When I graduated college, one of the first things I did was start a search for my first dog...
It was also a beautiful year for foliage.
We moved closer to some of our favorite old haunts, like this place. Andy showed it to me not long after we first met, and we took Gus there, then Gus and Comet, and now Comet and Jax.
In fact, I remembered the other day that I had a picture of Gus and Comet together from November of ‘08, not long before Gus died, so I posed Comet and Jax in the same spot.
“A Farewell to Essay Writing”
Gus died today a year ago, and the approaching anniversary gave me a moment to think about what a dog’s life means.
Some people treat their dogs like children, call them people, and seem to have trouble distinguishing between a human’s life and a dog’s life. I love these people, but I am not one of them. Some people think a dog is just a dog, and I don’t count myself in that camp either, nor do I feel so much warmth for those in it.
I don’t know if I have a soul or not. I’ve heard that I do, but I’ve heard many things. I think I prefer the mystery. Nothing of moment resolves itself into satisfying packages and assimilated truths, and if there is something beyond what we can see and taste, then the important truths were meant to be unreconcilable. And if there isn’t any such invisible intent, well then that unreconcilability is part of how things are.
Still, if there’s any way to measure our souls or perhaps our humanity, it must be in our gentleness and our ability to love. In that respect, I would be lucky to count one half as much soul in myself as my dogs have.
Life has meaning, even if I can’t set calipers to its source. Therefore, according to any definition that matters, though not necessarily any of matter, life means, and a dog’s life means too.
“Why do I not hang an image of this in some dusky corner of my brain, and turn an eye upon it ever and anon, as I have need of some such talisman to calm my troubled thoughts?” (Hazlitt)
Some trust to saints to save their souls. What’s measurable in mine is made of memory, and the prayer I’ve learned is just for gentleness, love, and gratitude.
As he dredged the chicken to the dogs rapt attention, he flicked some flour into their eager faces. I thought the results were so adorable that I went and grabbed the camera.
I find photographing the dogs indoors at night to be nigh-impossible, since the flash always makes their coats look strange and results in incredible eye glare. For this picture, I held a single layer of paper towel over the flash. The results were a bit red and required a little post-processing to get rid of the remaining eye glare, but the moment was certainly captured with its silliness intact.
The goofy anticipation in the last photo is replaced by a goofy joy in coming back to a beloved whistle that has always meant affection and occasionally means cookies.
I originally posted it back in October. What I didn’t realize, though, was how deeply I would be struck by the similarity of the actual photos.
This is from last October, only two months before Gus died. We had no idea, of course, what was about to happen, and even though Gus is gone, I can see him in Comet, the dog he helped train, and in Ajax, the dog who shares more of his genes.
The continuum of Gus’s life is both broken and unbroken, just as he is gone and is right here in the grass, running beside his brothers, always just around the corner but ready to race back to me the moment I whistle up a memory.
When I wrote last Tuesday, I didn’t realize Gus really was completely blind; it seemed implausible, but a few tests with a tennis ball that Tuesday night confirmed it.
Wednesday, Gus’s second day of total blindness, his biopsy results came back: panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma. He is one of a handful of dogs ever to get this, and it’s rare in humans too, maybe 1500 cases a year. It’s typically very aggressive and debilitating, and it doesn’t respond to chemotherapy as well as B-cell lymphoma does.
The blindness was most likely caused by infiltration of his nerves by the lymphoma, and thus the only way it could reverse was to contain the lymphoma and give the nerves several months to regenerate. Even if that long shot came through, it wouldn’t be much longer before Gus’s lymphoma became chemo-resistant and attacked him again.
Faced with the prospect of a blind Gus who, even with the best medicine possible, might live a few months and then relapse into these horrible symptoms, we knew that we had to make a gut-wrenching decision that was in his best interest, if not ours.
After a couple days of Prednisone, he perked up quite a bit. We bought him a stuffed duck with a Santa hat, spoiled him rotten with filet mignon, and helped him learn to navigate the house and the stairs without his sight. Even so, he remained on his couch all day unless he was called off. I imagine he thought the lights had gone out and had decided to wait patiently for them to come back on. These six days he waited for a solution, a light switch to flip up and return the woods and tennis balls to him.
He was content with this waiting, in a way, but we had no way of knowing when the Prednisone would stop working, just that it would soon, and all the symptoms being held at bay would ravage him again. Even on the medicine, he never stopped whuffing air out his nose constantly and sneezing savagely when he exerted himself at all. He never regained an iota of his sight. He also looked much sicker than he does in these pictures, which I chose because they show him at his best moments. He looks alert in each because he’s just heard a sound, not because he can see anything.
Even before we took him in today, there were signs that the brief window the steroids gave us was closing. His left eye was bulging alarmingly, and his lesions were starting to look red and itchy again. When we did bring him to the vet today, we learned he had lost almost five more pounds, meaning that in addition to the 10% of his body weight he lost in the first month of his sickness, he had lost 10% more in the last five days, despite lots of canned food, steak, and dog cookies.
It was time. Everything selfish in me screamed for delay, but our love for the dog had to win out. He had given six years of unwavering loyalty and love, and that gift deserved our best humanity in return. I cooked two strips of bacon and then seared one last rare filet mignon in the grease. I chopped the bacon and steak into chunks to feed him at the vet, and I held his head in my hands and Andy stroked his side as the vet pushed the plunger on those fatal shots. His head got heavier and heavier, and he leaned into my leg and smelled me one last time. We spoke words of encouragement and told him it was OK for him to go and be free. And then he was gone.
I would have thought that we would want to spend time with his body after it was all over, but aside from the moments we needed to compose ourselves, neither of us wanted to stay. At the moment he died, he was gone, and all that he had left behind was a husk that bore little resemblance to Gus. I smelled the top of his head, so I would remember him as he remembered me, and we left.
I like to think that once his eyes closed in that vet’s office for the last time, they opened up, sight restored, to look out over a clear blue lake, with a tennis ball sailing out overhead, no time for fear or worry or to miss those he left behind. He runs out to the end of the dock, eyes looking out over the water, spotting the splash the ball marks itself with, feet pounding the old boards, no more aches or exhaustion. But this time, when he touches off from the heavy bonds of the wood, he hangs in that perfect moment of time, as unaware of its passing as he was in life, savoring the the joy of the boundary of air and water, sailing out and across. Except maybe this time he sails out impossibly far over the water, until he crashes down, jaws closing right on the ball, and this time he takes it to the farther shore, not back to us.
I don’t know if there’s a heaven, or if dogs get to go. I do know that if there is any fairness, Gus deserves to be stretched out in the air over water somewhere right now, feeling the lightness in his chest and anticipating the satisfying crash down into the coolness. Even if a dog only lives on in the heart of those who love him, that’s what he’s doing in mine, leaping upwards and outwards, buoyed by love and joy.