Luigi

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On a beautiful day last September we made the incredibly difficult decision to allow our beloved Luigi to be taken from this life. He passed comfortably in the arms of those he has unconditionally loved for over 13 years, and who have loved him back equally fiercely. His life was a joy to us, and, we hope, to him. He was one of the best friends either of us have had in life.

Luigi made a lot of friends during his time with us, and we know that each of them will miss him in their own way. We appreciate your love (or tolerance!) of our boy and thank you for helping to make his life the hopefully wonderful thing that it was.

We sincerely hope that we gave the boy an exceptional life well lived, while realizing that we could not possibly have given him a fraction of the worth of the unconditional love and companionship that he brought to us. It is a very sad day because it was such a wonderful life, and that is as good as it can be. We will never forget you, Little Man!

– Wanda & Bill

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Bella

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(Photo by Nathaniel Wilder Photography)

Yesterday marked a week of living without Bella. I loved her fiercely for the decade-and-a-half that she was mine, and it was the steadiest, simplest, easiest, brightest love in my life.

More than simply (simply!) my friend and constant companion, Bella was my sense of home. We moved seven different times together. She came to me from a New Orleans shelter when she was three years old. Within days of getting her, I carted her on a long journey to the Arctic, our first home together, where she loved chasing ground squirrels feverishly and unfettered across a tundra that seemed like it couldn’t end through golden sunsets that stretched late into night.

The 14 years that Bella and I spent together were years of great change and transition for me. My life with her marked the phase in my life where I learned to live on my own terms, learned to follow my own internal guidance systems and trust my wandering, adventuring ways. Bella’s steadfast presence helped me feel safe taking risks, exploring, and changing everything again and again.

A few years ago, we spent a summer living together in a canvas wall tent high up on a mountain, next to a meandering glacier in rural Alaska. One night the temperatures plummeted, and I woke to find us both covered in frost, huddled together in my cot to stay warm. Repeatedly throughout our years, I clung to her. No matter how many transitions I went through or where we were living at the time, Bella was the part of my life that was steady, unwavering. Our daily routines—walks and treats and, in later years, carrying her up and down the stairs each morning and night—were often the most consistent things in my life. And her dependence on me made me, of course, depend on her.

When I first got Bella, she was malnourished and terrified. For our initial days together, I fed her from my hand—something the vet said would help her learn to trust me—and we bonded over small pieces of meat and her timid reaching for it. In her final weeks last month, Bella’s appetite diminished and she lost interest in most food. Trying to coax her along—determined to sustain her and keep her wasting body functioning, desperate for more time with her—I again began offering her food from my hand: meat, again, and donuts. (Yes, she loved donuts.) Often, she wouldn’t eat unless it was directly from my hand. In those moments together, pitiful and intimate and heart-wrenching, we came full circle, relying on each other, sustaining each other.

I have no shortage of love in my life. I have a supportive family, friends who delight me, and a partner who willingly (and unbelievably!) keeps choosing to share his days with me. I’m grateful for all the types of love in my life. But most relationships with people—even the best, loveliest, and healthiest of them—bring with them the need to reckon with compromise, quiet the ego, acknowledge our own dark shadow side, all of which requires effort, sacrifice, even struggle. It’s what makes love hard, a labor—a labor that is of course worth all it requires of us, but a labor nonetheless.

None of this is true with animal loves; that’s what makes animal love so sweet: It’s effortless. With our animal loves, we get to experience love that is pure in joy, total in delight. It’s all the light with none of the dark. It’s what makes animal love a relief.

Bella has been my relief. Loving her was the most natural, instinctual thing I’ve ever done—until the end, when I had to make the grueling, impossible choice of loving her enough to let her go. The endless chase across the tundra with her ended. The long-lingering sunset finally turned to darkness. It was the only time my love with and for her ever felt hard. And now of course this, the moving forward without her, feels like the heaviest labor I’ve known.

– Kelsea

Bye-Bye, Buh-ber

My nineteen-month-old daughter has a new word: Buh-ber. Normally I would be thrilled by this development, but it’s her word for Booker, the name of our fifteen-year-old dog, who I was hoping would die before she learned to name him. Of course, what I really want is for Booker to live forever, but because that’s not possible, I want him to quietly slip away without any of us noticing, as if scrubbed from our memories like Joel’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As he teeters terribly close to that time, his great big body frequently betraying him, it’s more than I can bear to imagine going through all we inevitably have to should it come down to our deciding when and how he goes. What haunts me most as we brace our family, our home, for Booker’s death, is how to prepare those who can not be prepared—like my wee daughter and my other dog, Safari, Booker’s best friend. I keep picturing them in the days and weeks after, wandering together from room to room, my daughter’s little voice chanting, “Buh-ber? Buh-ber?” I keep hearing myself in response saying what I always say to ease her separation from beloved things: “Bye-Bye, Buh-ber.” At that, she will wave.

In a word, Booker is old. Fifteen is ancient for a dog his size. Over the last couple of years, his back end has weakened to a place of sincere disability. A few months ago, x-rays revealed a kind of structural collapse from mid-back to tail. This was no surprise. He can walk, but unreliably. A change in direction can bring him right to the ground. He can’t wag anymore and instead uses his tail as a rudder the way cheetahs do when they reach their highest speeds, only Booker uses his just to keep himself up. He’s on a daily painkiller, though even the vet doesn’t think he’s in much pain. He does wear the niftiest harness that helps us help him when he can’t get up. (It’s called the Web Master Harness by Ruff Wear; I swear, it has saved us all.) He spends most of his time on his bed, which we moved into the kitchen once he started losing control of his bowels in the night. Every morning when he stands up we find a little present where he was lying. I told my husband the other day that it’s like collecting eggs from a chicken. He looked at me. “Except it’s poop from a dog,” I acknowledged.

Most of the time Booker still gets up and down our three outdoor steps connecting our porch to the yard, but sometimes his back legs give out and he falls. The other night, before bed, I called into the cold dark for him and then saw him lying at the bottom of the stairs. He hadn’t even made it to the yard yet. It’s similarly hit or miss whether or not he will make it the seven feet to his water bowl. We don’t take him for walks anymore, except around our yard, because the last time we did he dragged his back foot until his nail wore down to the quick and bled everywhere. He can’t jump into his favorite western New York lake anymore because the last time he did my husband and his brother had to jump in after him or he would have drowned.

All that said, Booker still eats like the winner of a Coney Island Hot Dog Eating contest. He still wrestles as best he can with Safari, who has learned to play with Booker on the floor instead of air-born in the yard. He still licks my children up and down and cleans the floor after every meal they’ve half-dropped, half-eaten. He still watches us with such soulful intensity that we can’t possibly pass by him without one more belly scratch. So indeed, in addition to the question of how will we do this there is also the question of when.

People often talk about eyes—that when someone is ready to let go, you can see it in their eyes, like they’ve already left a little bit. Booker’s balance may be gone, but his eyes are still so full and wide sometimes it feels like you could fall into them. He quivers when he sees us, lights up from head to tail when my husband, the love of his life, comes home. He still licks our palms and clambers to be closer, always closer, all the time. He seems more in occupational discomfort than physical pain. It’s clearly a bummer to him not to be able to get reliably from Point A to Point B, but once he falls, is it so bad there in that middle ground? I am sure that it’s scary to fall in the night and, unless his whimpers wake us one floor above, to have to stay stuck there until someone comes along, but is it painful? I imagine it’s not terribly comfortable to poop on your bed when your legs can’t carry you elsewhere, but does the morning light still bring hope? When we stumble into the kitchen for coffee and food and all the morning rituals of our home, is there still a thrilled little voice that goes off in his head: Movement! = People! = Scratches on my head! When we lie with him and he shimmies with the same nimbleness he always has just to give us better access to his belly, groaning his long lazy groans of rapture, does it make the rest worth it? When we help him to the yard and he free falls onto the grass or the leaves or the snow, burrowing his muzzle, rolling until we call him in, is he reveling in what he is still able or underscoring what little else there is?

To me, today, this remains a tough call. Still, I wonder, does Booker still want to be here as much as we still want Booker to be here? And if I wonder this we’re probably closer to an answer than I’d like to admit.

We’ve gone through two recent stretches where we thought we were going to lose him—days that seemed to represent not just funks but permanent deterioration—yet both times it was as if he heard our tearful late-night conversations and buoyed himself back up. We even had what can only be described as a goodbye party for him. That was four months ago. A few days after, I had the initial conversation with our vet during which I cried so much that my eyes swelled up and I had to ice them with a bag of frozen peas—a technique I owe to a particularly sad break-up. (Thanks, twenties!)

The only animals I’ve ever had to euthanize were in emergent, traumatic distress (internal bleeding, a burst tumor, kidney failure). I’ve never had to make a choice for them—there was no choice. So I had a lot of questions for Booker’s vet, who is wonderful on many levels, but is also one of Booker’s biggest fans. (The feeling is mutual.) She started by telling me that for him she would come to our house if that is where we want to do it. That relieved me. But then I thought of Safari, who Booker raised as much as we did—where would he be? Our vet said that usually for the actual procedure other animals are kept out of the room, but afterward it could be important to let them visit the body as a way of finding their own closure. This made sense to me. She said the only thing to consider if she came to our home is that it would be up to us to deal with his body. In other words, if we’re planning on having him cremated we will have to get him to the pet crematory ourselves. When you euthanize at the office, she explained, the crematory sends a vehicle at the time of your appointment. It was the one time I laughed that day. I needed it desperately, that ridiculous image of my husband and me, wrecked with grief, trying to get our gigantic dead dog into the back of the car. I’m still not sure how we will do it.

Or when.

For now, my husband and I check in with each other almost weekly about how we think he’s doing. We talk openly with our five-year-old about how old Booker is. We emphasize that he’s having a tough time. “Yeah,” our boy says. “He’s probably going to die soon.” Then, with growing concern, he starts listing the names of his grandparents, asking how old they all are. We have slowly become more comfortable—not with the idea of Booker’s dying, but with all the vocabulary that precedes death. We aren’t there yet, but we can talk about it. You could say, like Booker, we’re stuck.

We can see the here, our life with Booker—our kitchen with the disabled but determined old dog asleep in it; the sight of the blue plastic bags of poop on the porch, waiting to be carried to the trash; the feel of his weight against the harness strap as we walk him to and from the door. And we can see the there, our life without Booker—our wide-open future kitchen just as it was when we moved in; no dog bed; no poop bags; no cheap rugs spread out on the linoleum floor to offer his wobbly legs some traction. But we can’t see how we get from here to there, how we pass through the unpassable—how we make the decision; how we hold our dog until he is still; how we watch as our other dog explores him one last time; how we surrender his body; how we explain to our children that Buh-ber is gone; how we ever come home again.

– Chloe

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Jake

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Who would have thought that when my dad brought home the cheapest puppy from the pet store that he’d be bringing home my best friend? The same year I graduated from high school, Jake was brought into my life. He was there through the separation of my family, moving into a new house, four years at college, my moving out on my own, and a few different jobs. He may have started out as my dad’s dog, but it didn’t take long before everybody knew Jake was mine.

He was clearly not just a dog in my eyes. We were inseparable; he went just about everywhere with me. He loved going for walks, rolling around in the grass or snow, eating anything, and going for rides in the car. When we were apart he would always cry with excitement when we reunited.

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Jake not only made his way into my heart, but into many other hearts as well. Among visits with my grandparents, going with me to my different veterinary office jobs, hanging out with my friends, and even coming along to my pet sitting houses with me as a guest, he was a real dog about town. He was welcomed into so many houses, he walked in like he owned them all and no one even cared because they loved him. He also had tons of animal friends as well, whether it was his new housemate Stabler, my parent’s dogs, friends’ dogs, clients’ dogs, and even birds and a rabbit thrown into the mix.

I will never forget him because he’s always with me – his paw print permanently inked on my wrist. It was hard to let him go, but with everything he did for me over the years, it was my way to pay him back. Surrounded by those that loved him, he crossed the rainbow bridge and is now my angel.

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– Kristina

Axl

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He was the last dog in the last cage.

My roommate Peter had convinced me to come with him to the South LA pound. “Just to look.” The potential adoptees were jumping up and down, barking and pawing at the glass barriers. Except for one. Curled up in the far corner of the final kennel was a ball of fur. “Who’s that?” I asked.

It took two staffers to coax him out of the cage. He didn’t want to look up. He had a snout like a kangaroo and a head that was too big for his small body. He looked up at me with wide, fearful eyes as they brought him out. He didn’t want to run around or sniff things. He quivered with fear. When I went to pet him, he cowered like he’d been hit.

He’d been dumped at the pound twice. He’d never acted that way until he was returned the second time, a staffer explained. “He’s already had all his shots so you could take him today,” she said. I must have a thing for hard luck cases. I signed the papers. He was so scared that he couldn’t walk out of the pound. Peter had to carry his shaking body to the car.

On the ride home I sat next to him in the backseat, stroking his fur and talking to him while Peter and I discussed what to name him. “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses was playing on the radio, so we called him Axl. Later, I would joke that the two had other similarities: They were both redheads who liked to pee on things.

When we brought him home, Axl had an eye infection, kennel cough, and worms. He was 28 pounds. “I don’t want a dog that gets too big,” I had said at the pound. They told me he’d gain another 10 to 15 pounds. His giant paws suggested otherwise. He grew to nearly 80 pounds and was amazingly strong. Several times he yanked so hard on his leash—at the sight of a squirrel, a cat, another dog—he nearly dislocated my shoulder.

Axl had a double-coat of thick orange fur, spots on his tongue, a large, curled tail, and the most adorable underbite. For years I figured he was some sort of lab and chow mix. One day, Cris Dupont called me and said, “I know what your dog is! Dr. Phil has the same dog. Axl’s a jindo!” Jindos are a popular breed in Korea, where they are known for their willfulness, intelligence, and fierce loyalty to a single owner. That sounded like Axl.

For the first several years of his life, I was a freelancer and worked largely from home so Axl and I spent almost every day together. When I sat down at my desk to write, he’d plunk himself down behind my chair. When I went to the bathroom, he’d guard the bathroom door. When I’d go to the kitchen for a snack (how the typical writer spends approximately 72% of each workday), he’d perch himself under the table, his ears poking out as he waited for treats. I suspect his early abuse had made him wary of humans. When new people visited my pad, he’d growl and follow them around, making sure to place himself between them and me until they proved they could be trusted. Once he decided you were okay, he was eager for snuggles and scratches and affection.

For such a ferociously protective dog, he was remarkably affectionate. When I was sad and sobbing he would jump on my bed, lick my tears, and look at me as if to say, “Why so sad?” Or he would flop down with a heavy sigh and lay his head next to mine until I felt better. He loved to race back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, leaping onto the bed over and over again. At night he was my furry space-heater; he loved to curl up next to me.

If Axl was wary of humans, he loved his fellow canines. He NEVER barked first at other dogs. He stopped to sniff every dog he met and he wanted to play with them all. Well into his golden years, he had the energy of a dog half his age. Seeing how bouncy he was, people often asked his age. When I told them—10, 11, 12, 13—they were amazed. “He still seems like a puppy,” they’d marvel.

For 13 years Axl was with me nearly every day. Lolling about the house, going on walks, riding in the car (Axl adored car rides), running around Runyon Canyon, waiting for treats, snuggling with me.

A little over a week ago he had a seizure. He shrugged it off. So did I, terror in my heart. A couple days later he started refusing food. An MRI revealed a large, probably cancerous mass around his spleen. It was time.

Like most dogs Axl was a better person than most people. I am grateful that for 99% of his life he was healthy, happy, and active. That his life was full of walks, expeditions, affection, and delicious snacks. That he felt no pain as he passed away. That he was surrounded on his last day by people he knew and loved: Rob, Sean, Bjorn, Anthony. He was my true confidant and the sweetest soul I’ve known. I hope Axl knew how much he was loved. I hope he is in doggie Valhalla, a land where catapults fire tennis balls and Frisbees round the clock, where squirrels never mind being chased, where cars can be hailed with a bark and the windows are always rolled down, where steaks rain from the sky, and where the green lawn never ends.

Rest in peace.

Axl Rose Shatkin
2001 – 2014
The Best Dog Ever

– Elina

Murphy

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I had to say goodbye to Murphy today.

I’ve never liked the term best friend because it always seemed too idealistic and too hard to live up to, but he was mine.  He was my best friend and a better friend than I ever could have imagined I’d have.

He was 20 years old and to ask any more of him would have been selfish.  He had already taken care of me for way too long.

He died in my arms while my amazing vet sang to him ( the gospel song, “Like a Lion”). It was exactly the kind of goodbye he deserved and I am so grateful I was able to give it to him.

– Linda

Chase

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Chase, when he picked me at the Lawrence Humane Society: long limbs, long tail, slim head, ribs showing, vertebrae painfully obvious through the fur on his back. He reached his paws through the bars of his cage, encircled my neck as I walked past. I turned to look at him and we were eye to eye. Lightning to the heart: I knew that we knew each other, had always known each other, would always know each other. He was 15, ancient for a cat, skin and bones, arthritic. An ulcer covered one entire cornea, so that he squinted and wept at all times.It was the Fall of 2006; I didn’t want him to die in a cage.

I brought him home, and when I climbed into bed that night it took perhaps 30 seconds for him to jump up onto the bed to join me. He stalked from the foot of the mattress up to my face, sniffed me thoroughly, and then threw himself down beside me – as though he had waited, in misery, in a cage, and this right here was his reward. He stretched out  full-length, pressed firmly against my side, with his head on my shoulder and his arm thrown across my neck.

We slept that way every night for five years, with very few exceptions. I learned to sleep on my back, to be motionless, because sharing my immediate physical world with Chase was worth far more than comfort or uninterrupted sleep.

He was, in many ways, the love of my life. He was my teacher, my constant companion. He bore the indignities of old age with grace and patience. He took joy in the small things. He taught me to focus not on all the years that we did not get to spend together, but to instead be grateful for the fact that our paths aligned in his waning years. 

He died on Easter Sunday, 2011. It seemed a proper ending: the magnificent man cat, returning to the void on a day when choirs gathered and people raised their voices to the sky.

I have never felt so lost.

– Kelly

Hammy

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Though there are no photos of nine-year-old Tot’s hamster, Hammy, here is the condolence note his six-year-old sister, Callie, wrote him when Hammy died. A good lesson in animal and sibling love for us all. Sorry, Tot. Thank you, Callie. RIP, Hammy.

Miss Elegance (Ellie or Elle)

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Elle, as I knew her, was my paternal grandparent’s dog. I would see her, my grandmother, Mudder, and my grandfather, Daddy D, once a year during our Easter visits to Houston. Elle was graceful, sweet, and painfully shy. She appeared to be a mix between a deer and a dog (now I can see she must have had greyhound in her). She was so skinny that when she curled into an “O” on her bean-bag bed you could see every bump in her back.

Elle’s most beloved, Mudder, memorialized her with her remarkable needlepoint skills at age seventy-three, pictured below. (And let me just say, you think this is something, you haven’t seen anything. Mudder could stitch the Sistene Chapel. I’m even willing to bet she has.) Now ninety-four, Mudder no longer needlepoints – and I just miraculously inherited this tribute to Elle. Upon unpacking it, I was so moved to find the following words (along with Elle’s identification tag and the photo of my grandfather walking with Elle above) attached to the back, written in my grandmother’s patient cursive: “Ellie came from the SPCA, had been abused and was so afraid of shoes. Had she been kicked!? Horror. Eventually her trust grew and she loved us as we, she. The snapshot is her walk for the 5K Canine (K9) in 1988. What a dog!!!”

Thank you, Elle, one of the beautiful dogs of my youth. I now have a graceful, sweet, shy dog of my own – Safari – and I think of you every time I gently caution someone that when meeting him it’s better not to make eye contact. “If you hold your hand out,” I always say, “and look away, he will come to you.” You taught me that. Patience. I am so glad you found your way to Mudder and Daddy D. I am grateful I knew you. I do think, Miss Elegance, that for you there was no more perfect name.

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– Chloe

Mona

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In remembrance of Mona, our beloved standard poodle, who was the smartest, sweetest, and altogether best dog we could ever have imagined.  She lived for almost fifteen years, inspiring us with her love of life and constant affection.

– Jim and Anita Halverson