Monday, August 10, 2009
Herriot this past spring, under the weeping cherry tree.
A few weeks ago, in early/mid-July, my mom gave me the sad news that our family dog, Herriot, was "declining," in the words of the vet. At 13, she was older than most golden retrievers get to be. She had long since stopped using stairs, and now she wasn't eating, wasn't going outside. It might only be a few weeks, the vet warned.
I cried for a couple of days, but I had been trying to prepare myself for a few months. Every time I visited my mom, I would spend time petting Herriot, sitting outside with her and taking pictures of her. Still, that preparation didn't make the news any easier.
We adopted Herriot on Leap Day, 1996. On that day my mom just up and said, "Let's go get a dog." My sister, who was 10 and had been begging for a dog for years, ran out of the house and was in the car with her seatbelt buckled before my mom's lips had closed. We went to the pet store and the front window was filled with balls of golden fluff, a litter of golden retriever pups. Shelby picked our puppy because she was the one who licked Shelby's hand.
It turned out that the pet store had taken them from their mother too young, and our little puppy cried all night for at least a week. We kept her in the kitchen with baby gates and newspapers and mopped up her messes more or less cheerfully because we were so happy to have her. I came up with the name "Herriot" after the vet James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, which my mom had read out loud to us a while before. Soon she stopped crying, but she never stopped being excitable. Whenever visitors would come to the house, Herriot would jump all over them--and this didn't even stop until a few years ago, when she was too old and sore to jump any more. Even if the guest had been there for a few hours, if he or she reentered the room Herriot would go ballistic all over again. She never bit or barked--she just was so happy to meet someone new or see what she considered an old friend. After a few minutes of jumping she would realize, "Oh yeah! PETTING!" and would flop onto her back with her belly up. She loved having her belly rubbed more than anything.
On her leash she was excitable as well. She would PULL on walks! Our neighbors would frequently see us being yanked along in the wake of Herriot's nose. They also got used to the sight of Herriot sitting on our front stoop, hindquarters on the top step, paws on the bottom step, just like a person. I've never seen another dog sit like this, but then I don't think Herriot thought she was a dog. She was one of us. That's probably why she loved car rides so much--it's not like she was one of those dogs who sit with their heads out the window; she just didn't want to be left behind ever. She knew the words "car ride" and would bolt for the door instantly. If she ever got off her leash and ran off into the woods after a squirrel, all you had to do was open our car door and she'd come running and leap inside, where you could reattach her leash (and dash her hopes). She recognized the sound of my dad's car and would always wait for him at the door when she heard it, jumping and jumping on the glass when she saw him coming up the walk. She also recognized the sound of a tin can opening, because we would pour tuna juice on her dog food. We didn't even have an electric can opener--but she could hear that quiet cranking noise and would come skittering into the kitchen.
She didn't always act smart, though. She never got the hang of "retrieving," for example. She never learned not to drink salt water at the beach, even though it made her sick. She never did figure out that a slightly open door could very easily be pushed all the way. Instead she would stand patiently at the door, scratching at it every 30 seconds or so until the occupants of the room would get annoyed enough to come open the door and let her in. It took her a long time to figure out how to spring onto a bed, too--at least, we thought so, considering that at night she would put her front paws up on the bed and wag her tail expectantly until you pulled her all the way up. Yet sometimes we would come home and sit down on the surprisingly warm and furry couch or bed, so clearly she knew how to get up there to take naps when "the cat was away." :) Speaking of fur, I can't tell you how many vacuum cleaner bags we went through.
Whenever she would lick metal, her lips and jowls would quiver--we called it her fish face and couldn't help but laugh, but she would insist on doing it once in a while, as though she liked the quivering sensation. If she had an allergic reaction to something and got an itchy tongue, she would lick and lick at the carpet or the sidewalk. Another funny thing she would do: if you were sitting in a chair she would come over and push her head under your arm, as though she wanted to see what you were reading--really she just wanted to have her ears scratched. If you were to stop petting her, she would lift up her paw and wait for you to take it. You didn't have to do anything, just hold it. She would sit there patiently while you read your book and held her paw.
After my parents' marriage ended my mom was living in an apartment that didn't allow dogs, and my grandparents kindly took Herriot in. They loved her and she loved them. My Nanny enjoyed brushing her silky coat and taking her for long walks, and all her neighbors would say, "What a beautiful dog!" Nanny loves to say that's how she met all the folks in their new neighborhood, by walking Herriot.
But after a couple of years it was apparent that something was wrong. My mom called me in tears one day to say she was on her way to Nanny's house and they thought they might have to put Herriot to sleep because she was doing so poorly. I had just moved into my own office at work, and I shut my new door and cried hysterically. But the next day--miracle! The vet diagnosed arthritis and put her on medication, and the change was immediate and positive. Not long thereafter, my new stepdad's elderly cat passed away--itself a sad event, but it meant that Herriot could now come back to live with my mom.
She had the best retirement years that a dog could ask for, on a farm with several acres. She ran and frolicked in the fields, sniffed out deer in the woods, lay down in the shade by the fish pond that my stepdad installed for my mom. The house is a ranch house, so not too many stairs for her to navigate.
Early this year she turned 13. All year long whenever I visited I could sadly tell she was an old, old dog. She was losing teeth, and her hearing didn't seem very good. This time, on Friday when we came down for my shower, when I first saw her I instinctively started crying. She had lost so much weight that all her bones stuck out. I kneeled down to pet her, and she tried to get up, and her limbs failed and she just fell on the ground. For a few hours that day I couldn't look at her or pet her because I was so heartsick. The living room is accessed by two short steps. She stood at the top of the steps looking down, wanting to come in to be with everyone. My brother, a tall guy of few words, got up from the couch and lifted her down into the room in his arms. I'll never forget that image.
When I visit my mom I sleep in the back bedroom, the "horse bedroom," and Herriot usually slept in there too--I don't know if she always did whether or not there were visitors. Friday I barely slept because I could hear Herriot all night. For a while I thought she was standing up because I could hear her nails on the floor, but I think she must have been trying to get up and failing. A couple of times I heard "thumps," where she had fallen down again. She licked the carpet for hours. By Saturday evening she had gotten much worse. We were all in the living room watching a movie, Herriot in her preferred spot under the coffee table. She threw up a few times, but eventually there was nothing left for her to throw up, because she hadn't eaten all day. After a while my mom got up and took her outside, where she fell down again.
Heartbroken, we all congregated in the horse bedroom where Herriot had chosen to lie down again. Shelby, Zach, my mom and I sat on the floor, holding her paws. After a while we took turns remembering aloud our favorite Herriot stories. I'm so grateful we had that time all together with her. I hope she knew how loved she was. I think so.
I was bone tired that night after several nights of not much sleep. I drifted off but jerked awake in the night/early morning. Herriot was dry heaving again, followed by panting. After several minutes of listening I turned on the bedside lamp and went and sat on the floor with her, petting her head and holding her paw. She would seem to calm down, and I would get back in bed, but it would start again a few minutes later. I got out of bed a couple more times, interspersed by lying awake worrying--should I sleep on the floor with her? Should I wake my mom? As her attacks seemed to be getting worse, I got Mom out of bed. We both sat with her for a few minutes and her breathing seemed to calm a bit. We tried to get her to stand up but couldn't; finally we were able to get her up and into my mom's bedroom. I went back to bed and cried silently until I fell asleep.
A few hours later, my mom touched my foot. It was around 7:30 in the morning, Sunday. "Honey, we're going to take Herriot to the vet. I found one that will open today. Shelby and Zach are going to come too." Chris and I had an appointment set up with our wedding photographer that morning. And, I guess this is cowardly. But I didn't think I could bear to go. I went outside and Herriot was on the pebble gravel next to the car, chin on the ground between her front paws. I sat down on the gravel with her for a few minutes. Then Zach helped lift her into the car.
They buried her next to the fish pond, near where the horses graze on the other side of the fence and where the sun shines and the little waterfall tinkles. I feel so grateful. So grateful that she graced us with her beautiful life, so grateful that she waited for us to be there with her at the end, so glad she had such a happy long life, so glad that my mom lives somewhere where Herriot could be buried. So glad that she's not suffering anymore. She was such a good dog, so filled with love. She didn't have a mean bone in her body. "All dogs go to heaven," Chris said when he was hugging me. I hope the angels are giving her tuna juice in her food dish, rubbing her belly and holding her paw.