An animal becomes so much more the instant you first love them.
Image credit: me, of my first dog, Cordelia, back in 2008.
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.” -Milan Kundera
I never grew up with animals. We never had dogs or cats when I was young; the only pets we ever had were small tropical fish. But as I grew older, from a child into a teenager into an adult, I went from someone who feared dogs to someone to tolerated them to someone who really enjoyed spending time around them. But it wasn’t until seven years ago — and I’m thirty-six now — that I adopted (with my then-fiancée and now-spouse, Jamie) our first dog together.
We had visited a number of shelters, looking for the right animal to rescue, just assuming that when we found the one who was right for our home, we’d know it. Since it was my first dog and we were both working full-time, we decided that:
- We didn’t want a puppy, since those tend to be more work.
- We didn’t want a dog with severe behavior problems, but one who we knew would already be well-adjusted.
- And finally, we didn’t want a one-owner dog, as many breeds (like huskies) tend to be.
With all these things in mind, we spent time with dozens of dogs, but hadn’t found one that we both felt was the right one. As we were just walking out of the humane society for the day, a fourteen year old girl walks in holding a tiny dog in her arms, one that was all legs with giant, prominent eyes.
I was instantly smitten, and in a way that I hadn’t been with any of the other dogs we’d spent time with.
But this was not the dog we had talked about. She was only about three months old: clearly a puppy. She had a horrific back story: she was found as the runt of a litter of five, under a porch, abandoned by their mother. All of her other siblings had been adopted by shelter personnel, because their behavior was too erratic for most normal owners. And this one — the last one — had actually failed the temperament test, and only hadn’t been put down because the animal shelter had made a mistake, and fostered the puppy to a 14-year-old. This was the dog’s last chance.
As it turns out, when you fall in love with an animal, your plans don’t seem to matter as much anymore.
A little over a week later, we picked her up from the spay clinic, where they presented us with a dog’s head sticking out of a tightly-rolled-up towel, telling us as they handed her to us that — despite the sedatives and the fact that she was only seven pounds — this dog was biting everything and that we should bring her back without hesitation if we needed to. And don’t feel bad about it, they added.
We had no idea what sort of terror we were in for.
Not the kind of terror where the dog terrorizes you, mind you, but the kind of panicked terror that everything seemed to induce in the dog. For what felt like an eternity, she spent all her time in the very, very back of her crate, shaking with fear and soiling herself whenever we came near her. Or looked at her. Or made a sound. We quickly came to realize that we had adopted a wild animal into our home.
So we started reading about dog behavior, and having lengthy conversations with our veterinarian about how to build basic trust with the dog. Eventually, we developed the very first “game” that she learned how to play. We called it “the food game,” and here’s how we’d play it. I’d take a handful of food over to the other room, about fifteen feet away from the dog’s crate, where she reliably cowered. From across the way, I’d toss a single pellet of food so it would come to rest right at the opening of her crate. And then I’d look away, watching only out of the very corner of my eye.
Slowly, tentatively, she’d take a step forward in her crate, always with all four paws remaining on the cushioned insides as far as possible. She’d stick her head out the absolute minimum amount possible, reaching for the food with her mouth, picking it up and immediately running back to the rear of the crate. (This crate, mind you, is only about two feet long.) Only once she was safely back at the very rear of the crate would she actually begin to chew the food, watching me the whole time to make sure I didn’t notice her. And then we’d repeat with a second piece of food.
Over the span of weeks, she would go after pieces that came out farther and farther from the entrance, finally reaching her front two paws out onto the floor, leaving only her rear paws in the crate. It took about two months for her to get her whole body out of the crate (and she would again run back inside to chew the food), and another month before she actually made it over to me to eat food out of my hand. I don’t know if an animal has ever made a human being happier than our terrified little dog did the day I first felt her little tongue-and-muzzle licking my palm for her breakfast.
Her combination of daintiness, fragility but also the force with which she’d react to anything (plus how strikingly beautiful she was) led us to name her Cordelia, after the Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer character. Although fear, terror and panic would always be a part of her life, we started to watch her discover joys in the world, too. In addition to food, she would throw toys to herself in the yard, find adventures exploring still, shallow water, and when we’d take her to an off-leash dog area, she would run at a full sprint, outdistancing dogs two-to-three times her size. She was so fast! It’s hard to convey to someone what it’s like to see someone or something you love — even if the way you’d want to show it to them is weird, foreign and a little terrifying to them — finally find, even if it’s only temporary, a little happiness in this world.
Despite our best intentions, she did turn out to be a one-owner dog, and that owner wasn’t me. Maybe that made me appreciate all her little idiosyncrasies even more, like how she’d sit on the side of her butt instead of two legs like most dogs, how she’d lift her front right paw whenever she wanted something (usually food), or how she’d run in rapid, thunderous circles when she wanted to go somewhere.
Very slowly, over the course of many years, Cordelia began to let me pet her: first only if she was under the blanket and I was over it, then if Jamie was between us and holding her, and finally, only earlier this year, when it was just the two of us if she was feeling brave. We had gotten a second dog back at the end of 2012, and I think Cordelia’s little sister — Shao May (a rescue with a broken pelvis and her own backstory) — helped her socialize with me in ways she never would have before. On very rare occasion, Cordelia would even step in to play games like “evolution” (which is what I would call the game where Shao May bites and tugs on a stuffed toy octopus or squid) when she got jealous of the attention her sister got from me. When the dog you’ve loved for so long finally gives you a little bit of the interaction that you’ve craved for all those years — when she finally starts to overcome those fears that have been such a part of who she is for so long — I can’t really describe for you how much love I’d feel for her.
To our surprise, Cordelia became the dominant dog in the house, easily squashing Shao May’s feeble and uncoordinated attempts to gain the upper hand at playfighting. But one day, back in June, she would have to stop mid-fight to catch her breath. And rather than go back to biting her sister’s ears or sitting on her face, she’d go under the table to lay down. We assumed it was allergies, but the medicines we tried were having no effect. We brought her to the veterinarian, where they examined her and said she seemed completely fine. But just to be sure, they took a chest X-ray, to see if there was any congestion inside her lungs that was causing her to run out of breath.
There wasn’t. But what was there was much, much worse. Taking up about a sixth of her torso, and spread all throughout her lymphatic system was a dense mass that could, realistically, only be one thing: cancer. The tumor was already more than 10% the mass of her entire body, was only half an inch from her heart, and worst of all, was going to be terminal. Radiation and chemotherapy might slow the cancer, but weren’t going to cure her; it would only prolong the inevitable and dramatically reduce her quality of life in the meantime. Without treatment, the vet gave us about three months with her, more if the tumor was slow-growing, less if it was fast-growing.
Our Cordelia, our little terrified monster who had grown into a (mostly) happy dog, who we had expected — as a healthy, well-exercised, mixed-breed dog of about 17 pounds — to live to an age of maybe 15 or 20 years, was going to die in just a few months. This was in June, at the age of six.
We decided to enjoy the time we had left with her to the fullest, at least as long as she was well enough to enjoy it. We took her to the park she used to love running around at so much, but there was no running for her; she barely even broke into a trot. We watched her lymph nodes swell up, her body fill with fluid, and her abdomen double, triple and then quadruple in size. By the end of July, I was scared that it was already time to let go.
We got a little bit of a reprieve: she spent a full day throwing up and peeing in the house, and must have lost about three or four pounds of fluid. When it was all out, she was more energetic than she had been in about six weeks. She ran in the backyard again, she beat up her sister a few more times, and even played evolution with me a few times. For those last few months, she’d even — for the first time — roll over onto her back so I could pet her belly in the best position, something she had never done for me before.
But her abdomen continued to grow, and her bad days started to get worse. As the cancer grew inside of her, it must have interfered with her digestive system, because pooping became very difficult. Even though she still wanted food, begging and even howling for it, she often couldn’t eat it. By time August ended (and she turned seven), she started throwing her food up. She would still have a few good hours each day, where she had a little energy, ate a little food, enjoyed getting petted, and maybe even played just for a few seconds, but most of them were a great struggle for her. By early September, she was struggling just to breathe most of the time.
We had promised ourselves that we wouldn’t let her suffer, and that when she stopped being able to enjoy her favorite things in life anymore, it would be time to put her down. Having had months to prepare myself mentally for the moment, I thought I would be accepting of the moment when it came, but I wasn’t ready for a world without Cordelia in it. All I could think of was that she had to get better, that she had so many more things she had to bite, sniff, eat, and — most of all — so many more places she had to run through.
But her running days were over. This past Thursday, all four of us — me, Jamie, Shao May and Cordelia — went to the vet’s office together, and said goodbye to her. The vet told us that it was definitely time, and that we were doing right by her, which made accepting her fate a little easier at that instant, knowing that she wasn’t going to have to get worse or go through a day where she didn’t even want to eat. As we sat in the room together, petting Cordelia while we watched the sedatives take effect, a strange mix of thoughts went through my head. I thought about all the times I resented how fearful she was of me, of all the times she peed in the house just because I looked at her or made a noise or moved too close to her, and how I wished I was a better dog-dad to her for more of her life. But I also thought about how much I loved her, how much I loved seeing her happy, and how much joy and growth it brought to my life — and how much new love I found inside of me — just for having her in it.
I kept petting her body even after she was gone, and then the sobs took over.
To those of you who read Starts With A Bang regularly, you probably noticed that I didn’t write my regular Ask Ethan column this week, I didn’t respond to your Comments of the Week and I didn’t have a diversion for you this weekend. I didn’t want another day to go by without you having an explanation, but I also don’t think I could’ve written this before today. I hope you understand. And I hope that when you think about anyone you ever loved who’s gone, you remember them at their happiest, when they were the most full-of-joy and life that you ever saw them.
Goodbye, Cordelia. We gave you the best life we possibly could, and you were the best dog we ever could have asked for. We’re so lucky you were in our lives. We miss you like hell.
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