June 3, is what I only half-jokingly call Yeager Memorial Day. Two years ago today, my great canine companion, 90-pound 16-year old Yeager the Weimaraner died. Despite the fact that the absence of his large presence still lingers as a factor in my life, the almost magical details of our final farewell never fails to remind me of how exceedingly lucky we both were in those fleeting moments. Not only did he never live with pain or lose interest in food or action, he died naturally, in my arms on his favorite old chair.
I’ve nearly completed the first-draft of what I intend as my next published book, Very Old Dog: How Helping Yeager Live Happily Ever After Changed Me.
The book is about the period between October 2010 and June of 2011, the final eight months of his life as he transformed from an “old dog” to a “very old dog.”
It was a poignant process which proved how even a far-fetched hope can be achieved if one surrenders everything to absolutely commit to “the cause,” that, regardless of age or species, all living beings are in a simultaneous process of living and dying, and finally, that not even the power of love can trump the will of Nature.
This excerpt is about a February 2011 day, some three and a half months before he died, when I took my only hike in Runyon Canyon without him in those last eight months. It focuses, however, on my memory of an important day there eight years earlier.
“…I sensed that I’d have neither the luxury of time nor the inclination to return to Runyon Canyon anytime soon, certainly not in Yeager’s lifetime.
Hiking up there without him, however, while watching so many dogs and their companion humans being up there together, however, left me feeling like I was committing some sort of doggie adultery.
The value of making that hike alone, however, just to focus my own thoughts proved incalculable in time ahead….Just before exiting…I saw the water spigot and battered aluminum dog bowl chained beneath it, there for all dogs to hydrate before or after their hikes.
Pausing to just stare at it, I found myself able to not just remember but relive the precise sensations I’d experience one important day in June of 2003, when I had also paused right there to watch Yeager drink some water.
It had been the first day Yeager had been able to return there again to hike, a great triumph for us, coming as it did just two months after our worst trauma.
…I know many people believe they “know” their dog companion so well that they feel no need to use a leash them while walking outside along the sidewalks…
I never dared take such a risk but even that precaution didn’t spare us during a routine walk to the grocer’s one April afternoon, down Melrose Avenue. At some street corners there were lights, at others there were stop signs.
We were one block from the store and began walking across it, at a stop sign, staying within the crosswalk. We took about two steps, about a quarter of the way along the crosswalk when what felt like a silver flashing bolt from hell stopped us.
A pregnant woman, cellphone at her ear, cigarette in her fingers, barreled a massive SUV at a reckless speed, her wheels already into a turn to take a sharp right. These sorts can be ubiquitous in Lost Angeles.
…The front right side of her vehicle grazed my right arm but its front right wheel crushed Yeager’s front right paw. Honestly, when I look back at the incidents of my life, no moment equaled this one. All my senses were overridden by the panicked fear that Yeager’s body had also been struck and that he might die from internal injuries. Presuming this worst case scenario was undoubtedly provoked by the most disturbingly sad sound I have ever heard. To hear any dog’s howl of pain will stop your heart but when it’s the one you share your life with, it can blow your mind.
The pregnant woman driving the car lumbered out, scowling. That she was carrying another life within her had zero affect on her grasp that she’d come close to killing two other beings whose lives were just as intrinsically important as her own and the one she carried.
It was her ruthless arrogance, however, which made me berserk for a moment. She sighed and huffed – as if we had inconvenienced her and, in fact, that’s what she suggested when she yelled out bitterly at me, “Oh God! Why now! I’m already late!” was all I had to hear. Had she not been pregnant and had my focus not been on tending to Yeager, I might well have choked her neck with my hands.
By a beneficent stroke of fate, two factors eased my mind if not my heart within one minute of the accident.
She had a calm brother riding in the car with her who was focused on helping Yeager.
And strangely enough, the office of Yeager’s vet, Dr. Quiet was literally on the opposite corner we’d just passed, the entrance less than 100 yards away.
The brother helped me carry Yeager in. I had no mind in that moment to demand to see her license and record her informational identity. It was a quick-thinking veterinary aide at the front desk who ensured an exchange of our numbers at the least.
Yeager was always a stoic when it came to examinations or getting his shots, so his fearful crying made clear his pain. As I held him closely, put my face on his head and held it and his back, which I patted, the cries began to lower into whimpering.
And then, he moved his head, struggling to release my hold.
Nobody yet knows just how dogs perceive their own communication to humans, but with his head free of my arm, he turned his clear but confused and frightened eyes and held them steady, looking into my own.
I could do nothing in those moments about his pain but, beyond my firm embrace around his back, I tried to convey in the way our species does my reciprocity of the committed loyalty he showed me: “It’s okay, I’m with you. You’ll never be alone. I’ll always be here for you. Always here Yeager. It’s okay.”
I thought about all of this again, standing there just inside the Runyon Canyon gates eight years after it occurred.
It dawned on me how that crisis had influenced the conduct of his care during the intervening years and had led to the circumstances of this period now.
My words may not have translated as an affirmation for a being who might not comprehend the meaning of them, but as I braced him against me while lying on the cold floor of the veterinary exam room in those frightening moments before surgery on his paw began, I know now that my vow to care for him was eternal.
I think I also recognized, more obliquely, that I could never live for even an hour of knowing that Yeager was suffering in any way.
As the days of his being a very old dog continued on through the spring of 2011, the echo of his crying that April afternoon did not so much as haunt me as it did to remind me that I knew that, if need be, I could summon the integrity to end any suffering. I would never permit it.
Mentally retracing those moments of the accident and in the vet’s office the sickly sensations I’d felt now flooded back into me as if it had all just happened that morning, but as I stood there in Runyon Canyon, it was all swamped and washed away by moving my mind back to that spigot and bowl in the present moment.
It had been right here where the triumphant finale of the broken paw had taken place.
Two days after the long hours of surgery which it took Dr. Quiet to repair the crushed bones of Yeager’s paw, the old boy came home.
He limped into the house, clumsily on three feet, while holding high his paw wrapped in a massive bandage….Through all the weeks of his recovery at home, as he slowly began to heal and gently place his injured paw on the floor, I had a daily dose of promise.
The hope that continued to grow within me for him, however, was severely mitigated by a frustrated rage I’d never know.
The pregnant woman who had hit him had never bothered to call. I finally called her but fought my impulse to express my simmering outrage.
In a foul-mouthed malicious tone, she screamed into the phone that I was bothering her about a “stupid dog” and that she had a child coming and couldn’t afford to pay for the accident she caused – and then hung up. I called a week later. She said my calls were stressing her out and endangering her child, then warned me never to call, and hung up again. I didn’t have a chance to offer my advice that she might stop smoking during her pregnancy.
By then, Yeager’s bandage had been removed but still there was no resolution. I waited another week and called a third time.
This time, there proved to be no point to centering myself into a civil state of mind. The next voice I heard was that of her boyfriend, who identified himself as an ex-cop. “We know where you live and I’ve got friends on the force who’ll make sure you’ll never sleep peacefully at night. And you can’t do one fucking thing about it.”
I didn’t know how to react to what was the first time in life I’d ever dealt with what sure seemed to me to be genuinely evil people. I talked to a lawyer who handled animal-related cases. I filed a police report. I stopped – thinking it was futile. I had dreams of strangling her and her boyfriend and resumed my effort. I was on the phone trying to locate the woman’s address to send her a letter when, glancing into the living room, I noticed that Yeager was walking on all four paws. I got off the phone.
Yeager’s paw seemed to have entirely healed.
The next day, he was bouncing around the walls of “Charlie,” a 1989 Volvo.
Even though Charlie was the “safer” car because unlike the convertible, I could limit Yeager’s excitement by the scents he smelled by keeping the windows closed. Still, he immediately sensed where we were going. He kept swiveling his head, from touching his nose against the closed window to using it to gently poke my chest and get me to open the window, so he could stick his head out.
We were going back to Runyon Canyon, his first time since the accident.
As always, he remained on leash until we got to the gates, walking slowly as we ascended the steep incline leading to the entrance. Once inside the park, I removed his leash.
And then, Yeager simply trotted off, focused on again sniffing the wildflowers, and turning over the fallen branches to explore beneath them. He’d been the one hurt and damaged by the crushed paw. Yet that was three months before. Now was now. He got on with it.
If Yeager could forgive and forget, so to speak, I forced myself to realize I could too. I never bothered calling back those rotten people. I stopped my effort to locate them. I called off the lawyer.
If a dog could demonstrate for me how the pleasure of a day was all that was necessary to simply drop a traumatic experience from the recent past and not let it get in the way of enjoying the present, I would too.
Back in the reality of February 2011, I made my way down through the entrance gates towards the car. As I descended the steep rise to the park, I enjoyed clarity previously unknown to me about Yeager’s state of being a very old dog. By the time I was in the car and driving home, I also felt an iron resolve.
It was that vow I made to Yeager eight years earlier in the vet’s exam room. Nobody else knew the promise I’d spoken to him and even if they had – and didn’t think I was nuts – they couldn’t hold me to such a promise made in a traumatic situation. I knew, however, that I had promised. And somehow, I believe that Yeager sensed this as well, in the different but no less truthful way dogs perceive their interactions with fellow living beings.
I might not always keep my promise to eat kale daily but, as time would prove, I never once broke my promise to always be with Yeager. And it never ceased to pay off.
My uniquely individual situation allowed me to care for Yeager the way I did but not even those who’d like to do the same for their dogs are able to arrange this. Yeager was adopted from the southern California Weimaraner Rescue Friends for Pets, which provides a lifetime of care and safety to Weims and other dogs who have been abandoned, surrendered or abused. Many who live at the no-kill shelter there will never be adopted because they are older or have a disability. In an attempt to ensure that they are afforded something of the care Yeager received individually, we’ve established The Yeager Fund at Friends for Pets. I’m pretty bad at passing the tin cup, but if this story or your care for dogs in this situation so move you, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution by clicking this link at the Yeager Fund.
- Weimaraners by William Wegman (julievscamera.wordpress.com)
- Maisie (jenjuppa.wordpress.com)
- My beloved dog (leonardkerstin.wordpress.com)
- Preventive Vet Publishes Indispensable New Book for Puppy and Dog Owners (prweb.com)
- Therapeutic Cuing at the Vet’s Office (CaninesInAction.com)
- Catalina Island Adventure with Your Dog (theocbarkyard.wordpress.com)