Friday, July 25, 2014

R.I.P. Copper (2000-2014)

Our dog Copper died today. She was 14. 

I wrote her this letter. 

Dear Copper, 

In 2000, which, when I was a kid, seemed like the distant future but now seems like ancient history, I decided to adopt a dog. I’d never had a pet before. My soon-to-be-mediocre career as a lawyer was underway, I was in a relationship that looked like it would go the distance, and it seemed like as good a time as any to get a dog. 

So that August, Jennie and I visited a bunch of shelters before landing at the Richmond Animal League, a no-kill shelter just south of the James River. "No-kill shelters" are favored by five out of five dogs surveyed! The staff had just brought in a litter of cute 4-month-old pups - you and your three brothers. They'd named you Silhouette, due to your jet black coloring. You'd been abandoned in a baseball field and you were all sick with parvovirus (sadly, one of your brothers didn't survive). You were a mix of some kind, mostly lab, maybe a little chow and hound in there. Little did we know that you were also a nuclear reactor meltdown in canine form.

From the beginning, we knew you were the one. After the adoption was squared away, we took you home, re-named you Copper, and OH MY GOD PUPPIES ARE AN ADORABLE PAIN IN THE ASS. I won’t sit here and say everything was hunky-dory from the get-go. Because it was not. When you’ve never done it before, having a puppy kind of sucks. Housetraining a puppy sucks. You don’t realize that having your home soaked in urine for a month is pretty much par for the course. You don’t realize that a puppy will whimper all night and bark explosively at something that happened yesterday. 

And this was my failing. Not yours. You did what dogs do. I, on the other hand, was a total coward. In fact, one day a couple of weeks after we got you, I even drove you back to the shelter with every intention of returning you. We were standing there in the reception area, and I think the staff even knew why I was there, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. Instead, I made up some reason why I had come back with pup in tow, and we went back home. I still feel so, so guilty for that, and I'm so very sorry. 

But eventually I got my shit together. I think. And we got through the hard stuff. Well I did. You just continued being a dog. By your first birthday in April 2001, we were rolling along. There was a dog park a few blocks from my apartment that we went to most evenings after work, which you loved. Always a dozen or more dogs in a (mostly) friendly battle royale. I still remember the closure of that park – that summer, a big sign went up at the gate that read THIS PARK WILL CLOSE 9/1/2001. Given what happened ten days later, the sign still haunts me. 

At night, you'd plop down on the floor of the bedroom, but by morning, without fail, I found you curled up at my feet. You once ate and digested a tennis ball cover. You ate a bunch of rat poison and survived (that one required some medical intervention). You chewed up a pen and pooped blue for two days. In November 2002, you developed a bladder infection (a chronic problem that we ultimately solved with a diet change) and peed blood on the carpet about 2 feet from from Jennie’s wedding dress (which admittedly was bagged and hanging off the floor, but still). You hated to play fetch or quite frankly chase anything unless it was alive (your snatching a bird out of the air in mid-flight remains one of the most amazing things I've ever seen), but you loved to go running with me. 

I remember once, we were out running at dusk, headed down a street near our apartment building. Up ahead, I could see a man standing there, silhouetted in the gloom. I didn’t think too much of it, but when we got within about half a block, you stopped dead. You weren't a huge dog, but I couldn’t get you to budge an inch, and your fur bristled. You were staring right at this guy, who I still couldn’t quite make out. Finally, I gave up and turned back; immediately, you released and followed me the other way. I think about that moment from time to time. What you were protecting me from, I’ll never know. Probably nothing, but I'll be telling the kids that you saved me from an ax murderer. 

Life went on – Jennie and I got married and bought a house with a huge fenced-in yard. When you were five, our son was born, and you happily accepted the change in the pecking order. When you were eight, our daughter came along, and you welcomed her as well. Later that fall, you tore your ACL and meniscus, and Jesus knee surgery for dogs is expensive. But we made it through that too, and by spring, you’d never have known that you’d blown out your knee.

You were there for everything important in our family's life. Marriage, babies, our first house, our second house, employment drama, first steps, first words, first day of school, lost teeth, our third house, book writing, job promotions, sickness, health, the Sopranos, Chinese food delivery. You were the best alarm system I've ever had - if a stranger got within 20 feet of our house, the whole neighborhood would know it. You loved table food and treats and especially when I held the remnants of a t-bone steak and let you chew off the bone. 
You loved running in the backyard and having your ears scratched and using our furniture as a napkin. And woe to the plate of food left unattended on the coffee table. 

You only got lost once, very briefly. Jennie was 8 months pregnant with baby #2, and I was out of town at a conference. A couple days earlier, a workman had come to mark utility lines in our yard and left the gate open. That Saturday morning, you finally found her way to that side of the yard and Jennie only realized it when you never came back inside. So there’s your pregnant momma, in her PJs, scrambling to get our toddler out the door, me in D.C., when the phone rings. All was well. You had made friends with a family about a mile away who found our number on your collar, and you were home less than an hour after disappearing.

In 2010, you hit double digits. That fall, you injured your other knee, and we decided against another operation. It seemed to be the right call, because within a few weeks, you were walking normally again. You weren't quite as active as you used to be, and a bit of white had started to take hold around your snout, but you still looked and acted far younger than your years.

The years rolled by, and you never seemed to age, even as you hit 11 then 12 then 13 years old. Our life got busier and crazier…. but in January 2014, something changed.

We noticed you hadn’t eaten for a couple days. That was followed by a couple days of … let’s call it stomach issues. We tried our best - medications, new foods, more medications, more new foods, but your appetite never returned, and your bathroom trips became wildly unpredictable. You grew weaker through the spring and summer as your weight dwindled from a peak of about 55 pounds, until physically, you were a shadow of your former self. You began sleeping downstairs all the time after a scary fall down the stairs. You couldn’t hear the doorbell anymore, which was nothing short of astonishing. I still tense up when I hear a doorbell, even if we’re at someone else’s house. But you always seemed happy, always in the mood for a treat here and there. You turned 14 in April, an age that I think any decent-sized dog would be proud of.

But by the end of July, walking was becoming a struggle and your stomach was a mess. Despite all the medications, including our last-ditch effort, an appetite stimulant that didn't work, you just weren't eating nearly enough, and you were wasting away. You didn’t seem happy anymore.

It was time. After consulting with your vet, who cared for you for nearly your whole life, I made the appointment. The whole family went because they wanted to be with you as long as they could. We made a special stop and fed you two hamburgers and a doughnut. You didn't tremble at all during the ride there, like you always did, and that told me you were ready. 

You didn’t fight or struggle because I think there was no fight left in you. You'd given us all you had. It was over quickly.

And I know we made the right call. You were thin, paper thin. You were deaf, and your once-bright eyes were clouded with cataracts. There was no pep in your step. There were barely any steps. I don’t know when you passed the point of no return, but the important thing was that you had passed it. Everything that made you you was gone.

But the house seems empty without you. Quieter, even though you hadn't made a sound in months. Your leash hangs by the door, where it will remain.

I have never been the world’s most patient person. I fly off the handle at stupid things, and I worry about things no rational person would. I’ve always known that, so I won’t claim some brightly lit revelation about that in the wake of your passing.

But in looking back at your joy-filled life, which you gave to us unconditionally, I would be stupid not to at least try and live as you did, if not all the time, then at least a little bit.

So farewell, sweet girl. Wherever you are now, the place is richer for it. 

And this world is darker without you in it.