Saying goodbye to a friend
"My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today."
- Rabbit proverb, quoted by Richard Adams, "Watership Down."
A shared life
I made one of the hardest decisions in my life over the weekend. I had my best friend, one who was a part of my life for 15 years, euthanized.
I got her in late 1994 in Kingman, Arizona, when a co-worker's dog had puppies. Impulsively I took one; this one was the oddball of the bunch. While her littermates were shaggy and looked like there was a lot of chow in them, she looked more like -- well, a coyote. Though I set up a box for her to sleep in, she spent that first night on my bed. My wife didn't mind.
That wife didn't stick around long, and I've shared my life with a few other women since then. But the female who slept in my bed every night for the next 15 years was Hoodoo, half Australian shepherd and half who-knows-what.
She rode shotgun on several cross-country trips. We hiked together, camped together, did everything together. She knew not to beg at the table because I would always leave something from my portion for her to finish off. Some of my life choices revolved around her; even this beat-up "P.O.S." trailer I live in now was chosen over much nicer places because the owners accepted dogs. Better to live in a falling-down leaky rattletrap of a place where you're loved than in a mansion where there's no one to say they're glad to see you.
Pizza, squirrels, and Eric Dolphy
She was conceived and born in the Arizona desert, so having some coyote in her was not beyond the realm of possibility. She had the coyote's size and markings, the bushy tail, the golden eyes, the foot speed, and the voice. Especially the voice. It took her a while to learn to bark; her first language consisted of yips, cries, and other vocalizations with huge intervallic leaps over a wide tonal range. A friend of mine, hearing her first Eric Dolphy solo on alto sax, decided he sounded just like Hoodoo.
Although fully domesticated and loyal, she had a wild streak in her. I watched her pick a squirrel off the trunk of a tree while we were taking a walk. Even on her leash she moved so quickly I didn't have time to react. She shook that squirrel a few times and laid him down next to the tree, mortally wounded.
In some ways Hoodoo was a real handful. Hyperactive in her youth, a chewer and barker. She chewed up a pair of my favorite cowboy boots. She chomped through the power cord of my computer. I spent a good part of my shopping time looking for more indestructible toys for her. As a puppy she couldn't have caused more destruction if she peed fire.
As she got older she stayed noisy, and above all else she was insanely jealous. She could tell if I was talking to a co-worker, my mom, or a girlfriend on the phone, and if it was the latter she'd start acting up. And if I had someone over? Forget it. All females were a threat to her status.
See, we bonded early. I'd walk her to a grocery store and tie her outside. And she'd wait, watching the door until I came out. A few folks told me she'd never move, never take her eyes off the door.
Did I spoil her? D'oh! Does a cat have its own climbing equipment? Does the ursine mammal evacuate his colon among the cottonwood?
When she was a puppy, I brought her into the supermarket with me a couple of times. It was that or leave her in the hot car. I threw a towel over her head and carried her like I would an infant.
When driving, I would always leave a window open for her so she could stick her head out. This included a drive in southwest Indiana during a snowstorm in a Camaro with a broken heater. The windshield started icing over on the outside and the inside, but I never thought to pull her back in and shut the window.
In Tennessee, we used to go to this pizza place that had a patio. It was the first dog-friendly restaurant I'd ever seen. We'd go there, sit down, and split a medium pizza. The waitress thought that was the coolest thing she'd ever seen.
A pain in the butt? At times, yes, but it's probably no different from raising a child. There are times you may wish for a little retroactive birth control, but when all is said and done your child is your greatest pride.
And as my life had more turbulence than the law allows, Hoodoo was my steadying influence. She stayed with me through my impulsive acts, through my craziness, through major depressive episodes, through emotional breakdowns. And never once questioned her own sanity for putting up with me. Oh, yeah, she'd give the a thorough sniffing-down when I'd come home late, and pout if I carried the smell of another dog -- or worse, a female of any species -- on me, but she never judged me. If you want true, unconditional love from a flesh-and-blood creature, that's what dogs are for.
Wrestling despite decline
We grew older together. When we met I was 37, approaching my prime, on top of my own world. Now I'm 52, definitely a bit slower and less resilient than when I was 37. As she neared 15, Hoodoo began showing real signs of a decline. Like when we hiked around Santee, SC and she couldn't finish it. She collapsed about a quarter mile from our campsite, and I picked her up and carried her the rest of the way. She slept through most of the next day, which put me on edge as I monitored her breathing.
Later, more decline. Her hips deteriorated to the point where she couldn't walk without falling over. Her equilibrium was shot. When standing she'd lean against the door jamb or my leg to stay up. Her vision became more cloudy. Her ever-sharp hearing started to fade. Worse, she became more confused. When giving her treats out of the palm of my hand, she would miss the treat and start nibbling on my fingertips instead.
Last week, she tried to walk off. She acted out of compassion, I think. It's like she didn't want me to see her going about the business of dying. I let her outside for her morning constitutional, then put my shoes on to join her outside. By the time I got the shoes on, she was in the next-door neighbor's yard, hobbling and falling all the way over. That's when she collapsed. I picked her up, carried her home, and laid her down in my favorite camp chair, with a pillow under her. I set my office chair next to her, had my laptop and coffee with me, and stayed with her while I worked.
As she declined further, I wrestled with the idea of having her put down. Despite her immobility and forgetfulness, she kept that same fighter's spirit she always had. Besides, who do I think I am, God or somebody? Even domestic animals know when it's time to stop running.
At least that's the idea, and a nice one it is. But sometimes unrealistic. Over the weekend I noticed Hoodoo's lips and tongue were so dry they were cracked. I realized she couldn't get to the water dish any more. The only way she could take water was if I gave it to her from a water bottle, and that's only because I taught her that trick when she was a puppy. She stopped eating. She couldn't position herself to go to the bathroom.
So on Monday, I made the appointment. Took her in to the vet's office. Talked to her and stroked her fur as the needles went in, as those last hard-fought signs of life leaked out of her, as she became still.
This wasn't an easy decision. The emotional side of me still feels like a no-good heel, betraying my best friend like that. The rational side of me feels I did her a favor; she didn't need to suffer any more than she already was. And like real life, the real me is probably somewhere between those two polar extremes.
Rest easy, Hoodoo. I'll miss you.