A year ago today my great daily companion of ten years, Yeager the Weimaraner, died. Of all the “Yeager epistles,” the one I’ve decided to set down on my own “Yeager Memorial Day” is one about that universal reality most humans don’t approach eagerly – the fact that we are all dying as we are living and yet, perhaps more importantly – the dying are still very much living. It’s the tale of Snackhouse. I avoid discussing faith because I do believe that concepts of “God” are, ultimately, as distinctly individual in the billions of minds of each one of the billions of us. A thousand people sitting in the same house of worship might all assume they share exactly the same concept, but one can never know precisely how another perceives what they all hear; even those who verbally insist they assent to the same concept of “God” filter it through their own level of awareness and degree of experiences. As long as one is alive, that concept is evolving. I may not always understand how I perceive “God” at any given moment, but I now no longer doubt my faith in Dog.
Enough preluding. As the old boy himself would insist upon just about right now, let’s get going. On to Snackhouse.
The Tale of Snackhouse
Yeager loved to walk. Sometimes we walked four times a day for a half an hour each time. If I was working on a project that needed a lot of thinking, we would just keep walking, he endlessly, me aimlessly.
I remember on the day of New Year’s Eve, right before 2009 began. We spent it alone together and it was one of the my most memorable ones I ever had. We walked from our house all the way from Melrose, which is at the corner of the street I lived on, to Pan-Pacific Park, across the street from the Grove. We walked all through the park several times. It was about five miles of walking and he was twelve and a half years old and could have kept going.
Through the years, many people who lived in the neighborhood came to know him. They always remembered his name, but never mine. That was okay. Often, we ran into the same people in the early evenings. People might not walk the broad, wide boulevards of Lost Angeles, but many stroll the smaller avenues and keep their front doors opened.
One woman, whose house faced Melrose, had pink hair and when we passed by, she brought out what she called her make-believe dog, which was a wired dog leash and collar – but no dog. She’d tease Yeager and ask if he wanted to marry her little dog. She sold useless stuff at the Sunday morning flea-market on Fairfax and Melrose. She was kooky but very nice. I wonder what happened to her.
There was a youngish man with a goatee and crewcut who lived on the ground floor of a duplex on McCadden who was bi-polar, so he said. He always made a big deal with his arms flailing when we passed by his screen door. Once he came out and cried and hugged Yeager around the neck, he was so happy to see him. Yeager looked up at me as if to say, “Poor guy, but he’s nice.”
Another was an ironic, elderly German lady who kept her lawn bright green with dye and always wore a smock. She used to speak to Yeager in German. He didn’t speak German but he always sat and listened to her, politely for a bit, before turning to look up at me for the signal to get going.
There was also an old-fashioned middle-aged couple who often walked at sunset, promenading in an old-fashioned way, arm-in-arm. At first they nodded deeply and smiled. One day, the wife just stopped and looked down at him, then up at me with the broadest beam of a smile. Over time, we began to chat. She was one of those people who stood out for she possessed that perfect balance of warmth and dignity. She was French, I later learned. And a prominent psychologist. She had a vibrant incandescent quality, even without speaking. I could tell her husband loved her very much. When she began to talk to Yeager he stared at her and smiled. Her name was Catherine. One day, I noticed an elderly woman walking around with them. It was Catherine’s mother, who was visiting for a long stay.
Over time, I saw the mother and husband strolling at night, but not Catherine. We said hello, and I asked them to tell Catherine hello from us.
And, over time, I could see that Yeager’s pinched nerve in his lower back was beginning to affect him If he had walked too long a period of time, I noticed his toes began to knuckle under his paws.
The vet said that too long a single walk was making the nerve, which ran down his legs, make his toes go numb. So, instead of four long walks, we took six short walks.
And Yeager was fine. I also began to yank him in the opposite direction of his usual walk east and south, across Melrose and take him instead the two short blocks north and west to loop around into a giant square. It was about the third day when he suddenly took off in a gentle gallop.
He smelled something and it drove him, fast and quick to the end of Las Palmas and Melrose. He beelined from the sidewalk up a short brick path, which led the front door of a house – but he diverted immediately into the thick foliage of the landscaped garden and jumped into the shrubbery, foraging madly. As I went in after him to retrieve his dragging leash, he resisted my effort to get him out of there before we were discovered trampling around. He kept yanking madly at me; he as determined to stick his head far under a large plant, ferreting out what looked like the tiniest bits of brown bread.
Assuming perhaps someone on the street had perhaps tossed a sandwich roll into the bushes, I didn’t give it much thought. So the next day, when he practically dragged me up two long blocks north, over one block west and south two blocks to the corner of Las Palmas and Melrose I also didn’t give it much thought. Until, into the bushes he again leaped.
The next day, when he yanked the leash to head south, I knew he would be disappointed that we couldn’t cross Melrose anymore. I was wrong. Instead of turning east, he turned west, taking a more immediate route to the house on the corner of Las Palmas and Melrose. Before I realized where he was going, he had again bolted, yanking the leash from my hand and had again jumped into that front garden to get those tiny bits of bread. When I heard a noise coming from inside the house, I felt a bit nervous. I got Yeager out of there as quickly as I could.
For a few of our evening walks, I managed to guide Yeager north – but east, avoiding that garden and what would surely be the wrath of someone just home from work who took pride in their front garden and didn’t want to run the risk of any poop in it. Since it was more convenient for me and with more sniffing potential for him, however, I knew there was no risk in letting him walk by in the morning, after most people had left for work.
Sure enough, that very first morning, a woman called out from behind a screened kitchen window, “Don’t let him eat that bird seed!” I was mortified, and had to practicality lift him bodily out of there.
The next day, a Sunday in February 2010, Yeager was in great pain. I had never before seen him like this. I feared he had eaten some bird seed or poison. He couldn’t get up. We rushed to the emergency vet. He hadn’t eaten anything poisonous. Still climbing up on the sofa or bed, he had apparently taken a tumble and hurt his back. I worried about the effect of this on his lower back and the pinched nerve.
He wasn’t allowed to walk for a week and I also determined to finally invest in the Eddie’s Wheels cart, as much for my own peace of mind for when the time might come that his pinched nerve would make his toes and legs go numb on shorter and shorter distances.
Soon enough, as a precautionary measure, I began dragging the cart behind us, like it was some royal carriage for King Fido who did not chose to ride but rather to keep walking. And I also invested in booties made to protect his paws when they knuckled, and prevent them from scraping on the pavement. He stiffened his feet like a child resisting footsie pajamas, but I won that battle, insisting he couldn’t walk until he had them on.
By the time he was geared up in his booties, and I was pulling the cart behind him, I was so focused on his balance and feet that I entirely forgot again about that front yard he liked.
I slacked a little. I let him go just a bit up the brick path.
We were nailed again.
The woman, whose face was distorted through the mesh kitchen window screen called out – but not saying what I expected.
“Where have you been?! I’ve been looking for you – Yeager!”
Just then, a man dashed out of the house. I recognized him – except for the bag of small bits of bread he was carrying. It was Catherine’s husband.
He told me that she couldn’t work anymore. She was housebound, spending most of her time in the kitchen at the window, looking out.
I apologized profusely for disturbing her, assuring him I would absolutely never bring Yeager by their front house again.
He pulled back, almost insulted, then tossed the bits of bread out across the ground, near the foliage. “This isn’t for the bird. They have the seed. This is for Yeager.”
I didn’t understand. He told me.
Catherine had cancer. There was nothing more that could be done. He launched into a long and upset monologue. Obviously I didn’t take notes, but he made his plea repeatedly and passionately, the gist of it going:
“All day she has only one thing to look forward to. She waits every evening to see Yeager hunt around her garden for his tiny bits of bread. Please - don’t stop bringing him here. She looks forward to see him, she watches out the window for him at dinnertime. The other day, she started getting weaker. Yeager is keeping her going. Some days, she says, seeing him so crazy in the yard is a good reason to stay alive. He makes her laugh.”
Yeager sure as hell wasn’t going to say no to this deal.
And so began a whole new, unexpected chapter. As so often happens in life.
Me pulling along King Fido’s royal carriage, his back legs shuffling a bit in booties on the sidewalk as he sped along as quickly as he could, making the loop around two long blocks, at the very end of which was his reward, his bits of gold, to be detected, and foraged with strategic moves around his very own Shangrai-La.
The neighbors couldn’t help noticing as he bypassed them all. He had no time left to entertain the make-believe dog, or indulge the goatee man who cried. On occasion, another neighbor, Lane, and his dog Stella, joined us for the “Melrose March,” to Snackhouse. Sometimes friends joined in this parade.
“Whatever’s driving his engine, give me some!” said the German lady watering her dyed green grass. I told her. “That”s a fine Weimaraner. Working hard to earn his Snackhaus.“
As the spring of 2010 wore on, I began to notice that once Yeager had felt certain that every tiny, last possible crumb had been uncovered and eaten, and I managed to get him off the front lawn there and around the last corner, his determination waned. He began to slope more on the last walk. And I more frequently insisted on putting him in the cart for the last several hundred feet. He fought like hell to keep me from slipping his legs in the back, the cart supporting and straightening up his back so he could walk just fine and return feeling to where his toes had become numb.
In that cart, this very long and big 14-year old dog never failed to slow down rush-hour traffic on Melrose, sometimes to a grinding halt. And every time we neared Snackhouse, Catherine’s husband would dash out wildly, implored by her to make sure Yeager’s bread bits were in place before he got there, sometimes swinging a bag of bread pulling out a quarter of a piece that he rapidly ripped into tiny, tiny bits. There were times when I brought them a specific dosage of Yeager’s kibble, always concerned that bread might raise his blood sugar level. In fact, it was never the amount or the type of buts of food that made the difference. Increasingly, for Yeager, the pursuit was the reason for getting out in the evening. It was a hunt for living.
One day,Yeager got to Snackhouse as usual, and foraged around and around, frustrated. He stared up at me. Something was wrong. There were no bits of bread, anywhere.
This had happened before, when Catherine had to be briefly hospitalized. The next day, however, there was no bread at Snackhouse again. Also, the following day. On the fourth day, I saw Catherine’s mother emerge from the house. Catherine had died.
I wrote her husband, leaving him the note on top of one of the Snackhouse shrubs. I thanked him for what he and Catherine had done for Yeager.
Summer began. Yeager turned 15 years old. The Fourth of July, and then Labor Day came, and left. Not one day went by that Yeager did not guide me past Snackhouse. Despite the fact that it had been quite some time since there were any bread bits there, not one day went by that Yeager didn’t feel compelled to check and just make sure there was no bread bit there.
I hadn’t seen Catherine’s husband in a long while, but I did notice that he had begun working on the front garden a little bit again. He planted a large, healthy rose bush and redid the brick pavement of the front walk.
Summer ended. Yeager still had his alert, determined spirit. He would never have entertained a day without a walk. In early October, he began to falter more during his walks. During a brief four day trip I had to make, Yeager nearly died of a shockingly sudden onset of pneumonia; he would have died had Rich not carried him immediately to the vet.
When I returned, we carefully resumed our walk. And on the first day back, we routinely passed Snackhouse and Yeager routinely checked to make sure there were no bread bits. There weren’t.
We turned the corner at Melrose when all of a sudden I heard a man yelling, “Yeager! Yeager! Wait!”
It was Catherine’s husband chasing after us with his fresh bag of bread. We went back to Snackhouse and he shred a quarter of a piece and rolled them into tiny balls and scattered them across the ground. Yeager began to forage, every so often looking up at me in happy disbelief. He was overcome with excitement, and let out little yelping gasps.
Watching this and smiling broadly, her husband told me excitedly, “I want to do this, to remember Catherine, for her, right by the rosebush. She loves roses! She loves Yeager. I love Yeager. Everyone loves Yeager. Even our cat.”
Well, that last bit was hard to believe, but I didn’t challenge him. For, in that moment, Catherine’s husband had become the Master of Snackhouse.
Whether Yeager seemed to make his bizarrely rapid recovery from the weakness that ensued from his pneumonia bout because I insisted that he slip into his cart earlier and earlier each time we began the walk home, or because he was again eager for rapid walks, I do feel certain of one thing many people in the neighborhood began to cheer him on for: the return to Snackhouse was not only a way to keep Catherine’s memory alive, but it was keeping Yeager alive.
Even the new brick path which the Master of Snackhouse had installed would prove crucial to his life. Without it, Yeager would not have been able to get in there, with his cart.
By Halloween time, he was all geared up in his booties and getting used to his cart, now and then, he was again stopping cars. Once, some construction workers in a jalopy truck whistled and clapped for him. Another time, two Japanese teenage girls actually got off a tour bus and ran right into the traffic to cross Melrose to take his picture in the cart. My brother, a film producer from Australia, chronicled the Melrose March in a photo series.
And every single day in November and December of 2010, Yeager sloped and coped and pursued his mission with a vengeance.
He actually went through a remarkable upswing in strength in January – marching on, like a soldier into battle, determined to get every damn last crumb. Never one to bark without reason, I was startled to hear his older, muffled warning cry when he saw a poodle briefly dare to invade his turf and the woman on the other end of the poodle’s leash actually picked up her little one into her arms in fear of this ancient being in the cart coming towards them.
As March began, he was still speeding out so fast that he tore through a pair of booties by month’s end.
By April, it was impossible for him to make it to Snackhouse without the cart or unwise to leave him alone any longer.
If it was time to hit the road to Snackhouse, he would thrash and push himself up against a wall so hard he actually developed a harmless hematoma in one ear, breaking some contained blood vessels, giving him the look of an asymmetrical haircut.
If the fact that his front legs now began to weaken gave anyone a thought of slowing him down, new front wheels ended that speculation. The first day he was in his now-four-wheeled cart, he just sped down the sidewalk right in the direction of where else.
Even the week after Mother’s Day, when he was diagnosed with severe pancreatis, and his carefully-monitored diet prevented even the most miniscule bit of bread, Yeager fought hard.
The bread may have been the initial motivation but it had long ceased to be the reason he had to get to Snackhouse everyday. It was the reason to live.
In fact, worried that he might have been in pain, on May 11, I called in a vet to administer at-home euthanasia. He has slight discomfort, the vet said after examining him, but he was in no pain. And that day, as witnessed by four friends, Yeager got into his cart and made his long marching loop around the block to Snackhouse. He completed it entirely.
In the last days of his life, when I feared the impact of him making the full loop, Yeager and his cart were driven around the block to just a few houses away, and he walked just a few houses down, a shorter distance to Snackhouse.
And a year ago today, when he awoke in time for his evening walk but was breathing hard, in a telling way I had never before heard him do so, as his esophagus was shutting down and he could not even swallow water, and I held him for the last twenty minutes of his life, he struggled towards the open door, every so often turning from looking at me to look outside, determined to fulfill his daily intention.
I’m not sure if Yeager knew that he was dying. I am certain he knew, even in those final moments, that he was living.
When Catherine’s husband heard Yeager was gone, he waited until the rosebush he had planted at Snackhouse in her honor had borne its first bloom, and gave it to me.
(If you are able to, please consider a small donation to the Yeager Fund for special needs dogs who will live their lives out at the Friends for Pets shelter where I met Yeager. Even small contributions help by adding up. Thirty dollars provides food for one month for one dog. Fifty dollars will allow FFP to buy out an abandoned dog in a city shelter slated for euthanasia. Every single dollar goes directly to the dogs. The organization is entirely volunteer. You can do so by following this link:"How A Dying Neighbor & Dying Dog Helped Each Other Live: The Tale of Snackhouse",