10 years ago today I came home from my my day job and decided to do some time on the treadmill. I took about 5 steps and something felt wrong with my left foot. Not a pain exactly, but just… wrong. After deciding to skip the treadmill, the foot got worse. It was only an hour or so later that I was not able to put weight on it at all.
Gradually the pain became unbelievable. I couldn’t figure it out, because I could walk, take several steps and it was fine, but every so often there would be one step that resulted in a blinding flash of pain. There didn’t seem to be any pattern at all.
I am going to skip all the stupid details of this story. Suffice it to say that the Instacare doctor examined me, ignored my insistence that I had not sprained it and diagnosed it as a sprained ankle. The foot was turning a dark purple near the ankle on the outside. He sent me home and told me to keep it elevated and to put ice on it.
During that first 3 days, Rusty was my care provider. Rusty was a Jack Russell Terrorist. We picked him up at a Humane Society rescue party at a pet store. Rusty had been neglected and had behaviour issues. He had been with us about 3 years when my foot went to hell, and was the only dog on Homeland Security duty since Thai had passed away a couple of years earlier. My wife had just started working on a movie, so it was just us guys for 19 hours a day. Rusty really enjoyed having me home, laying in bed all day. He knew I was in pain. It was obvious because it got worse every single day. But that dog kept me sane during this ordeal, because he was a damned good listener. He always looked right at me when I talked to him. You could see the concern in his eyes. He always looked you in the eye,
Our days settled in to a sort of pattern. Somewhere between 2 or 4 in the morning I would get up and sit at the kitchen table with the foot propped up, helping the little woman put breakfast together to take to the film set. Rusty stood watch in case any eggs or bacon were dropped. Once we got her on her way, I would hop to the guest room and go back to sleep. This was the best place for me because it was a short hop to the bathroom across the hall. Over the next two weeks I worked out ways to get around that included pushing myself around the upstairs on a rolling office chair and dragging an ice chest in to the shower to sit on. One of the girls found a set of crutches and a wheelchair at a local thrift store. That made things a little easier. I could chair around upstairs, scoot downstairs on my ass, and then get around on crutches on the bottom floor. You will never believe how difficult it is to do the simplest things if you you don’t have two working legs.
Rusty loved to sit on my lap when I took the wheelchair to the kitchen. It’s not a long trip from the hall to the kitchen, but he always jumped on my lap and faced forward like we were going for a long drive in the car. In the early morning hours, after we were alone in the house, I would take him out on the front porch and we would sit and listen to the cars flying down the hill nearby and the horns from far away trains. Rusty was a deep listener. We really enjoyed the quiet time together.
Jack Russell are well known for needing a lot of activity. When you can’t walk it’s pretty hard to find ways to give them the exercise they need. Eventually I worked out to sit at the top of the stairs and throw toys into the basement. He would run down, fetch it and run back. One afternoon I decided to see how long he would do this. We were about an hour in when he laid down at the bottom of the stairs and took a little breather for about a minute, and then… back to work. He would take a break, but he would never quit. In addition to being tireless, he was smart. The smartest dog I have ever met. He understood the meaning of more words than a lot of people I know, I'll never forget the little freak out dance he did one day when I looked him in the eye and said, "Rusty. Jerky, walk, seek toy, ride, treat?"
Over the next two weeks more doctors got involved and at least two more wrong conclusions. Eventually it was discovered that I had a serious infection. I nearly lost that foot. There were many days of therapy following the operation to clean all of the nasty out of my Subtalar joint. I missed 7 weeks of work before I came back part-time on a cane. It was still incredibly painful to walk, but I was out of leave.
Rusty was there for the whole ordeal. We had had many a long nap. Anyone with dogs will know how much they enjoy having you stay home in bed all day. Toward the end of his days Rusty began to sleep a lot more. I often envied how deeply he could sleep.
Rusty was the sort of person that never did anything half way. He barked as hard as he possibly could. He ran as hard as he possibly could. He went on the daily, 7 mile Death Marches with Mrs. Shadow and pulled her like a sled, every step of the way. Rusty was a fearsome killer of mice, squeak toys and down comforters. He never backed down from a larger dog. He was the living, breathing personification of the saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”. We first learned this one night when were watching a movie that had a pack of wolves that were running at us on the screen. Rusty looked up and jumped across the room, snarling, and bounced off the TV screen, got up and jumped again. One day he got out, ran down the street, and terrorized a Lab, a Dalamation, a Chow, and something that looked like a wolf. At the same time! He was without fear.
He was the head of of Homeland Security detail for many a year. We added George, the sickly Chihuahua to the squad shortly before Christmas in 2007. Sammie, the tough little street dog of complicated ancestry came on board in 2015. Rusty was always the Alpha until his decline last Summer. It was probably a stroke and most likely a brain tumor that brought him low. In his last year he began to sleep a lot and deferred to Sammie for keeping a watchful eye on the backyard. Just in case there was a badger attack.
In 2014 I had one of those Big Birthdays, where your age ticks over like an odometer and lands on a number ending in zero. Rusty was still in great form that Summer. I did wonder at that time about how many more Summers I would have with him. Now I sadly know the answer. He didn't make it to the Summer of 2017. Now I have yet another reason to hate Winter.
After a series of seizures and three sleepless nights of trying to help Rusty recover from them, we made the painful decision, January 17th, to take him in. Put him down is what people say. Put him to sleep. The little euphemisms that sound far so much nicer than “pay someone to kill your dog”. That's how it felt. I knew it was time to end his suffering but it still felt like a betrayal. It will haunt me for the rest of my life because he was pretty normal in the daytime, but was having a series of painful incidents all night. He was terrified and suffering and there was nothing I could do for him. The last day, we held him, fed him him all the bacon he could handle, and then we took him him for his last ride in the car. He still knew what ride meant and was so happy to go. I felt like a murderer. I still do. I always will.
Rusty is gone, but I still have my foot. It turned out to be the only documented case of a spontaneous infection of a Subtalar joint in a human being. I am glad I still have the foot. But through the absolute incompetence of Inter Mountain Health Care, I am in pain on a daily basis. Now, every time my foot is pounding with that dull, throbbing ache, it reminds me of the time that Rusty was my daycare provider. 10 years ago, today. My beautiful boy. I miss him so.