This is a dog story.
Dad points out that dog stories never have happy endings, because their tellers have outlived their subjects. That’s true here, too, but I’m going to attempt to break the rule. The only way I can do that is by starting with the unhappy ending.
so, starting at the end
Our beloved was four months shy of thirteen years old, a black labrador retriever who had gone through two knees, two ears, a cancerous chunk of her leg, her coat, a paw, her GI system, her bladder control, and every heart she came near except her own. She was crippled by arthritis, and she’d lost so much strength and feeling in her back end that she sometimes tried to use a rear paw down upside-down, and she was falling over more than she was walking. Even standing at her bowl to eat had become too difficult, and her regular trips down the many stairs of our house involved more falling than walking. Her trips back up those stairs were a group effort, where she handled the front end, Victoria or I carried the back end, and we all tried not to confront how embarrassing this must have felt to the toughest and smartest dog I’ve ever known.
Some people will question my claim that my black lab was embarrassed by her decrepitude. These people are out of date on their animal research, and they have not spent enough time with dogs. This is their misfortune, a deficit in their lives more profound than the enormous black hole that engulfed our household a year ago.
She had lasted longer than any of us expected—I couldn’t quite believe that she’d held out for one last visit by my parents and even seemed perky on our walk together the afternoon they arrived. But over the next few days of their visit, we all realized the time had come, and my parents said their final good-byes to her before driving home.
The decision to help someone end her life is never clear enough to ease the anguish or doubts that inevitably accompany us to the ends of these journeys. Although our dog could barely walk, she still smiled during our daily walk, what little of it she could manage. She still barrelled down the front stairs to greet our neighbor, heedless of the injuries she was giving herself, in part because said neighbor faithfully prepared pre-walk snacks more decadent than many of my own meals. For her last treat, she got freshly-grilled New York steak and a long, quiet, sobbing conversation with her devoted next-door admirers. She lay patiently receiving her tributes and beaming back at all of us. I can’t say with certainty that she understood the significance of the conversations in her last few days, but I do know that she registered how upset all of us had been, and she endured these exchanges with more dignity and grace than any of the rest of us could manage.
Earlier that day, after picking at her usual lunch at home (the one that came from a bag), she sank down on the pillow where she’d spent most of her time lately, and our young chocolate lab puppy flopped down next to her. Neither of them wanted to budge, and for the first time, I decided I could return upstairs to my office alone and trust that the puppy wouldn’t get into trouble. She was still curled up close to her best friend an hour later when I came back down. Her wanting to cuddle with her role model was nothing new, but something was different. It looked as though she was at once trying to comfort a dying friend and to learn every last tidbit she could from her.
What does a five month old puppy know about death? I don’t know. But she had become gentle—protective even—over the last several days. She hadn’t stopped mounting her, clamping her jaws around her neck, tugging at her collar, or stealing gulps of her meals, but she had started licking her head, resting her head on her paws, waiting for her to get comfortable before squeezing herself alongside.
When Victoria got home from work, we helped Pants down the stairs one last time, helped her clamber into the backseat, and drove to the vet. When we arrived, I had to lift her out of the car. She hobbled inside on her own steam and gave one last round of greetings to her friends on staff before we settled on the pile of blankets on the floor of her exam room. Candy flopped down next to me and rested her head on my thigh, and I tried to hold myself together for her sake while Dr Dorsey began injecting the drugs—first, the sedative.
Darned if that aesthetic didn’t kick in for the longest time. She continued to hold her head up and look at Victoria and me well after the whole syringeful was in her. We started to laugh—Candy had been such an incredibly tough dog and survived so much, I commented that it seemed fitting that the sedative wasn’t enough to conk her out. Dr Dorsey commented that her old heart was pumping so slowly it was taking a while, but even she began to be puzzled by how long Candy remained alert. But it did eventually kick in, and Candy napped on my lap for the last time as Dr Dorsey injected the potassium solution that after a long moment stopped her heart.
Nobody left that room with dry eyes.
We brought her empty collar home to Kjersten, who’d left behind a measure of puppyhood that afternoon. She flopped down on their bed with that collar in her mouth, but she didn’t chew on it, as she had so many times while it was still around Candy’s neck. She held it and lay still for a long time. For weeks to come, she carried the collar around with her, and she rested her head on it at night as if it were a treasured teddy bear. She still treats that shredded old collar gently when she pulls it out of her toy basket.
During those weeks, I was repeatedly unable to write the essay about her life that I usually write for friends and family after losing one of our critters. I tried many times but kept drowning my keyboard and giving up.
I had a lot to tell.
backing up eight months
I’d started writing about her eight months earlier, the first time I took her in for euthanasia. That was not even close to the first time euthanasia had been considered for her.
Dad liked to joke that between us, my dog and I only had one good knee—because she’d ruptured both of her anterior cruciate ligaments in hunting accidents, and I’d ruptured my posterior cruciate ligament in a Frisbee accident. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
She wasn’t my dog yet.
backing up twelve years
Candy started out in 1997 as my parents’ dog, hunting regularly with Dad in the mountainous region of western Montana. By all accounts she was quite a good hunter—and quite a handful. Candy was smarter and more stubborn than any other lab our family had ever had or known, and everybody but Dad recognized that it was she who had trained him and not the other way around.
Unfortunately, nobody had managed to stop Dad from naming the wee black puppy “Candy” (“because she’s so sweet”), although I’d lobbied hard for something with a little more dignity that she could grow into: Ingrid. Inge for short. But no, he insisted on Candy, a name I’ve always hated.
Candy and I first bonded in the summer of 2003, when my parents and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Wild and Scenic section of the Missouri River east of Great Falls, Montana—an other-worldly stretch described rhapsodically by Lewis and Clark in their journals a hundred years earlier. I’d been reading about it in Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage during the expedition’s centennial year, and I suggested that we go see the area, which is even today only accessible by water. So there we were—three paddlers, one lab, two canoes, and two tents—one for Mom and Dad, one for Candy and me.
There’s nothing quite like sharing a pup tent with a pup, and we grew close on that trip. She was mostly an ideal tentmate, except for the night it stormed ferociously outside and she kept crowding me. Finally I reached over to make sure she really did have plenty of room available between me and the side of the tent, and I found several inches of icy water—I hadn’t tucked the tarp underneath the tent’s footprint properly, and Candy didn’t like sleeping in the cold rainwater any better than I would have. I ventured out and fixed the problem, but there wasn’t much I could do about the lake, so we spent the rest of that night with her lying on top of me and getting a lot more sleep than I did.
I didn’t mind much. Dog people will understand my feeling that the privilege of her sleeping on top of me was more important than my own sleep.
her knees & skin
A few years later, in her seventh year, Candy hyperextended her right knee while tearing after a game bird. She’d ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament. My folks agonized and decided to spend a small fortune on a surgical repair rather than putting her down, since she was only six and such a great dog. Candy banging around the house in an Elizabethen collar for several months after chewing her way out of more than one leg cast nearly did them all in. Eventually her cast was removed and she recovered enough mobility and strength for another hunting season. Unfortunately and somewhat predictably, a year later, she injured her left knee the same way. The first surgery had aged her so badly that Mom and Dad decided they couldn’t put her through another one. After a few weeks’ rest, her knee was good enough to handle a sedentary lifestyle, so they reluctantly decided it was time to get a new puppy and let this one retire from hunting.
Meanwhile, between seasons, she’d nearly died of a mysterious skin condition. They’d tried treating her for mange, fleas, and any number of exotic skin conditions to no avail; she just got balder, itchier, and more compulsive about scratching and licking off what little fur she had left. Once again they considered putting the poor old girl down. Finally in desperation they tried one last thing: allergy tests. Her test for grasses went off the charts. She started allergy shots right away, and gradually her skin calmed down—but she was still patchy and itchy. She also had chronic ear infection problems, to the point that she grew to dread visiting the vet, where somebody was always doing something uncomfortable to her poor ears.
After her second knee injury, and with these skin and ear problems persisting, they again considered whether it was time to put her out of her misery.
Dad sent email to the family asking whether anybody wanted a new lab, slightly used. I don’t think he expected my reply, which was a yes and many exclamation points.
I didn’t hear anything else about it and figured that he probably couldn’t actually bear the idea of giving her up. But that Thanksgiving when my folks arrived with both a beleaguered Candy and a rambunctious puppy Flicka who wouldn’t leave her big heroine alone, Candy recognized her old tent mate, hopped up in my lap for a cuddle, and didn’t budge for hours. All weekend she was unusually attentive to Victoria and me, and on Friday morning as Dad and I were rooting around for some leftovers to eat for breakfast, Dad asked if I was sure I was ready for a dog.
I gulped. I hadn’t quite dared hope the possibility was still open.
We talked about it. Assured that I’d worked out the logistical details, he then asked whether Victoria was ready for a dog in her life. I said I thought so. He didn’t say much. I suggested he ask her about it.
Later that day, Dad had V come along and take Candy’s leash on the afternoon walk, and when they returned to the house, he said, “You’re going to need to get her a dog house.”
We all struggled to hold ourselves together through the rest of their visit. We Nordic types don’t believe in any displays of emotion that we can possibly avoid.
We figured out how to rearrange the back deck to accommodate a dog house, and the next morning after my folks pointed their car back toward Montana with only one black lab inside, I drove Candy to the pet store and had her help me pick out a doghouse and a puppy gate for our back deck.
My folks were worried that she’d go on a hunger strike—she always had whenever one of them was away from home—but that night she gobbled down her dinner as though she’d never seen food before, and that was that.
She ignored our instructions not to sleep on the couch in the living room that night. She’d never been allowed on furniture in Montana, but she made it clear to us that she expected things to be different in her California retirement.
The next day, I left on a long business trip to China, and this is where the story of the dog I taught to heel, of the dog who healed from an enormous number of medical crises, did something I never saw coming.
She healed me.
The first way Candy made us a better family was by putting my wife-to-be Victoria at ease in the unfamiliar house and neighborhood she’d only recently moved into. Usually when I left town for work, the voice on the other end of the phone line was nervous and at times even a bit panicky-sounding, but when I finally got to my hotel in China and figured out how to dial home, the voice on the other end was laughing about Candy’s adventures on their first walk together. She told me how Candy had tried to eat some grass and threw it up later, but she’d called Dad. She reported, “Paul said that dogs do that; it’s fine.” She also told me how Candy had refused to sleep downstairs since I left—she moved into the bedroom, and Victoria felt much safer that way, so it was fine with her.
That was the last time I ever worried about V while I was away from home, because it was the last time she worried. Having a big dog around made all the difference for her.
I got home a few weeks later, exhausted, jetlagged, and with my face a mess.
I have to back up here and explain that several years earlier I’d been diagnosed with rosacea, a mysterious skin disorder that causes a reddish rash or pimples, swelling, itchiness, and even aching, typically around the nose and mouth. Nobody’s quite sure what causes it, and there’s no cure—you can just manage it, if you’re lucky, with various ointments, special cleansers, frequent courses of tetracycline, and a long list of behavioral changes. Since rosacea outbreaks were painful and interfered with my horn playing, I was a motivated, model patient, but even on my best behavior I was barely able to keep the rosacea at a low-grade rash level. It invariably flared up under the stress of business travel, and the harsh winter conditions in China hadn’t helped any.
I got home mid-afternoon and collapsed on the couch for a long nap. Candy jumped up with me and started madly licking my face. Normally she’d give me a few courtesy licks and I’d rinse my face off, but this time she was determined, and I was too tired to mind. I fell asleep with her still licking away, and we woke up many hours later when V arrived home, with Candy snoozing on top of me.
That night, I absent-mindedly splashed some water on my face to rinse it before bed, and I couldn’t believe how soft and smooth my face felt. And it didn’t hurt! I looked in the mirror and noticed that it was barely even blotchy. That’s when I remembered—I’d had an intense dog-spit facial. My face was even clearer the next morning, so from then on, when Candy wanted to lick my face, I let her.
Within a few weeks, my rosacea had disappeared, only to return when I was away from home and Candy’s yummy pink tongue for too long. My dermatologist was amazed, but she agreed that it was a plausible explanation—she said that it’s been known for a long time that dog spit has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and even mild antibiotic properties, and those were the properties of the most effective rosacea ointments. She wrote out a Metrogel prescription for use during, and that’s the last time I saw her about rosacea.
I have to back up again, though, and explain that Candy was healing me from much more than rosacea when she licked my face.
backing up sixteen years
In 1994 I’d moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Chicago with hopes of flip-flopping my career from full-time geekery and freelance french horn performance to full-time french horn performance and freelance geekery. I’d been doing well in professional auditions, and when I arrived I got quickly plugged into the local horn network. Things were looking up—until I was bitten in the face by a Rottweiler.
I’d been staying at a friend’s house until I could find a place of my own, and both her Rottweiler and her black lab loved me. The feeling was mutual. One night the two dogs and I lay on the couch in a big puppy pile watching a Clint Eastwood movie together. At some point, the Rottweiler gave me a great big kiss on the cheek. I turned to return a kiss to her cheek, as I’d done any number of times before, and something in her little Rottweiler brain just snapped.
She flared her nostrils, opened her eyes wide, spread her powerful jaws, and clamped down on my face, her upper teeth striking the bridge of my nose and her lower teeth sinking into the inside of my upper lip. My life moved into super-slow-motion while she brought her mighty jaws down on my face, and my horn-playing career flashed before my eyes. In that moment I knew with absolute certainty that if she wanted to kill me, there would be nothing I could do about it.
It must have hurt, a lot, but I don’t remember that part.
After an eternity, she let go of my face, gave me an even more frightened look, then ran downstairs and made a huge pile on the floor. Clearly her attack on a trusted friend had been a mistake.
I screamed for ice and an ambulance. Her owner got me the ice and we ran to her car for a breakneck drive to the emergency room. Fortunately, the nearest hospital was also one of the best in the area. The surgeon who eventually stitched my lip back together was a kind, patient woman who seemed to understand the gravity of this injury to a professional horn player. She used the finest gauge silk—the sort plastic surgeons use for facial work, she said—and she meticulously undid and redid her dozens of stitches until she was satisfied that the pieces were fitting back together properly, without misaligning or puckering any of the shreds. There isn’t enough local anesthetic in the world to ease that kind of pain, but even in my agony I was grateful for every searing moment of her diligence. My tongue still remembers the horribly swollen, feverish, bloody hamburger my lip had become, and even now as my tongue traces the scars, I cannot fathom how she sorted it all back into a lip.
Horn players call their lips their “embouchure.” I did too, until that night, when my embouchure became “the lip.” Not my lip but someone else’s. The kind of someone who didn’t have a career as a horn player. The kind of someone who hadn’t been playing horn daily since she was nine. Not me.
It wasn’t possible this happened to me. I loved dogs. Dogs loved me. I loved that dog. That dog loved me. I was the most stable and reliably kind member of her pack, and she knew it. I was raised by dogs, not attacked by them, for crying out loud!
I don’t know why she did it, and I don’t know what became of her after I moved out a few months later.
Those months were a slow agony for me. I was in incredible pain even with huge doses of Vicodin. I had no idea what would become of my embouchure, or indeed if I would ever be able to play again. I had no backup career goals. I was afraid. I was alone. I was depressed. The Vicodin made me lethargic and more depressed. Every morning I woke up feeling like I’d drunk three bottles instead of three ounces of Scotch the night before. Several times I tried to stop taking the Vicodin, because I figured that depression and pain were worse than just pain, and then I discovered how much worse the pain could be and had to return to the Vicodin, now behind schedule.
I reluctantly shifted back to an expectation that software would remain my career at least for the short term. For the long term, as it turned out.
It was almost four years later before I could begin to play again, and by then I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I’d lost my practice habits. I’d lost my hungry determination to win auditions. I’d also taken stock and realized that my life as a freelance musician had ground me into a person I didn’t like very much, and the chances of a full-time orchestra gig being any better than that seemed low. After several long hard talks with myself, I made some decisions about how I would return to playing but not let myself become that person again, and slowly I began to rebuild myself as a horn player.
I eventually recovered my full playing ability, and I even found that a number of stubborn problems in my playing had solved themselves during my extended break, but I never did recover my ambition to play full-time, nor has it yet stopped feeling like I’m using someone else’s upper lip.
The real damage from this whole sad story, though, is that I became afraid of dogs. I never stopped loving them or wanting to play and cuddle with them, but the instant any dog—not just Rottweilers and other breeds of ill repute but any dog—lunged even slightly in the direction of my head, I flinched.
Sometimes I flinched because I thought the dog might lunge.
Sometimes I flinched because something primal fired in my spinal cord to remind me that a dog did lunge, once.
Even Candy, when she jumped up unexpectedly, would cause me to jerk back in a fear response that I just couldn’t put behind me. But over the first year that she lived with us, Candy’s devoted, gentle attention to me, and especially to licking my tender face, changed something inside me. She earned my complete trust, and one evening while I was lying on the floor receiving her exuberant facial treatment, my giggles suddenly gave way to wracking sobs.
My body had in that moment remembered what my mind had mostly forgotten: the traumatic moment in which my love of dogs was brutally betrayed.
I couldn’t stop crying. I began to convulse, and Candy’s furious playful licking slowed to a gentle, patient pulse. I threw my arms around her neck, and she lay down next to me, never stopping her slow licking of my whole face, neck, and hair. My gulping and gasping slowed along with her tongue strokes, and when my breathing settled into calmness and I finally lay still, Candy rested her head on my chest. Neither of us moved for a long time.
I no longer flinch when a dog makes a sudden move. Candy healed my trauma along with my rosacea.
her skin and ears
Meanwhile, Candy’s own skin and ears were still a mess, and sometimes she just about drove us crazy with her scratching and licking. On a suggestion from some friends whose own labs had had ear troubles that they eventually resolved with a dietary change, we tried switching Candy to a limited ingredient dog food (duck and potato), and we started seeing improvements within days. Our vet speculated that Candy’s grass allergy wasn’t just topical—that all the wheat and other grass-family grains in mass-market dog foods were probably just as bad for her.
We made one other change that helped with her skin and ears. I don’t even remember why we did it, but we had her start sleeping in our bedroom every night, not just when I was out of town. At first she resisted, because dogs like their routines, so we had to shut the bedroom door at night after rounding up the dog and all the cats (since they needed to be on the same side of the door as their litter, water, and food). But when she was sleeping on the floor next to me, if she started scratching, I could tell her to stop—and she would! It turns out that her scratching was as much compulsive as necessary, so simply intervening with a command to stop was all it took to break her habit.
Within a few months, her coat was good as new, and her ears could go months between infections.
Now I remember why we had her sleeping in our bedroom.
Because we had landed at SFO after a weekend away and received a disturbing voicemail from the critter- and house-sitter reporting that Candy’s ear was really swollen. We hurried home, and when I entered the house, Candy did not rise from her bed. I ran down to her and was alarmed to see that her left ear flap was almost two-inches thick. We rushed her to the emergency vet, who diagnosed a hematoma: she’d been shaking her head so hard in frustration about ear-itchiness that she’d ruptured a vessel, and the ear flap had inflated with blood. They had to lance and drain the excess and shoot her full of antibiotics, and then they bandaged the ear back over her head and outfitted her with yet another dreaded conehead. The next day we took her to her regular vet, who put her under and quilted her ear together, and once again Candy had to spend several long weeks in a conehead.
Her ear kept draining a nasty meaty-smelling fluid for weeks, and we were all miserable with the dripping, wiping, splattering, smelly, sore, noisy mess that was her recuperation. It was during that period that we had to move her into our bedroom so that we could keep her from banging away at her conehead in frustration, pain, and itching.
I can’t even remember the chronology anymore, but I think the next conehead period was about a year later, when we found a lump on her right rear leg that kept growing. A needle biopsy showed that it had to come out, so once again our brave dog went into surgery. The post-op biopsy confirmed our fears: cancer, but Dr Dorsey explained that it was a slow cancer with a low recurrence rate, and that she would probably die of something else before we saw it return. It turned out she was right about that, but it didn’t make Candy feel any better about yet another several weeks in a conehead.
her other ear
A little over a year before the end, Candy and Jaryn and I were taking our usual afternoon walk when Candy was viciously attacked for no apparent reason by a Doberman pinscher whose owner couldn’t control her. The Doberman ripped off a chunk of Candy’s right ear flap while Candy stood there wagging her tail and wearing her usual friendly smile. While Candy and I ran back home, got in the car, and rushed to the emergency vet, Jaryn calmly gathered the neighbor’s contact information and extracted from her a written promise to pay for Candy’s emergency treatment—and then she went home and freaked out.
You see, Jaryn had fallen completely in love with Candy along with us. Every afternoon before our walk, in which we developed the friendship that would later see us through a series of awful life developments for each of us, she’d give Candy some kind of decadent home-made treat. She roasted many an organic free-range chicken breast just for Candy, and sometimes Candy would even get New York strip.
I had to leave Candy there for surgery, and the next four hours lasted forever. I briefed Jaryn, who gave me the neighbor’s information, and while we were talking, the doorbell rang—it was that neighbor, beside herself with apologies and worry. I gave her a copy of Candy’s surgery estimate, and she wrote a check on the spot. They both went home, and I settled in for the long wait.
A few hours later I got to pick her up—very groggy, looking the saddest I’d ever seen, and once again stuck inside a conehead with an ear bandaged to the top of her head.
She was under orders to have small meals and a mild diet for several days, and she didn’t want anything to do with the yogurt, scrambled eggs, and oatmeal I offered her. So Jaryn bought five varieties of organic potatoes, some carrots, and several organic chickens, and darned if Candy didn’t eat warm homemade low-fat, low-salt chicken-potato soup twice a day for a week. She loved it. Her ear took forever to heal, though—a several-inch chunk had been torn off and couldn’t really be stitched together, so we just had to keep it clean and wait it out. It was over a month before she’d shredded the conehead so badly it finally fell off, and a few hours later, her ear was bleeding again. It was several more days before it stopped bleeding for good. For the rest of her life, her left ear was thick and lumpy from the post-hematoma quilting and scarring, and her right ear had a big missing notch—but she was still the most beautiful black lab in the world.
her g.i. problems, & the beginning of the end
The spring before her last spring, we think Candy nabbed a small bone from the scraps of our Easter dinner of roast bunny and got it lodged in her throat, because she started making gagging sounds and went on a series of grass-eating binges starting on our walk that evening that triggered marathon vomiting, retching, and gulping sessions, punctuating weeks of relentless diarrhea. Any number of exams, lab cultures, several courses of antibiotics, and a handful of other prescriptions later, her upper GI situation seemed to be stabilized, but her diarrhea persisted. Months went by where Victoria and I anxiously reported poop consistencies to each other. “Firm poop!” was a joyous declaration. Seldom heard. Never twice in a week.
In June, we lost our beloved fifteen year old grey cat, Norton, and a few weeks later, we adopted a young Siamese kitten that we named Kaja Knekkebrød. Kaja loved Candy. She particularly enjoyed playing with Candy’s tail—she’d play volleyball with it when it was wagging, and she’d cuddle herself around it and chew it like a catnip toy when it was at rest. Candy was endlessly patient with her and even seemed to enjoy cuddling with her.
But the diarrhea continued, and she became gaunt, weak, and depressed. We exhausted all our vets’ ideas and finally took her to a GI specialist, whose best guess after $823 worth of examination techniques was that she probably had one of the vague problems old dogs have. We opted not to drop another $1100 on endoscopy and biopsy, reasoning that anything that invasive would likely do more harm than good in the big picture of Candy’s quality of life, for however much life we had left with her.
Instead, we googled and experimented, and after several weeks of a gentle diet of oatmeal and mashed sweet potatoes (with a pinch of Japanese sea salt, of course), her diarrhea had improved remarkably. But just as the diarrhea was calming down, the arthritis in her back end was flaring up. One horrible morning dawned with Pants lying in a puddle of her own pee on her dog bed. That was a first—she’d had a few indoor accidents, but nothing like this where she woke up wet before—and her embarrassment was obvious. I walked her down the flight of stairs to the front door and down the long flight of stairs to the driveway, and as we crossed the driveway to her usual spot, I noticed for the first time a clunking sound in her right hip that Victoria had mentioned a week or two earlier.
More worrisome, she’d been whimpering in the evenings and at bedtime. She would refuse to get up on our bed, which at first I thought was because it was harder for her to climb up, but then she’d come up for a few minutes but then jump back down to her bed, where she couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Pacing, standing, turning around, rolling over, and lots and lots of whimpering. She was also becoming more and more reluctant to go up and down stairs, needing persuasion and a rest at each landing. Her gait going down was funky looking. We could no longer avoid the conclusion that she was in pain.
We came back up, and she ate her breakfast and then lay down on her couch for a nap while I anxiously perused our book on dog health, looking up everything I could find related to pain, incontinence, digestive, and geriatric problems. I was upset and she was listless. Victoria was out of town for the week and unreachable, which only made things harder.
She and I stewed all day. We had long, upsetting talks. I saw tiredness and sadness in her eyes. Her little kitten friend Kaja Knekkebrød curled up with her for naps together several times.
I took her down mid-afternoon for our customary daily walk with her most devoted admirer, our friend and next-door-neighbor Jaryn. As soon as I saw Jaryn walking toward us, I started to cry, and I explained that I’d made an appointment at the vet’s office for the end of the day for a consultation and possible euthanasia. Jaryn was shocked but supportive.
When Candy and I arrived at the vet’s office, the receptionist and several of the nurses asked permission to say goodbye to Candy. They’d seen a lot of her over the years, and her unusually friendly nature had impressed everybody. The only time Pants was ever difficult was when it was time for her nail-trimming; then it would take two of us to hold her still enough for a third person to clip. They didn’t normally let people come to the back room for such procedures, because most owners only make their critters more upset, but they’d found that Pants and I were a different story.
Candy’s favorite vet entered the exam room with obvious sadness, and we discussed the situation. Although Candy’s digestive problems seemed to be calming down, we still didn’t know what was behind them. Her arthritis was clearly worsening, and the incontinence was a sure sign of age, but all of these conditions could be treated. We would treat the mystery GI problems and the arthritis alike with prednisone, we’d switch her pain meds to something stronger and compatible with pred, and we’d add some synthetic estrogen to help with the incontinence.
I agonized, asking how long it would take to assess whether the new prescriptions were helping, because I just didn’t want to put Pants through any more nights of whimpering or days of lying around looking sad. She said we should see improvement within a few days and certainly by the end of the week. I asked how much time she thought this would buy us, if successful, and she said that we would be back here at this decision again, but we’d probably get a few more months.
Seeing me wrestling with indecision, Dr Hart gave wise counsel: “You know, if you’re not sure, then it’s not time yet. Let’s give this a try, and let’s talk on Friday if not before.”
I brought Pants back home, and my neighbors reported later that they had joined my tears with their own when they saw Candy getting back out of the car and laboring up the stairs and into the house.
I gave Candy her supper of oatmeal, mashed sweet potatoes, and three new pills.
By the time I had finished my own dinner, it was as if I had a new dog. She was moving easily. She had wolfed down her dinner. She was playful. And best of all, she had firm poop! You can see the difference in her demeanor from the picture I took on Monday morning and one I took the next day. When Dr Hart called on Friday, I could barely choke out a thank you through my tears of joy.
In coming weeks and months, she made steady progress. Her arthritis seemed to be back at the level of annoyance, she had far fewer accidents, and her appetite was back to voracious. We eased her from oatmeal and sweet potatoes to a new formula (venison and sweet potato) of the hypoallergenic dog food brand she’d been on, and all was still well. At some point we tried a little of the old formula (duck and potato), and it was overnight diarrhea. We tested her back and forth several more times, and each time the result was the same, so our conclusion was that she’d developed a sensitivity to poultry. Given the antibiotics and hormones pumped into poultry, especially in China where a lot of her duck and chicken jerky treats were made, that wasn’t altogether surprising. Fortunately, she liked her new food, and between the prednisone and the new food, her GI tract seemed to be just fine.
In August, she came on a camping trip to Montana with us, and we all figured it would probably be her last visit home. She had a good time, swimming in the stream and even chasing her successor Flicka around a bit, but with the end clearly in our sights, Victoria and I decided to ask my folks and brother to start keeping an eye out for lab puppies in the local classified ads, and everybody said a last good-bye to Candy before we started the long drive home.
Candy’s convalescence continued into the fall, and we even started daring to hope that she’d make it until Thanksgiving when my parents were expected to visit. We also hoped she’d live long enough to pass on some of her knowledge to the next generation, and our search for a chocolate lab puppy continued.
In late October, we got a phone call from North Dakota. Mom and Dad were visiting my brother’s family in Minot, and a litter of chocolate lab puppies that my brother had noticed in the classifieds and discussed with me had just been born. The whole mispacha made a trip out to see the puppies, and they quickly settled on the female pup who had the darkest, prettiest coat. That wee week-old creature was small enough to fit in Mom’s hand, and Mom reported that she burrowed right in for a good, long cuddle. They emailed some pictures and even a few videos, and by the next morning, I’d called the breeder and mailed a check. Only $400 for an AKC-registered chocolate with excellent lines and all kinds of great field trial credentials!
My parents’ trip to Oakland for Thanksgiving was replaced by a plan for us to visit them in Butte instead, and for Kevin’s family to meet us there and bring our little puppy. She was not quite six weeks old, but she was weened, self-confident, and raring to go, so her breeders released her to Kevin and Jen’s care, and the next night I found her in Mom’s arms, just as cute as could be.
Kev and Jen had let her sleep with them in their bed. As Kevin put it, “Let’s spoil the little monster rotten and let Erin deal with the whining of her first night alone.” Thus she spent her first night away from her litter in my brother’s armpit.
We decided her next night would not be the night for her to whine it out, either. Adopting the “family bed” philosophy for the time being, we reasoned that at not even six weeks old, she had plenty to deal with already and didn’t need to get through separation anxiety on top of it. We also worried that if we put her on the bed next to Candy for the night, she’d probably wake up and leave several puddles and piles and we’d be none the wiser until morning. So we put her in the bed between us, and our first several nights were a wonderful furry snuggle-fest. When she stirred, one of us (usually Victoria) stirred, rushing her outside to squat a pond or to extrude a little curlicue of pencil-sized puppy poop.
After a few days’ discussion, we named her Kjersten Kjøttkaker, or “Kristen Meatballs” in Norwegian, to go with the three Siamese food-named kitties, Gudrun Gjetost (goat cheese), Sigrid Syltetøy (jam), and Kaja Knekkebrød (crispbread).
Once again, my parents said good-bye to their big black dog.
Little Kjersti loved her big sister, Pants. The very first night of our new familyhood, she plopped herself down on Candy’s thigh for a nap. Over the coming weeks and months, she stuck close to her big, black role model, and she learned. It’s remarkable how much she learned. By observation and a little encouragement from me, she learned to sit, to heel, to nap on the couch in my office all day, and when in doubt to cuddle in parallel formation with her big sister.
the happy ending
And so begins another dog story, which is the only way this story could have a happy ending.
Kjersti has been snoozing on the couch next to me all night as I’ve sat here in this office writing this. Each time I’ve started crying, she’s raised her head and blinked at me until I calmed back down.
She’s taken over from Pants as my personal trainer, and since she’s young and rambunctious, that means she’s my running coach. We go for several-mile runs together several times a week, and it helps both of us with our stress- and mood-control.
She also took over as Kaja Knekkebrød’s ardent admirer, cuddler, and protector, and Victoria and I are both over the moon about her. I never dared hope we’d get another lab as smart, willful, and beautiful as Miss Pants, but that’s exactly what our once-little Captain Ridiculous is turning out to be.
But I’ll always miss Miss Pants, the dog who gave me back my joyful love of dogs. May she rest in peace. Her memory is for the sweetest blessings I have ever known.
On her Yahrtzeit, a kaddish for the dog who heeled and healed.