With Dog as my copilot

April 20, 2010 was the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded. I remember it well. I had packed up my Audi wagon to the brim with my belongings and headed out from Georgia, returning to California. There was one small space left open in the car – the front passenger seat – and he took that as his own. As we drove through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that day, going into night, the local radio stations continuously updated us as to when they expected oil to hit their shores.

Around midnight, we took an unscheduled detour when I made the decision that he should visit New Orleans. A quick stop in front of a memorial for Marine Corps nurses and an out of focus photo would be the genesis of a blog about his cross-country trip, which I updated for a few more years with photos from some of our other adventures.

In all, he lived in two states on opposite coasts, stepped foot in eleven more, and swam in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico.

He was a rescue, a gift from an ex-girlfriend. The story I was told by the rescue organization is that his mother had been a ranch dog protecting sheep, but she fell deeply for a local coyote. She got pregnant and disappeared. When the rancher went out looking for her, he found her in the coyote’s den, nursing her litter of coy pups. He was so enraged that he grabbed his shotgun with the intent to kill them all. That day or the next, hikers heard a cry coming from the den and they found the only remaining puppy trying to suckle from his dead mother’s teat.

I’ve never been able to validate that story, but I’ve kept it as his because it represents what he was – a survivor.

As a puppy, he grew up in San Francisco with an older dog, who, after digestive issues, had her colon removed. He would annoy her consistently, but she took him under her wing and I would often see him nuzzled up next to her with a smile on his face. We lived a couple blocks from Golden Gate Park and would often walk to the beach or to the bison paddock. He was fascinated with the bison. Later in life, our long walks would evolve into long hikes in the mountains.

By the time we returned to California, the older dog was no longer with us. We moved in with my grandmother, a bright woman in her 90s, but ailing and in need of assistance around her house. When we arrived, Grandma insisted he stay in his crate in the garage. He howled the first two nights and on the third night, the howling suddenly stopped. I went into the garage to make sure he was ok and there he was, sitting in front of the crate, having a conversation with my grandmother about why he should be entitled to sleep in my room with me. He won the argument.

I began to take him to obedience training. One day, my grandmother, who could barely move around the house with her walker, wanted to see what he had learned. She asked if she could walk him to the end of the lawn. He not only kept pace with her, but they went to the end of the block, six houses down and back. They had become the closest of friends.

A week later, I was working on my laptop and using headphones so as not to bother my grandmother when he ran into the room barking and pawing at me. I took the headphones off and could hear the faint cry from my grandmother. “Help me. Help me.” She had suffered a stroke and fallen on the floor. She would pass away a few days later in the hospital.

We were flying her body overseas for her funeral and it was a holiday weekend. I could only find one kennel that could take him at short notice, but they wouldn’t be able to until after I left for the airport. I chained him in the backyard and arranged for a family friend to pick him up a few hours later and take him to the boarding facility. When she detached him from the chain, he made a mad dash and lunged over a six foot fence. For the next week, he was spotted by numerous neighbors along the creek behind our property. Many thought him to be a coyote.

I cut my trip short and returned home, leaving the gate to the backyard open and the light on in the house, just so he’d know I was back. Late that night, I heard scratching at the sliding glass door to the back patio. He had lost about ten pounds and his fur was filled with foxtails, but he was alive and glad to see me.

About five years ago, I fell in love with the woman who would become my fiancé. In fact, he was there last year on a secluded Northern California beach when I proposed. She had a cat, and against all logic, he and the cat became best friends. We would often take them on walks without their leashes, and the two would stroll right next to each other. They were inseparable.

In 2020, the cat broke a bone in one of her legs and the x-rays showed advanced cancer. He knew. He spent every moment he could with her, comforting her. We would often see the two resting on the couch, with his tail wrapped around her.

A few months after she passed, we bought a puppy. We wanted him not to be alone. It was his youth all over again – the puppy would antagonize him, but he took it under his wing and we’d often find the two sleeping together.

A few years ago, he was diagnosed with arthritis. His pace slowed. We couldn’t take the long mountain hikes anymore. But he would trudge through the local woods, no matter how painful, if he had the chance to swim in a creek. He loved water.

Earlier this year, his breathing worsened. On May 30, 2021, he refused food and we took him to an emergency veterinary clinic. X-rays and ultrasound showed that he had developed tumors in his right lung and that he was either suffering from pneumonia or had liquid in his lungs, exacerbated by the cancer.

He was placed on a daily regimen of medication and a humidifier was set up in front of him. Per the doctor’s instructions, we took him into the bathroom twice a day and turned up the hot water in the shower, creating a sauna.

On Saturday, June 5, 2021, he again refused food and I told my fiancé that I was pretty sure this would be his final day. At 11:30 am, we went with him into the bathroom sauna for 15 minutes. He came downstairs with us. His breathing was aggravated. His paws were straight out, something he only did when he was angry or in pain, grasping at his dog bed with each strenuous breath. It was painful to see him like this.

At about five minutes until noon, he went back up the stairs and into the crate I had bought for him just minutes after his adoption. He lay down on his beloved Star Wars blanket, in the one place he had always felt safe.

About ten minutes later, the puppy appeared in front of me, sitting on the living room floor, shaking.

I’m not sad. I’m happy. And here’s why. When he was angry or in pain, he would stretch his paws straight out and try and get a good grip on whatever surface he was on. When he was happy, he would cross his front paws and smile.

I went upstairs to check on him. The puppy followed, but she was afraid to enter the bedroom. Finally, she did and jumped on the bed, but she continued shaking. There was no rough coughing. His mouth was curved up into a smile. I did the four tests to confirm that he was dead – check for ticking of the body. None. Place a mirror to the nostril to check for breath. None. Touch the side of the eye to see if the eyelid moves. Nope. Feel for pulse under the forearm. None. As I reached under his torso to get the pulse, I noticed something.

His front paws were crossed.

I miss him, but I’m happy for him. In my mind’s eye, he’s now with his big sister dog that took him under her wing, my grandmother, who grew to love him so much, and his best friend, the cat.

And he’ll be with me. In my memories until my final breath.

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