From Tim -Yeah, I run a writing blog here at Musings of a Lonely Mind. Today’s post is related to writing, but there’s a lot more to it. So much more.
If you hang around writers and filmmakers, you’ll hear someone use the phrase that their art is about the human condition. And I know many of you out there in readerland wonder, What the hell is the human condition?
For me it’s a fancy way to say feelings. Why those people don’t just say feelings is beyond me, but that’s not the point. The point today is writing about feeling.
Yesterday I had to put my dog down. He was a rescue – he’d been in at least two homes before I adopted him. The woman I took him from told me the person who had him before her wanted to put him down because he barked too much. I can’t understand why – from the moment we met he was this gentle, happy dog who seemed so glad to have someone nearby.
I took him home, and for 12 years we were pretty much inseparable when we were together. He always wanted to be near me, he slept on my side of the bed (sometimes he’d hop up and curl up at my feet), he’d follow me around the kitchen while I cooked; he even desperately wanted to follow me out on the deck in good weather while I cooked on the grill.
In the last few weeks of his life, I saw him declining. He didn’t seem able to walk as well as he used to. He slowed down, didn’t eat as much as he used to. For the first time in months, he wanted to curl up next to me in bed but couldn’t jump up. I got out of bed, picked him up, and placed him on my bed. He stretched out while I curled up into a ball like we switched places.
The final days came and I knew something was up – his legs gave out from under him and he couldn’t stand. At first he could get up if I helped him, but within hours he wouldn’t let me do that. I spent the last two days of his life by his side, leaving mainly to get him food and water. I sat there stroking him, reminding him how much I loved him and trying to encourage him not to give up. He didn’t – that little dog fought like hell, and all the way to his last hours he kept trying to get up.
In the end I knew there was nothing more I could do. He knew it too. There are some people out there who’ll tell you he’s a dog, he can’t understand any of this stuff, you’re reading too much into it, but like I always say don’t listen to those people. He knew.
T-Bone was terrified of the vet, heck, he was petrified of getting groomed but once I handed the leash over he’d go on his own. (Though he could be a handful when the vet would give him his shots) On the last day of his life, I couldn’t bear to bring him into a place he hated so much. All he ever wanted was a place to call home. *That’s* where he had to die, in a spot of his choosing.
I called my regular vet and begged them to make a house call; they said they couldn’t but maybe I could find someone else who would. I pulled out the phone book and started calling around; I found three vets who could make house calls. The first couldn’t come out but recommended two others. I tried another and played phone tag. I got in touch with the third, who said we were outside her usual area and she probably couldn’t make it, but call her back if I can’t find anyone to help me.
The third was finally the one who could come. I was bawling my eyes out, breaking down as I begged them to come out. They could. Shortly after I hung up the phone, I got a call from the second vet. She wanted to know if I found anyone, because she’d come out if I didn’t. I told her I was all set and thanked her profusely. These are the kinds of people you want taking care of your pets.
T-Bone spent the last night of his life next to my couch, he desperately tried to stand but couldn’t. Every hour he’d try, and I’d try to help, but he couldn’t stand. He’d try for about an hour, exhaust himself, then sleep for an hour and try again. Between his trying to rise I would give him food, water, and encouragement. I prayed for a miracle we both knew would not come.
He somehow managed to inchworm his way to a spot by the front door where I’d always find him when I came home. That was where he wanted to die. When the vet got there she asked if I wanted to move him, I said no, that’s the spot he chose and I had to honor that choice. I held him, talked softly to him and cried so much my eyes still hurt a day later. He went quietly and peacefully. The vets came in a mobile home converted into a mobile hospital; I helped carry him down the stairs and out to the trailer. Out there I said goodbye again, thanked the vet and her assistant for coming out, and let him go.
Here I am a day later, I’m writing all this through tears and I know there are people out there reading this who’ll say he was just a dog, get over it. These people look at their pets like they’re the gadget of the week; when it’s done, they just throw it out and get a new one. If you’re one of those people chances are you would have turned out long ago. I don’t understand this mindset, and I never will, but that’s not the point. The point is if you’ve ever known the unconditional love that I’m talking about here, that selfless dedication, you know what I’m talking about.
Bet you think I’m done, right? Well, no, I’m not. You see, a year after I adopted T-Bone, I was in a feature writing class. Most of what I did in that class I tried to write Dave Barry humor because it was fun. The last assignment was memoir – and since I started the class writing about T-Bone, I figured I’d end writing about him. I think I shocked my instructor with this one.
I had it posted on my old blog, which I’ve basically abandoned. But here it is again – my musing on friendship and unconditional love.
This is a bit raw; I don’t consider it fully edited and I haven’t really polished it because I really don’t want to. It’s an unaltered musing on some of the best friends I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. And yes, this kind of friendship is an honor. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I’m talking about.
Back in November, I took my dog T-Bone to be “fixed.” It had been a long time since I had been in a veterinarian’s office. The smell of the office – it’s hard to put it into words, but there’s this distinctive smell to a vet’s office – almost like an open can of dog food – brought back memories of a very special friend.
His name was Morgan. He was a Rhodesian ridgeback. Never heard of them? Don’t be surprised. According to the American Kennel Club, only about 25,000 ridgebacks are bred every year. By contrast, 250,000 Labrador retrievers are bred every year.
Morgan and his brother Jack joined our family because my grandfather wanted to have one of my father’s children to be named after him. My mother wanted no part of naming one of her children after Jack Morgan. Instead, she went out with my aunt and bought two puppies – one named Jack and the other named Morgan. To say that my mother and my grandfather had issues would be an understatement.
We had fourteen years together, and I remember vividly the time Morgan spent with me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and feeling Morgan at the foot of my bed. He was a living security blanket; anyone that wanted to get at me (or anyone else in the family) would have to get through Morgan first. He showed his protective side on more than one occasion, barking and threatening strangers who would come to the door. The unlucky – or downright terrified – would be greeted with a nip in the rear and chased through the living room.
One time I was in the kitchen making a sandwich with Kraft sliced cheese – the stuff wrapped in cellophane. I dropped a slice on the floor. Morgan was on it instantly, and before I could tell him to drop it, he unwrapped the cheese! I was dumbfounded. I dropped another slice on the floor and watched in amazement as Morgan unwrapped it. I showed my father, who would show anyone who came over to visit how Morgan could unwrap cheese. My brother hatched his first get-rich quick scheme around it; he could charge a quarter to let people see Morgan unwrap a piece of cheese. (I think my father gave that some serious thought)
There was the Atari system that I won for selling a ton of little league tickets and the first Saturday morning that I woke up early to play with it. I tiptoed out into the living room before the sun came up, and with all my gleeful focus I didn’t stop and look around the room. I wouldn’t notice Morgan’s “present” until what felt like a full pound of it squished up, like chilled peanut butter, between my toes. I hopped around the rest of the minefield that the night before was my living room, cursing to myself that I once again, was the first sucker up and had to clean up after Morgan. The whole time, he was curled up on the couch like a donut, one eye open and watching me.
A few years later, I met Anne in high school by doing something very much out of character for me. I was out at a club with a bunch of my friends (an under-21 night), and I set my sights on her from across the room. I talked one of my friends into singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling with me (two guys do something stupid, and the rest follow like lemmings). We talked a little over the next week before I set up my fist real “date.” I talked to Morgan about it. I wondered if this was going to work out. All he did was sit there and listen to me. He was really good about that. And he wagged his tail.
I brought Anne home for the first time a couple of weeks later. She was one of the few people Morgan didn’t bark at. She walked in and Morgan calmly got off his chair, sniffed her a couple of times, then went back up on his chair and promptly fell back to sleep. That’s when I knew things would work out between Anne and myself.
About a year passed. I got my license that summer and I spent more time away from home. Morgan got older, too. He had some gray hairs, but he stayed vibrant. He’d still chase a ball if I threw it, and he’d always greet me at the door when I’d come home from work or school.
That fall as the leaves were falling from the trees and cold setting in, Morgan seemed a little sluggish, like he wasn’t quite himself. We thought it was his age showing, and we were half right. There was something more to it, though. We realized that when his belly swelled up as if he’d swallowed a beach ball.
Morgan had heartworm. An infected mosquito had bitten Morgan, injecting microscopic larvae into his bloodstream. The worms settled in the right chamber of his heart and the artery leading to his lungs. What angered me was his illness was completely preventable; with the right medicine, Morgan would have been spared this fate.
At first the vet said he could help Morgan. He drained the fluid from Morgan’s abdomen and put him on a low dose of arsenic. That would hopefully kill the worms without killing Morgan.
For a while, Morgan got better. I thought he’d be around a long time, sleeping at the foot of my bed and greeting me when I came home from school. Life went on as usual…for a while.
One afternoon that fall – it was just after Halloween – I came home from school to find Morgan lying in the kitchen. He was vomiting clear mucous and barely able to stand. He looked so tired that day; I think age and the heartworm finally caught up to him. Even though he was tired and obviously sick, he held his tail high.
That night at dinner we had a talk as a family. My dad worked for a vet when he was a kid, and Morgan wouldn’t get any better. “It won’t be long before he won’t be able to walk,” he said. That was one of the few times there was silence around our dinner table. The time none of us wanted to think about had come. Morgan had to be put to sleep.
I spent most of that night with Morgan. I petted him, I praying for a miracle that I knew would not come. I would have done anything to switch places with Morgan or buy him just a couple more days. Morgan, on the other hand, was the strong one. He rested his head in my lap and gazed up at me with his big, brown eyes…they were filled with the peace of someone who had lived a long life. During our quiet time together, I felt like Morgan was thanking me for being there for him. It was the least I could do for all the times he was there for me.
I volunteered to go with my mother when Morgan was put to sleep. “You’re sure you want to do this,” she asked. I was scared out of my wits, but nothing was going to separate us.
We went into the vet’s office and they immediately showed us into the examination room. My once vibrant friend was so weak I had to carry him in. I held Morgan, tears in my eyes as the assistant put an IV tube in his paw. Through it all, he was calm and quiet. People say dogs don’t understand things like this. I disagree. I think – no, I know Morgan knew what was happening. And the whole time, he held his tail high.
“When a dog is euthanised,” the veterinarian told us, “sometimes they may urinate or defecate. There will be a whoosh of air from his lungs. But he won’t feel anything.” I caught a glimpse of the assistant: I could see tears in her eyes, too.
Fourteen years of my life flashed before me. A million memories, all final…he first time he unwrapped a slice of cheese…the times he leapt up onto the top bunk to catch me…even cleaning up after him on a Saturday morning didn’t seem so bad.
I said a quick prayer and had my final words to my beloved friend. “I love you, Morgan. Someday we’ll be together again,” I whispered, “I promise.” He rested his head on my shoulder and rubbed the side of his head against mine. I took off Morgan’s colar, then I nodded to my mom. I wasn’t ready, but it was time. I held on tightly to Morgan, hoping I could keep some small piece of him with me. My mom gave the vet the signal, and she did the deed.
It was over quickly. I felt Morgan tighten up for a moment, then he relaxed. Supposedly the air leaving his lungs meant he was gone, but I didn’t believe it. It was when his tail finally fell that I knew it was over.
I screamed his name one last time lost it. I cried and I cried and I cried. My mother put her hand on my shoulder and said I could go wait in the car for her. She wanted her own time with Morgan.
I don’t know how I found my way back to the car through the cascade of tears. I sat there for a long time, crying. I held onto Morgan’s collar, breathing in his smell, longing for him. It seemed like a long time before my mother finally came out. We sat there a long time together, not saying anything.
Within a couple of weeks my brother brought home another dog. He named her Precious. I was insulted. I did everything I could to get some distance from her. I felt as if my brother were desecrating sacred ground. What I needed was time and space to mourn. What I got was a stupid black lab that thought she was a cat. For a while I spent a lot of time in my room, alone, listening to music and thinking about Morgan.
Eventually…begrudgingly, I got used to Precious. More often than not I wanted my space; Precious never figured that out. That tension convinced my family that I wasn’t a “dog person.”
Eventually I would put Morgan out of my mind and I thought it was all behind me…until the autumn day when I brought T-Bone to the vet.
The night I came home from dropping T-Bone off at the vet, I talked to Anne about Morgan. After sixteen years I found myself sitting in my bedroom, tears streaming down my face. Part of it was I missed T-Bone; we bonded pretty much immediately. I think most of it was a combination remembering – and finally mourning – Morgan’s death.
There’s something else. I realized it when I picked T-Bone up from the vet. There’s something familiar about him; something about the twinkle in his eyes and the way he’s always just a couple of feet from me when I’m home; something about the way he waits at the top of the stairs when he hears me come in and the way he grabs my arm gently with his mouth when we play. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder if I haven’t kept my promise.