Prelude: Sunday, June 22, 2008
Only three weeks ago. All seems well.
Prelude II: Thursday, July 3, 2008
Saturday, July 12, 2008, 6:30 AM
He spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him
The dog up and died, he up and died
And after 20 years he still grieves.
(From Mr. Bojangles by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 1970)
It is early Saturday morning, and I can no longer sleep. Preternaturally quiet, a shroud of silence blankets the house, oppressive, dark, and hateful. There aren’t even any birds chirping, and puzzlingly I have yet to hear the shriek of the the whistle heralding the morning train that rumbles along the tracks less than a mile from our house at ridiculously early hours every morning. With a groan, I rouse myself from the couch, where I fell asleep last night and make my way to the refrigerator, looking for something to drink. Then I notice it.
Three fresh ears of uneaten corn sit in a clear plastic bag on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator. My wife purchased them for the family, but one of the ears will not be eaten. That’s because Echo, our dog who delighted in eating corn off the cob just like a human being, died yesterday.
Echo at the beach in 2001
Echo in her prime
Our relation with Echo began July 3, 2000. Actually, it began a few days before that when, fresh from buying and moving in to our first house together, my wife and I first met the gangly black puppy who would ultimately win our hearts and whose passing. At the time, we had been married 8 years, and in all that time we had desperately wanted a dog. However, residency, graduate school, and our frequent moves all conspired to deny us our wish. Right after our marriage, we lived in a rather large apartment building that didn’t permit dogs. Between 1996 and 2000, we moved a total of four times, thanks to the demands of my training and then my finally finding a faculty position at the tender young age of 36 in a far away state, or, as I put it, my first “real” job. Upon relocating to allow me to take that job, we first rented an apartment because we were unfamiliar with the area and had no idea where would be a good place to buy a house. No dog again. Our delayed gratification was delayed another year. When we finally did start looking for a house, one of our near-absolute requirements was a fenced-in backyard, and we absolutely required that we could fence in the yard. Getting a dog was part of the bargain, as far as we were concerned. Otherwise, why bother to get a house, rather than an apartment of condo?
There were actually several weeks between when we finalized the offer and when we closed, and as the date of moving grew closer, we kept our eye out, starting by frequenting Petfinder.com, as well as checking out events at a local shopping center where shelters would bring adoptable dogs. Soon after we moved in, we were visiting a couple of shelters and left thoroughly depressed at all the dogs without homes. A visit to the Staten Island shelter in particular dampened our spirits. So many dogs! How to choose? We wanted to take them all, but we had room for only one. How would we know which one was the one? How could we?
Then my wife found her online:
Her name was Tina, and we found her on Petfinder.com. We had no way of knowing that “Tina” was the one, but she was around four or five months old and appeared to be around the right size. We went to visit her at a shelter then known as Small Dog Rescue. Run by a retired child psychiatrist named Emmett Wilson, Jr. on his farm, Small Dog Rescue is a no-kill shelter that primarily saves small dogs. But not just any small dogs. The dogs Dr. Wilson rescued tend to be mostly the “unadoptable,” such as old dogs, dogs with missing limbs, dogs with health problems, or dogs with behavioral issues. Also, it’s a condition of adoption that if anyone adopting a dog from Small Dog Rescue decides to euthanize the dog for behavioral issues or inability to take care of the dog, Dr. Wilson must be informed and given the opportunity to take the dog back. As we visited the farm, I was thinking that I had never seen such a motley collection of scruffy, old, snaggle-toothed dogs running around between a massive fenced-in pen and a barn. If the dog wasn’t at least six years old, missing a limb, and preferably missing most of its teeth, it wasn’t a typical candidate for Small Dog Rescue. Or so it seemed to us at the time. The barking was continuous, and we were immediately greeted by a pack of the aforementioned snaggle-toothed dogs.
“Tina” looked distinctly out of place among the grizzled dog population on the farm. She just didn’t fit in. For one thing, she was much younger than the other dogs, obviously still a puppy. She was a bit larger than the other dogs as well. Indeed, I got the impression that the shelter personnel didn’t quite know what to do with her and her level of energy. Her power over humans could not be denied, however, inducing Dr. Smith to rescue her from a local shelter because she was scheduled to be euthanized the next day. We have no idea whether her owners brought her in or whether she was a stray, but Dr. Wilson saved her life and brought her to his dog farm to live among the collection of lovable misfits who dwelt there.
His dog farm is where we met Tina and fell in love. We decided that she was the one, or she decided we were the ones.
It was with great excitement and anticipation that we went on a shopping spree to buy things a dog needs: food, dog bowls, crate, leash, toys, etc. Although my family had had a dog when I was a teenager, since moving out of my parents’ house, I had not owned a dog. Since our marriage, my wife and I had never even lived in a place where we could have a dog before; we had none of that stuff around. When the day arrived, my wife and I were little kids going into a toy store. We brought her home, and renamed her Echo, a name my wife thought of. It fit.
The first nights did not go smoothly. Echo, like many puppies do in strange surroundings, cried all night. I got frustrated and angry, apparently so much so that my wife later told me she was afraid that I was going to make her take Echo back to Dr. Wilson. She needn’t have feared, but I could see why she might have thought that. I had operations to do the next day and needed my sleep. My wife stayed up with the dog the whole time and tried to calm her. Eventually, Echo came to accept us. Upon taking her to the vet for the first time, we learned that she had a pretty bad worm infestation as well as ear mites; so we had to poney up for medicine and treat her. I remember its taking seemingly forever to clear her ears of those mites.
The next question was whether the dog would be allowed to get in bed with us. My view was that she should not, that we should put a dog bed somewhere near ours for Echo to sleep in. My wife’s view was that she should. You can guess the outcome. I lost. Ultimately, I didn’t mind losing, but Echo grew beyond what was originally predicted by the vet. Fully grown, she was between 60 and 65 pounds, and she instinctively knew how to use her bulk as a dead weight to take up as much space as possible, and she was truly the immovable black lump of furry blackness. Sometimes I think that, deep in that doggy brain of hers, she carefully calculated and plotted exactly where to lie and how to make sure that both my wife and I were left with only a sliver of space on either side of the bed. She was just that smart. I also used to joke that she was a bit of a slut in that she would get into bed and sleep with anyone, so much did she love the comfort of a warm bed. What I most remember about Echo and beds is how she used to “ask permission” to get into the bed. She’d sidle up to the edge of the bed, head down, quietly approaching, and then then she’d rest her head on it, looking at my wife and me with those huge brown eyes silently and plaintively pleading, “Oh, please, please can I get up on that nice, warm, comfy bed? It looks so soft and warm and cozy and I am so cold and small and pathetic. I won’t be any trouble at all. Really.”
Echo and friend in winter
Echo and another friend in summer.
Over the months, our love for Echo deepened, and Echo became truly our dog. We were a family. It’s not that she was a perfect dog, but she was perfect for us. I remember an incident when she was an older puppy when she chomped the stitching on one of our living room chairs and pillows. For reasons that we never figured out, she developed a couple of strange phobias as well. She didn’t like linoleum floors, and in fact wouldn’t come into our kitchen willingly because the floor frightened her. Most un-dog-like behavior, and for several years until we moved into a different house she missed out on cleaning up our dropped food because of it. She also didn’t like stairs. Sometimes it would take her multiple false starts before she’d finally make it up the stairs, and if the stairs were enclosed, as the stairs leading to the upstairs in my mother-in-law’s house were, forget it. The only way to get her up those stairs was to carry all 63 squirming pounds of her. She was also most un-Lab-like, despite the webbing between her paws, in that she didn’t like the water. When we took her on a boat one time, the first thing she’d do when we put her in the water is to swim straight back to the boat and try to get out of the water, finally scrambling with help back onto the boat looking every inch the proverbial drowned rat.
In other ways, Echo was quite brave and strong. When we let her out into the back yard, she’d frequently go charging out there, chest puffed up, with a challenging bark to chase away any interlopers. Usually, any interlopers were bunnies or squirrels, but she leapt out into the yard as though she were preparing to do battle with a bear. She could leap, too, huge distances, covering our deck in just two jumps at most. She had a mischievous streek, too, and sometimes used her strength and appearance for her own amusement, too. One of her favorite games at the old house was to wait in the corner of the backyard for the mailman to walk by. She’d wait until he was right next to our fence (our house was on a corner lot), and then leap up and bark fiercely, sometimes scaring the crap out of the mail carrier. I still marvel that she never got maced.
Echo also loved to “scent roll.” I’m sure there’s an evolutionary explanation for why dogs love to roll in poop or dead birds, but it’s a trait that can annoy. I remember one time that before we make the several hundred mile ride to visit the family with the dog my wife gave her a bath. Not long after our arrival, Echo zeroed in like a smart bomb to the one spot in my parents’ yard where there was some compost and rolled in it, coming back, her neck covered in grass and smelling like–well–a compost heap. A particularly ripe compost heap, actually. The amusing thing is that Echo bought herself another bath that very day, perhaps the only time that she got two consecutive baths on two consecutive days. Not that that deterred her. We had to keep a very close eye on her after that, because she tried to do it again.
Then there was the critter carnage. I’ve written of this before; so I won’t dwell on it overmuch here, but Echo was the Goddess of Death for any unfortunate bunnies who strayed into our yard, particularly young bunnies who couldn’t get either under the fence or under the deck before the Goddess caught them. We learned certain behaviors that tipped us off that Echo may just have made a kill. Of coure, she’d sometimes come back with fur not her own all over her face, but that tipoff was just too obvious. One time, Echo managed to sneak a dead baby bird that she had found in the yard all the way into the house and upstairs to our bedroom. We didn’t realize it until we wondered why she wasn’t opening her mouth and then noticed a feather sticking out the side and what looked like part of a wing. At least she didn’t make it into teh bed with that thing. We also marveled at how an animal could be so merciless when it came to small critters but so loving and devoted when it came to us. Six years ago my wife and I went through a very difficult time in ourlives, and Echo was there. Her smelly, black furry bulk and unconditional love helped us make it through our trials.
Somewhere along the line, Echo developed a taste for corn. I don’t remember how it started, but to the best of my recollection a few years ago my wife started letting her lick the corn on cob. It started out with us letting her have a go at the bits and pieces left over on partially eaten ears of corn. Echo loved it, and she got better and better at cleaning every last bit of corn off the cob. In fact, she did a much better job of it than I did, even at the cost of occasionally inducing a little bit of bleeding in the gums. When she was done, there was not a single hint of corn, just a cob chomped as far as it could be chomped without biting into the cob itself. Echo particularly liked her corn with butter and salt. In her later years, we started intentionally making more corn than we could eat, so that Echo could enjoy the leftovers. Sometimes we even boiled an extra ear, just for her.
So life went on for eight years, Echo bringing joy to our lives every day, until the dreaded disease, to the fight against which I’ve dedicated my life and that has claimed family and friend, decided that humans were not enough. Thursday night, ironically not long after I wrote an update of her condition, Echo’s breathing became rapid and labored. My wife and I both slept downstairs in the family room with her, my wife on the couch, me on the floor on a makeshift bed of blankets because she could not make it upstairs. We had been doing this for the last few days anyway, because we didn’t want to stress Echo’s leg by making her go up the stairs. By the morning, it was clear that this was not a temporary setback. Echo was lethargic most of the time and could only intermittently rouse herself to bark at passers-by. The limp that had brought the tumor mass to my attention was clearly much larger, and her leg appeared to be bothering her more. Echo looked tired, so tired, and her belly was larger. I was sure she had developed ascites. There were periods of time when she lay on her side, almost unresponsive, such that we feared she would stop breathing before we could do anything. But then something would happen and she would perk up for a while–but only for a while. Through it all, she never lost her appetite, though, making me marvel at how she could be so deathly ill and still beg for cheese, her favorite treat of all. Nonetheless, faced with unequivocal evidence that Echo’s condition was going downhill rapidly, my wife and I made the the only decision we could, but even so it was most difficult decision we have ever had to make together. Friday morning, I arranged to have a vet who does house calls come out to the house to relieve Echo’s suffering. As we waited for the inevitable, my wife and I sat with Echo outside for a couple of hours on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon, taking pictures. After the vet and her assistant arrived, Echo’s end was peaceful and quick, but most of all it was in familiar surroundings, with my wife and me at her side petting and hugging her. When it was over, her features softened, and for the first time since her deterioration she was at peace.
So after having misjudged how strong the wine my wife and I had drunk in Echo’s honor Friday night and fallen asleep on the couch, here I sit in the gloom of ths morning and my thoughts, my wife asleep on blankets on the floor, her chest rising and falling rhythmically, reminding me that one being I love, at least, still lives. In stark contrast, a blanket lies accusingly on the floor with black hair on it. A bowl of water that will never be drunk and a plastic storage bin of food that will never be eaten, at least not by Echo, sit as silent reminders of what we lost. A basket full of toys, including the infamous one that what we tended to refer to as the “disgusting, spitty, furry chipmunk,” lies on the mantle mocking me. All remind me that never again will either of us feel Echo’s warm body at our feet or plastered against us in the bed. Never again will we savor the silky softness of her ears. Never again will we chase her in the yard to her (and our) delight, as she would trot up to provoke us and then speed away as we chased her. Worst of all, never again will my wife or I come home to Echo’s legendary greetings, in which she would break into a howl of “woo-oo-oo!” and talk to me in that voice of hers that sounded every bit as though Scooby-Doo and Chewbacca had mated in 1999, and Echo was the offspring.
But most of all, reminding me of our loss most of all are three uneaten ears of corn that still sit on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. We had planned on having one last corn feast with Echo, but, alas, it was not to be. My wife and I may eat two of them and bury the third. Or maybe we should bury all three in memory of what we once were. Whatever we decide, this weekend, at least, there is a large art fair in our town. We will go there. We will go there and try to enjoy it. We will go there to try to fill the gaping dog-shaped hole in our hearts.
We will fail. There are some holes that can never be filled, and there is an ear of corn in our refrigerator that will never be eaten. Nothing can change that, and our lives will never be the same.
Farewell, old friend.
Echo’s last week:
Echo’s last day:
And the last picture of Echo ever:
Farewell, to the greatest dog in the world, Echo (b. February 2000; d. July 11, 2008)