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I still listen for the pitter-patter of paws

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POSTED May 10, 2009 1:48 a.m.
It all started when John Grogran first got the idea to publish his tales about life with a young Labrador that instantly captured the heart of America. And for those of us who grew up with a lab in our house, the pages that Grogan filled in that book became almost a verbatim recount of the things encountered with the wiry but outrageously loyal animals. But there was a darker tinge in that story – something that lies just beneath the surface in just about everything that we do and more often than not we try to avoid.

By the time you made it to the last few chapters, you realized that Marley – the yellow lab that you had fallen in love with over the 200-plus previous pages – was in failing health and would soon be leaving his family without his powerful tail-wag or his nonchalant saunter through the yard.

It was inevitable that Marley was going to die.

This fact hit me particularly hard because while I read the book from the comfort of my parents’ oversized recliner, I had a 14-year-old black lab that was getting older by the minute resting at my feet.

She couldn’t get up quite as fast anymore. She had developed a freakish fear of being caught in the hall bathroom. And while just the occasional mention of her name would at one time cause her head to snap, you now had to physically guide her back to the house from her front yard strolls – the hearing just wasn’t what it used to.

Despite moving out onto my own some time ago, I’d still find excuses to spend the night on the futon in my mom’s sunroom so that I could have Maxi – the cute little puppy that spent her first night in the Campbell household sleeping on a pillow as a 10-year-old boy lay by her side.

Even when my sister moved back home with her new puppy that quickly became a fixation all its own, I stuck with the slow-moving old Maxi – feeding her bones whenever she got up off the floor.

The way I saw it, she had earned the right to eat just about anything that she wanted – even if it meant I had to slave over the grill every night.

Just a few months ago I helped calm her during the nights when she recovered from a black widow bite that should have by all accounts killed her – a testament to her rugged nature. Sure she’d wake up and thrash to try and itch the surgically drained ear and needed tranquilizers to be calmed down, but she pulled through.

I knew all along she would.

I had my girl – the only one that had never broken my heart
So the other night when I slept on the futon and stayed up well past 3 a.m. folding laundry and catching up on television shows On Demand, I had my girl – the only one that had never broken my heart – sitting loyally by my side.

I left the next morning after loading up two laundry baskets, and kissed her on the nose as I headed for my car. I had no idea that it would be the last time I’d see her standing.

Life has a funny way of letting you know that something’s wrong. I can sleep through somebody calling me two dozen times straight with the phone right next to my head, but sometimes you just wake up and know that there’s something wrong.

My father had left me a message saying that Maxi had a bad night and was going to have to be put down, and that he hoped I got this particular message in time (he was driving over to my apartment as I was listening to it.)

Within five minutes I was sitting on that same futon with my best friend – crippled by what was most likely a stroke that left her unable to walk or even balance. The sheer sight brought tears to my eyes, and just thinking about it is making ‘em water right now.

We had a 90-minute window before she had to be at the vet, so I made sure to give her a bowl of milk, a few slices of cheese, and some of the bread that my father would toss her way every morning as he made his toast. I stroked her fur and kissed her – knowing that within hours she shouldn’t be part of the family that she had so vividly infiltrated almost two decades before.

And even as Dr. Ran Dhanota at Central Valley Veterinary Hospital comforted my scared friend with the pink juice waiting in the wings, I couldn’t help but think back to all of the times that I’d spent with her – the nights where I’d watch Law and Order and eat Fagundes ribs and she’d gnaw on the bones. The walks around the block – the times she’d pull us on our rollerblades. And most of all just time times that she was just there. The family dog. Lying on “the big brown pillow” in the middle of the living room that now seems so empty without her in it.

She went peacefully as the antiseptic coursed through her veins, and we got a moment to say goodbye before she was taken off to eventually be cremated – where she’ll be placed on our mantle as a reminder of what a true and loyal friend really is. The breakdown of my mother and father and I was almost instantaneous, and even as I write this I listen for the pitter-patter of paws on the concrete kitchen floor that would tell me she was coming to see me.

A single kiss on her nose was all I could give as I tried to push her eyes closed knowing that she’d never have to feel the pain of getting up and down again or falling from her sudden and unexpected affliction.

I could go on for hours about Maxi and what made her such as special animal. But the truth is we all have this story. Everyone has that one pet with the unique quirks (Maxi used her front paws like a cat to bat at things) and the wacky behavior and the loyalty that you just simply can’t find in a human being.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll have another black lab at some point in time – their temperament and their intelligence just baffle me.

But as I clutch the pink collar that I took off her neck while we were in the exam room, I know that there will never, ever be another dog like her in my life, and that there will always be a place in my heart that only she will occupy.

Thanks for being all that you were – the Queen of the household and the friend that that was there for me even when nobody else was.

I love you girl. I always will.

NOTE: A special thanks to Dr. Raj and his staff at Central Valley Veterinary Hospital for their care and compassion in our time of utmost grief. A hand on the shoulder of my grieving mother and the soft stroking of the head of my best friend as she slipped into the darkness was more than just the routine – it was a rare form of sincerity that somehow eased an otherwise tragic situation. Thank you.
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