Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Shameless Self-Indulgence Warning

Get out your hankies, because I'm going to talk about my dog. If you've heard parts of this before you'll just have to indulge me, because I need to do this from the beginning:

Sage is a 13-year-old red chow-shiba inu mix. (Ev calls her an "eeboo beeboo.") My son and I adopted her from the pound when he was ten and she was a year old. She was his first dog. He'd always begged for a dog, but we lived in rentals, so she was our first acquisition when I bought my first house.

We were three needy creatures in those days!

I'd been through three marriages that were utter failures. My son was struggling to cope with not having a dad and I wasn't filling the void. Sage had been through three owners who all gave up on her because she was a destructive chewer. It was love at first sight for all of us misfits.

We got off to a bit of a rough start. She destroyed a chair, a rug, the mail and a six foot stuffed dolphin in the first couple of months, but she was such a sweet girl otherwise that I invested in a professional dog trainer to teach us all some obedience training. She probably needed it the least of the three of us and was the quickest learner. After six months of crating her for her separation anxiety she's never again laid her mouth on another thing but kibble and chewies. Oh, and that groundhog. And that possum.

At any rate, we've gloated often in the ensuing years over what a really great dog she is and how dumb those other people were to give her up. Until she got old and cranky she was the most even-tempered and patient dog in the world with people and other animals (except that possum and that groundhog). She's always loved everything else that came into her life ... cats, dogs, ducks, ferrets ... and she probably wanted to love the possum and the groundhog too, but it didn't work out. But seriously, all you have to do is look at her eyes to know how much she wants to please you.

Sage has been struggling with arthritis for at least the past five years, but it's really been bad for the past two. She's having more and more trouble getting up and down, getting more and more stiff and sore, being less and less willing to hobble all the way outside to go to the potty ... and getting way grumpier about being groomed because even her skin hurts.

A couple of weeks ago we found a mass on her abdomen and she had surgery last week to remove it. It turned out to be an adenocarcinoma of her mammary gland ... she's got malignant breast cancer.

We've known for the past year or so that Sage was winding down and we've talked about what that will look like for her and for us. We aren't those pet owners who put our pets through extraordinary measures to prolong their lives, so we were okay with letting nature and old age take its course. Now we know what that course will be and we have a better sense of how short an amount of borrowed time we're on.

I want to talk about her while she's still alive, though, and talk about the Sage-ness of her and what she's taught me.

Sage was my son's first dog, but she's really my first dog, too, and we've had a lot to learn from each other. The other dogs in my life were childhood pets, which meant they were really my parents' dogs, or they were temporary dogs who came in and out of my life with roommates or weren't kept for one reason or another (usually because I wasn't responsible enough to keep them). Sage is the first dog I ever made a full-out, lifelong commitment to and kept it. She's shared my adult life, made every move with me, been through three relationships with me, been there while my son grew up and left the nest, and impacted my domicile choices. No Sage? No deal. I've moved her across the city and across the state and across the country, shared houses when we had them and rooms in someone else's house when we didn't. She's sometimes been the only friend I had. I've cried on her shoulder and gotten snot on her fur and she doesn't mind. She's my dog, and she's taught me what that means.

When I got Sage she was shy and nervous and had bad habits and was scared of everything. I had to teach her to play tug-of-war because she would just give up and let the human have whatever the human seemed to want. She always thought she was in trouble. I worked hard to teach her (and me) to trust herself and people, and that autonomy is a good thing and it's okay to hang onto what you want and fight for it, within reason. Today she can snarl and take no crap from the puppy instead of giving up her food and her bed. Yay, Sage!

The one thing she loves is to run. She can't run fast anymore, but when she was a youngster ... hoo, boy! She would run huge laps around our big grassy yard at breakneck speeds, almost laid over on her side taking the corners, and grinning from ear to ear. Now she walks her big grassy yard and lays in the sun. She's taught me that big grassy yards are good for the soul at all stages of life and one should always have one.

She's a tidy girl who doesn't like to get her feet wet or dirty, and until she lived on three acres she used to pick one spot in the yard for her bathroom and not leave land mines in the lawn. She's more devil-may-care about that these days. Her outside fastidiousness is occasionally overcome by her tendency to be sort of high-strung and nervous indoors (and to try and "hold it" forever), so she occasionally does what we call the "exploding dog" trick. The first time it happened (from one end of the new house to the other on the beige wall-to-wall berber carpeting) I just sat down and cried. Sage has taught me the uselessness of rage over poop on the carpet and the value of owning your own steam cleaner.

Sage has taught me that when you make a commitment to a relationship (be it with a dog or a human) you take it seriously, and it's forever. Relationships (with dogs and humans) aren't always going to be without frustration or anger, and they aren't always going to personally fulfilling. Sometimes they'll be hard, nasty work. Sometimes they'll be "stuck in the house in the winter." Sometimes, however, they'll be full of romping in the sun. Sage has taught me that relationships are much more about comfortable companionship than about tug-of-war and excitement, and you don't get there by turning in the old one for a new one when the old one isn't fun anymore.

As much as she's taught me about making a commitment, she's also taught me about letting go, and that jealousy is a wasted emotion. I used to the the primary human in her life, but I'm not anymore ... she's moved on. Katie is her first choice and Ev is her second. Dogs can be fickle that way. So can people. We've been a little bit estranged for the past couple of years even though we live in the same house. We acknowledge each other, but she doesn't come easily to me when I call her anymore, or wag and bark when I come home like she does for Ev and Katie. Maybe I'm just a part of her landscape after all these years and nothing to get excited about anymore. She's taught me that it's okay not to be the whole world to someone or have all their affection and attention ... there's plenty to go around.

Sage taught me about unconditional responsibility to another living being at a time in my life when I was clueless about such things. She's taught me loyalty.

In exchange for all the things she's taught me, I've tried to give Sage a good life. She hasn't suffered abuse or neglect from me (although her matted coat would make you wonder sometimes). She's had safety and security and some freedom to explore her world. She's had experiences and gone places and had all kinds of animal friends and sniffed a wide assortment of butts. She's been warm in the winter, cool in the summer and dry when it's raining. She's been well fed and well loved. The best thing I've ever done for her (and for me) was finding Ev and her kids and moving to Southern Illinois, where the grass is plentiful and the sunshine is warm and the bunnies are ripe for the chasing. It's been a good place for Sage to live out the last years of her life and she's a happy dog. What more can you ask, really?

I wanted to get all this down now, while she's still around for me to appreciate, and I wanted to get some of the sadness out of my system so I can enjoy the time we've got left. This is something I actually learned from my mother's death, after which we said, "Wouldn't it be great if we'd throw big memorial get-togethers for people and talk about what they meant to us BEFORE they died???" So this is that. It's Sage's pre-memorial, and we both thank you for attending.

So what do I need from Sage at this point? Not a damn thing. It's her turn to do the needing. I want the time we've got left to be good time for her, and when it's not good time for her I want to do the kindest thing I can do for her and help her go peacefully, surrounded by people who love her. And I don't want to only be able to tell her story in the past tense. I hope she gets one more Spring and Summer. She likes those the best.


XUP said...

Damn you. Now I really am teary. That was so completely perfect. Matter-of-fact, but filled with love and compassion and grace. You were so lucky to have each other. Thank you for sharing this special relationship

Kwach said...

I wish I had a decent scanner. I have a picture I love of me and my dad and Sage when she and I were younger and more spry, my dad was alive and well and my first house was brand spanking new.

maynechik said...

I'm so sorry, Lori. Thanks for posting this--you're very wise to give her her due while she's still here. Here's to a perfect spring and summer, and one more lap around the warm green yard, even if only in her dreams.

Anonymous said...

"Sage has taught me that relationships are much more about comfortable companionship than about tug-of-war and excitement, and you don't get there by turning in the old one for a new one when the old one isn't fun anymore."

Thank you so much for this post. All of it was great (and I'm not a dog person, or even an animal person, really) but the sentence I've reproduced above really struck me. I've been with my partner for thirty-plus years and can still get pissed off (surprise!) about the same old same old between us. After I calm down (and quit ranting to myself that all right, this time I'm really had it, I'm out of here, blah blah blah) I get to the point where I remember that I really do love this person, that he's my friend and companion and we've been through a lot together and that no one else in the world will ever know me or know how to be supportive of me the way he does. It's nice to be reminded of how important that is.

By the way --- you're a really good writer.


Kwach said...

Thanks Romayne ... and Jessie ... and XUP. Our own "stuff" sure feels unique to us, doesn't it? And yet ... it's so much not.

marl said...

A perfect tribute to a great old girl.

You've said everything I wanted to say when my Dakota dog died last May...

I truly hope that Sage has a great spring & summer...


Tim said...

There's a Marley and Me book there - and you're more than a good enough writer to write it.

That's a wonderful tribute to a pretty special pal.

Anonymous said...

I cried the whole way through this post.

Sage is a good dog.


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