Friday, November 2, 2012

Each [Dog] Touches So Many Others, He Leaves an Awful Hole When He's Not Around

Tomorrow -- Nov 03 -- marks the two-year anniversary of the loss of a very close friend of mine.

He left this world very suddenly, almost shockingly so.

He suffered an ailment that, despite my closeness to him, I was unaware of. If he felt poorly, he never mentioned it. But that was his way, really.

By the time I knew what was going on, it was too late.

He was a study in interesting contrasts. He could be fiercely independent and sometimes aloof, but to his close friends, he was gentle, warm, and kind. He could be stand-offish to strangers, but once he let you into his circle, you were a pal for life and could do no wrong.  

My children grew up with him nearby. He enriched their young lives, both physically and emotionally. Physically, he helped the youngest learn to walk, offering steady support as she toddled along. Emotionally, he was a constant presence, an open ear, a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.

He and I had long, deep, philosophical conversations on a steady basis. He listened well --very well -- and often responded to my problems with a silence that enabled me to figure things out for myself. A great gift, that.

He helped me reach beyond my own bubble and make friends that I would have never encountered otherwise. Although he is gone now, those friendships remain rock solid, and I expect them to stretch well into the future.

He helped me set goals, which we achieved together. I was very proud of our accomplishments as a team, none of which I could even have dreamed of before he became a part of my life.

Our relationship wasn't always butterflies and rainbows. We differed in approaches, opinions, habits, and details, and often it took a sturdy hand to show him that he had crossed a line. He never held it against me, though, appreciating the boundaries.

He had faults. He was not always friendly with those who were like him. I commented on his behavior often by saying: "He will never start a fight, but he will certainly end one."

Little kids loved him; my dad thought he was a prince; strangers who met him on the street would comment about his handsomeness; I still miss him on a daily basis.

He was Wesley, our black Labrador Retriever.

He came to our home in 2000 at eight weeks, when Amanda and Claire were little kids and Kristin was barely on the horizon. 

He had some health problems early on, including a heart murmur that turned out in adulthood to be tricuspid valve dysplasia (TVD),  an abnormality in one of the flaps of the heart that caused a little backwash of blood with each beat. As he aged, we addressed this issue pharmacologically.

His behavior as a teen was reprehensible, to the point that he was on the verge of losing his happy home and being returned to the breeder. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, including that supplied by our obedience trainer. Her advice and constant attention brought him around, and I remain grateful to her to this day for her insight, wisdom, and patience.

In adulthood, Wesley and I had some limited success with the American Kennel Club's program of obedience titles. He earned a Companion Dog designation, meaning he passed a number of tests designed to evaluate how well we worked together as a team. He also earned a title in Rally Obedience, which is similar but involves doing different behaviors on a course, dictated by a series of signs.

The last phase of his life was as a therapy dog. We were part of a program called DART, which stands for Dog Assistant Reading Trainers. Each week, we met at the local library to work with children who were having difficulty reading. The crux of the program is the fact that in non-threatening environments such as that created when reading to a dog, kids who struggle verbally improve dramatically.

All it really involved for Wesley was lying on the floor, next to a kid, and listening to him/her read for 15 minute intervals.

He loved the attention.

The years crept up on Wes rather stealthily. At age two, his muzz began showing a few gray hairs mixed into the weave. By seven or eight, this frosting was showing up on his haunches and between his toes.

He remained sprightly. After a snowfall, he was fond of leaping through the drifts and digging tunnels with his snout. And he never lost his interest in swimming, taking each opportunity he could to paddle through the water, come ashore to shake vigorously (the twizzle of his tail quivering last), and then dive in again for more.

But as the years wore on, his naps became longer and more sound. And I could tell that the winter chill was beginning to settle into his bones.

The end was ugly. A few days prior to his departure, he got totally disoriented during a walk around our neighborhood. It was as if he had suffered a stroke or something; he just stood on the sidewalk with a confused look on his face, not seeming to know where he was or what he was doing.

It frightened me. He wouldn't even walk, just stood stock-still.

In a few seconds, though, it passed, and we came home.

A handful of days later, he stopped eating. And the morning of Nov 03, he wouldn't go outside at all, unable to rise from his sleeping spot on the floor. I called the vet and got an emergency appointment. Somehow by the grace of God, I got him in the car and over to the office.

Tests followed. The vet was unsure what the issue was until he did a CAT scan and found a large, ugly tumor on Wesley's spleen. Worse, it had ruptured. I was told that even if it had been whole, removing it was a dangerous and often fatal proposition. But since it had ruptured...

I was numb. I knew this day was coming eventually, but I had no idea it was that day. I called Eileen at work and we wept. She offered to take off and come and share this final farewell with me, but I declined. This was my task to do, and I would do it alone. We were ushered into a separate room, and Wesley Matilda Murphy was set free.

The outpouring was enormous -- more than I could have dreamed. Wes had led me to an online community of Labrador Retriever owners, and, in sharing his escapades over the years, we had become very close to the fellow owners there. Their grief was almost as compelling as mine.

And our obedience class friends were all shaken. Even though Wesley and I hadn't competed in years, we continued to go to class. It was good for him to continue to sharpen his skills. It was good for me to get outside, bond with others, have a laugh or two.

Wesley gave many gifts over the course of his life. I like to think of the kids he helped as readers, that perhaps they're on their way to high school now, bolstered academically by a paunchy guy with a big black dog that listened to their stories. 

As a final act, his remains were donated to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. I had been contacted with the initial diagnosis of TVD and told that, should I choose, the veterinary community would find enormous value in the ability to study his heart post-mortem. I decided that day that if I could spare some other family the difficulty of dealing with this disease, Wes' demise would have a benefit.

Wes' heart was too big for one family, anyway.

Wes changed our household. In fact, he continues to have an influence. Not only are we still finding errant black hairs nestled into the nap of the carpets but we also have been so indoctrinated into the joys of owing a dog -- a Labrador Retriever at that -- that we've re-upped for this adventure with another dog. Parker, a yellow Lab, is quite unlike Wesley was, but he has also found a way into our home and our hearts, thanks to the path his predecessor forged.

So tomorrow, as usual. I will be up before the sun, leash in hand, dog trotting at my side. I will smile as he sniffs from adventure to adventure, prancing happily through the fallen leaves, nose working double-time at the scents brought in by the autumn breeze. 

But if I'm a little quieter tomorrow, a little grateful to be somewhat on my own, a little blue, a little distracted, a little wistful...


You'll understand why.

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