Goodbye sweetie….

The world was a very different place in June, 2001.  I was 33, had a beautiful 6-year-old daughter, and a magnificent 110-pound Lab/Shepherd mix named Ajax.  My world turned around the two of them, so much so that I had a photograph of the two of them on my desk at work.  Had you asked me then, I would have sworn that I had no more room in my heart for either another child or another dog. 

One fateful day a customer of a colleague noticed the photograph and asked if the dog was mine.  I replied that it was, and he asked if I wanted another one.  He explained that his daughter’s boyfriend had gifted her with a Beagle/Rottweiler puppy, and while she was a nice dog, he wasn’t interested in keeping and taking care of her.  As a result, the pup was being passed from friend-to-friend overnight.  That didn’t sit well with me, so I agreed to at least come see the pup.

That Saturday I took my wife, my daughter, and my dog over to see the pup.  She was only 6 weeks old, and a tiny little ball of energy.  When I was told her name was Roxy, I wrinkled my nose.  “Sounds like a stripper”, I said.  As I walked towards her, she ran towards me.  I scooped her up in one hand, and rolled her over onto her back to see how she’d react.  Her tail was wagging like crazy, her paws reached up to me, and she licked at my nose.  I realized I was done at that point, but I put on a show to make it look like the rest of the family was involved.  She took to my daughter immediately, and Ajax didn’t eat her…..So I was suddenly a two-dog guy.

She gelled with the family quickly.  Ajax was 7, and treated her as though they’d been together for years.  She and Katie bonded quickly, and she never looked sideways at the clumsy 6-year-old.  She adored me, even though I was somewhat stand-offish….Ajax was my boy, and I made that fact clear to both dogs.

So she went out of her way to demand my attention.  She was an awkward, clumsy little thing, and she was constantly tumbling down the stairs, or wedging herself under the bed (forcing me to fish her out), or hanging herself by her collar.  And every time she did something I’d patiently pick her up, make sure she was okay, and she’d lick me on the nose.  She’d leap up onto the bed at night to try and snuggle with Ajax and I, and every night I’d put her back down on the floor.  After going through this routine for about a month or so, she got so wedged under the bed that I had to lift it up to get her out (she grew like a weed).  I brought her up onto the already crowded bed, turned to my wife and said, “its official, I love her.”

As she grew, she filled out.  Roxy was a broad-shouldered bundle of muscle, and she was crazy strong.  She would rush to the door when I got home, sit at my feet with the entire lower part of her body wagging, then spring up and lick my nose.  She could bite through a tennis ball with ease, and she easily dragged Ajax around the house when they both grabbed the same toy, even though he was twice her size.  She ran him ragged around the yard, and there was absolute joy between them when they wrestled and played.  He taught her how to be a great dog, and she kept him young and active.  The two of them were inseparable, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them sleeping on top of one another.

As Ajax matured into the elder statesdog of the house, Roxy was thrilled to be his Beta.  But it was becoming readily apparent that she was all about me (as far as humans were concerned).  While she would happily walk on a leash with Katie, she didn’t need one with me.  She and Ajax both would wander away a bit – never out of sight – but always came back on their own.

And for 3 years we lived like this.  Life went up, life went down, but I had two great dogs who loved me, loved Katie, and were loved by us.

In October of 2004 we had to board the 2 of them for a weekend.  There was a place close to my office that I figured would be convenient.  Upon our return, I was faced with two dogs who were really happy to see me, but clearly not doing well.  I chalked it up to the different food they’d eaten, and watched them closely.  Tuesday I took them to the vet, as Roxy had developed a cough and Ajax was lethargic.  She was diagnosed with Kennel Cough, and he was severely dehydrated.  She got some pills; he got a subdermal saline bubble (they literally inject a bunch of fluid under the skin to let the body absorb).

By Thursday Roxy was right as rain, Ajax was worse.  He refused to eat, and barely wanted to move.  I had a meeting I couldn’t miss in the morning, but I knew I could leave work early, so I planned to take him back to the vet then.

Friday morning there was a light rain falling, and again he refused to eat.  I carried him out to do his business, then carried him back into the house.  Later that morning while I was in my meeting, I got a text from my wife that he wouldn’t come back inside, neither would Roxy, and that she’d left them outside.  In the rain.

So I raced home to find him lying on the deck against the house, with Roxy standing over him to keep the rain off.  As long as I live, the image of the two of them…their roles reversed, her towering over him, and both of them pleading with their eyes for me to help….That will stay with me forever.

I raced him back to the vet – and in an effort to make this very long, very sad story a little less of both, I’ll spare all the details – he wasn’t able to be saved, and I had no choice on Monday….I had to put him down.

Roxy was inconsolable.  She missed her big brother terribly.  For years after, her head would jerk up if I said, “Ajax”.  But after a few weeks, she began to transition into the Alpha dog of the house.  It was a slow process, especially given how much of him (his toys, his fur, and his scent) was still all over the house.  Though there was a huge, raw, gaping hole in our lives, we soldiered on.

Roxy rebounded quicker than either Katie or I, probably due to the increased attention we lavished upon her.  Soon she was back to her old self….A happy, energetic, loving dog that was a joy to be around.

And then one day she started limping.  She had difficulty getting up and down the stairs, and refused to put any weight on her left rear leg.  And all I could think was, “no”.  No way was I going to lose another dog.  No way was I going to have to have that conversation with my daughter again after only 2 months.

Not.  Fucking.  Happening.

So I raced her to the emergency vet in Annapolis – the same emergency vet that I’d taken Ajax to – and reassured her that I would be bringing her home.  The diagnosis was almost laughably simple; she blew out her ACL.  They replaced it with a piece of Gore Tex, put a rod in to stabilize her leg, ran my credit card, and sent the two of us on our way.  They told me it should hold for 5-7 years.  12 years later, that piece of Gore Tex outlasted her.

A few weeks later, she and I were sitting on the sofa.  I looked down at her, she looked up at me, and we decided that we were ready for another dog.  After my experience with two rescue dogs, I knew that there was no other way for me.

And at the local shelter I discovered an adorable little brindle puppy.  Unfortunately, someone scooped the little bugger on me.  So I let out a sigh, turned around and leaned on the cage and saw the saddest dog I’ve ever seen.  He had long, tangled, matted fur.  He was rail-thin.  And he looked completely defeated.  I mean, I’m sure that from a dog’s point of view, being stuck in an animal shelter on a concrete floor sucks.  But this dog just looked miserable.  I asked what his story was, and was informed that his owners had brought him in because he kept getting ear infections.  Needless to say, 30 minutes later he was in the truck with me and on the way home.

I learned that Dusty was a Leonberger/Collie mix.  But he was a sad, timid thing.  Roxy wasn’t overjoyed to have another dog in the house, though it probably helped a lot that he had no desire to take the Alpha mantle from her.  I got him cleaned up, looked at him, and saw an incredibly handsome dog that was terrified by the attention.  It seems that his prior owners left him outside all the time, and he had no idea how to be a house dog.  He was frightened of stairs, loud noises, thunder, lightning, and water.  But he had Roxy, and though they never had the bond she had with Ajax, for 8 years they were happily brother and sister.  Under her tutelage, he blossomed into a great dog (though he never did shed all of his neuroses).

Throughout this time, Roxy remained my baby.  Throughout the changes in my life, she was my constant.  So I was heartbroken in April of 2011 when the vet discovered a golf-ball-sized mast cell tumor in her belly.  I was concerned about doing major surgery at her age, and really agonized about whether or not to go through with it.  She was just shy of 10 years old, and I’d lost Ajax just after he’d turned 10.  And the vet could give me no guaranty that the cancer wouldn’t come back.  I ended up going through with it, and the vet assured me that she’d gotten nice, clean margins and that that particular tumor wouldn’t be back.

Her recovery was rough.  Her belly had been laid open to get the tumor out, and she was in a tremendous amount of pain.  She was always stoic about discomfort, so I knew she had to be in absolute agony.  I spent several nights sleeping on the floor with her until she stopped moaning and shaking.  She eventually made a full recovery, but the scar tissue in her belly muscles kept her from jumping the way she used to.  She could still leap up on the bed and the sofa, but the flying nose kisses were out of the question.

Two months later another mast cell tumor appeared on her leg.  With some research and the help of my vet, I discovered that regular old Benadryl has a prophylactic effect on mast cells.  Starting in June, 2011, Roxy got 4 Benadryls a day.  I ended up having that tumor removed in 2015 (along with another one on her foot), but holy crap did that Benadryl do its job.

In November of 2011 I had my motorcycle wreck and spent 6 weeks nearly immobile on the sofa.  That dog stayed at my side; either at my feet or snuggled up to me the entire time.  She’d leave to eat, and she’d leave to go outside, but the rest of the time she was stuck to me.  As I’d cared for her, she cared for me.

In April of 2013, the unthinkable happened.  Dusty had an accident in the house, and suddenly refused to eat.  Having seen similar symptoms with Ajax, I rushed him to the vet after work one night.  The poor dog had cancer all through him, and massive tumors all through his midsection.  He was past the point of drugs or surgery having any positive effect (other than prolonging his life by a few weeks), so again, I said goodbye to another dog.  Roxy had once again lost a brother, and this time he was there, then suddenly gone.  She missed him, but not nearly the same way she missed Ajax.

I began to wonder if she was a Highlander.

And in October we had the talk again, and we decided it was time to have another brother.  Claude joined the family as an adult dog.  He was 5 or 6 (the rescue outfit wasn’t sure), and had obviously been well-trained.  The rescue found him tied to a tree somewhere in rural West Virginia.  What possessed them to do that is beyond me, as Claude has one of the nicest dispositions of any dog I’ve ever met.  He’s perfectly happy sleeping all day, and he’s also perfectly happy walking, running, and playing all day.  He’s an idiosyncratic dog (being tied to a tree and abandoned by your family will do that), but he’s a big sweetheart too.  Roxy was initially rather nonplussed by him, but warmed to him over time.  Over the last 3-1/2 years they grew closer, but it was apparent with Dusty, and cemented with Claude that she’ll never love another dog the way she loved Ajax.  And that’s fine.

Time marched on and age began doing a number on her.  Arthritis and hip dysplasia started to set in.  With all her muscle mass, it wasn’t too big of a deal, but she began to go up and down the stairs slower.  And then her eyes started clouding with cataracts.  And she started to go deaf.  And I looked at all the stairs in my house and thought, “uh oh, this is gonna be a problem.”

Now I’m not saying that I bought a new house with no stairs for my dog…..But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t put a lot of weight on the fact that a rancher was far better for her.

Unfortunately, the year that we’ve been here has been a relatively rapid downward spiral for her.  There’s no doubt that the lack of stairs has been a boon for her, but 15 years is old for a dog.  Her hip sockets were nearly gone years ago, and as she’s slowed down the muscles that used to support her atrophied.  Her vision got even cloudier.  Other than very loud noises, she couldn’t hear anything.  She became incontinent.  And then there were more lumps, as the cancer decided that it wanted to be part of her takedown too.

She had bad days for the last couple of years, but they were few and far between.  Over the last 6 months they became more and more prevalent.  Her meals became a way to give her more and more pills.  I ended up giving her weekly injections to help with the arthritis.  She fell more and more often, and there were times that she couldn’t get herself back up.  The three steps from the deck to the yard utterly flummoxed her on some days.

Yet through all that she was still my little girl.  Since she couldn’t hear the door, I often snuck up on her when I got home.  I still got frantic tail-wagging and a nose-licking, I just had to hunker down for it.  There were days she tried to jump up to me…..Tiny little hops, but she still tried.  She’d still play with me and run after me, just slower.  And she’d still sit and lie with me, content to do nothing other than hold my hand between her front paws and lick my fingers.

I had talked for a couple of years about throwing her a Sweet 16 birthday party this May, and was looking forward to putting a pointy birthday hat on her head, baking her a doggie cake, and having people over for it.  And then right after Christmas I started really seeing how bad off she was.  When I got back from Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, it was painfully obvious that she was near the end.  She looked and acted exhausted and defeated.  She still had good days, but I think I was defining down “good”.

Making the decision to put her down was awful.  But it was the right thing to do.  Her mind was still sharp….She was still herself, but her body was failing her, and failing her quickly.  So rather than risk her really hurting herself in one of her falls, or worse, having her die alone in an empty house, I held her in my arms and let her go.

And with nearly 2,900 words, I feel like I’m short-changing her story.  There were so many funny moments that ended up being a 15-year running joke.  Me singing Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” to her and substituting her name.  The story of how Katie started calling her “Fooz”.  Katie and I singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” but making it “Roxy Girl”.  How she’d plop down on her back right up to last week so that I’d scratch her belly and she’d lick my nose.  The thousands of hours spent snuggled up on the sofa or in the bed.

She’s the best dog I’ve ever had, and her absence leaves a vacuum in my life.  In the coming days I’ll have to go around the house and collect her beds and her food and water bowl.  And over time her scent will fade, and her presence here will be nothing more than memories.  But they’re good memories.  She lived a good, happy, full life.  She was surrounded by people and other dogs who loved her.  There’s no doubt in my mind that she knew how I felt, and there’s no doubt in my mind about how she felt about me.

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3 comments

  1. Dave Stoneham · February 1

    This breaks my heart Russ. Deepest condolences from Kathie and I.

    Like

  2. csgross · February 2

    This was such a richly written, good read. More life stories from you, please:) Aw. I know your pain. I miss my rescue Casey. Cherish the memories, cousin. Hugs to you.

    Like

  3. Christy · February 2

    This was such a richly written, good read. More life stories from you, please:) Aw. I know your pain. I miss my rescue Casey. Cherish the memories, cousin. Hugs to you.

    Like

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