Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Last Walk

I spent last night laying with my head against Chico, trying to comfort him. They often say you never really know when your last moment is going to be your last moment. Last week we took the whole family to the coast and on our first day I took Chico down to the ocean and he ran like a puppy...well, a very stiff legged puppy, like rocking horse running, but he pranced around at the edge of the ocean like he has done so many times. Like all the ocean walks up and down the California and Oregon coast, like the morning walks we would do together in Guatemala as he would chase crabs down into the surf. He has always loved the ocean. Maybe he is a reflection of me.

Last night, although he couldn't hear me, I told him stories about all our adventures and tried to thank him for so many wonderful years. I haven’t written anything in a while. Life has been so busy with work, and kids, and dogs, and house, and more. Maybe, I just haven’t felt the need to share, but this moment, this moment feels so tough that I need to share. So many nights on the computer I have had my feet tucked underneath Chico while I type. He would remind me to get up and take walks and get outside and to smell the nature around us. Sometimes it was just this big breath he would take and exhale and he would remind me to breathe too, to just stop and take a big breath. 14 years together now. Two countries, multiple states, 8 houses, a thatched hut, a warehouse, a van, 5 trucks, a few cars, too many sunsets to count.

As I write, Chico is holding on to his life. Maybe I am holding on to his life. I can’t tell just yet. I can’t fathom a life without him. Normally, when I write, it starts out on a hike with him. We would head for some ridge line or remote outcropping of rocks to sit on and watch the earth spin. Those of you closest to me know this. Then, I would come home and tuck my feet under him as he would sleep under my desk while I typed, getting up to remind me to take breaks. I did this. I made Chico a central part of my identity. More people know my dog than me. He’s on my phone, on my credit card, on my website. I have always seen him as the best part of me. That’s changed recently with the family. He has been folded into this tribe, this pack of people, begrudgingly on his part I think. He preferred the front seat, and preferred the full size bed, and preferred my pillow. Someone once told me you get one heart dog in your life, the dog that just really gets your heart. You can still love other dogs, but not like this one.

I now have 30 minutes left at home with Chico. We were up all night, mostly me trying to soothe his pain. He would toss and turn and whimper and try to get up and I had no idea what he needed or wanted. I knew it was just time to take his pain away from him. They don’t know exactly what it is. We thought it was a soft tissue injury, but it isn’t responding to any treatment. And even if that was, he has pancreatitis, his lungs aren’t doing well, and he still has Cushings Disease. It all might be connected. He might have another tumor growing on a nerve somewhere. It seems anything else now would be more for me than for him. It is time to say goodbye, but I well-up inside each time I think about it. He has been my shadow now for 14 years. I have felt his warm body pushed against mine, he has wedged himself in the hammock with me, into my sleeping bag with me; I have laid my head on his chest for my pillow after so many long days; his hair has soaked up my tears.

I try to remember all the mountain peaks we have stood atop, most without names, just us following game trails into the evening to watch a sunset on some remote area of the world. When he could no longer run with me, I took up paddle boarding and we paddled evenings with him as my masthead to my board. I was always afraid a mountain lion would get him, or a rattlesnake bite, or someone might steal him when I left him out front of the grocery store. We put a lot of miles on those paw pads of his. And when he couldn’t keep up, I bought a bike trailer and hauled him around like I was his human chariot.

These will be the last words I write with his body pressed against mine. 14 years of writing has flowed from his warmth to my fingertips. No more strange haircuts. No more silly tricks. No more of those big brown eyes beckoning me to take him with me wherever I am going. I rarely said no. Even when we moved to Guatemala and finagled my way into calling him my emotional support animal for anxiety. It isn’t true, but not not true either. I have surely been his emotional support human. I have always told people he is loyal, not brave. I don’t want these sentences to end. I don’t want this moment to end. I want time to stop, but I also want his pain to stop. I keep looking at the clock and seeing the minutes fall away from me. He has taught me to love and I have so much still to give to the world. These girls in my life need me. 

I teach courses in identity. I do research on the effects of identity and how that connects to our behaviors. I often talk about thresholds of our identities and how difficult it is to lose them or let them change. I recently became “Dad,” and it felt pretty easy. But in a few more minutes I am going to lose this identity of my life with Chico. He has always been the better part of me. I was always so proud to walk down the street with him. I loved the way people would look at him and some people would make that soft exhale of joy and it made me feel good. I knew, if nothing else in my life was that great, this dog was really great. He was mine and I was his and that made me feel important. His eyes were always watching me, ready to get up when he saw my backpack go on, always ready to follow no matter how tired or hungry, he was at my side. I won’t be alone now, but he won’t be there.

I went up stairs and mixed cement to do a paw print for him. Amanda bought it for me. She did one for me for Xmas and I was mad at her. Maybe not mad, but I wasn’t willing or ready to accept this yet. I still am not ready. But I mix the cement and ready for this change. I am not sure how I will pick him up and carry him to the car. This weight feels too heavy. I feel I am betraying him. I am giving up on him. I have to stop writing now and just lay with him for these last minutes.

When the time came, I hugged him and picked him up into my arms. He cried in pain. I carried him to the car and on the way we stopped to make a print of his paw. I sat him down in the back and crawled in next to him. I rode that way with him while Amanda drove. The vet is a friend I knew before she was a vet and she was immensely helpful and understanding. We carried him into the room, then inserted the IV, and told me there was no rush. I couldn’t wait. I could sit there. I held him, I wept uncontrollably, sobbed more into his fear and told him how much I loved him. They first put him to sleep and I held on to him and told him I love him, I love him, and his heart stopped, his breath stopped, and he was gone from me. I laid on the cold floor next to him still feeling the warmth of his body and snuggled into his fur. I held his paw in my hand like I had so many nights. I lifted his tail and watched it fall to the ground like I used to do. I spooned with him, I touched his nose, I pulled his beard the way he hated me to do it. He would sound like Chewbacca when I would act like I was going to grab it. I rubbed his ears and just wished he would nuzzle my hand when I stopped to ask for more. But he didn’t. He is gone. I told him to “shake”, and I held his paw. I told him “other paw,” and grabbed his other. I told him “stay.” I told him “with me.” He will always be with me in some way. I can’t find comfort in these platitudes, but I try.

I am empty now. For 14 years this dog went everywhere with me. I could turn to look around in the room and always find his eyes watching me. If I got up, he would jump to his feet and be ready to go with me. If I was in the bathroom, he would softly whimper at the door, sometimes I let him come in. My life was organized around him. I know now I have so many more things to love, three girls and a partner, and I know we must grieve, we must work through these stages, but I can’t fathom that I won’t have him here. When all the world felt bad, when my day was shitty, when I just felt down, he was there to love me and want to be with me, and we would go for a walk and everything just seemed OK in the world. I can’t fathom how alone he is now. I was always so afraid to leave him alone. He was a street dog when I first got him. He was found with his brother roaming the streets. I took him away from his brother but I tried to give him the best life a dog could ever have and he gave back to me all he had too.

So many of you out there have been a part of this life too. Walked with us, hiked with us, paddled with us, ran along the shores, let him into your houses, cared for him. I appreciate that. I want to go hike up to a ridge right now and watch a sunset and try to put perspective to this whole thing, but I don’t think I can yet. Those sunsets have always included him. We have watched sunsets together thousands of times now. He would sit next to me while I journaled and made some sense of a world that just doesn’t make sense, but somehow, nature would find a way to bring it all together for me. I already know that this whole thing is natural. Death must happen, it is all part of some cycle. But I would deny those natural principles if I could right now. I would awaken demons, or mummies or vampires, or aliens, or whatever else I could to have him back with me. I know I am not the first to feel this way either.

When we get back home, the house feels empty, life feels empty. Like, so much of my attention was always on him, he was watching me, but I was always watching him. So here I am, without you. Without Cheeks, Old Man, Flufalufagus, Monks, Stinky, Prancy, Pokes, Pretty Boy, Curly, my dog, Chico. I hope still to see you all on the trail. And maybe there are some trails in some beyond place. I don’t think so, but you never know. I sure would love to stand atop one more mountain with him if I could, just one last walk. And if it is possible beyond this life, then I hope we can find that trail one day. With me Chico...with me.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Good Boy

Good boy

I imagine I am like many people right now, living in my covid bubble looking out through distorted social media lenses to the outside world. It is a struggle. I often joke that I never knew I could be such a nag. And yet, I am also trying to enjoy the little moments too. Sometimes, I have to take them in long after everyone is in bed and I reflect on little things one of the kids said or did, and not the frustrations but the love. Watching these little humans mirror my own world, watch as I give them lenses in which to see the world and it feels so easy to give them toil and heartache and death, and too easy to forget about laughter and light and the first winter rains.

My dog, Chico, is mostly deaf now. He has to smell me and see me or he gets so worried. I find him often staring out windows and I will call to him, but he can’t hear me and so I touch him and startle him and he labors to rise up with his old knees and hips but rushes to my side to rub up against me in joy. And kids and partner, it is so easy to take for granted their excitement to have me in their lives, the way they too jump to their feet to run and tackle you after you took the one quick trip out into the world, masked up, hand sanitizer waiting, out to safely stock up on supplies only to get home, shut the door, and huddle together with your finds and treasures, mostly leeks and avocados with some half and half. OK, I always sneak a treat or two. I watch Amanda rise many times in the night to feed the baby, to give Marebel a comfort of which I can never match, sustenance, life, the return of a long lost limb amputated away, united again. These four girls that light up with smiles and kisses is more than I deserve really and too often I forget to realize that. 

I walk Chico out into the night. The Geminids are out right now and supposed to be giving quite a showing, but there is a heavy mist in the air and I look up as we walk and imagine the debris flashing through the muffled night sky, the debris of an asteroid; most meteors are grains of sand shed from the parent asteroid when it goes too close the sun, cracking and splintering in the heat, as small dust and sand separates and forms the asteroid tail, these left behind remnants of rock burn up in our atmosphere 50 miles above us. We call them shooting starts. 

I tell Chico, Good boy as he follows along with me, though he can’t hear it. Habit. Bluebird, our young lab, runs far ahead, oblivious to all. Sometimes I yell Good Boy to Chico hoping he can hear me, he never does. I often wonder if he understands why everyone seems to have stopped talking to him, why the world became muffled and quiet. When we had our third girl, Amanda got me a shirt that says Dad of Girls, I noted, DOG, Dad of girls. I am a dog, and way too often I don’t hear them saying Good boy to me. I take all this love for granted. But at night, when everyone is asleep, I walk into each room to make sure everyone has blankets, I pull out Blue’s bed for him, and I encourage Chico over to his bed next to me. I often realize I don’t deserve such life and love. I try to remember to be grateful for all that I have right now. It is too easy to forget. 

Chico falls into bed, doesn’t even circle, just collapses, and starts to snore. He sleeps right next to me, and when I hear his breath laboring, I put my hand on him and he calms down. I still lean over to him, and whisper Good Boy, good boy. Maybe I am saying it for myself really. Maybe I am wishing I could love so unconditionally and fully the people of my pack. I tell myself, I will…I will.