Heaven goes by grace.
If it went by merit
you would stay out
and your dog would go in.
~ Mark Twain
Long before I had a child, someone who knows me very well and knows how much I loved my dog, once posed this question: If your dog and your child were both drowning, who would you save? Without answering that question, let me just say that Sean is really coming along with those swimming lessons.
I come from a long line of dog lovers. Most people I know who have dogs are crazy about them. But my people are stupid crazy when it comes to dogs. Very few are the days in my life that I have not been owned by a dog.
One year ago today, we gave the gift of mercy to our 13-year-old Schipperke, Cooper Ann. She was suffering beyond measure with acute kidney and liver failure. When we last saw her, the shell of her beautiful black form remained, but her spirit had fled. There was nothing but suffering behind the eyes that once were so piercingly bright and alert.
Contrary to what you might think, and what I have always thought, the decision to let her go was not a hard one. After pursuing and exhausting every medical treatment, there was nothing that could be done. When Sean asks why he has to go to college on scholarship, we’ll just show him the little cedar box with Coop’s ashes and the vet bill. It was one of those things that no amount of money could fix and I really hate that.
From the day we brought Sean home from the hospital, Cooper Ann viewed him as another member of her staff to supervise. In those early days, when Sean slept in our room and had to be fed every two hours, Cooper (who slept under our bed) would get up with me and help make the formula. She was nice enough to lick it up when I spilled it, which was about half the time. She would then sit by the changing table as I changed him and then by the rocker while I fed him. Only after Sean was again asleep and I was back in bed would she resume her post under the bed.
In her mind, Cooper Ann was the ferocious protector of the house and it’s occupants, but in reality, she wasn’t capable of harming a ladybug. As Sean learned to pull up on the sofa where Cooper was usually spread out on her back in the dead cockroach position, he’d pull at her feet and she’d snarl and show her teeth. But usually her lip would get stuck on her tooth and she just looked more psychotic than threatening. A dog with its lip stuck on its tooth is universally funny, even to a baby, so Sean didn’t get that he was supposed to afraid. And so he’d pull at her feet again. And she’d give another snarl to indicate, “Hey, I’m a dog. I could bite you. Really. I could bite… if I wanted to. But lucky for you, it’s naptime.” And Sean would throw his head back and make one of those gurgle-y baby squeals of delight and grab her feet again. Cooper would then give a big “What-EV-uur ”sigh and move to the other end of the sofa.
I acquired Cooper Ann in a rescue situation in 1993 – not a horrible rescue situation, but she belonged to someone who couldn’t care for her in the manner to which Schipperke’s like to become accustomed — constant petting, suitable transportation (car, stroller, bicycle basket, red wagon, shopping cart, limo, yacht), bay windows from which to survey the kingdom, at least two walks a day, a steady stream of new toys, a management position in the household with a full staff and rights to open all presents and packages. Little did I know that a year later she would rescue me.
I remember very clearly after I was widowed in 1994 feeling that I would never laugh or find joy in anything ever again. But it wasn’t long before Cooper did some funny little Schipperke thing and I heard the sound of my own laughter. It seemed to pierce the shroud of grief, and if only for a moment, let a stream of sunlight into the darkness that had become my being. I knew then that I must still be alive and somehow or another I would eventually be okay.
After the funeral everyone went back to their lives, but Cooper Ann stuck around and made it her mission to make me laugh at least once a day. She required that I not merely exist, but that I live. And so eventually I did, because Schipperke’s do not take no for an answer. If not for her, I might still be laying on the sofa with the curtains drawn.
A full year after her death, I still find dog hair in the scotch tape. I still hear her toe nails click-click-clicking on the hardwoods. I still expect her to greet me at the door to inspect my purchases. I still hear her in the night issuing muffled barks from beneath the bed where she chases squirrels in the land that lies between sleep and slumber. My arms still ache to hold her and I still long to bury my face in her fabulous black ruff of mink-like fur. I know the only medicine for what ails me is another dog.
So many people have told me that after losing a dog they loved, they could never get another one; that they could never endure the heartbreak. If not for the thought of potty training a dog and a boy at the same time, we would have another dog by now. Anyone who has ever brought a dog home and into their heart, knows that someday there will be a price to be paid. For Cooper Ann, I paid a bucket of tears for an ocean of joy.
And I would do it all over again.