me and Merlin.  Extensive (and extremely expensive) tests over the next couple of days (including a spinal tap done without anesthesia because they deemed the risk of a general anesthetic as too high with Merlin’s problem, but knew Merlin to be so well-trained that a “stay” command was enough to make him lie still while they did it!) showed only negatives–not this, not that, not the other.  The lack of positive information led to the following tentative diagnoses: a tumor in the cerebellum, inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, or some bizarre form of epilepsy.  Dr. Pitts prescribed a steroid to reduce the inflammation and an antibiotic to try to attack any undetected biological causes.  Merlin got better.  He came home and we had two very nice weeks together.  He seemed a little wobbly, but that was to be expected.

However, suddenly, without warning, on Saturday night, just as we went to bed, Merlin had another grand mal seizure.  Dr. Pitts had given me his home phone number to use if anything like this happened (how many vets—much less human doctors—do you know that give out their home phone numbers?), so I called him immediately (at 0200!). He said to sit it out for the night, giving Merlin comfort and more steroids, but that first thing in the morning he’d call in a prescription for phenobarbitol and valium—the former for long-term suppression of the seizures, and the latter to act quickly until the phenobarbitol could reach appropriate levels in the spinal fluid. Poor Merlin had about 3 or 4 more seizures during the night, but they tended to be quite short—5-8 seconds.  In the morning, I got a neighbor to sit with Merlin while I raced to the pharmacie.  He didn’t have any more seizures while I was gone, and we heavily medicated him to suppress them.  But that night he had several more. So, of course, I took him back to the hospital early on Sunday. Merlin started recovering by Monday, but I left him there 8 days for observation and tests.  I visited him several times (of course!) and by Sunday evening, took him home.  He really seemed fine!  His spirits were back to normal, he was a little bit wobbly but that seemed to be the level of phenobarbitol we were using, he played with me and with Ellie, his appetite was good—as it always was—and he really seemed on the way to recovery.

Therefore, a week later I didn’t feel bad about leaving for a 3-day business trip, since I have a friend who stays at the house and takes care of Merlin and Ellie when I’m away.  Unfortunately, Monday afternoon my friend came to the house at about 1500 to check on the kids and found Merlin collapsed from the aftermath of at least one seizure.  Of course, she instantly put him in the car and raced to the hospital (45 minutes for a normally 70-minute trip!).  By then Merlin had had at least 2 more seizures and was in a coma.  The vet called me in Michigan, but advised me to wait until Wednesday as planned to return, and visit Merlin on Thursday. We stayed in close contact, calling one another 3 or 4 times a day on Tuesday and Wednesday.  When I called him from the St Louis airport on Wednesday afternoon, he said that things looked really bad and he couldn’t be sure Merlin would last until Thursday morning.  So of course as soon as my plane landed on Colorado Springs, I raced home and got Ellie and virtually flew to Denver.  I got to Denver at about 2145, but Dr. Pitts was going to meet me at the hospital at 0030, so I had them put Merlin and me into a room by ourselves (with Ellie, obviously) and I worked with him for 2½ hours.  By the time Dr. Pitts got there, I had Merlin alert enough that he was kissing me and Ellie (*very* happily; he was really glad that I was there and that I’d brought his little sister) and had even eaten a few Milk Bones (his favorite snack) and drunk a little water if I held his head.  But he couldn’t support his head, much less lie “up” on his chest and elbows.

However, while Dr. Pitts was there, he continued to improve as we discussed whether the end was here and what other tests we could possibly run that would tell us whether there was any hope at all. The real problem here was that even if we could pull Merlin out of it this time, there was every reason to believe that he’d just have another seizure storm in another two weeks, and every time it was harder and harder to bring him back out of it.  But with him improving, neither one of us could, in good concience, say that the time had come.  So we agreed, at about 0230, to wait ’til morning. I went to stay at a friend’s in Denver, and called at 0830 to see how Merlin was.  Dr. Pitts said that he was slightly improved over when we left him, so I said I’d be in about 1000.

When I got there at 0945, Merlin was in a deep coma.  At 0900, he had had another seizure and it really knocked him for a loop.  So they brought Merlin to me—with his I.V. disconnected, as an indication of how badly he had deteriorated.  I spend about 45 minutes working with him, kissing him, hugging him, loving him, talking to him.  Finally, he got to the point where he did recognize that I was there and that Ellie was there—I put Ellie’s muzzle up to Merlin’s for him to smell.  He tried so valiently to give us a kiss, but just couldn’t control his tongue enough.  My poor Merlin was dying in front of my eyes, yet he continued to fight and to try so very hard to do what I wanted of him.  I broke off two pieces of Milk Bone about the size of my little fingernail and he managed to eat both of them—hungry to the last.  I held his head so he could take one last lap of fresh, cool water.  And he looked at me with that ineffable, undying love that he has for me, and he fell into a deep sleep.

I knew that he wouldn’t ever be the old Merlin again, that he would almost certainly die within a couple of hours—he seemed to have been hanging on expressly to say goodbye to me and to Ellie.  But I didn’t want to risk him having yet another seizure storm at this point—no violent death for my only son, my first born, my best friend.  So I asked Dr. Pitts to prepare an injection to help him on his way out of his pain and his confusion.  At 1045 on Thursday, 13 August, 1987—just 4 days after his 12th birthday—Merlin received an 8-times overdose of pentobarbitol in his sleep, breathed a little heavily for 16 seconds and sighed one last time. His heart beat for 2 more seconds and stopped.  Three or four seconds later, he tried one last time to get his tongue straight in his mouth—and failed. His lip quivered ever so slightly once.  And then he never moved again.

My most faithful friend, my longest relationship, my best companion, my hiking and climbing buddy, my confidant, my comforter, my Sheltie, my Obedience Trial Champion, my lovely son—died as peacefully as possible, with no fear or shocks, not even a skin prick from the injection, knowing that he was loved.  I continued to whisper how much I loved him and how much Ellie loved him until I knew that he could hear no more.

An era has passed now.  I will go on.  Ellie needs me and I need her. Nobody can ever replace Merlin, but some day I will get another puppy, and we’ll have good times, too.  But I’ll always love him, always remember the good times we had and the fun.  And at least I was able to be with him to hold him in my arms in his last hour of need.  And I did everything humanly possible for him throughout his whole life, but particularly when he got sick.

As a side note, Dr. Roger Pitts is not only an incredible man of medicine, he came to love Merlin in these last 4 weeks to the point where he cried and kissed Merlin frequently, and he gave Merlin dozens of hours of his time and treatment at all hours of the night. I recommend him very highly.

Thanks for letting me talk.  At least for now, I just can’t talk enough about Merlin and how special he was.  He meant almost everything to me, and now I have to learn how to live a life without him.

OTCh Astolat’s Myrddin Emrys, known to his friends as Merlin, has died, but he will live on in my heart where he’ll never be in pain, always have snowy fields to play in, eat his favorite foods, and where he will be loved as he always was—unconditionally and completely.

Rest in peace, my darling Merlin.

Jim

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