A piece of our hearts (or, why some days REALLY suck, Part 2*)
" It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are."Warning to those who were expecting something snarky: Unfortunately, this is another sappy and possibly boring dog post. If you don't like dog stories, stay away from this post! I WILL get back to snarky mode before too long. I promise.
~ Unknown (sometimes attributed to Cheryl Zuccaro)
Late one spring night in 1999, a sprightly young Rottweiler/Doberman/black Lab mix was making his way down the middle of a suburban road, dragging a chain. He was accompanied by another dog – a small Collie or a Sheltie, though the latter was keeping to the side of the road. Where the pair had come from, and where they thought they were going, was anyone's guess. As luck would have it, they were spotted by a dedicated rescuer of homeless canines, who put some food down to lure them closer. The Sheltie took off, but the Rott mix took the bait, and the rescuer grabbed his chain.
She took him home and did the usual thing that responsible animal rescuers do – put up signs all over the place, called the area shelters, tried her best to help the stranger find his way back home. There was no response, so the handsome young guy became yet another of her foster "children." He was checked out by a vet, given the requisite shots, neutered, and then duly entered into the adoption program sponsored by the organization with which the rescuer was involved – Houston's Homeless Pet Placement League. And he was given the working name of "Rex" – not a terribly original moniker, but it suited him well.
Rex was, to put it mildly, a lively sort. His benefactor speculated that the reason he was on a chain was that he had grown out of the small, cute puppy stage, and no one had taken the time to train him or give him much attention. He was obviously very hungry for attention from humans and other dogs. In the report prepared for Rex's adoption files, his rescuer wrote, "He...runs up and down the fence line with the neighbors' dogs and whines because he wants to be with them."
Ron and I were those neighbors, and our dogs seemed to want to be with Rex as much as he wanted to be with them. In September of 1999, the dogs' wishes were granted when we officially adopted Rex, after keeping him at our place on a "trial" basis for a few weeks.
It was, for us, the perfect time to add another dog to our clan. The previous spring, at almost exactly the same time Rex had been entered into the HPPL adoption program, we had said goodbye to Ron's dog Siva, an ancient, wise, and infinitely loving blue heeler-dingo mix. She had advanced cancer and Ron had to make the difficult decision to have the vet end her suffering. Siva's departure left a huge empty space in our household, but we had no particular plans to acquire another dog.
And then along came Rex, and we both fell in love with the big lug, who despite his formidable appearance was just an overgrown baby. Ron was also concerned that someone else might adopt Rex and try to turn him into some macho killing machine, with tragic consequences. We couldn't let that happen. So we paid the modest adoption fee and he became officially ours, and vice versa.
The adoption report stated that Rex got along with other dogs but not with cats. The latter proved not to be true, which was a good thing, since we had four cats at the time. (It helped that they were all quite used to dogs.) Rex quickly learned the art of interacting with cats without scaring the living daylights out of them. Sometimes he got a little overly enthusiastic when nosing their butts, but he did rapidly learn the one lesson every dog should know: If you go too far when messing with a cat, it's going to turn into a fight – and the cat always wins.
It was obvious from the beginning that Rex was Ron's dog, but it was equally obvious that Rex loved me too, and in fact was quite taken with women in general. Even more than he loved women, he loved human crotches. To get both a woman and a crotch in one package was a true delight for him. Ron always enjoyed telling the story of the time his best friend's wife came over to our house for a visit. She is a petite woman, and she was wearing a long skirt that day. Rex came up to her to nose her crotch, saw that there was a skirt in the way, pushed his nose up under her skirt, and actually lifted her up off the ground. She was taken by surprise but laughed and was a good sport about it overall, though she gently but firmly disentangled herself from the situation.
Ron jokingly said to her, "Hey, c'mon, it took me a long time to train him to do that!" (Notwithstanding Ron's facetious remark we did continually attempt, with limited success, to discourage Rex's crotch obsession, and were forever grateful that he was never a leg humper.)
Besides being a notorious crotch dog, Rex became infamous for other traits, most notably his proficiency at passing gas – which in his case was not only an olfactory phenomenon, but generally an auditory one as well. It became a running joke in our household, and in later years, our boy even had a recurring cameo role on this blog as Rex The Farting Dog (a nod to Walter The Farting Dog).
He was, of course, much more than those quirky traits and comical bodily functions. He was loyal and affectionate and protective to a fault, and he made it very clear that we belonged to him as much as the other way around. The usual way he expressed his ownership of us was by plopping one of his huge hands on top of our hand, or on our leg, or on any part that happened to be convenient. On most mornings, Ron was awakened – quite suddenly, and generally a bit earlier than he would have liked – by Rex's insistent paw landing squarely on his chest.
In the time he was with us, Rex presided over a succession of other dogs and cats. A couple of days before Christmas of 2000, we lost another dog: Snapper, the elderly whippet that Ron had inherited from his late mother. Snapper and Rex had been buds, and usually slept nestled together next to Ron's side of the bed. It seemed clear that Rex missed him, and not just as a sleep buddy. Our other three dogs were miniature dachshunds, and they were just a bit too small to be playmates for him, though they got along well with him and he was always very gentle with them.
And then the following spring, a smart, pretty, and supremely self-confident young hound-terrier mix, Layla, joined our household. Her former owner had moved to an apartment where he couldn't have dogs, and she needed a new home. Layla and Rex got along famously, and when she grew old enough to come into heat, she wiggled her little butt in Rex's direction... and amazingly, they mated. Since Rex had been neutered in May of 1999, we were of course a bit surprised and not a little concerned, but our vet assured us that while rare, such a thing was by no means impossible. "Don't worry, he's firing blanks," the vet said. Thus it was that Rex and Layla were both able to enjoy a vigorous sex life for several years, without contributing to the pet overpopulation problem. How many dogs can make that claim?
More seasons passed, and we acquired another "rescue" puppy: a feral blue heeler-Aussie shepherd mix we named Kali (keeping in the same pantheon as Siva, as Kali bore a strong resemblance to Siva when the latter was a puppy). Kali turned out to be nothing like Siva. She was, and is, a handful, but she brought a youthful energy to our household. And this was a good thing, for as some of our other animals aged the inevitable began to happen. Natasha, the oldest of the dachshunds, died in November of 2003, and her mate Nicholas followed in January of 2004. The two oldest cats, Bruce and Sabrina, left us in January and February of 2005, respectively. In October of 2005 a new kitten, Sabu, came to live with us, and after that we thought we were back on an even keel, animal-wise. Then Nicky and Natasha's daughter, Noelle, died rather unexpectedly last October. Surely, we thought, after losing seven elderly animals within a few years, we were due for an extended break from those wrenching goodbyes.
We were wrong.
In the past few months Rex had slowed down considerably. A bit of slowing down isn't unusual for a dog that's nearly ten years old, particularly a larger breed, for they age more rapidly than smaller dogs. But he was displaying some symptoms that had us concerned, including weight loss and a general lack of energy. We took him to the vet shortly before our move to the ranch in February, and the vet checked him out thoroughly. He ruled out anything serious such as diabetes, heart failure, or kidney failure. He did tell us that Rex's kidneys weren't operating at top efficiency but it wasn't anything to be overly concerned about at that point. Even the weight loss wasn't extreme, and in fact was advantageous given the fact that Rex had a bit of arthritis. The vet recommended a minor change in diet and advised us to keep a fairly close eye on him. We were immensely relieved.
We were even more relieved in the weeks to follow, for Rex improved and seemed to thrive. He began to gain some of his weight back and was looking better than he had in quite a while. He loved our new house in the country, and spent more time outdoors than he'd ever wanted to spend at the other place. He seemed completely happy with his new role as a country dog. There were so many novel sights and sounds to engage him, and new animals to befriend (although he did try to bite one of the neighbor's horses his first morning here. The horse – and Ron – quickly set him straight.).
Then just a couple of weeks ago, the old symptoms seemed to return, along with some alarming new ones: swelling in his hind legs and the lymph nodes in his neck. He had begun losing weight again and he became much less energetic. At first we thought the problem might be ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne disease that if caught in time can be cured with tetracycline or a derivative. But it turned out to be lymphatic cancer, and it turned out that Rex was suffering greatly. A couple of nights ago it became very apparent that he was in terrible pain, and he was so weak he could no longer get up.
We took turns keeping vigil by his side on that last long and mostly sleepless night – Rex made it obvious that he did not want to be alone – and when morning came we knew what we had to do. Rex was hurting too badly for us to even try to get him into the van, but Ron found a kindly country vet, who drove out to the ranch house in pouring rain, bearing his merciful needle. Rex went quickly and peacefully, with Ron and me holding him, and when it was over we kissed him goodbye and the vet took him away.
Afterwards there didn't seem to be much to do. There was work, of course, as there always is, but we didn't have quite what it took to deal with that. The house, as big as it is, didn't seem large enough to hold our grief, so we wandered out onto our covered porch for a while. The rain had stopped by then, and there was no sound except for the mourning doves in the trees.
So here we are now with two dogs and three cats and, inevitably, that very large empty space with which we have become all too familiar.** Layla has moved to the place of honor next to Ron's side of the bed. Kali sleeps in her crate, as she has since we've had her, because that's where she feels most secure. The cats curl up in various corners in "their" part of the house, as placid as usual, but I am pretty sure they feel the empty space too. Or maybe I am just projecting.
We've often said that Rex was not running away from home that night our neighbor found him dragging his chain. He was running to his home. Whether it was fate or divine intervention or just dumb luck that brought him to the point where he would end up in the yard next door to ours, I couldn't begin to say. I do know we owe an immense debt of gratitude to our friend and former neighbor, Jeannice, as well as to the HPPL. What matters most is that Rex was a part of our lives for nearly nine years.
Which, of course, wasn't nearly long enough.
* Here's Part 1.
** Note to well-meaning friends: The presence of a new empty space in our household does NOT mean we are in the market for another dog (or cat) at this point. We are not. We are concentrating on loving and caring for the five animals we still have.