Boy, it’s been a tough two years for dogs in my (and some of my best friends’) life: first we lost our beloved Otis in September, 2008; then in Febrary, 2009, my own best friend Leroy Brown. Just before Labor Day that fuzzy-eared rascal, Trapper, went to that great kennel in the sky. And now, this week, my O.G., Terra: the one-of-a-kind pitbull mix.
Let me tell you about Terra. I first met her shortly after my great friends Elyse and Jamie brought her into their home, saving her from (at best) a sketchy life in a shelter and (at worst) the lethal injection that is so often the last indignity for ill-treated, unloved and abandoned dogs.
I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but I am definitely one of those folks who is certain that a special, very soulful bond is immediately established between humans and dogs who have spent even a couple of days on death row (because let’s face it, that is the most expected outcome of the borrowed time these dogs are living on).
Terra (or T, as most of us usually called her), was in many ways a cliche. A pit bull who had been abused, probably used for illegal fighting, and discarded. When Elyse and Jamie rescued her she was a bundle of nervous energy, uncertainty and anger. And love (she was, after all, a dog). As she slowly came out of her shell she displayed a delightful capacity for mischief and play. She was strong-willed (a trait she was obliged to develop in order to survive) and could at times be a diva: she was one of those dogs who could just look at you when you called, her expression speaking volumes about her personality.
Perhaps understandably, she was wary around other people. Distressingly (and understandably) she was incapable of being around other dogs. Living in a large apartment complex, as we did, with dozens of dogs being walked all hours of the day, it was impossible to avoid interaction, however well-managed. Watching her react to her canine cousins was genuinely upsetting, because you knew where this anxiety came from (even though you didn’t really know and you certainly didn’t want to know). She would bristle, shudder, and make noises I’ve never heard another dog make. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the cultivated bravado most dogs learn to perfect (particularly smaller dogs); it was more like an anxiety attack. I share this simply to describe what destructive forces she escaped, and the long road to happiness she gradually strode toward.
As the good friend and neighbor, I was on dog-sitting duty often, and I savored the experiences (especially as I was, at the time, without K-9 companionship). We learned that other than being brought into close proximity with other dogs, the only thing we had to fear from T (the Terror) was her exasperating ability to slip out of her collar on walks. One time, on my watch (because these things only happen on your watch) she gave me the slip, contorting herself like a yoga master and discarding her leash like a string of spaghetti. She actually gave me a look that might have been a smirk before she sprinted off into the evening. I chased that rascal for a good half hour, all the time counting up the thousands of dollars of debt I’d amass once she (inevitably) tangled with some neighborhood poodle or (all jokes aside) child.
Thankfully, all she wanted to do was run, and be naughty. There were no attacks, and (as I should have already pointed out) she never had any actual confrontations with other people or dogs. But I had a confrontation with her once I finally tracker her down told her, in that voice people reserve for the times when our dogs have crossed the line, to get her ass over to me now. She was only ten yards away, but she smirked at me again, and I realized (too late) that she’d heard the fear in my voice that I’d tried to disguise. Don’t get me wrong; I was pissed off, too, but above all, I was nervous. Out of necessity, I learned a valuable lesson: the only way to get a dog to come to you is run in the other direction.
Flash forward a few months. I was finally ready (and willing) to bring a puppy into the mix. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to find friends, spouses and jobs (and pets) who change our worlds knows the genuine humility and gratitude one forever feels after making a choice that is never regretted. The only moment that gave me pause is when I realized, later that day: What are we going to do about Terra? In other words, I understood the situation and I understood it. I couldn’t fault T for the PTSD she struggled with, and I reluctantly acknowledged that perhaps we could simply never have these two dogs in the same room.
After discussing the matter, we decided the only way to know if it was possible was to try it. I can scarcely explain how full of trepidation I was when we brought Leroy over that first night: this wouldn’t just be an older and bigger dog doing damage; if T got hold of the little guy, she could easily (if unintentionally) kill him. I’m a dog person, and if you are too, perhaps you won’t be surprised about the scene that followed. Quite simply, what I witnessed told me more than I could ever hope to know about dogs and their limitless capacity for astounding us. We put Leroy (who weighed about three pounds) on the table and T immediately jumped up with both front paws to inspect and sniff him. It was love at first sight.
Not only did T not attack or terrorize him; she immediately became a big sister and embraced him (literally and figuratively). Having subsequently discussed this so many times I’ve concluded her reaction was a combination of two things. First, his being a small puppy and in no position to assert, or fake, dominance. Second, and more importantly, I believe because T knew me, and respected me, she “got” that this new pup was “mine” and she instinctively welcomed him to the pack. It was equal parts deference, trust and love. After watching (with considerable unhappiness) her inability to be in the same room, or often the same block, as other dogs, this was redemptory and awe-inspring in equal measure.
She not only accepted him, she played with him. And when they played, she would let him get the best of her. When they romped, Leroy would eventually escape to a small space: under a chair or (his favorite) inside of a four-legged cabinet, and she would get on her back and pretend to try and get to him while he took the liberty of lashing out with his puppy teeth on her ears, snout and neck. She let him attack her (knowing he couldn’t hurt her; perhaps knowing he needed that confidence) and when he got too feisty, she (gently) put him in his place. It was precious and priceless, and those months contain some of the happiest memories of my life. I feel all three of us humans learned some valuable lessons from that interaction, and for those who think dog people are hopeless saps, you just don’t get it (that you are also correct is beside the point).
Less than a year later T followed her parents to the Gold Coast: Leroy lost his big sister, and I lost my “girlfriend”. We got over it (dogs are even better than people at enjoying the moment and not lingering on the past), but we always missed her (and her parents). I was fortunate to see T every time I subsequently visited San Francisco, and I thought of her often in the painful days after Leroy’s untimely passing.
Like most dogs who have lived a long, eventful life, T started to have health issues and (fortunately) her decline was mostly slow and measured (as opposed to quick and uncontrollable). I was able to spend some quality time with her this past April and I suspected then (without foreboding or regret) that it was likely the last time I would see her. I was correct.
(I’d like to offer a special and sincere appreciation for the three people who loved and cared for T in San Francisco: Jamie, Elyse and Elyse’s wonderful husband Jeremy. I can speak to how agonizing it is seeing a pet experience pain, but as I’ve told many people, as difficult (and, ahem, expensive) as LB’s last couple of years became, he was –with very few and fleeting exceptions– in good health and spirits; he never seemed to know there was anything “wrong” with him, which was nothing short of miraculous (for me) and provides a familiar reminder about a dog’s ability to live in the unblinking eternity of now.
One of my best memories, which I consider the greatest gift the forces of fate could have given me, is from what turned out to be Leroy’s last walk: he jumped up and surveyed the neighborhood –like he always did at the end of each excursion– and let out a little bark; not nearly as menacing as he hoped but more a “sounding off” to let any/everyone know he was patrolling his hood. It was always about as cute, endearing and bratty as you may imagine. He was himself (even eating freshly baked baguette bread at my sister’s) the entire day and night before things took a quick, awful turn, and even that was relatively brief in terms of actual time (we’re talking hours, not days).
T, on the other hand, has been –like most dogs who live to a certain, welcome age, on a much slower and dragged out endgame. This is when you see what owners are made of, and I’ve never observed anything from any dog owner approaching the compassion, patience and unquestioning devotion those three extended to T. On our last adventure to Hog Island oyster farm, in April, it was an overcast day, but there was no question that T had to join us. Elyse simply covered Terra in a very stylish leather jacket while she laid on her blanket (the pic above says it all, as only pictures can). Between meds, special meals and the obligatory –and seemingly endless– trips to the vet, T’s welfare and comfort were not only never in question; the care she received extended her life, and expanded her happiness here.
Having done my fair share of caregiving and witnessing the unwelcome suffering of people and animals dear to me, I still learned a great deal these last few years. With my friends’ inspiring example, I understand more than I could have imagined about how we honor our commitments and keep faith in the relationships that, inexorably in the harder times, define the better angels of our natures.)
Terra passed away peacefully, with people who loved her, this past week.
Rest peacefully, sweet girl, and thanks for letting us share the journey.
*A post from 2010, which will be in the forthcoming collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two