From the moment I saw his generous grin and chestnut coat, I knew I’d like him. We had not yet met. And we never would.
His name was Smokey, and I first came to know about him through his human companion Beth.
I only came to know who Beth really is as a person through what she wrote me about Smokey.
That I never met either of them never proved an impediment to knowing her and understand him.
It wasn’t long into my written contact with Beth that I came to recognize yet another one of those subtle yet tangible methods in which Dogs help give us Humans more meaning in our lives. Anyone who invests themselves into the life and well-being of their Dog companion already know how they can so help teach us aspects about ourselves, wonderful qualities we’re reluctant to acknowledge and weaknesses we are loath to confront.
But Dogs can also help us to develop empathy and create friends and acquaintances among our fellow Humans. That’s what Smokey did. Dogs can bridge distances and cultures in a way which becomes as universal a language as music.
In the weeks following the death of my great and constant companion, a 90-pound 16-year old Weimaraner named Yeager, I wrote about what helped him to live happily ever after to the end, without pain, euthanasia or abandonment and also how one needs to help oneself through this process.
I’ve never lost my gratitude for the peaceful way he went, in my arms in his favorite chair. It wasn’t magic or a miracle that it happened exactly as I had literally visualized it. It was hard work, involving submission of all effort and money towards his care, sacrifice of time with family and friends, and foregoing professional opportunities. It was also the happenstance of my circumstances.
If I had others to care for or worked from an office outside the home, I’m not sure I would have had the privilege of choice.
And while we human caretakers too often feel alone during this process, we actually never are. If we look around and reach out.
Beth, and people like her, had, were or would day soon be facing those months (not long at all, but too short) of seeing their beloved Dogs age, decline and inevitably die – yet all the while vitally engaged and alive. Just like I did. And those are Humans I felt I could perhaps help by writing about that process: good people who made a rational choice to help their Dog companion live as long as they wanted to, as long as they were never in any physical pain.
People who never questioned that helping Dogs, even at every possible inconvenience to themselves for what is ultimately a brief period of time often find not merely a lack of support for this choice but bewilderment, belittlement, and even abandonment by family and friends. And, it was after reading one of my articles that Beth contacted me out of the blue.
So many people are making the same choice Beth and I both did with our Dog companions yet find themselves often at a daily crossroad of choices to make with no resources or other Humans from whom they might seek the advice of experience.
And as we began a correspondence, she kept me appraised of their unfolding challenges. And each stage began increasingly familiar to what I’d gone through a year and two years before.
Smokey had been diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, a nerve degenerative syndrome which begins with weakness in the hind quarters that leads to paralysis and can continue to the front legs, and brain-stem. She began reading everything about it and became increasingly horrified. I had been through that too. As it turned out, the “greatest orthopedic veterinarian in Los Angeles” who had “diagnosed” Yeager with DM and stated confidently that he would be paralyzed in six months was proven a fraud when Yeager was still shuffling out for a walk – four years later. Yeager, it proved, only had a pinched nerve in his lower back, which led to some symptoms common in DM.
I’m not sure if Beth took hope from that, since it was not an issue we wrote to each other about at great length. Smokey did not develop full paralysis in his back legs. For the year left to him, he only needed a boost but could still walk. What I do know is that such a diagnosis can make some give up on their Dog companion or commit to doing everything to stall such a dire prediction.
The the level of attentiveness Beth invested into Smokey’s well-being had the affect of only making this gentle fellow even more engaged and alert, and making her a partner in his care, ever alert to the slightest shift in symptoms. Dogs know when a Human can be counted on. Sensing that commitment, I believe, reduces their anxiety which has a positive affect on their overall well-being.
Motivated to do all she could to serve him with dignity, Beth got Smokey some “wheels,” one of the dog carts made by various companies which I told her had worked so well in helping Yeager rebuild and sustain muscle loss.
In Yeager’s case, an Eddie’s Wheels cart permitted him to keep his back straight and resist having his back nerve pinch, and required him to keep depending on his back legs in order to move along in the cart.
In Smokey’s case, he looked askance at the contraption; after a few efforts to make a go of it, Beth realized it was an investment that wouldn’t return.
But if Smokey didn’t dig wheels, he took to a harness made by a company which trademarks their brand as the Help ‘Em Up Harness.
These sturdy harnesses wrap around a Dog’s body with handles attached to the top. With no more trouble than handling luggage, the harness helps a person lift a Dog into and out of a car, so they can continue to ride around with their best friend. It was a life-saver for Beth and Smokey, as it was for Yeager and for me.
As Beth continued to update me via email on Smokey’s condition over the course of twelve months, from her home on the East Coast to mine on the West Coast, I found myself increasingly invested in both of their well-beings. She told me often of how much Smokey’s territory reduced to their back garden yet how he daily anticipated his walks to the far reaches of it, along with her.
And that made me think of Yeager’s insistence on daily walks to a front garden of a house around the block where there were always treats put out for him, “Snack House.”
I knew Beth’s back garden was no mere plot of soil and grass but a wonderland of nature, because it was such a happy and symbolic daily ritual for Smokey.
I knew that without asking because I knew that walking to Snack House had become the greatest moment not only for Yeager but for me, in his waning days.
Without having to ask intrusive questions, I had a sense of what might else be going on. In the final months of Yeager’s life, he became incontinent; ensuring everyone’s well-being meant vigilance in maintaining a state of sanity and a sanitary state. Through trial and error, I had developed a four-layer padding system. On Smokey’s birthday at the end of February, Beth posted a picture of him beside his toy birthday cake. Something about his demeanor in that image seemed to illustrate dignity, and I re-posted it. Few others likely noted that his frail legs rested on a white absorbent pad, but I did. To me, it silently symbolized the effort she was now making as I had once done.
And then came the days of late spring three months ago, when I made a trip back to the East Coast, Every day was tightly scheduled with meetings, and seeing friends and family in Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York City and Upstate New York. I’d continued to keep in touch by Facebook with Beth. Suddenly, it seems, her updates on Smokey began to seem more staccato and briefer. I didn’t know what she was now facing, nearly a year after our initial contact, but I sensed it.
If I’d felt close to Beth or Smokey by empathetic experience, I was now far closer in real proximity to them. With only the knowledge that they were located in New Jersey, I quickly intended to finally pay my brief respects to the old fellow and his human friend in person, assuming I could just step off at a train station along the route from Washington to New York. I threw the idea her way and Beth was welcoming.
Then, the reality set in of just where they were located. It wasn’t a matter of diverting my itinerary for an hour or two, but of renting a car for upwards of a day that was already long spoken for.
It was a fleeting idea, but some strange sense of urgency told me this had been the brief window to enact my impulse. I didn’t suggest this to Beth, nor she to me. Perhaps it was that June 3 was upon me, marking the second anniversary of the day Yeager died. There’s no more constructive way to channel the energy one may still feel for a being no longer present than to direct it towards those who evoke that life.
My sense, however, proved not based on sentiment. On June 5, while I was still on the East Coast, Smokey died, two days after Yeager had.
Some long, sad days later, however, as Beth detailed the circumstances of their last moments together, I was struck by how it had unfolded for them as it had for us.
Prepared to have euthanasia performed at the sign of his experiencing any pain, Beth never had to proceed with that decision.
As she held and calmed him, Smokey died naturally at 7:40 p.m. As I had held and calmed him, Yeager had died naturally at 7:57 p.m.
Similar facts make coincidences, but what resonates with deeper relevance to Beth’s experience was all that she had done which brought her to be with him at his end.
It wasn’t a matter of merely being certain she was present with Smokey in that instant, but all the millions of instant moments which led up to that one moment. It was a commitment she made and maintained since Smokey had first started living.
Just as I have done in creating The Yeager Fund at the Friends for Pets rescue and shelter of Southern California, to help elderly and disabled Dogs who don’t have individual Human companions caring for them, so too Beth has now created Smokey’s Fund at the Animal Care Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, a place where many unadopted animals will live out their lives with care, if not a family of their own.
The ticking seconds move all our lives through time rapidly; only when we punctuate those seconds by learning to observe other lives more closely do we find richness in simply living.
Dogs simply are, they don’t do.
It’s the Human companions of Dogs who find meaning from our existence with them and even more especially by our caring for them when they are most in need.
We find it by learning the natural respect which all living beings deserve.
We find it by learning to respect our own abilities.
And we find it by recognizing how respecting all beings, including ourselves, helps us understand, support, empathize and know others we may never meet.
Human or Dog.
- The Dogs We Meet: Follow Their Lead (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Dogs We Meet: Follow Them (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Dog pictured floating to sleep in owner’s arms has died (today.com)
- Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs (veterinary.answers.com)
- The Prescriptions of Doctor Dog! (lexgrams.com)