Re-gifting: A Wagging Tale
I am doing what I never thought possible; I am writing a dog story, or really, a bit about dogs.
I thought it not possible because I am, a dog person. In my case this means, lover of dogs, owner-breeder, former dog show handler, and current AKC licensed judge. Somehow underneath all those layers it translates to mean I cannot watch the commercial in which Sarah McLaughlin sings for homeless dogs, watch movies where dogs die—alas it is never Marley and me in the theater, or read books where dogs perish, regardless of the literary allegory, as in Paul Austen’s Timbuktu.
Dogs are my Achilles’ heel.
And that tendon has been pulled, stretched, and nearly severed as the result of 15 brass, wooden, and plastic containers holding the ashes of my canine friends that line the floor of my walk-in closet. I suppose if I were a 120 year-old woman, or the owner of a large kennel, this might seem plausible, but I am not even half that age and I’ve only bred two litters.
But, my breed of choice has been the Great Dane, the Apollo of Dogs, the Gentle Giant. Their average life span is supposed to be 8 years. For my husband and me, it has varied from our oldest living to be almost ten, and our youngest to be seven months. Of course, we knew this going into the breed, but when you’re young, eight years seems a lifetime. It is only later that you realize it is a lifetime, a very short one, for a dog that claims a piece of your heart.
There is a doctrine that most believe, that if you try hard, and do most of the right things, life should be fair, not that it is all the time, but that it should be fair most of the time. I’m not sure where this is engrained, maybe in the grape Kool-Aide, maybe in those yellow stars in Lucky Charms, but somewhere quite a few of us believe this mantra. And maybe it is true; it’s just hard to weigh it all on the tilt-a-whirl journey we’re all on.
It’s hard to lose a dog at 9 and ¾ to old age and be told you’re lucky, he lived a long time. And know that is true. It’s harder to lose one to bloat, cancer, cardio-myopathy, Addison’s disease, and seizures in the years before that. Harder still to show your children the joys of dog ownership and the wonders of unconditional love.
My husband and I, in our twenty-something years of marriage, have always gone to the vet and stayed with each dog as we have been forced to euthanize him or her to end their suffering.
“How can you do that?” friends will ask. “I just couldn’t—I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
How can we not, we say to ourselves and to each other. How can we not?
‘Handling it’ is questionable at best.
Tootie was seven when I noticed a bump on her front leg. I waited a week or two but then, yes, she was limping just a bit. The x-ray and tests were conclusive—she had a malignant tumor of a particularly aggressive cancer. My vet gave me two weeks worth of pain pills to keep her comfortable. I came back for a refill and he looked at me questionably before refilling it for another fortnight, “It isn’t time yet,” I told him, “I’ll know when that is.”
The time was six pills later. I saw it in her eyes when she tried to position herself on her dog bed to sleep. I didn’t close my own eyes much that night knowing what waited in the morning. My husband made the call as I debated trying to feed her breakfast and the irony of it all. As I stood with her empty bowl, I heard her clump-clump up the steps to the second floor, something she hadn’t tried in more than a month. Puzzled, I trailed behind her, catching sight of her as she went into my son’s room. I stood in the doorway as she hobbled to the side of his bed and lifted her soft fawn muzzle to the side of his face, not touching, just seeming to breathe in his scent. She paused to look at me before turning and going through the door, to repeat the same good-bye at my daughter’s side.
Later my husband said he found us both at the top of the stairs, me sobbing and Tootie with her head on my shoulder, seemingly trying to console me. We carried her 140 pounds down the thirteen steps to save her any more pain and my husband told me to sit this one out that he would take her the rest of the way as she had already said her good-bye to me.
It was a bittersweet pact we made to not get another Great Dane. We did this with our last one, at two and half, battling Addison’s disease. The battle consisted of a monthly shot that cost four hundred dollars, a period of almost two weeks where she was almost normal, and a period of 2 weeks where she spiraled down, where she was incontinent, and listless. This went on until the almost normal period was only a few days.
Other ‘people in dogs’ told us we should get a Standard Poodle as our next breed. Our new breed “They are smart, they are hearty, and they don’t shed—they are the perfect dog.”
I wandered the show grounds. I visited breeders. And finally, I bought a white standard puppy and named him Eliot, after T.S. (I am a writer and teacher in my other life) and fell into all things standard. He was all things promised. He was so smart I expected to come home to find him reading my books. And he was more. He was the peacemaker, getting between our two cats where one really needed some anti-bullying instruction. He would drink half of the leftover milk in the cereal bowl (sorry mom—that’s why I tell you the white bowls are for salad) and then step away so the cats could have their share. He followed me from room to room, lying just beyond the bathtub, or beside my desk, or chair.
People often talk about the great love of their life, and the one special dog. I’m not discounting any of that, because I have had mine also, but I have to add, there are different dogs for different times. Eliot’s gentleness calmed me merely by looking in his eyes, and it was a time in my life when I needed calm reinforcement. My children were in college, I was publishing my first book, and I was dealing with the change of a promotion and a reassignment.
To celebrate, I joined a small group going on a Caribbean cruise—my husband hates the sun, the water, and crowds and elected to stay home and work and dog sit. I returned after nine days to discover Eliot had stopped eating and had lost about five pounds. Guiltily, I believed he had missed me to the point of making himself ill. I took him to the vet after two days and we began the journey that enlisted specialists and numerous tests. Two weeks later, he was much worse and we had no answers. He was now down fourteen pounds. He could not eat, and finally, he could not drink. I had been taking to the vet and leaving him during the day and then bringing him home at night. On Tuesday of that week, I knew we had reached the T in the road. The vet told me she would call me in a few hours after the latest blood tests were analyzed.
It was the first day for teachers at my new school where I was the newly appointed Assistant Principal. I’m sure I came across a bit cool and reserved when I was really just numb, afraid for the phone to ring, afraid for it not to.
My vet called at 10:00. She explained it in degrees and stages but my gentle boy had developed cancer in the stomach lining. He had hours to perhaps a few days to live but they would be painful hours and he could not process food or water.
I wanted to call my husband during the twenty-minute drive to the vet’s office, but I couldn’t put any of it into words so I didn’t use my cell phone. I cried, I tried to bargain with any deity on duty. I told myself there could be worse things—this wasn’t my son or daughter. It wasn’t my husband. Could I survive that, when I could barely function doing this?
At the vet’s I asked if I could take Eliot outside—it was August. The sky was a perfect Duron blue. “Can you come outside, in the back, on the grassy field behind the center? In ten minutes or so?”
Eliot staggered and I wound up carrying him until we reached the grass and then we both just sat in the quietness. I watched a bird glide without using its wings for what seemed like an impossible amount of time. And then I started talking. I thanked Eliot for bringing me joy, and showing me what a difference tenderness in spirit makes in life, how his kindness and gentleness would never be forgotten. And then I just held him.
I continued even when the vet came out and put the needle in the IV still in his leg. I felt the tension of life leave and then he was limp.
I continued to sit in the grass after they carried him away wondering if the vet had closed his eyes or if he had, his last act to comfort me.
A week later, my vet sent me a card that his ashes were ready to be picked up. The box was a quarter of the size of the others, and they had misspelled his name, using two ls, but my heart didn’t think it mattered at that point.
Eliot had been 8 years old.
And how I missed him. Not sitting against my feet at I read a book, not feeling his weight against my leg as I watched TV, tried to sleep. Not able to rub his curly knot.
By October I was angry. I had played by the rules. I bought the best dog food without cancer causing additives. I had crab grass because I didn’t want pesticides in my yard. I bought from breeders who cared about health and registered and verified and certified. How was this possible? How was this fair? I turned to the Internet looking at Rescue sites, looking at Standard Poodle rescues from all over the country, at the horror stories, at the sad stories, at the disappointing humans behind the horror and sad stories.
By November I had stopped trying to make myself angry by looking at the stories of people who didn’t deserve the dogs they had forsaken and started looking at the dogs. This is how I found Atticus.
Atticus? “Are you just fucking with me now?” I asked the same deities that periodically gather to watch if nothing else.
I made the calls. I planned the trip.
My husband made a tentative comment. “This is a rescue dog right?”
“And, don’t they have like fifty rescue groups in Maryland. Do you really have to drive through five states to get a dog?”
“Yes, I do.” End of discussion.
So I went to Connecticut for Atticus. I had my doubts of course. I am a Dane person who had purchased a Standard Poodle because they live longer and because they are touted to be the best dogs in the world. The second part could be true. Was I really going to now gamble on getting a five year old?
It was not really love at first sight. I took Atticus for a walk and discovered he was seemingly better trained than any of my previous dogs (show people are not big on the automatic ‘sit’ and heeling is also a lost art). He was much bigger than Eliot, but I had told myself I would not compare the two. Still he had kind, intelligent, and trusting eyes. We accepted each other in that we recognized we each had a need.
On the way home, Atticus sat in the back seat of the SUV and looked out the window, at the back of my head, or at my eyes in the rearview mirror. Once in the house, he, a former kennel dog, raised his leg on a library chair and I told him “NO” and that was the last time I needed to correct him about anything.
Initially I said he was a rescue dog, but then I stopped after the second utterance because it seemed ridiculous—much like someone getting a current year Mercedes for a dollar because the former owner sold it because she didn‘t like the color. Then I tried to describe it as re-homed, but again that didn’t seem to fit. Finally, I just say I got him through a re-gifting process and only I really understand the significance of this logic.
He has a gentleness, a kindness, and a tenderness of spirit that is uncanny. He is not truly white, but is termed ‘apricot’ which means he is white with a little bit of red highlight (something I try to pull off for my hair at the tune of 90.00 every 8 weeks or so). He is not the replacement dog, he has earned his spot on his own. But, the dog before him showed me what it means to trust and be open to the gentleness there is in life. I know I have started the clock five years past the time I usually start, and that the clock hasn’t always stopped where I wanted it to. But Atticus has love to last a lifetime, his lifetime, and however long that might be, I’m going to be there to love him right back.
Brown eyed girl