Hi, my name is Rusty, that cute little guy on the front cover. Yeah, yeah, save the wiener jokes. We dachshund’s have a deep bark that sounds like it comes from a Rottweiler, and we use it liberally and without provocation in many instances. Our short stubby legs and barrel chest combined with fearlessness has intimidated the bravest of humans. I mean no harm, just know, I am the boss.
Dachshunds are intelligent, somewhat independent and playful. We can easily become a one-person dog, and that’s exactly what happened to me.
I’m an eight-year-old who has been looking after an Alzheimer’s victim for nearly four years. Between the barks, cries, and complex facial expressions, I developed my own language that helped me communicate with her. It worked so well in the beginning.
Then Alzheimer’s claimed more and more of her brain. She no longer interprets my signals or anticipates my needs; and no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure her out either.
When my owner brought me home, I was just eight weeks old; a scared little bundle of joy that rarely left my two-legged mommy’s side. We dachshunds love to cuddle. I’d curl up next to her at every opportunity, pushing myself to feel the warmth of her thigh.
When I became a little more sure-footed, I’d climb onto the sofa pillows that supported her back. She’d tilt her head back resting on me as if I were an elongated heated pillow. We were in heaven.
It took awhile to house train me. I can be downright stubborn. Besides, what was in it for me? I could go anywhere---the floor, the carpet, the backyard, I really didn’t care. Someone else cleaned up the mess. My owner exercised a great deal of patience, and eventually I got the memo, the treats weren’t bad either.
When I arrived at my new home, there was another dog, a sixteen-year-old cocker spaniel named Bella. Bella was Mom’s soul mate, but Bella’s body had begun to fail. When I wanted to play, Bella simply laid down, her movements trapped by mild paralysis that would worsen over time. She was too frail to match my boundless energy. Bella was mercifully put to sleep that first year ending her unendurable suffering. Mommy cried like a baby as she called her son in California to relay the sad news. I smothered her with all the love my nine-pound body could muster, licking the tears from her face and hands.
In time, Mom and I became inseparable. When she left home for church, the grocery store, or Tai Chi, I hated the separation, crying loudly until I heard the noise of the garage door as it opened. My tail wagged violently in anxious anticipation. At times I got so excited I peed on the floor.
In eight years, she’d only left me overnight twice, otherwise, it was just me and Mom; my best friend. She read lots of books those first five years. Dachshunds are nosy by nature; pardon my warped sense of humor. I sniffed each book as if searching for contraband, before she’d snatch the book from under my nose. “Can I read it now,” she’d ask, voice dripping with playful sarcasm.
We watched television, napped, ate dinner together and, played. She often fed me her food, even though she knew better. That food tasted so much better than the dry concoction in my dish.
At bedtime, I slept on the pillow next to Mom’s head, or under the covers at her feet. Occasionally, I’d hear a noise at night alerting her to possible intrusion. I’m certain my bark discouraged more than a few brave souls. This is my house; enter at your own risk.
As you might have guessed, I’m spoiled. Mom obsessed over my care with monthly trips to the groomer. Some daring vet poked me with needles about once a year. I hated the vet, but tolerated their presence because mommy told me the temporary pain was for my own good.
Without warning, things began to change. While she always spoke to me like a human, the conversations were longer and more intense, often incoherent. I’d turn my head from side to side, brow furrowed, trying to make sense of it all, but decided to just lend an ear.
Mom stopped attending church and Tai Chi class; in fact, she seldom left the house, except a weekly trip to the grocery store. She quit answering the phone unless it was one of her three kids. Her withdrawal from society had begun.
Her daughter moved in and brought me two four-legged playmates. Mom took doggy care seriously. The arrival of my two companions actually masked what should have been obvious. She began to act confused. Then the pain of severe gastrointestinal problems robbed her of movement for about two hours each and everyday. All I could do was sit and watch as she clutched her stomach, rocking back and forth until the pain subsided.
Her son moved to Las Vegas, and quickly noticed the winds of change in his mother’s behavior. It wasn’t long before he started taking her to doctors all across the Las Vegas Valley. The gastrointestinal problems, on the surface, appeared to be the more pressing malady, as you could actually see the pain that wrecked her body.
Then she started to complain about her memory. “I can’t remember anything,” she often told Michael, except me of course. At first, he thought it was a function of aging. Michael soon realized something far more sinister afoot.
She had no fewer than ten appointments a month for an entire summer. It was stomach specialist one day, memory doctors the next, all mixed in with scans, MRI’s and enough blood tests to satisfy a flock of vampires. Michael didn’t work that summer, so occupied with her care.
I became even more protective, probably to the point of irritation, but she never complained. In fact, she embraced my love, as I became the only true constant in her life.
In April 2013, the middle of my fifth year with Mom, Michael had taken over everything from paying her bills to medical decisions. It was that month she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The news devastated Michael, but Mom didn’t understand what any of it meant, happy to have Michael around to assume control of the confusing parts of her life.
The only thing she seemed to remember was overfeeding us dogs. I ate so much the next two years my excessive weight gain could have easily killed me. Despite her children’s demands to get Mom to pull back on the food, she steadfastly refused. But her refusal wasn’t one of contempt or disregard for my wellbeing, she simply couldn’t remember having fed me.
Mom continued her withdrawal, often leaving the house in total darkness except the light flickering from the television set, or the backyard porch light, where she left the door open for us pooches to relieve ourselves. It didn’t matter if it was 110 degrees outside, or ten, that door remained open.
When the doorbell rang, it startled her, the fear palpable. On Halloween night, as the neighborhood kids ran around hollering “trick or treat,” Mom summoned Michael to protect her from the local elementary school kids that populated our suburban home.
On the Fourth of July, the exploding fireworks left both of us trembling in fear. Michael, once again, came to the rescue.
Mom’s interpretation of my signals worsened. I cried when I couldn’t sit next to her, but she thought I was in pain. She called Michael every time I whimpered, often having him drive two hours, just to satisfy her paranoia. I licked his hand as he examined my body. He quickly realized the problems were in Mom’s head.
When my little stomach was full and I refused to eat, she insisted Michael take me to the vet. It never occurred to her that I couldn’t eat anymore. It got so bad, she would take food from my plate, and put it on the bedspread, or under the sheets at night, thinking the sight and smell would compel me to consume more. I seldom touched those crumbs, leaving the bed a gritty mess.
Mom would awaken in the middle of the night, sneak into the kitchen, and bring more food into her bedroom and sit in front of me eating. “You want to eat something pumpkin,” one of her nicknames for me. She proceeded to feed me bananas, soup, crackers, and pieces of her leftover sandwich. I didn’t have enough sense to say no. By morning, most of my partially undigested food would be in a messy pile on the carpet, Mom clueless as to its origin.
Nearly three years after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, life took an abrupt turn for the worse. An intervention arrived under terrible circumstances. Here is the story of mommy and me as written by my big brother, Michael.
“I think until you see Alzheimer’s firsthand, it’s kind of hard to conceive how brutal it really is.”
Seth Rogen, Actor