Gone to the Dogs

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Three years ago, I had to get a new car. As far as transitions go, getting a new car should have fallen along the mundane, defined by checking transactional items off a list, but since I am a sensitive-type human, letting go of the old car was hitting me terribly hard in the emotion sensors because I associated it with the end of my old life (ex-wife, ex-stepmom, ex-teacher, ex-film production) and had not yet fully come into my own in my new life (renewed and happy daughter, sister, friend, aunt, cousin, niece, runner, writer, dog owner, nonprofit dream job-haver, loud-laugher, and very selective dater). Giving up the car felt like a defeat, as if by giving it up, I had failed again at my old life; I was momentarily forgetting that I kept the people that mattered, the stepkids, their mom, and the dogs, and actively left the shitty stuff behind. I was actually winning in the new life!

Part of the reason for having that big auto-wagon was to schlep around my sweet Golden Retrievers, two brothers named Duke and Rocco. A car, no matter how hot the seats get on a cold morning, cannot warm your heart like a goofy, gentle Golden. The beings that are the most loving, can also be the most perplexing; deciding to keep two 80-pound Goldens, in the middle of a divorce, in between houses, cities, and careers, can at the very least be perceived by concerned family and friends as a bit frivolous, or a little more seriously, as compromised decision making. The funny thing is though, even at my saddest or most confused times, I knew that keeping the car AND the dogs was giving me the stability I craved. I was determined to figure it out.

Duke and Rocco came into my life in May of 2002. They showed up at the house with their breeder and three of their littermates. Having five seven-week old Golden Retrievers at your house is both the best and worst thing to ever happen to you. Laying in the grass of your front yard with your young stepdaughters in the late day sun while puppies snuggle into your face, bap you with their spongy little paws, all while they make growly puppy noises and fall head over tail within a three foot radius of your nose, well, that right there is a slice of heaven. But that is also how your husband at the time gets seduced into wanting not ONE but TWO puppies, and because you really want TWO too but you know better, BUT you want to avoid a fight, you get TWO GOLDEN PUPPIES.

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Two short years later, marriage in shambles, Duke, Rocco, the car and I were left trying to figure out where to go, what to do, and if I would ever feel whole again.

But that was actually the beginning of the long road to recovery they would take me on. I made the conscious, if stubborn decision to keep the dogs. Because the divorce was so traumatic, I think that my family begrudgingly agreed I should not be pressed too hard on this, and to their credit, rallied around. It cannot be counted out that it was also because Duke and Rocco were irresistible. My dad let me move into his house in Sausalito, which at age 35 seemed more insane than having the beasts he was not too much a fan of live with him too. Once settled in there with no yard, I had to become a conscientious dog walker, which eventually turned me into a dog runner, which turned into Me, The Runner.

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Then in 2008, right smack in the middle of the national financial crisis, I had to make another hasty move. Looking for an apartment with two 80-pound dogs rightly has about the same difficulty as hiking Mt. Everest without oxygen. I was barely breathing through my stress. But, I found us a place where we lived with no furniture for a month while I waited to unload my storage unit in LA, which was also good because it gave them time to get through the first week while having their daily attacks of explosive diarrhea from “moving nerves.” My dogs were sensitive tenderonis too.

The three of us settled into a nice routine in the casita at the commune in Corte Madera. Although Duke had since been diagnosed with epilepsy and took many drugs to mute the seizures, he was still able to run, so we spent many of our evenings out on the running and bike paths logging miles and keeping all of us sane and fit. They were escape artists, so they had to stay inside alone during the day (or at night when I went out) rather than in the unsecured yard, but 78% of the time no one jumped out of a window, got into the recycling, ate the loaf of bread on the counter, peed in the kitchen, broke into the bathroom and ate all the trash, barked so loudly at a deer that came into the yard that the weird neighbor broke the front door glass with his fist in a fit of rage when a kind and firm, “No!” would have sufficed, nor did they eat my Prada butterfly sandal (the guy I was dating, that was his dog who did that), so all things being equal, we were doing just fine.

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Duke’s health started a long, slow decline, mostly because of the meds he was required to take for the seizures. He could no longer run with Rocco and me, so I had to shift our schedule to walk Duke (while Rocco was impatient and at times, incredulous), then drop Duke off back at home, then sneak back out with Rocco to get some more miles in. In the fall of 2011, Rocco and I were running together about 18-20 miles a week. At age 9, he was fast and spry and loved running with me. I noticed that every now and again he’d have a little cough, but I couldn’t find a pattern to it, so did not bring it up to the vet. Rocco was also my shadow, and even though the less needy of the two care-wise, he was a love hound and would basically sit in my lap if I let him.

And then, like a doomed opera heroine, he started to cough more. Within two months, he had gone from running 20 miles a week, to having fungal pneumonia and had to be euthanized in early January 2012. Duke and I were devastated. What would we do without favorite clown dog? Who would I run with? Would Duke die of a broken and/or confused heart? Would I?

Oh man, did it hurt. I have never felt that kind of absolute heartbreak before or since. I have tried so many times to write about his death, and have pages of emotional ramble that someday I will decipher, but all I can get at is this, however clunky. The love I shared with Rocco (and with Duke too, but this lesson first came from Rocco) was at its core the purest form of the emotion. A dog cannot apply complexity or conditions to love. A dog simply loves you in every minute he shares with you. That is why when you leave the room and come back his tail wags just as hard as when you leave for work for an entire day. He trusts that you will come back. And when you do, because you want to feel his love for you, he gives it to you with abandon.

Today, I had to put Duke to sleep too. I made the decision late last week after very mindfully watching his daily routine, and seeing a marked decline in mobility. He spent seven years taking Phenobarbital, potassium bromide, and then some doggie ibuprofen, all of which I shoved down his throat daily, twice a day, and he never once winced. What never declined was his love for me, which for the last three days I have basked in, just the two of us at the casita in between welcome and loving visits from friends and family. The last thing he remembers is me holding him, and stroking his face the way he liked so much he’d close his eyes in reverie, and telling him how much I love him.

Duke and Rocco have been my little family for 12 years. They gave me what I wanted: a sense of stability during a time of immense upheaval, a devoted and endless supply of fun and adventure, and most importantly, the ability give and receive love without conditions because before this, I didn’t know that was true. They were able to depart knowing I will be okay without them because through their eyes I learned I am worthy of love.

My family, friends and colleagues who have come to love my boys as an extension of me have been so incredibly kind and thoughtful and tender and warm and vulnerable, both the past few days and when Rocco passed a couple years ago. Every one of your calls, emails, txts, hugs, treats for me and for Duke (!) has lifted my spirits and made the shittiest days absolutely bearable, and in a sweet way that only dog-love can, make them fun and funny. My vet, and my two dear caregivers Danielle and Megumi, you have become my friends over the years and I love you and thank you for caring for my dogs in my absences. I would in no way have been able to do such a good job for Duke and Rocco without your constant love and support of the boys.

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16 thoughts on “Gone to the Dogs

  1. Dammit. I’ve been so self-absorbed in dumb work BS that I didn’t know this had happened until just now. This is the new Best Thing You’ve Ever Written. You’ve done your boys proud. I’m so sorry for the shittiness of it, but so happy that you are also reveling in the pure love of having them on your life. Much love to you. (You’ve truly made me cry — in a good way.) xoxo

    • aww, K-Bell, I was not really talking about it, so you were not missing anything. about irritating work BS though… urgh, hate.

      THANK YOU. humbled. if you think so than I will believe you because I feel like I could write a whole book about them and not do them justice. yes to the good crying. that’s the best kind. HUGS!! xoxo

  2. Oh man. As a Golden Retriever widower I felt every word of what you wrote. Well, you know, minus the shitty divorce and all that stuff. But in just pure doggy terms I feel you. I couldn’t get another dog for… well, I still don’t have a dog. But my heart opened up enough for a cat recently. (Not the same BTW, no replacement for a Golden) Hang in there Justine. You are the bomb. Sorry about your dog(s).

  3. Wow….where to begin? First, sending you a dog pile of love. I know how much your heart hurts right about now. I can see your boys doing the famous HUG and it makes me smile. You gave each other all the love that they and YOU deserved for a long long time. The giant crater in your heart is not destined to be empty for long my brave sweet friend. Dukes passing marks the end of a long chapter in your life whose time has come. I can feel the smiles and love in your future….they are waiting for you. Nothing but time will help to heal your heart now. I am so sorry for your loss Justine. I know it is huge. As huge as your love was for those amazing furry friends. Always here for you.

    • I love dog piles of love :-) thank you for the kind words and love sweet Patty. I am sad, but I am okay. I too wholeheartedly believe that Duke sent me off, and that he was finally okay leaving, knowing I have so much good and fun and love in store. it’s going to be a bit of a transition to not have either of them by my side, but I know they are where it counts, in my heart. love you, miss you, let’s drink wine next time you are here. xoxo

  4. Your loss weighs heavy on all our hearts, I remember staying with your dogs,
    They were very young in those days and very bouncy ! I love dogs and grew up with our golden, Bow Wow. You continue to inspire me and bring laughter to my heart…with that much of a gift I know you will continue to be the conqueror you are.

  5. Justine, so sorry to hear this. Ted and I know what you are going through right now. We loved our Golden Winston so much we could never get another, although after 4 years “alone” we did make the leap with our Westie babies, who are now 7 and a half. It will indeed take time before this pain softens into sad and then happy memories. Hugs.

  6. Sorry Justine. We had to put our lab down this past Fall so I know it sucks. Just get through the days best you can. It is all you really can do. Maybe buy a new puppy??

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