The Terrible Process of Letting Go of Something You Love

I read a paperback in 6th grade called There are Two Kinds of Terrible, by Peggy Mann. A boy breaks his arm at the start of summer, which seems terrible to him. Then his mom develops cancer, and the boy has to cope not only with her loss but also with his emotionally devastated dad.

I thought about that book, and contemplated the varying degrees of “terrible,” while peddling for four hours and 85 miles yesterday on a spin bike at the gym.

These past two weeks, I felt like I moved toward terrible. First, I went to the podiatrist Dave Hannaford to get his read on the recent MRI of my foot and his prognosis on when I can start running again. I still feel the injuries while walking around the neighborhood. He said the stress fracture in the third metatarsal is slowly healing; the bigger problem is the chronic, progressive condition in the ball of foot and big toe (I first blogged about it two years ago in this post, “5 Truths About Running Injuries“). I have the onset of Hallux Varus, which means my big toe is deviating away from my foot. The ligament there is tearing, and the two little sesamoid bones in the ball of the foot are out of their grooves and rubbing against another bone, creating a spur. The whole thing is inflamed and out of alignment, even after eight weeks of rest.

Hannaford used phrases like, “anatomical change that’s irreversible and pathologized.” I should be able to get back to running when the stress fracture fully heals, but my big toe pain will be “limiting.” I may need surgery down the road. Bottom line: It will be difficult, and require a great deal of management and moderation, to train with any consistency again.

Like the boy who sees his fun summer plans dashed by a broken arm, I thought that news was pretty terrible. I’ve signed up for two 100Ks this spring that I really want to do (Coyote Backbone in March, Miwok in May), and I’m signed up and have a deposit down on September’s Grand to Grand Ultra, the self-supported 167-mile stage race, which I absolutely have my heart set on doing again. After that, I would like to do the Rio del Lago 100M in November, so I can fulfill a suspended goal leftover from this year.

It’s hitting me: I might not do any of those events. I might have to let go of ultrarunning dreams. Who knows? I could get back to running at a high level, or not. Either way, I need to take the recovery week by week and emotionally detach myself from those races and goals.

In part to cope with that news, I kept quite busy with working, parenting and volunteering. The whole time, however, I was distracted by a growing concern and gnawing anxiety that unexpectedly shifted away from the running injury and toward my dog.

Let me tell you about Teddy, our 7-year-old Portuguese Water Dog. We adopted him in October of 2006 when he was two months old, before the Obamas got Bo and made the breed better known. (Teddy looks just like Bo, but Teddy’s white socks are a different height.) We wanted a non-shedding dog due to my daughter’s allergies, but not a yappy small dog and not a hyper big Labradoodle. Medium-sized Teddy was just right in every way. He became my third child and the center of our family, utterly devoted to us and us to him.

Our family in 2010

Teddy has impeccable manners, and I feel maternal pride when he receives compliments about how well trained he is. But I don’t love him just because he is smart and polite. I love him because he is a cream-puff love-bug, bushy-tailed with bright, soulful eyes. He is kind, patient, and mellow until he unwinds at high speed by running circles in the yard. He lounges on and around us like a cat.

Teddy with Colly

Teddy and Colly

Teddy, Kyle and Morgan

Teddy and me

Teddy and me

Teddy has a piece of lambswool that he carries around the house in his mouth like a security blanket, and he holds it between his paws when he lies down. We call it his “woobie.” Teddy is my woobie, the comfort object I want to hold and keep nearby.

Two days after Thanksgiving, I discovered some dried throw-up on the rug, which seemed odd. The next day, Teddy lost interest in his kibble, but he still seemed perky at the park. During the week, he vomited more and developed  diarrhea, so we fed him small amounts of boiled chicken and rice to go easy on his stomach. He barely touched his food. We took him to the vet December 5, and he spent a good deal of the next 48 hours there. They did all kinds of tests, plus an Xray and abdominal ultrasound to see if he ate something that was blocking his system. None of the tests showed anything.

He began to improve, so they sent him home. Last Wednesday was the best day of the week. Teddy perked up and finally produced something almost normal-looking out his other end. He seemed not 100 percent, but on the mend.

Then everything changed in 24 hours. He stopped eating and became withdrawn, and he leaned back on his leash in gentle protest when I tried to take him out for a walk. Later, he started dry-heaving. I slept on the couch with him Friday night and took him to the vet Saturday morning. They did another round of tests to rule out every virus and condition they thought it could be, but the test results wouldn’t come back until Monday (today). They sent us home with a kit to inject him with fluids to help him get through the weekend.

Saturday night, I woke in the middle of the night and went to check on him. He looked at me with pleading eyes and wagged his tail, but he did not want to get up. I transferred him to the couch and lay my head next to his and held him for the remainder of the night, knowing in my heart that he was critically ill and in deep pain. As I rubbed his ears, he moaned and burrowed his head into my cheek.

Teddy last weekend

Teddy last weekend

We called our vet, and she came to our house early yesterday morning. It was time to get Teddy to emergency care, she said, because he might have a blockage that the earlier ultrasound did not detect, and he needed pain relief.

I had an event on the calendar for that day, a fundraiser “spin-a-thon” at the gym. Under the circumstances—Teddy getting hospitalized for urgent care, me sleep deprived and congested with a head cold—it seemed out of the question to go to the gym. But Morgan encouraged me to go while he checked Teddy into the pet hospital. I decided to follow through with this event that I found out about just a few days beforehand.

On the verge of crying in front of strangers, I began pedaling and concentrating on the music and the sustained effort.

My legs and seat got progressively sore, I lost myself in music and thoughts, and I appreciated the company of the eight or nine others who were spinning. I closed my eyes and imagined running and wondered if I’d ever run four hours straight again. I visualized Teddy on our walk in the park and wondered if he’d ever run at full speed down those paths again.

I never once got off to take a break, and I rode as hard as I could during the final hour to reach 85 miles before the 240 minutes were up.

Morgan visited me toward the end and filled me in on Teddy’s condition: the radiologist reported seeing the small intestines extremely dilated, nearing the point of rupture, so there could be something blocking him that the earlier Xray and ultrasound did not reveal. They were preparing to operate later that afternoon. I pictured an object like a cork plugging up his gut, and I felt a surge of hope because it could be removed—a relatively easy, clean fix.

We left the gym and went to the pet hospital in Berkeley. Fortunately, our son Kyle was on a full-moon hike with his Boy Scout troop rather than with us, so he didn’t see how much I cried when we got the news.

The surgeons didn’t find a blockage; there was nothing to remove. What they found instead were Teddy’s small intestines severely dilated and inflamed, visibly unhealthy. They took biopsies, but we can’t get results for two days. The vets narrowed their guesses for a diagnosis to either cancer or severe inflammatory bowel disease, which can be treatable but requires a great deal of intervention and management.

We’re not sure how many days Teddy will be in the hospital or what his recovery will look like. We’re also not sure how aggressively we want to treat him, whether it’s cancer or not. I picture my dad last February in the ICU, and how with grief but also a bit of relief we suspended hope of recovery and made the switch to peaceful palliative care in hospice. I picture making that same switch with Teddy and transferring him home to give him as much comfort as we can.

Teddy this morning

Teddy with Morgan this morning

At the hospital today, Teddy made every effort to wag his tail and to focus on me through sedated eyes. Face to face, we locked eyes and he gave me a token lick on the chin.

His stoicism and trust tear at my heart. I massage his ears and whisper in them that he is a good dog, the best dog, and that I love him so much. I tell him that I’m so sorry, that he in no way deserved to get this sick, and that everybody wants him to get better. Good dog, such a good dog. But as I hold his collar and stroke his neck, I hold back from telling him that I’ll never let him go.

Teddy and me in 2010

Teddy and me in 2010

Teddy GG park by Colly

Update Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013: Teddy’s condition worsened Monday through Wednesday. I visited him throughout each day in the hospital, and he would wag his tail a bit when he saw me and drink some water, but he refused to eat and only wanted to lie down. He was happiest with his head in my lap, so we spent hours like that. I knew he was dying and assumed it was a fast-moving cancer. But the biopsies that came back late Tuesday were cancer-free. Instead, they believe he had a severe autoimmune response to something attacking his system. The muscle lining around his duodenum, and his small intestines, were disintegrating and nonfunctional, so he would never be able to pass food again.  We kept him going until Wednesday afternoon, when my daughter arrived back in town from school for her winter break. We broke the news to both kids when they were together at home, and they were devastated because they did not realize Teddy’s condition was so far gone, and then we went to the hospital. We could not take Teddy back home because it would have been too painful and stressful on him to transfer him in the car. Instead we gathered in a small private room with Teddy on his bed that we brought from home. When Teddy came in the room, he was confused and disoriented for a moment, but then he focused on Colly and squeaked with pleasure and wagged his tail at recognition that she had returned. Then he lay down with his head in her lap and did not want to move after that. The four of us spent about an hour showering him with affection, crying over him and recounting all our best memories with him. It was the most loving and peaceful goodbye we could give him, and he was so ready to go. He died instantly, in Colly’s lap and with all our hands on him, when the vet gave him the injection.

We are letting the vets do a full autopsy because researchers at UC Davis want to see if he had the deadly new canine form of Circovirus, which may be spreading from Midwest states. There are signs it could be, but also signs that maybe it’s some other lesser-known virus that did not show up on their regular tests. It is a mystery why an otherwise healthy dog full of vitality would become so sick over two weeks.

I am so grateful that Teddy could see Colly and Kyle one last time because he was at peace being loved by them, and they said their mutual goodbyes. I am full of sorrow for the suffering and confusion Teddy must have endured in his last week in spite of the pain medication. He was so trusting and innocent, and he is irreplaceable.

Colly and Teddy 2010

Teddy and Kyle summer 2009

teddy summer 2012

My sincere thanks to everyone who has sent me encouraging comments this past year. I’m going to put this blog on hold indefinitely until I can get back to the topics of trail running and travel. 

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21 Responses to The Terrible Process of Letting Go of Something You Love

  1. Lars Lavender December 17, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    The raw, emotional, intensity you’re undergoing coupled with the declaration of love for Teddy is very heartfelt. We Lavenders love our dogs unconditionally. We all truly feel your pain as we’ve all experienced that horrible feeling of hopelessness; doing everything humanly possible to remove that “soulful eyes” pain from our pooches.
    We’ve a pet pet cemetery in our back yard that sadly as grown through the years with our our beloved 4 legged kids–each was special and unique and assuredly loved. The rawness never deviates. Teddy knows the depth of your love. If the decision for Teddy to pass is made know that the removal of his physical pain is a blessing.
    Cry, laugh, cry again, but focus on the joy Teddy has provided you! We your sibs are prayerful pulling for a beautiful soul called Teddy……..Our love to you, our hopes and wishes for Teddy!… Lars & Rosie (in Spirit).

  2. Chris Becker December 17, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    Sarah, Have been out of the loop with your life lately but Teddy caught my eye as we have a 11 month old PWD because of my allergies. I feel your pain with both the running and Teddy. I’ll send you vibes. Know that there are other outlets besides running. I’ve struggled over the years with getting back but it has always ended with knee issues so I stay with the bike, which is my “new” outlet.
    Peace and love your way!

  3. Jimmy Mac December 17, 2013 at 5:59 am #

    Thinking of you and your family during this tough time, and thank you so much for putting this all into words.

  4. Doug December 17, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    I’m so sorry :(.

  5. Kelly Ridgway December 17, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    Sarah, what a beautifully written post filled with such emotion. My heart bleeds for you and your family right now. Please know that I am thinking about you as you deal with Teddy’s illness. I love my dog so much and I know the pain you are experiencing and the helplessness you must feel.
    As far as your toe goes, I have a similar diagnosis. I know how you feel. It is always painful to run and surgery is imminent. I know from experience that surgery should be your last option, as feet and toes can be tricky and you are not guaranteed a great result. Good luck to you.

  6. Rebecca December 17, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    I cried after reading your article, I couldn’t help it. Running injury and dog…that’s my story too. Earlier last week a car was running red light when I was running across the street on my routine morning jog. The car almost ran me over, so so so close! I was so lucky but pulled my hip and hamstring badly on one leg. I haven’t been able to walk properly for over a week now. Just like you, every day I wonder if I’m ever going to run my marathons again. I have strained my hip so many times. I love my two little dogs dearly as much as you love Teddy. Your Teddy really touches my heart. Hope you, Teddy and your family have a peaceful holiday. From the bottom of my heart, please take care of yourself.

  7. Jenny December 17, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    What a beautiful post about your amazing dog. I think I know how you feel because I have a similarly amazing dog – Nico. He’s a PWD and almost 7 years old. His brother and best friend died of cancer last year. When Teddy recover (crossed fingers), I want Nico and Teddy to meet. They sound like soul mates. I’ll be sending good thoughts your way.

  8. Heather December 17, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Oh Sarah you have me weeping. He is such a sweetheart and I so hope he recovers quickly and thoroughly. I can’t imagine coming to your house and not seeing that silly wonderful face looking at me and lumbering outside. I will be thinking good thoughts……let me know if I can help in any way……

  9. John Nguyen December 17, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    I hope Teddy gets better. And I hope you can find a solution to fix your feet. All this is so unfair! Hang in there, Sarah…

  10. Jennifer December 17, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    Oh, Sarah, I’m crying. Poor, sweet Teddy. We need to get together, and soon. Believe me, I know how much it hurts when it feels like everything is falling apart around you, when you go from thinking the most terrible thing has happened to getting hit with something even worse. Hang in there, my friend.

  11. Kate Evans December 17, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Ahhh Sarah,what a bittersweet post. The love we have for our furry kids is so very special. Thinking of you,Teddy and the rest of the family.
    All our love,
    Rob,Kate and our menagerie

  12. Gordon Harvey December 18, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    I’m in tears reading this. Thank you so much for sharing!

  13. Jenn Keohane December 19, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    So sorry to hear about Teddy’s sudden and painful decline. He’s at peace now, romping over the rainbow bridge. The process of saying goodbye is incredibly hard. You’ve captured it well with words; I’ve got tears running down my cheeks. Thinking of you and your family.

  14. Pete Ferguson December 19, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    I sincerely believe Dogs are a part of Mother Nature and have love, energy and spirit that can never go away. Once an animal passes on, everything they were goes back into Natures soup only to be re-born in a part of every animal who follows. Every dog who is born now will have a part, a sparkle of Teddy and you will feel comfort and sense a connection with the animals you meet as you go through your healing. Teddy felt the pure love you all gave him and I’m sure his heart was full of love when he left to go home, back to his Mother. Take care Sarah. From someone who is devoted to raising dogs. I feel you…

  15. Andi Alstot December 19, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Dearest Sars, Morgan, Colly and Kyle,
    I cannot express in words the sadness and grief I feel for you. Please know my heart is with you – and my respect for your deep, deep sorrow over your loss of Teddy. I am thankful Colly could get home – and she and Teddy could say goodbye. Thinking of you with much love, Andi

  16. Jean Pommier December 21, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Sarah, so sorry for you and the family for this new loss. Your Dad, your injury, Teddy… Find peace in your kids and husband and this new adventure in Colorado. Keep your high spirit while you get us to travel with you through your articles!

  17. Bob Burke December 24, 2013 at 11:35 pm #


    Thanks for your poignant and touching writing at such a difficult time. I have shared similar experiences, fears, and losses and understand the depth of emotions and pain involved. My best wishes to you and your family in this difficult time.


  18. RS January 9, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m so sorry about the loss of your beloved dog and your serious injury.

    I have been following your blog since your prep for the Grand-to-Grand and have really enjoyed your writing and your perspective. I especially loved your piece on running in your old hometown. Did you know that it was very Proustian? The first books of “La Recherche” talk about this–how 2 paths thought to be totally separate in childhood actually connect…

    Best wishes for getting back to writing and the trails.

    RS, an appreciative, but unaccomplished trail runner


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