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RIP Charlie, My Boy

RIP Charlie, My Boy

by Karen Ocamb on December 13, 2012

My boy Charlie died last night.  I am sad beyond tears, as is his sister Pepper – a Carin terrier (like Toto in the Wizard of Oz) who loved him immensely.

Charlie and Pepper were a striking pair walking down Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood where we live. Charlie came to me as an “emergency foster” in 2007. Julia Pennington –  an actress who founded A Dog’s Life Rescue and grilled me before letting me adopt Chu Chu the Shih Tzu – called and said she found Charlie wandering around the Beverly Center and he needed a place to stay immediately. Since Charlie and Chu Chu got along, I said yes – and soon thereafter he joined the family. Julia thought Charlie was around 6 years old – and despite wearing a poodle suit and having a swish and skip in his walk from being hit by a car with his hip bones healing improperly – he thought he was a little stud.

I loved that about him. Charlie exploded identity stereotypes – being called “her” didn’t faze him in the least. Then when very girlie Chu Chu died and Pepper, the 4 year old little black butch with abandonment issues came to us (again, through Julia), things changed again.

Pepper’s youthful energy made her “top dog” – except she would always snuggle next to Charlie for comfort. Getting older, Charlie didn’t seem to mind assuming second place – except after a grooming or some other exciting event, when he would try to hump Pepper. She loved him so she would put up with it – for a second or two – then snap at him and they would resume their co-equal partnership. It was oddly heterosexual while simultaneously being uniquely WeHo.

Charlie seemed the picture of health – though he had some stealth health issues, specifically a diseased kidney. He and Pepper played around like both of them would live forever. But last Monday, Dec. 3, Charlie started snubbing his (low-protein) kd dog food. I thought he was just bored, since he appeared interested and competitive when I gave food to Pepper. But on Tuesday, Dec. 4 – the day before I was to leave for London to interview AIDS pioneer Dr. Joseph Sonnabend – I decided to have him checked out at Laurel Pet Hospital since he still wasn’t eating. Now I assumed he was being persnickety about my leaving. But it would be terrible if I left him and Pepper at Bone Sweet Bone and Charlie fell ill during the week I was away.

Dr. Hu did a blood test and Charlie’s liver enzyme levels were dangerously high. I was shocked – he looked fine and had all this spirit and energy. But the test told a different story. Suddenly I had to struggle with whether to cancel this long-planned trip or put him in the hospital overnight to see if his levels returned to normal and I could safely leave. As the day wore on, I concluded I had to cancel, despite the inconvenience it caused everyone. Luckily, Dr. Sonnabend understood – and even offered medical advice via email.

When Charlie’s levels didn’t come down, internist Dr. JD Calsyn did an ultrasound and discovered that Charlie’s liver was blocked and his gall bladder had blown up like a balloon.  Having no idea how old Charlie was – guessing around 11 or 12 – and knowing he had a bad kidney already – we all thought surgery should be the last resort.  I decided to put Pepper in the cage with Charlie to give him moral support. The hospital staff started calling Pepper “Charlie’s wife” since they initially did their jumping, back off, cuddling routine.

A couple of days in, Charlie’s levels went down, he’d eaten a little bit and we thought he was strong enough for a home visit. At first he was happy – checking out his favorite spots, including one looking out the window of our second floor apartment. But that night he shivered and “leaked” pee, even after we went outside. It was a restless night as Pepper and I snuggled with him to stop his shivering and lend support. The next day he was back in the hospital and his levels were high again. I berated myself for being selfish and wanting him home – not knowing if I’d done him more harm than good.

Dr. JD said another ultrasound revealed Charlie might have pancreatitis. By Saturday, his levels were so inexplicably high, it was clear surgery was the only recourse. I asked some friends to please say a prayer or have good thoughts since we didn’t know if Charlie would survive the surgery on Sunday. He did. But it took a toll on him.

Charlie was still “bright” and walked around on Monday, Dec. 10, even though his poor penis was bruised from having a catheter.  He even ate some chicken, though he still turned his nose up on everything else. On Tuesday, a biopsy of whatever caused the blockage indicated he didn’t have cancer, though pancreatitis was not ruled out. Nonetheless, Dr. Hu and I talked about him being well enough to come home  Thursday.

But Wednesday morning, his levels went back up, he wasn’t eating again and I could see that the spark was gone from his eyes. He had taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps it was an internal infection? I didn’t think he could take another surgery.

Because most of his tubes were out, Dr. Hu said it was OK to let Pepper stay with him again – which we didn’t do post-surgery.  When I came to pick Pepper up early last night, Charlie had clearly gotten worse.  Pepper was unusually quiet when we took her out of the cage; her routine was to whimper and whine the whole way to the car, presumably over leaving Charlie. This time, not a peep, though she kissed the doctor and technicians and shivered a bit, too.  Dr. Hu and I discussed the horrible reality that I might have to “make a decision” in the morning about what would be the best thing for Charlie. From thinking I could take him home, now I was faced with maybe having to put him to sleep.

I called the hospital around 9:00pm, just to check up on him as I usually did every couple of hours. The vet got on and, in a very medical way, said he was just about to call me: Charlie had just had a seizure. He was sedated but it was iffy if he would make it through the night.  I didn’t know this doctor. His bedside manner sucked. I was used to the truth coated in compassion from Dr. Hu and Dr. JD – and this was so unvarnished and clinical. My heart sank.  Should I come in right away? Well, it was up to me – but Charlie was heavily medicated – call back in three hours. I said I’d call in one hour, which was when I guessed some of the medication might have worn off.

At 10:00p I decided to skip the call and just go to the hospital, which luckily is just a few blocks down the street. It had been an overcast day – this unique 12/12/12 – and by night the rain just poured down. It felt fitting: West Hollywood’s part of the universe matched externally what I felt inside – a torrent of tears. But if this was the end, I couldn’t let Charlie sense my cloud of doom. I mustered all the strength and light I could find and when I was brought to the back and moved the tubes out of the way to get to him – now swaddled in towels and looking near-gone – I stroked Charlie’s head and his back and kissed him on the temple as I have done for years and told him I loved him.  His eyes opened a bit – and I swear he saw me.  But I know he knew I was there when I talked to him and I heard him “purr” back, muffled and intertwined with labored breathing – but it was there. That was one of the most wonderful unique things about Charlie – he used to “purr” like a cat when I would stroke him and tell him I loved him. I swear he was telling me he loved me, too, just like he always did.

I stayed about a half hour, telling him I would see him in the morning. Part of me jettisoned back to the days of the AIDS crisis when I would tell my dying friends I’d see them in the morning – and they died overnight. Another part of me kept this ineffable hope alive.  I came home and talked to Pepper, who snuggled with me more for my benefit than hers, I think. About 45 minutes later, the same vet called – this time a lot nicer. They were cleaning Charlie and he went into cardiac arrest. They pumped him full of drugs and tried to revive him. But “he passed,” the vet said. “I think he waited for you.”

I think he did, too.

So now it’s just Pepper and me.  At some point, I’ll call Julia Pennington and talk about adopting another rescue. But for now, it’s just the two of us in this quiet apartment with caring neighbors expressing their sadness during our morning walk. Here in WeHo, our pets really are our animal companions and we love them deeply.

Charlie with his swishy walk and inquiring nose will truly be missed by many more than me.

Thank you, Charlie, my boy, for sharing so much life and love. I miss you so much.



{ 1 trackback }

Happy New Year!
January 1, 2013 at 9:26 AM

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine December 13, 2012 at 1:44 PM

Thinking of you. Losing a beloved pet is so hard. Be gentle with yourself.


Sean Strub December 13, 2012 at 2:12 PM

I’m so sorry about Charlie. You gave him so much love and a wonderful home and family and your tribute to him is beautiful.


Bill LaVallee December 13, 2012 at 3:29 PM

What a touching and beautiful love story, Karen… call me if you want to just hang on the phone and cry… Much love to you and know that you are loved by so many people… blv


Deborah Hardy December 13, 2012 at 3:50 PM

I saw George Zander’s post on FB that you had lost your Charlie but for some reason could not comment there. Then I clicked on ur link and was so glad as I got to read your sad story. I don’t know you and I didn’t know Charlie but I have been through similar experiences with having to make hard choices when our beloved companions are sick and at end of life. It is heart and gut wrenching and something that only true dog people can understand. I am so sorry for your loss and the loss to your other companion dog. I choose to believe that dogs have souls ( bow could they not?) and that once they shed their earthly body, they become spiritual guides that hover there with us in another dimension, always with us, and encouraging us to live up to being the person that they think we are!Just stop a moment, close your eyes, and feel the love. It does not go anywhere. It is hard now because you are grieving and in shock but later you will feel Charlie with you. You will cry. You will be sad but the love will not go anywhere.I also lost my husband to cancer a few years ago and I believe the same is true of him. The loss of a dog or a person is not something you GET OVER. There will always be a piece of your heart that only Charlie occupies. The good news is that once you get over this grieving period, there will be another soul waiting for your love. He or she is already calling for you, waiting for you. When you see him or her in the near future, tell em Charlie sent you. He will be with you.


julia pennington December 14, 2012 at 9:43 AM

Oh Karen, I am so sorry. I sent you an email, but also wanted to write a note here. Thank you for everything you tried to do to help him. He was such a stud. Even though I am bawling right now after reading your article, I can’t help but smile thinking about what an attitude Charlie had when you first took him in for me. He had such a big personality. Thank you for the amazing lives you have given these beautiful souls who were just thrown away by other people. You give so much of yourself every single day to your four legged children and I am so grateful to you.
My heart goes out to you. May Charlie and ChuChu be at peace.
Julia and A Dog’s Life Rescue


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