It’s early October, 2010, and I’m driving down Otay Lakes Road like a maniac, on yet another trip to the 24-hour pet hospital in Bonita—a drive that’s become all too familiar to my French bulldog Boris and me. Boris always likes car rides, but this one is different.
Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior” is playing on the radio, a fitting song for Boris’ uphill battle against ill health since he was a puppy.
I’m part of a culture that traditionally sees dogs as downright utilitarian, and if you’d told me before Boris came around that I’d keep an inside dog, I’d have laughed. If you’d mentioned that I’d buy him designer collars and holistic food, I’d have questioned your sanity. Told me he’d sleep in my bed? Paging Nurse Ratched!
In 2004, when my parents decided to join the rest of the family and permanently move stateside, it was my role as the only single and childless kid to move in with them and ease their transition. My father and I had never been close, and this new lease on a house and second lease on life allowed us to get to know each other. About the only thing that was missing in this nuclear-family do-over was a pet.
I knew that adding a new member to the family would keep my diabetic mom and my dad, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, on their feet. I researched several breeds, and when I found out that French bulldogs are considered the clowns of the dog world, I was sold. I learned that Frenchies come with their own set of rules, including special care during hot days, as they’re vulnerable to heat stroke. There was also the one about not leaving them unattended near bodies of water—they can’t swim because their large heads throw off their center of gravity.
Most reputable breeders have a waiting list, as well as a spay / neuter agreement you must sign in order to acquire a puppy; they show dogs on a competition level and value the integrity of the breed. Luckily for me, I found a place in Fallbrook that played by its own set of rules. On its website, you could see the head of the operation, Renee Morris, hugging a pup near her lavender-wreath-adorned front door. A short phone call later, I was heading north on Interstate 15.
The place smelled of chocolate-chip cookies, and although several red flags went up (the litter was munching on rawhide, a forbidden Frenchie treat due to their small throat size; the fact that they had come through a “source” in Utah, one of the states I was told by breeders to avoid; and they were Russian-born), I immediately fell in love.
The nuclear family 2.0 was complete, happy and healthy—until Boris’ first Christmas, when I woke up to a rattling thunder. It was Boris, in his crate, having a violent seizure. His vet would later say it was probably an isolated incident. Months later, it happened again. He began a daily potassium-bromide regimen, and when his condition got increasingly worse, Phenobarbital was added to the mix. When that wouldn’t do, the big gun was brandished—a liquid valium protocol that had to be administered rectally.
I’ve never been to war, but I don’t know of another thing to compare my nights to. The seizures would always come late at night and in heavy clusters of sometimes 50-plus during a 48-hour period. My life revolved around Boris and his medication schedule. I didn’t even have a family doctor, but Boris had a neurologist, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
One afternoon last October, he jumped up to the bed and missed. He tried again and climbed up. It was nothing spectacular. But he wasn’t himself for a couple of days. I panicked and raced him to the vet in Bonita. X-rays were inconclusive. He wasn’t eating or drinking water, and his electrolytes were way off.
He was transferred to a specialty hospital in El Cajon, and what followed is enough to fill several columns. Having been rejected for Care Credit—a sort of pet-emergency credit card—I was left in a waiting room for close to four hours with no word from the doctor. Unbeknownst to me, the doctor had already clocked out for the day. I was just another deadbeat, so he’d just left me there. I kept rubbing a beach towel against my skin so that my scent would transfer onto it, to assure Boris I was nearby.
“I don’t really think he cares right now,” a nighttime doctor told me.
At 6 a.m. the following day, I received a call from her. She’d run more x-rays and saw that two of his vertebrae had fractured during his not-so-spectacular fall from the bed, a result of a congenital malformation I was never aware he had.
On Oct. 8, three hours after hearing the prognosis, and as I was drafting a heartfelt email to the local nonprofit Face Foundation seeking financial assistance, I got a phone call from the hospital saying that Boris had passed away. The stress had taken its toll on his little body. I went back to say goodbye.
With my OCD in full force—much like when my dad died and I removed every piece of lint from the blanket he was covered in before he was wheeled away—I asked for some gauze and ear cleaner, moisturized his nose, washed his paws and made sure my boy looked beautiful.
Days later, after he was cremated, his ashes rested inside a cedar lockbox on the passenger’s seat, nestled around the towel I never had a chance to lay by his side. I drove with absolute caution, acknowledging every stop sign and yellow light, making the trip as long as possible.
He always loved car rides.