Wednesday, May 25, 2016

8 to 12 Weeks

Duke is gone.

We didn't want a dog. Not yet. We were still trying to get settled in Texas after moving home from Buffalo. Bryn was still a baby and with two cats and trying to get Will situated, it just wasn't the right time. But one night, Ryan pulled into the garage and parked his truck and as he walked around the back of it towards the door, this dog ran up to him wagging his tail and hoping to make a friend. He was a breed we were unfamiliar with - we'd later find out that he was an English Pointer.. probably not a breed we would've picked (he apparently picked us). We put him in the backyard thinking we'd find his owner the next day. Surely this happy dog who appeared to be potty trained with the red collar around his neck was missed. It was August 25th, 2009.

The next day I posted his pic on Facebook with the caption, "Who's your daddy?" We put signs up all over the neighborhood. We called around to shelters to see if anyone was looking for him. A neighbor even offered to take him to see if he was microchipped. We posted on neighborhood message boards. Nothing. After we'd had him for about a week, we decided to take him back to the vet to get him checked out before trying to contact some rescue organizations. We weren't ready for a dog. We found out this sweet boy had heartworm and would need to be treated... otherwise, his heart would eventually explode. So for a month, we nursed him back to health and realized we'd fallen in love. We named him Duke, and he became a part of our family. We vowed to fight for him if anyone showed up later trying to claim him. First day of kindergarten, waiting for the bus, dressing up for Valentine's Day... so many memories and Duke is in them.

Fast forward... we took Duke to the vet on April 26th because his breathing seemed a bit labored and his neck was swollen. Allergies? A cold maybe? We were given devastating and completely unexpected news. Cancer. Lymphoma. Duke had a history with cancer - we removed an ear several years ago because of a growth. He'd grown a couple of tumors around his groin that we were monitoring. We figured it would become a bigger problem at some point. But we weren't expecting this...

Duke had 8 to 12 weeks to live.

Ryan and I cried so much that day. We discussed chemo as an option but realized that we'd just be prolonging the inevitable. The vet prescribed twice-a-day steroids to help with the swelling in his lymph nodes. It worked... for a while. Following doctor's orders, we reduced the steroid pills to once a day and within a week, the labored breathing was back. Our sweet boy, who usually rushes towards the front door when the doorbell rings now simply lifted his head and then laid it back down on the floor.

Ryan took him to the vet yesterday morning and we were given no hope. Duke was dying. All I could think to myself is that he had 8-12 weeks but it had only been 4. No. Not yet. No. We discussed some what-ifs and maybes... what if we up his steroids again, then maybe he'll be okay? Our conversation about the possibilities was short. We knew what we had to do. We'd always promised that we wouldn't let Duke suffer. And he was. We cancelled our afternoon plans and waited for the kids to get home so they could say their goodbyes. We decided to take a family pic and let Duke run around a bit. Sure enough, some neighborhood dogs were out for a walk and Duke did what he always did... he ran back and forth (albeit slowly) along the fence. He's done this so often he's created a path for himself. We smiled as he happily ran back and forth knowing that this would be his last time.

The drive to the vet's office was too short - maybe a mile? Duke just laid on the floor in the backseat of the truck. Normal Duke would be trying to hop on my lap in the front to get a better view. We walked in the building and someone was waiting for us. We were escorted into a room and Duke laid on the cold floor. A tech came in to take Duke to get an IV inserted into his paw. While he was gone, we were asked what we wanted to do once Duke had passed. We could bring him home and bury him. Yeah, no. Cremation - that was it. But then we had to pick out an urn. Too many decisions. We quickly chose the wood one with a gold name plate on it. It's so small. They also had the option to do a paw print. Yes, we decided without hesitation. They could have offered just about anything in that moment and I would've said yes through my tears. I wasn't ready. It's only been four weeks. We should've had at least 4 more.

They brought Duke back into the room and they told us to take as long as needed for our goodbyes. Duke laid there as we kissed his forehead and scratched his ears. We told him how much we loved him. I asked myself 100 times if we were doing the right thing, but as I looked at Duke sitting in the corner struggling to breathe, there was some peace. There would be no more suffering. It was time.

The vet came in and asked us if we were going to stay. Of course. He explained the process and told us it wouldn't take long - maybe a minute. He explained that as he pushed the first drug into Duke's arm, Duke might look around the room a little bit and become a little disoriented. Then he explained that after about 15 seconds of pushing the second drug, he would check Duke for a heartbeat. "Are you ready?" No. But okay. Everything went as expected. I cradled Duke's face in my hand where he took his last breath. He looked like he was asleep, laying in the position he's so often laid in on our living room floor. It was all so peaceful. So quiet. So quick. Too quick. The doctor listened for silence... and then told us that he was gone. There is no way to describe the pain of experiencing the moment your pet leaves this Earth. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Did we play with him enough? Did he know how much we loved him? Was he in his crate too much? Did we give him the right food? Was he happy? I will remember that moment forever as one of the toughest I've ever had to experience in my life.

So many good moments happened in my life because of this dog. Duke would often look down our street when he heard a car approaching, and if he saw one of ours, he would jump in circles and run towards our gate. Last night we turned the corner onto our street, and we could see our empty backyard. It sunk in that we wouldn't be greeted by Duke anymore. I walked into the house sobbing. You see, Duke often waited for us right by the door if he was in the house, and even though I always knew he was there, he'd scare me and I'd let out a little, "woo." Every single time. He was such a good dog. He never tore up a shoe (although Bryn's toys were fair game if she left them on the living room floor), he never went upstairs (off limits because we were afraid he'd go up there and pee). There was always unconditional love and joy.

I asked Ryan to put away Duke's crate (which sits in our kitchen near the back door) and food bowls - I didn't need the reminder that he was gone. But as I type this, I look into the living room and see that his dog toys he so often threw around the living room are still there. All of them. So many reminders today - like the painting of an English Pointer I came across in a home visited, or the woman walking her pointer dog around the neighborhood, or the pointer puppy my friend just got. All reminders of the sweet dog who chose us one hot, Texas August night.

The house is too quiet. I keep thinking I need to open the back door and let Duke in the house. He'd stare if we weren't quick enough. I dropped a Pringle on the floor this morning - I could count on Duke to clean up after us when we dropped edibles. Not anymore. We often joked that Duke's tail was a lethal weapon - he whipped that thing on the floor, in his crate, on your legs. I never thought I'd miss it. But I do. And the only time Duke ever howled was when Will would sing a little song that went, "Duke, is a Duke." Will would sing it over and over again and Duke would sing along. Can't believe we won't hear that again.

A good friend shared this with me when we got Duke's diagnosis last month... it's A Letter to My Humans On Our Last Day Together. This letter, from the dog's point of view, is perfect. The line that got me was, "To you, I was simply a part of your life, but to me, you were my entire life." Thank you Duke, for everything. We didn't know we needed you.

Friday, May 20, 2016

We Should Be Celebrating, But We're Not

It's been a while since I've posted.

I've been planning to get my new blog at up and running so I can start posting there but life has been a little crazy... between Bryn's 8th birthday, health issues and neighbor woes, it's been a crazy month. Stay tuned though - the new blog will be up and running soon. In the meantime, I'll do my best to keep posting here. You all have missed SO. MUCH!

But today... I've got to get something off of my chest. I cried three times this morning before I even had breakfast, so I figured I'd take my frustrations out on my keyboard.

A couple of weeks ago, we got a phone call from Will's teacher informing us about Will's "placement" for next school year. It's common practice in Frisco ISD to wait until the end of the school year to inform parents of special education students where their children will be going to school in the fall. We are at the mercy of the school district... we go where they tell us to go. Optimally we should be at our home school - but Will has been at 5 campuses since we returned home from Buffalo in 2008. Never once has he been at our home school.

"Will is going to Pioneer Heritage next year," Will's sweet teacher said over the phone. Silence. Ryan and I looked at each other, confused. More silence. Finally, I said under my breath, "Where the f*** is Pioneer Heritage?" It's not our home school. I grabbed my laptop and Googled it. All of my fears as a mother of a child with autism manifested and filled my eyes with tears as I turned to Ryan and said, "We don't know anyone there. No one."

We asked more questions. Was anyone from Will's current class going to Pioneer Heritage with him? No. None of the teachers or aides? No. Do you realize Will thinks he's going to school next year at Griffin with ALL of his friends? Yes. How are we going to tell him that he's not? Silence.

We've watched Will struggle for a decade trying to make meaningful peer-to-peer relationships. Friendships. For years, there were no birthday party invites. There were no friends outside of those in his special education class asking to hang out. It was heartbreaking. So when Will got to Purefoy Elementary School a couple of years ago and he started talking about his friends when he got home from school every day, we got so excited. He was finally connecting with his peers - something that has been so difficult for him to do in year's past. We sent Will off to school every day knowing that he'd be safe from bullies because his friends would protect him and that he'd have friends to hang out with. It felt normal. We exhaled.

The week after the placement phone call, Will led us through the halls of Purefoy on Open House Night. "Hey Will," a friend called out. Will waved. "What's up Will?" Every time we turned a corner, Will was greeted by a friendly, knowing smile. He probably didn't notice me wiping tears from my eyes, because every time one of his friends said, "Hello," I was reminded that I was going to have to tell him he wasn't going to school with them next year.

Will is in what's called a Functional Academics class. They do not have this type of classroom at our home school so the school district has to look at the next closest campus that has the program. The next closest school is Griffin. Griffin Middle School is where Will's peers will go next year, and not just from Purefoy, but also from the school he attended before Purefoy. The schools where he was placed by Frisco ISD.

We've been told that there are already 9 students in the FA class at Griffin, and there is "no way" Will can go there. I later found out that the school district, in fact, has some discretion - they could place Will at Griffin. But we've been told over and over again that it's not an option, and everything about it makes every single mommy warrior alarm go off in my body. Pioneer Heritage has "space," and it's the next closest campus with room, so that's where Will will go next year. It doesn't matter if ALL of his peers are going to Griffin - so we've been told. There was no input from us or his teachers to make sure this was the best placement for Will. There was a spot available... so Will will go to Pioneer Heritage without any consideration for how this might affect him, his education, his behavior, or his progress.

And we get it - we understand that Frisco is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. We get that the special education department has to do what it can to make placement decisions for all of our kids. But the question that keeps going through my mind is, "Why is that Will's problem?"

Fast forward a couple of weeks. There have been lots of phone calls with administrators and such and no change in placement (yet). We got an email that Will would be receiving an award in assembly today so Ryan and I dropped Bryn off at school and made our way to Purefoy early enough to get front row seats. We'd surprise Will - he didn't know he was getting the award or that we were coming.


Will didn't come into the auditorium with his special education class (none of whom will be attending Pioneer Heritage next year. In year's past, we've not had too much of a problem with the constant movement because there was always some sort of continuity - either the teacher, aides or whole class moved together. Will was never alone) - he came in with his 5th grade class. Every time someone announced that it was the last assembly or that there were only 8 days of school left, the kids all cheered. Will did too as he sat among his friends. My heart broke. And I wiped away tears.

When Will's name was called for his award and the auditorium broke out in applause, I silently wiped tears from my eyes as Will ran towards the stage. Did the mom next to me see me using my sweatshirt as a tissue? I don't know. But Will was so happy. His smile was so big as he stood on the stage, so proud. And my heart broke. A tremendous sadness, even guilt maybe, tugged at me. He should be able to go to school with his friends. It's not his fault he has autism. Why is he being punished? It just doesn't seem fair. Or right.

I'm heartbroken y'all. Mama bear is feeling like she's not doing enough to make sure her son continues to thrive. Every bit of what's happened over the last couple of weeks with this school district has caused me to lose hope and question everything about our special education program. And you know what else scares the hell out of me? For some reason, kids' "asshole" switches get flipped when they hit middle school - they are mean. And I'm worried to death about my son to the point where I'm not sleeping at night. Tell me something - do you feel this way about your kid(s) when you go to sleep at night? It's an awful, horrible, heartbreaking feeling. So on top of all the normal pressures of starting middle school, my son has to do it alone.