Apr 29, 2022

A Dog's Life

I began writing this piece on 4/19/2022. I plan to work on it until our close friend, Gypsy dies. It isn’t a journal of those sad days. It is intended to be an obituary of the most amazing non-human life I have ever experienced. Gypsy died on 4/29/2022 at about 12:30PM. In death, as in life, she did her best to be as thoughtful as possible.

This week, as I begin to write this essay, which is very likely to become an obituary, Mrs. Day and I are watching the last days of our 15-year-old best friend, Gypsy, play out. She joined our family, often as the smartest member, a little more than 14 years ago, near Mrs. Day’s birthday in September, 2007. She was a shelter dog and she and a sister had been caged convicts in a puppy mill that the Minneapolis SPCA had raided a few weeks earlier. Gypsy looked like a cross between an Australian Shepherd and a Blue Heeler, so that’s what we described her as her whole life. Her sister appeared to be a classic, black and white spotted Australian Shepherd. Both dogs were being treated well by the adoption agency where Mrs. Day found her and they appeared to be calm, friendly, and intelligent. It could have been a quarter-flip as to which dog we picked, but Mrs. Day really liked the Heeler color and markings. So, we went home with Gypsy (the name Mrs. Day gave her, not the name the shelter had given her). Our previous dog, Puck, who had lived with our daughter’s family for a few years, had died a few days earlier and Mrs. Day was convinced our granddaughter needed a dog to live with. I still hadn’t finished mourning the dog before Puck, a chow mix who had died 5 years earlier. I doubt that I would have ever brought another animal into my life if Mrs. Day weren’t so resolute that we “needed” one.

The ride home was a warning of what the next 15 years would be like. Gypsy whined, shivered, and paced frantically in the back seat of the car all the way home. As soon as the car stopped and she jumped out, she was “normal” again. For at least 15,000 miles of our lives, Gypsy put on that same show every time she was in a moving vehicle of any sort. She was terrible to travel with by vehicle. If we’d have wanted to walk from Minnesota to California, Gypsy would have been all for it.

The first day Gypsy was introduced to our household, she knew she belonged there and did not ever want to leave. We had a cat at the time, Spike. Spike was a neutered male who pretty much thought he owned the house. When we first got him, Puck was already part of our household. Puck accepted that kitten as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Likewise, when Gypsy arrived terrified, shy, and confused. Spike took a good look at her and walked away, back to his usual routine. Until the day Spike took off on us, after about a week living in our camper, they were the closest of animal friends. I am not lying here, but I wouldn’t believe it if you told this story to me: Spike would catch and kill rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife in our Little Canada backyard and deliver them to Gypsy to devour for the cat’s entertainment. I really wish I’d have taken a picture of that behavior. Spike would just drop the dead animal at Gypsy’s feet and she’d make the prey vanish as if it had never existed. Barely a puff of fur left over, at most. When our most recent cat, Doctor Zogar, came into our family, Gypsy gave that nasty little brat the same kind of generous welcome Spike had given her. Gypsy played with both cats as energetically as if they were all kittens from the same mother, but she was always careful not to hurt them. I can’t say that care was repaid with any sort of kindness by Zogar. (Who I always called “Stinker.”) Zogar regularly spiked Gypsy’s nose and tried for eyes occasionally. I never hit Gypsy in anger, ever, but I batted that damn cat across the room fairly often when he hurt my dog.

Mrs. Day took her for a walk in our Little Canada neighborhood that first afternoon and Gypsy slipped her collar and ran off several blocks from home. Mrs. Day was convinced her $300 “investment” had run off and vanished on the first day, but Gypsy was waiting on the front porch when Mrs. Day came home. For several weeks, Gypsy didn’t want to leave the house and had to be forced out the door into the backyard to relieve herself. If we weren’t quick enough, she had decided the area in front of my office closet was a satisfactory “bathroom.” In a few days, the carpet and floor under the carpet were ruined.

We had a fenced yard, but she was unhappy inside that fence. So, I bought a “wireless fence containment system”: essentially a transmitter with a shock collar. I sent the collar to the lowest shock setting and walked her around the wireless fence perimeter, which I’d marked with flags. She freaked out at the first shock and we only stayed near the border long enough for the collar to beep after that. We did the same routine the next day, without the shock and she had it figured out. From then on, she was the smartest animal any of us had ever known. She marked out exactly the boundaries of her electronic “fence” and patrolled that area like a military guard. She did discover, much later, if she ran through the border and kept running down to the lake shore she’d either escape the shock or it would be brief enough not to be a problem. She rarely did that, though.

In December of 2011, I had a full hip replacement. I was determined to be mobile again in time for the 2012 motorcycle safety training season, which would start in mid-May for me. I had even loftier, less realistic goals for before that deadline and I was slowly failing to meet any of those targets thanks to pain and Minnesota winter. By then, Gypsy was a spectacular Frisbee dog along with several dozen other amazing tricks and behaviors; including being able to jump into my outstretched arms on command, leap head-high (to me) to snag any object out of my hands in a running, flying leap, and jump on to any reasonable object around 5’ high from a standing start. One of my favorites was called “go ‘round.” On that command, Gypsy would run the perimeter of our yard full blast, which was as fast as I have ever seen any animal run. I’d seen something like that in the sheep dog demonstrations at the fair and Renaissance Fairs. My grandson helped teach her the trick by running ahead of her until she figured out the routine. Then, no one alive could have kept up with her let alone lead her. She was the dog I’d dreamed about when I didn’t even know I liked dogs. (I delivered newspapers as a kid and read water meters for the City of Dallas for 3 years. At the end of those experiences, dogs were never high on my list of interests.)

So, as I was struggling with maintaining my rehab discipline I kept up our afternoon walks and tried tossing her the Frisbee. The problem with the Frisbee was that I had initially trained Gypsy to drop the Frisbees at my feet. We would sometimes do a kind of relay toss where I’d flip her a Frisbee 15’-20’ out and she’d return it on the run, drop it at my feet, and keep running in the same direction where I’d toss her another Frisbee. (I wish someone had video recorded us doing those things, but I’m the only person in my family who knows how to use a damn camera.) After the hip surgery, bending over to pickup a Frisbee from the ground was close to impossible. Gypsy figured that out on her own and started handing me the Frisbees about waist-high. That became a huge, incredibly distracting and enjoyable part of my daily physical therapy and, thanks to my dog, I was back walking 11 miles a day and teaching a full schedule of motorcycle classes in early May of 2012. My dog was my best, most dedicated, most sympathetic physical therapist and I can only hope I never need that kind of help again because she won’t be there to take care of me.

If you are one of those unperceptive, species-centric goobers who believes that animals do not have a sense of humor, Gypsy would have laughed in your face and you would have to be a complete fool not to know it. She had a wonderful laugh and a smile that was, literally, ear-to-ear. Her joy in running, jumping, wrestling, and performing her many tricks/behaviors was undeniable. On my worst, darkest depressed moments, Gypsy could make me smile and laugh. As happy as she often made me, I don’t think I ever realized how sad I would be at the end of our life together. As I write this, I feel like my head is overfilling with tears and sorrow. It physically hurts as badly as the worst headache I have ever experienced. I can’t imagine being willing to go through this ever again.

Gypsy had so many tricks (“behaviors” for the politically correct crowd) and she’d taught herself most of them. Speaking of the sense of humor, one of the first things she did was when someone would say “cute face,” she’d cover her face with both paws and act shy. That unmistakable guffaw would often follow that if someone would pet her and talk baby talk at her. She had the most gregarious hand-shake of any animal on the planet. She would raise her right paw even with the top of her head and swing it into your hand to shake. It looked like she was someone almost impossibly happy to meet you. The usual “roll over,” “sit,” “lay down,” “stay,” “speak,” and dozens of other words and actions were almost naturally in her vocabulary. We had to spell words like “walk,” “hike,” “go out,” “outside,” and anything else that might imply going for a walk or she would be whining at the door, looking up at her leash, waiting to go for a walk. Like most dogs of her breed, “heel” was a tough command to obey. She could do it, but she’d much rather take off to the end of her leash and nose about. Early on, she was a plow horse but she learned that obeying “don’t pull” got her a lot more freedom. She also understood “right” and “left” even off of the leash.

While Gypsy might have been the worst traveling companion possible, whining in spectacularly irritating and painful ways non-stop for whatever the length of the car ride, she was the best camp dog imaginable. She was fearlessly protective of Mrs. Day (as seen at left worrying about Mrs. Day on the back of a horse) and kept us aware of everything and everyone who came near our campsites 24-hours/day. She slept at the foot of our camper bed, every night, and always seemed to have one eye open for threats. Once, when she was tried to the bumper of our camper, a coyote had the gall to try and cross the outside edge of our campsite and Gypsy nearly pulled the camper uphill to get at the coyote. The coyote ran away with the knowledge that he’d have been in a fight to the death if Gypsy had gotten loose. People, however, were automatically given a pass unless Mrs. Day seemed nervous. And she was always ready to go for a walk, on a leash or not, and delighted to do it.

She liked everyone and loved many. For most of her life, she was free to roam our backyard and when delivery people came into the yard to drop off packages, she was always quiet and friendly. Many of them came to like leaving packages at our home because they got to visit with Gypsy. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels, not so much. One of my favorite indoor activities was, when I would spot a squirrel attempting to mangle one of my bird feeders, I’d let Gypsy out into the yard and say “squirrel!” She’d dash into the yard, looking for squirrels, and chasing any who were dumb enough to ignore her into the trees, over the fence, or up the hill into the woods. She loved terrorizing squirrels and rabbits and would not tolerate deer or other large wildlife in her yard. Mrs. Day’s hostas will likely be substantially less lush without their guardian.

Her will to live is inspiring. As of today, April 25th, she can’t eat or drink anything without throwing it back up. Her energy is a microscopic fraction of what it was a week ago and she was a shadow of herself then. Every morning, she drags herself out of bed and walks to the back door to be let out. (Yes, she has always been smart enough to know where her home is and did not need a fenced yard or tether until the last couple of weeks.) She is mostly operating on habit, since she isn’t ingesting anything she rarely expels anything. It is very much like she doesn’t want to inconvenience us with the process of her dying. If you are one of those who believe dogs are incapable of love, I can’t imagine what I could say to you. Even when she is on her last legs, she would rather sleep on the floor near Mrs. Day than in a comfortable bed in the living room. She has a bed in the bedroom, too, but in these final days she wasn’t to be closer.

Gypsy died today, 4/29/2022, at about 12:30PM. She had a rough night, mostly waking up and thinking she was alone. She didn’t seem to be in pain. For the 2nd time in the life we’ve known her, she soiled herself last night and when I carried her outside to lie on the deck bench she was still responsive but had no strength at all. She couldn’t even hold her head up and I had to carry her like a baby, supporting her head when I laid her down. We went for our last walk 10 days ago, it that one didn’t last long due to her strength. The day before, we walked almost a mile and she was slow but still moving well at the end of that walk.

Her will to live throughout all of this miserable week was inspiring and humbling. She did not want to give up and we did not feel that we had the right to make that decision for her. She was struggling out of her bed and staggering to the back door to be let out up to Tuesday evening. Wednesday, I carried her out after she was able to get up but couldn’t walk without falling down. We stood in the backyard for a while, listening to birds and night sounds, but she needed to lean on his leg to stay upright. Thursday, she soiled herself and wet the bed overnight. She was conscious most of yesterday and responded to being touched and our voices, but we think she was in a coma most of the day.

Last night, we left her in a bed we’d made for her in the living room but about midnight just as I was going to bed she started whining for the first time in a week (Gypsy whined a lot, that was her “voice” for communication, so the silence over this past week has been weird.) and we laid down beside her. That was what she wanted. I carried her into the bedroom where she had a “bed” and she was fine most of the night, but she woke up twice afraid and I comforted her until she was quiet. I honestly think Mrs. Day’s snoring helped keep her calm for most of the night. Me, not so much.

She seemed to be comfortable on the outside bench and she was there for about 4 hours before I discovered she had kicked off one of the blankets and died. She had been alone for about 5 minutes. I guess she was being considerate to the end.

Life is short, precious, and painful. And if you are as special as our dog, when you go your loved ones will miss you desperately.


4 comments:

Geoff James said...

So sorry for your loss Thomas. I must say that having gone through the process you so eloquently describe on several occasions over the decades, I became quite misty-eyed reading your celebration of her life. It's selling our little companions completely short to call them pets. Friends definitely, therapists without doubt and they probably regard us as their pets. Heartache is the price we pay for love.

Cas said...

I agree with everything Geoff says in his comment. Losing such a loyal, lovable, and ever present part of your family is tough in the extreme. My thought are with you.

Trish and I really only got together because I bought a house across the street, and her dog (Tina) seemed to decide from day one that I was a good person. That little dog constantly escaped, came over to me and then Trish had to come over the road to reclaim her. We got talking and never looked back. Your description of Gypsy's passing sounds so similar to what we experienced with Tina; it brings back many memories.

Our current dog, tilly, is a rescue, and had been mistreated, but has learned lessons and has firmly cemented her place in our household. I dread her passing.

look after yourselves,

Ian

T.W. Day said...

Thanks for your comments. It's a good thing that we can forget pain and suffering (otherwise most of us would have given up motorcycles after the first crash) because while it's absolutely true that "heartache is the price we pay for love" if we knew how high that price would be we'd probably avoid it. The only time Gypsy was ever referred to, by us, as our "pet" was in public situations (Answering "will you be bringing a pet" for example.). Otherwise, she was just "our girl" or "my girlfriend" in my wife's case. At her mental peak, probably 3-4 years ago, her vocabulary for words or body language was easily equal to most teenagers and vastly-exceeded the capability of any current Republican politician.

A non-dog friend sent me a link from someone on his Twitter feed, "Do you think it is wrong to be crying for over a week because my dog died when i haven’t cried this much over so many humans in my life that have died?" We've been wondering that for almost a month now. She was such a presence in our lives for almost 15 years and our house just seems abandoned without her.

T.W. Day said...

This poem by poem by Amanda Gorman, "The Miracle of Morning" helps a lot:

For it's our grief that gives us our gratitude,
Shows us how to find hope, if we ever lose it.
So ensure that this ache wasn't endured in vain:
Do not ignore the pain. Give it purpose. Use it.