About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Love, Loss, and Emptiness

"Dogs lives are too short.
Their only fault, really."
--Agnes Sligh Turnbull

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

He came to us by way of that process somewhat cynically referred to as "reverse inheritance." Our oldest daughter had adopted him out of a litter borne by the dog of a friend of hers in July 1999. No one will ever know what passed between them that made this tiny puppy stand out from the rest. But whatever it was, it was special. She named him after a football player from a movie, Tweeder. But soon it became "Tweeter."

Nikki took him to where she was living, a kind of cooperative Haight-Ashbury kind of set-up where they lived for a short period of time. But some of the other humans residing there were angry and cruel in ways that put his safety in jeopardy. So one evening, she came home and asked us to take care of him until her living situation improved. His sweet spirit won our hearts, and what started out as temporary foster care turned into a permanent home.

He was tiny at first. He could fit inside your palm where he would promptly curl up and sleep. As time went on, he grew from a puppy into a dog. He was smart, and Nikki trained him. He knew immediately to go outside when he had to "go." He had infinite patience, it seemed, only wanting to be loved. He shared the house with a parade of four cats and two other dogs, two very large (in comparison) Samoyeds who, more than any, taught him how to be a dog.

He was fun to play with. He loved balls, loved walks, he could from a standing start leap four feet into the air. Loved to ride in the car. And he was funny. Once we visited some friends, taking him with us (at their invitation). Their dog had been partially hit by a car and was still healing from an injured leg. The dog limped around the room garnering all sorts of human attention and sympathy.

Tweeter was watching.

That very evening, he developed a limp when we got home. We took him to the vet who assured us that he wasn't injured. He just wanted the attention.

Smart dog.

When he was 5 years old, upheaval struck. I got my dream job in Pennsylvania and over the next few months, my wife and I got moved, the final phase of that being an epic cross-country trip with a carload of stuff, Tweeter, and two cats. He tolerated the trip a whole lot better than the cats, who yowled incessantly for some 800 miles. We initially lived in a high-rise apartment that didn't allow pets, but in a short meeting with the manager, Tweeter worked his charms, and we got a 6-month stay while we looked for and found a house. While in the apartment, we used to take evening walks around Johnstown and the surrounding neighborhoods. One warm, sultry evening, he bolted into some shrubbery, locating a skunk, who reacted predictably. The pungent smell was heavy and eye-watering. Fortunately, he dodged and only caught a glancing blow. We took him home, smuggled him into the apartment, and after three thorough baths, managed to wash the oil out of his fur. Never a big fan of the tub, he got a little cranky during the third washing.

Everywhere we went, people fell in love with him. He had a joyous personality and a warm and friendly attitude. I think he understood human nature way too well.

In 2011, upheaval again, as the agency I was working for was shuttered and we had to move again, this time to the Washington DC area. In his relaxed, easy going way, he took it all in stride. We lived in an extended stay for a few months while we again looked for a house. When we moved into our new digs, he immediately settled in. About a year later, our son and his family moved in with us, and Tweeter had to learn how to live with small children. He showed great patience, even when toddlers fell on him. But he was getting older. In his younger days, if the roughhousing got too much, he'd just move to another room. Now, he let his feelings be known, snapping at them when they got too rough. The adults understood, and the kids learned a valuable lesson.

When he turned 15, he began to develop cataracts. His joints turned arthritic and, while he still loved his walks, they began to get shorter. In his younger days, it was nothing to take him out for a 5-mile jaunt. Now, even one mile was hard work, his hindquarters swaying weakly. He'd had a heart murmur since birth, and now it began to make itself felt. Getting up and down stairs was hard, and there were times when we had to carry him, as he just couldn't make it by himself. His clouded vision made it difficult for him to get around in the dark, and his hearing was just about gone.

Late last year, he developed a chronic cough. At first we thought he had gotten a rice kernel stuck in his throat. But the cough grew worse, sending him into fits that would cause his whole body to tense up. We took him to the vet, and his diagnosis was grim. Congestive heart failure. He prescribed some medicine, and that seemed to help for a while.

We knew his time was coming to an end. For the last year, we tried to prepare ourselves. He had been with us for nearly 17 years, through a host of adventures, even two plane trips. He was more than just "the dog." He was family. And he was deeply loved.

On Friday, Cheryl came home from work. For the first time ever, he refused to go for a walk. He hadn't eaten his breakfast, and showed no interest in dinner. For the balance of the evening, he stayed by Cheryl's side. Then he began to breathe hard, to pant. Within an hour, all the strength had gone from his body and he was limp and unresponsive. Cheryl has been a nurse for almost 40 years, so she knew.

Our Tweeter was dying.

I got the sad email at work, and got permission to leave early. Upon arrival, I found him in our bed, unconscious, but panting heavily. We stayed with him, waiting for him to pass, but he continued to struggle. At eleven o'clock, he began to yelp. He couldn't breathe, and that frightened him. At that point, we bundled him up and drove to a 24-hour vet clinic just down the highway. The Doctor gently took him from us, gave him a sedative to calm him down, and did an examination. His finding was heartrending. There simply was no more hope. Cheryl and I looked at each other, communicating in the unspoken language of the eyes, the result of 38 years of thinking each others' thoughts. We told the Doctor that it was time for Tweeter to leave us.

The staff was gentle and understanding as we navigated the paperwork necessary. They gave us some time alone with Tweeter, during which we cut some of his fur for our memories. He was relaxed and barely conscious.

The passing was gentle. The first injection was a strong sedative that put him into a deep sleep. Then, after one final questioning glance from the Doctor, and a nod from us, the final injection was made. In less than a minute, he stopped breathing. The Doctor placed his stethoscope on Tweeter's chest, listened, then looked up and said gently, "He's gone."

It was hard. He looked like he had just fallen asleep. We stayed with him for a few more minutes, stroking his fur. He would be cremated and his ashes scattered in a peaceful place in the Virginia countryside.

We drove home in silence. That loving puppy, that funny, joyful little dog, our boon companion for nearly 17 years...was gone from our lives.

The next day, I went into the kitchen as I prepared to leave for work. I happened to look down to his bowls, still filled with food and water. It hit me hard that there would be no more meals taken from those bowls. As that realization hit home, I sagged against the wall and tears filled my eyes as a quivering sob escaped from somewhere deep inside.

In the days since, we have slowly started to gather his things. His food will be donated to the county animal shelter. His toys, what few there were left after three moves, would be disposed of. His sleeping pad...well, I think we'll keep that for awhile.

His passing leaves a hole in our lives. Cheryl has been crying off and on since Friday, and I am consumed by a sad kind of numbness. We will in time get past this. But I doubt we'll ever get over it.

In my life, I've had to say goodbye to my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a 6-month-old granddaughter, friends...way too many friends. In all that loss, I've learned that the best way to deal with death is to get on with life. In that way, there is meaning for both.

I believe in Heaven. I believe that a peace and joy beyond all understanding awaits us there. I also believe that in Heaven there is a place for all those pets who have given so unselfishly of their love and devotion throughout their lives. And I believe that when my time comes to cross that bridge, waiting on the other side will be my buddy, Tweeter, ready for a romp.

Rudyard Kipling wrote,

Well, the Lord has a dog now, I just sent Him mine,
The old pal so dear to me.
And I smile through my tears on this first day alone,
Knowing they’re in eternity.

Day after day, the whole day through,
Wherever my road inclined,
Four feet said, “Wait, I’m coming with you!”
And trotted along behind.

I have browsed through quotes and poems, trying to find the words to express what I'm feeling these days, frustrated that my own writing skills are not up to the task. We've lost a dog, but it's so much more. How do I know?

Because of the pain in my heart.

I will be grateful for the many years we had together. And for the example of unconditional love that he taught us. But for now, I can only think that when I go to bed tonight, there won't be that warm ball of fur by my feet.

It just hurts.

Teri Harrison wrote this poem, which helps to articulate our sorrow:

You no longer greet me
As I walk through the door.
You’re not there to make me smile
To make me laugh anymore.

Life seems quiet without you,
You were far more than a pet.
You were a family member, a friend,
A loving soul I’ll never forget.

It will take time to heal,
For the silence to go away.
I still listen for you,
And miss you every day.

You were such a great companion,
Constant, loyal and true.
And my heart will always wear,
The pawprints left by you.

--Teri Harrison

Farewell, my loving friend.

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