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‘Just’ A Dog, Forever

There’s an old actors’ trick that advises if you can’t bring on fake tears, just think of when your favorite dog died. It can work for even the toughest macho men.  And I’ve even seen a famous hardboiled surgeon break down about the hard death of his favorite pup from many decades before.

Shuggie died on Easter Sunday.  Kind of suddenly. I got home from a walk and some work and for the first time ever, he hadn’t moved all day and wouldn't eat or drink – unheard of, that.  He soon started to pant heavier and was nonresponsive and I could tell he was going. It was as if he’d been waiting for me to get back home.  I had to restrain the frantic urge to a run to emergency hospital, somehow I knew that would be alarming, chaotic and futile – not to mention that at 80 pounds I don’t know how I would have got him there.  I held his head, he gave me one last soulful look, rolled over a bit, had one small convulsion as his heart stopped, and was gone.  Almost peaceful.  I had dreaded so much him becoming crippled, incontinent, but still himself and lucid when we had to give him the final shot.  I actually had nightmares about that and feared I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. It would have been an utterly horrible necessity.  But he spared us that.  Of course he did. 

We laid him out on his bed. In some kind of shock. Lit a candle. Didn’t know what else to do. In the dark and quiet I walked up the hill to the top, Mount Olympus, an old monument, overlooking the park and coast.  And sobbed like a baby, but louder.  Feared somebody might call the cops in that otherwise silent zone.  Came back, opened a pint of whiskey, and slept, some, on the floor next to him.  Then we had to take his body to vet for cremation.  A dear friend, a big guy, came over to help. His body was already starting to fall apart but we made it.  I was in some sort of shock and walked all the way home through the park he loved so much.  I already can’t recall that walk.

We will likely sprinkle his ashes in parks and beaches he frequented. His favorite spots to run and socialize with his many friends and fans. And keep some of him too, for whatever reason.  They’re just calcium and a few other chemicals.

It’s truly the end of an era for me.  My constant companion, with me almost 24/7 for well over a decade. He showed up when we’d had too much sudden loss in 2008 and somehow made things better.  He’d been found running lost in the mountains, was maybe a year old, and that's all we knew.  But clearly he’d been somebody’s beautiful pup as he’d had some training and liked humans. At the pound they called him Harry but I renamed him after a renowned cult musician. He was a large mostly-black shepherd mix, maybe Aussie with something bigger, some said a rare flat-coated retriever or even a Bernese, with those big whitish paws.  I just called him a purebred mutt.

In any event soon it seemed he could read my mind and I his. We walked and ran hours and miles every day.  He splashed in the ocean and swam rivers.  He waited in the yard at work, below my office window, or by my car at my other office, raring to run in the forest. Every summer he grew dreadlocks on his tail, a lighter brown color, and we left one intact to mark the season. That went over big in Boonville at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, for one place. 

Indoors, at home or anywhere he followed me from room to room, just to stay close. We couldn’t get him to sleep on the softest dog bed in another room as he’d rather be on the cold hard floor if that were closer. He didn’t steal food like his late big brother Buddy had taught him but didn’t need to, as he’d just look at people until they gave him anything he wanted. He had many shops and people for reliable treats. Staff at stores would yell “Hooray, our favorite!” when we stopped in. Even the cats liked him, mostly. Those big deep brown eyes could charm and hypnotize most anybody.  He was very gentle and I could hand even the smallest child a treat to give him and he’d take it, very gently.  He was picky about other dogs to befriend, whether out of shyness or snobbery, I never knew; he was just more a people dog (Altho kind of discerning there too). In our endless travels he never had a single real fight with another dog; if threatened he quickly transformed himself into a snarling, teeth-bared big beast and the other just turned away: “Oops, never mind.”  A few times a small dog persisted in attacking and Shug turned them firmly but almost gently on their back, big teeth at their throat, and let them ponder that for a moment, then let them walk off.  He’d then look at me mischievously.  No blood was ever shed but, some egos might have been corrected.

I long ago lost count of how many times somebody said “I’m not really a dog person but, wow, that guy....”

He’d never had a sick day or injury until last summer when he had his first of two surgeries, for tumors, but he bounced back, albeit suddenly an old dog. Twelve years is getting up there for a big guy. He didn’t complain, just moved slower, instead of being the fastest dog on the sand. He slowly strolled and sniffed the park the morning he died. He was still a joy. I had been kind of practicing for this for some months, since he became creaky, taking short patient strolls with him and then longer walks without him, but now that feels like a waste or wrong, like I forgot something important or am missing an arm or leg or something, and six months in I know that for a long time more I’ll be barely able to respond when anybody asks me where he is. “He’s home,” I just say. I reflexively yank my empty leash hand when a skateboarder appears as he loved to chase those, obnoxiously, loudly (they usually just laughed or ignored him).  I feel him gently bump my hand with his snout, just to let me know he’s there.   At a café the unsuspecting woman asks me “Hey, where’s your handsome furry friend?, and I fall apart and walk away, also feeling bad for her.  The great poet W.S. Merwin once told me, when I asked him about a big dog in a photo with him on one of his books, “Ah.  That is the one I will mourn forever.”  I think that’s true for me too this time. But this will get better.  It has too.

“All Things Must Pass,” sang George Harrison, and of course that’s true.  A central teaching of reality. But, as a wise teacher has said, grief is love that doesn’t know where to go.  For the first time in 12 years, I don’t know where that dog of mine is.  I really don’t like that.  It feels wrong. In fact sometimes I can hardly stand it. I’ve never been prone to many bad dreams but I did sometimes have ones of him being hurt in a remote area where I might not be able to save him.  Now it’s beyond that.  He doesn’t need me.  But he’ll always still be there in some way.  The canine companion of a lifetime.

Still: amidst all this grief I’m already very grateful for him. How could I not be.

Farewell my sweet, smart, handsome, loyal, funny, loving boy.

I know I’ve said too much here. Could have just summed it all up like this:

“Man’s best friend“ doesn’t even start to describe that dog.

Rest in peace.  And, thank you.