When I am out walking dogs I have the opportunity to meet many new people. Sometimes it is just a pleasant hello, or a nod of a head as we pass one another. Other times a complete stranger will want to pat a dog and we engage in “dog talk” as dog lovers do. I truly believe that it is not a co-incidence that I am meant to meet special people, who make a lasting impression. The way we meet, timing is everything, and some magic unfolds with a dog becoming our immediate connection.
Last week I was out on a lovely dog walk with two Portuguese Water dogs, Marley and Jackson. We came to a corner and waited to cross as cars were coming. At an opposite corner a couple was waiting to cross in my direction. They complimented the two dogs. I explained that I was their dog walker and filled them in on the dog’s names and ages.
Immediately they expressed how much they missed their Portie that died a year ago. Champ was a one of a kind dog. The relationship he had with their son was extraordinary from the minute they connected. It was something truly unique; I could tell by the way their faces lit up discussing the bond. Louie, the man, went on to tell me how hard Champ’s death had been on himself over the past year. Roz, his wife, agreed that it had been a very difficult journey for all involved.
I felt myself drawn in despite cars driving past us, and other people crossing the road oblivious to our conversation. They went on to say that they had a new family dog, but the deep connection with Champ was not evident with the present dog, despite loving her and being part of their family.
Louie then told me that he decided to write down his anguish with the loss of Champ and that it was something suggested. I agreed that writing is a great way to express one’s feelings. We continued to chat about other people grieving for their dogs; we both believe that many dog owners feel alone after their dog dies and experience deep feelings of grief. Louie offered to share his written piece to me by email, which was quite a special offer after only a few minutes of chatting. I was incredibly touched and wondered if it would come my way as we said our goodbyes and went in opposite directions.
The next day by email Louie sent me his story. I have never read something so powerful, heartfelt and honest written about the loss of a dog. I was incredibly moved and responded back to them I was feeling very privileged to be allowed to read such an intimate account of feelings. I asked if they would consider sharing it with their permission for my blog. I felt it could help so many others in the same situation know they are not alone in their grief. The following is in Louie’s words.
I hope this will be my exorcism. I am bedeviled with incessant stabbing at my heart; by an indelible imprint seared in my mind. A corrosive image of Champ being wheeled away in the darkness of the night, lying on top of a cart, his body haloed by the light from a street lamp, … while I stare fixated. I am plagued with sullenness and despondency, by inconsolable grief.
My dog Champ, died. He was ten. His absence is poignant. He was a 7-week- old puppy when we brought him home. A Portuguese Water Dog, pure black with a touch of white in the shape of a diamond on his chest. He was sweet, preternaturally good-natured with a mix of mischievousness and good humour. With a voracious appetite and boundless energy. He was simultaneously engaging and demanding. He had to be trained and he had to be tamed. He slept in our bedroom, usually at the end of the bed. We loved him. And he, in turn, loved all of us: differently and unconditionally.
He and I walked daily. My cholesterol was down, my blood sugar down. He made me think clearer. Every morning he put a smile on my face and put me in a good mood. I haven’t eaten a banana since; a ritual we shared on a daily basis.
He made sure I knew that I was his. He conveyed this message when, in the park, I held the button on a water fountain for another dog to drink. He peed on my leg. Instantaneously telling that dog and me that I was his, …exclusively. Rarely has a message been delivered more clear or direct.
He would smother my wife and daughter with kisses. He loved the ladies. For my daughter, Tanya, whose persistent entreaties for getting a dog were continuously rebuffed, Champ’s arrival was seen as a 13th birthday gift. She would carry him around, all 40 pounds of him, as if he was her dolly. Taking him to her bed and tucking him under her sheets, his head peeking out quizzically. She took an untold number of pictures of him, placing him in various poses. She taught him how to roll over which he learned in an instant (just like he quickly caught on to the course intricacies when we took him to agility classes). She taught him to differentiate his left paw from his right.
My wife, Roz, whose predisposition was to keep all dogs at a distance and who for the first two years threatened to return him to the breeder because of his excessive exuberance, brooded over his wellbeing. None of god’s creatures (including humans) have ever been treated better than my wife’s care of and concern for Champ. If the kids sneezed her retort was, “you’re still going to school”. If Champ sneezed it meant a quick visit to the vet.
But truth be told, Champ was my son’s dog. My wife and I may have been responsible for his maintenance and wellbeing, but he was Steven’s dog. At 3 weeks of age Champ picked Steven from the rest of all those other prospective owners who were there selecting puppies from the litter. As Steven sat cross-legged on the lawn, Champ waddled over to him. He began to play ring-around-the-rosy. Within the space between Steven and his jacket, Champ circled around him a few times and then climbed onto his lap. And as Steven took him from his lap into his arms, gently cradling him and stroking the space between his eyes, Champ fell into a deep, tranquil, sleep. To us, he appeared as if he was comatose (or worse). Instead, the seeds of brotherhood were germinating in the arms of a 10-year-old boy. Clearly in Steven’s arms, he felt safe, secure and forever connected. The sight of this caused the breeder to state the obvious: that they were meant for each other.
And Champ performed wonders for Steven. The medical concerns regarding Steven’s eyesight vanished, as did his ticks and facial contortions. His temperament became more even and calmer. It became apparent that they were able to communicate with each other on an altogether other level: telepathic, instinctive. One stomp of Steven’s foot, indistinguishable to all others but Champ, was all it took for him to come running to Steven regardless of where either of them might be.
Steven taught him to drink out of a mini Dixie cup, without spilling a drop or tipping it over. They played football in the park. Champ chasing and tackling Steven as he ran ahead with the ball. And Champ was the defenseman that Steven tried to stickhandle around, while playing hockey in the basement. And at the kitchen table Champ would sit next to Steven, quietly and self-controllably.
They wrestled constantly. Champ would growl ferociously and bear his fangs. I was always afraid that Champ might snap. Yet Champ knew, innately, not to cross the line, regardless of the moves Steven put on him or the twisted positions he put him into. When Steven had enough, his hand would go up and Champ would stop instantly and give him a lick.
He protected us and likely saved our lives. It was 3:30 in the morning when suddenly Champ jolted from his sleep and let out a growl and a bark. (He never barked except when wrestling with Steven or watching dogs on tv — don’t ask). But this was not the typical wrestling growl and bark that we had come to know. This was different. Primal. Vicious. He was locked and loaded. In an instant he bolted from our bedroom like a soldier who leaves the safety of a foxhole to lead the charge in the face of enemy fire to repel a menacing aggressor, giving chase to the burglar who had gained access into our house through the basement window, impervious to the dangers and consequences. Energized, single minded and motivated by a higher purpose. Putting himself in harm’s way for our safety and benefit. A champ indeed; so aptly named by Steven.
The whole episode was over in minutes. He immediately returned to his usual loveable, happy, self. Not realizing what he had done for us. It happened so quickly that I didn’t even know how to express my gratitude because he was so indifferent to what had just transpired. He just looked up at me wagging his tail probably thinking, “this was fun, more exciting than wrestling with Steven”. He was already ready for the next adventure.
So how do I forget all of that and a whole lot more, without experiencing profound sorrow? How do I avoid having this constant pit in my stomach, of feeling this unrelenting sense of loss? I can’t get him out of my mind. I hear his shriek at 4:30 in the morning. A piercing sound I never heard from him before. I see myself jumping out of bed and dashing over to him. I see him there lying on our bedroom floor, docile and listless. I cup his face in the palm of my hand. I stroke his head. I whisper his name. I look into his eyes. He reaches out with his paw towards me. And then, in the next instant, he’s gone. Gone before I had a chance to tell him thank you.
I feel lost. I struggle to take it all in. A few short hours ago he was his usual perky, funny, affectionate and puppy-like. And now I grapple with the enormity of what has unfolded, of how his life so quickly unraveled.
Yet, his was not my first experience with the death of a loved one. It has been over 30 years since my parents have been gone. And I still think of them. I still miss them. I still long for them. It still hurts. This is no different. He was like family. A loss is a loss. His loss is grave and profound. The fact one is human and the other canine is irrelevant, especially when the canine, like that of a parent, sacrificed and gave so much for you and your family’s wellbeing and comfort. You can no more replace the loss of a much beloved dog than you can replace a much beloved parent. And like a much beloved parent Champ will remain permanently embedded in a part of my heart.
A heart that pangs. I miss his quirks. I miss the jingling sound of dog tags that announced his imminent arrival. Of him jumping onto the couch and putting his head on my lap, providing comfort, companionship and security. I miss the therapeutic calm that came with the stroking of his head and his kiss in response. I miss his uncanny comprehension. How he would quickly size up a situation and turn it to his advantage. I miss how he playfully, skillfully and subtly manipulated us to do whatever it was he wanted: be it to give him a belly rub, a treat, or play a game of fetch.
I am a supplicant waiting for restoration of my spirit. Waiting for the pall to lift and for the pain to ease and for a time when Champ’s absence will be embraced with warm nostalgic smiles and with wonderment for all of the moments we shared with him individually and as a family, of which he was an essential member.
It’s like a sun burned patch of grass. The grass grows around the patch. In time, although the grass, on the whole, may look good, the patch remains. While, at first all you only focus on is the dry discoloured patch, in time perspective is gained and appreciation is had for the entire expanse of grass of which the sun dried patch will always be an integral part of the whole.
As my exorcism nears its completion, the reality is stark and surrealistic. Amidst the angst and confusion, while I await the time for reflection, I content myself by knowing that until the very end we gave to each other, our best.
Champ is lying still. Peaceful. He still looks beautiful, even in death. Roz lies draped over Champ. Her tears wash over him. Steven, (now just a few months shy of his 21st birthday), appears stoic. His face, however, betrays him. It reveals utter devastation. He looks aghast. Horrified. (Tanya, mercifully, has been spared this night’s anguish. She is away from home).
Gently, Steven scoops Champ up. The circle now completed. He carries him downstairs.
Champ nestled in Steven’s arms for the last time. Asleep. Eternally
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