I’ve…. had a rough couple of weeks. And I need to write about it.
I can remember when we chose to get her. It was the spring of 1994 – in March, I think – and my wife and I were recovering from the loss of our first dog, a buff-colored Cocker Spaniel named “Soju”, who had died at less than 6 months old due to ingesting rat poison. The apartment in which we lived had scattered rat poison around the complex and Soju ate some of it. We were devastated by the loss, and almost decided to never own another dog – let alone another Cocker Spaniel.
But I knew if we didn’t get another dog soon, we would never be able to get over our loss. And I really wanted a Cocker Spaniel because I loved the idea of owning one of the most intelligent of the Hound breeds. So we went looking for another Cocker Spaniel – our only stipulations were that it had to be female, and that it couldn’t be buff colored.
We found Leena at a breeder called El Shaddai Cocker Spaniels of Southern California – she was the first born in a litter of three pups. The breeders seemed to love their dogs a great deal – they kept one of Leena’s sisters to show.
Leena wasn’t quite show quality – she was a perfectly colored black and tan Cocker except that she had a disqualifying splash of white on her left front paw. I got to “meet” Leena’s parents while at the breeders, and found them to be very cheerful and pleasant. We picked Leena because of her color (she wasn’t buff colored), and because she was the only puppy in the bunch who didn’t try to chew my fingers when I put my hand in her cage. Soju liked to chew on things – shoes, power cords, furniture, rocks she found on the ground outside. That had led to Soju’s death by poison as a puppy.
The breeder was several hours away from our home in Barstow. On the way back we tried to get Leena to relieve herself at the side of the road outside of Victorville, in the desert sand. She found the desert to be fascinating – but was so well paper-trained even that early that she really didn’t know what to do. In mild desperation I put down my new gas station map on the passenger side floor, and with “paper” on the floor she happily and permanently ruined a three dollar map.
She was so tiny!
Leena was smart. She was easygoing, cheerful, eager to please, all good traits of a Cocker – but she was really very smart. Potty training was a breeze – and teaching her tricks was simple. The most useful thing we taught her was to pee and poop on command – two separate commands at the age of 6 months! We soon learned to spell the word ‘cookie’ around her. We taught her gesture-based commands too. She also learned to roll over, but slyly learned to ‘fake’ rolling over if she didn’t see a treat held for her reward. She learned some tricks on her own – if you asked her to find someone by name, she would (if she knew who you were talking about). She was your ally in any game of hide and seek.
She loved chasing birds and squirrels, she never barked needlessly, and she never complained. Remote controlled cars fascinated her and she would bark endlessly at them. She loved to chase a ball, but would always get distracted by some interesting smell when bringing it back. I soon learned it was futile to throw a ball, because I’d have to go and get it myself! So when we lived on the Marine base in Barstow, I’d gather a pile of rocks that I could throw into the desert that bordered our house. She’d chase each rock and then wheel around to watch me throw the next one. I threw them far apart from each other so I could watch her streak through the desert, running as fast as she could go.
Leena was an excellent judge of people – if she didn’t like a person, then there was something seriously wrong. The only two people I ever saw her try to nip was our apartment manager and my sister’s husband (now ex-husband). Leena knew, long before we humans figured it out, that neither were nice people.
Oddly enough, she loved going to the vet. Leena seemed to know instinctively that veterinarians were trying to help her, that any pain or indignity was merely incidental – that treatment was necessary and not meant to harm. When she met a vet she did so cheerfully, happy to receive a caress – and ignored the occasional shot.
When a dog has allergies, they don’t cough or sneeze like a human. That would be an evolutionary dead end – literally. Animals that rely on their nose for hunting or protection can’t afford to have their nose stuffy and clogged. Leena, like any dog, expressed her allergies through skin breakouts. Sometimes it got so bad that only a cortisone shot would help.
Leena loved being outside, but couldn’t afford to stay outside due to allergies. She was allergic to grass, among other things.
When we moved to Fresno, I bricked in our small apartment backyard and planted roses around the border. I installed a doggie door so she could go in and out to the bricked-in backyard. Since she couldn’t go on walks anymore, I found toys that would keep her interested and occupied. We hid treats from her, and she would sniff them out. I’d play ‘hide and seek’ by hiding her favorite toys. We would take her out to a park from time to time, but Leena had to pay for it with another trip to the vet.
I still took her out, usually out to the car where she would stick her head out the window and sniff as I drove. Our Sunday routine was for Leena to tag along as I drove to a nearby donut shop to pick up coffee, a donut and a newspaper – then back home to spend a quiet Sunday morning at the backyard table together. Me drinking coffee and reading as Leena slept under my chair. She knew our Sunday morning routine. If I overslept I could expect to wake with her on my chest, nose to nose, “whuffing” in my face.
Her allergies got worse as she grew older. She got her first Mast Cell Tumor at the age of 8 or 9, which we had removed. I had no idea what a Mast Cell Tumor was until then. The veterinarian said that it would most likely recur, that it was a type of cancer, that it was related to her allergies, and that surgery was usually the best way to remove the tumors, until they got bad, until they became internal.
The tumors didn’t come back right away, not until her 11th birthday. Leena’s allergies got worse. The vet said it might be diet related, and put her on a weird catfish and potato based dog food which eased her allergies while making her poop something truly incredible. I spent some time trying different foods on her and figured out she was allergic to soy and to wheat, both of which are often found in dog food. I found other dog foods that had no wheat or soy, and used those. The new diet seemed to help her allergies, and perhaps slowed down the growth of tumors. During all of this Leena was energetic and cheerful and never lost her appetite.
At the age of 12, Leena went deaf. Cocker Spaniels are known to have lots of ear infections because their beautiful floppy ears are so good at trapping bacteria and moisture inside. We had kept her ears clean, but her allergies combined with skin conditions to give the bacteria a place to hide. It was too much. And by the time we realized that something was wrong, it was too late.
Being deaf didn’t bother Leena much. She wouldn’t come when we called her anymore, but since we had taught her gesture commands along with spoken commands, we could still tell her to go to bed, lay down, use the bathroom, or go get her toy.
Her nose remained unaffected. Leena had an incredible sense of smell. I remember one night, long after she had gone deaf, she was sleeping two rooms away. I pulled a boiled egg out of the fridge, cracked it, and started peeling it under running water in the kitchen sink. Leena woke up and made a beeline to the kitchen, nose sniffing madly. She was so cute sitting there on the kitchen floor with her ears perked and head tilted that I had to (once again) reward her with a sliver of boiled egg white.
Becoming deaf didn’t bother her, but developing arthritis certainly did! She could no longer climb on the couch or lazy-boy chair to nap – so I put out extra doggie pillows for her to sleep on. I put a heat pad in her bed. I covered her with an extra sweater during the winter, like a blanket.
About 8 months ago she went blind in her left eye due to a Mast Cell Tumor forming behind it. She was going blind in her right eye due to a cataract. She also developed a Mast Cell Tumor on the inside of her lip. But she was still cheerful, energetic, eager to please. She still wagged her whole back end when I came home at the end of the day.
I probably could have kept Leena alive for another year – perhaps two or more with aggressive chemo and/or radiation therapy. But I came to the realization that I’d be doing so for my own selfish reasons – not for her. It was time to let her go.
It was one of the hardest – maybe THE hardest – decision I’ve ever had to make. I put it off for two weeks.
I groomed her one last time last week, and cut her hair in the traditional Cocker Spaniel cut. I hadn’t done so in several years because it’s labor intensive to me and distressing to Leena. By the time she turned 10 I was only shaving her bare twice a year to keep her neat. But last week, I went slow and gentle and cut her hair in the most flattering traditional Cocker style I could. I bathed her, and rubbed her dry under a hair dryer.
I trimmed her nails and got her paw-print in polymer clay. I brushed her hair.
Saturday morning I cuddled her, and then took her for a walk on the local university campus. Her walk was so slow – and she paused frequently. She ate grass – and I couldn’t help but think that it would make her break out something fierce, but I let her do it anyway. She laid in the grass and lolled her tongue, panting. (She’s been constantly panting the last 8 months.) She “whuffed” at the smell of a passing squirrel, but she couldn’t see it and didn’t stir to follow.
I took the last pictures I’d ever have of her.
On the way home she tripped over a curb. I was leading her across the street and she was following me. I realize now she wasn’t able to see where she was going, but she still trusted me to guide her. The curb surprised her – she tripped, caught herself, and then looked at me in a bewildered way that just about broke my heart.
Leena’s nose still worked great. Every few steps she would find something new to sniff, one spot that looked to my eyes very much like any other spot would draw her to perform a careful, in-depth examination. And as we strolled past the corner store she suddenly pulled me in a new direction while sniffing madly. She had found a used condom! Despite my sadness I started laughing and pulled her very curious nose away.
When we got home she had some water. I fed her some watermelon. She could never get enough watermelon. She never connected that watermelon was bad for her – that it gave her problems when she used the bathroom. I’m not sure she would have cared if she did know… she loved watermelon VERY much.
Then it was time.
Leena was happy to see the vet. She walked in under her own power, on her leash, tail wagging and nose sniffing. I’ve said she’s smart – she followed my cues and was able to navigate through the aisles of the PetSmart toward the vet’s office. She ‘lay down’ by my gestured command on the scale, which said she weighed 31 pounds. Overweight, I know. I’ve spent the last year spoiling her, knowing what was coming. She struggled to get back to her feet afterwards to follow me into the exam room.
The vet put a catheter in her leg, and then gave us some time alone with her so that we could assure her she was our daughter, that she was beautiful, and that we loved her. When we were ready (and how could I say I’d ever be ready for such a thing?) we called the vet back in. He administered an overdose of Phenobarbital as I held her in my arms.
Leena fell asleep, with her chin in my left hand, almost as soon as the vet pushed in the plunger of the syringe. Her heart stopped almost immediately after. It was quick – there was nothing else. One moment my girl was happy, if a bit confused and tired, to be receiving so much attention. The next moment she was gone.
The weight of her head now resting wholly on my hand reminded me of all the times Leena had fallen asleep on my lap, her head resting on my arm or hand. I lowered her to lay peacefully on the cushioned table.
Even at this point, my inherent geekiness and engineering training led me to think that it was like turning off a switch on a machine. Faster, in fact. I work on electronics that don’t shut down as quickly even if power is suddenly and completely removed. And maybe my thoughts of this were a sort of coping mechanism on my part – because honestly the emotional pain was almost unbearable.
The vet told me I had done the right thing, that there was little they could have done to help her live longer with good quality of life.
Writing about this today, on Monday, rips the pain open all over again – but it is also cathartic, maybe even necessary for me to move on. I am definitely not okay right now, but I know I will be okay eventually. I can feel it.
I feel absolutely shattered inside – but I feel the jagged edges starting to knit back together too.
I spent the rest of the weekend avoiding reality, playing endless hands of solitaire on my computer with my brain in neutral. I cooked an enormous pot of gumbo that required two hours of prep time – and did all that chopping and stirring while on automatic… numb.
But I also did what I felt I had to do. I’ve packed away Leena’s toys, her collar, the framed photo and AKC documents that have hung on my computer room walls for the last decade. Her heavy ceramic food dish was cleaned and dried and packed away in the same box, along with her polymer clay paw print.
I threw away her doggie pillows and heater. I threw away her special medicated shampoo, her allergy medication, ear cleaning solution, and antibiotic cream. I threw away her electric hair clippers. They still work just fine, but I threw them away anyway.
Last night I woke in the middle of the night to visit the restroom. I found myself stepping around a non-existent doggie pillow so I wouldn’t accidentally wake Leena.
And if you’ve read this far, I hope you will in turn be moved, influenced, affected.
I believe that every life is like a rock thrown into a pond. The resulting waves spread outward and affect other lives. Big waves, little waves – neither really matter. All are transitory. What matters is that each wave influences another life or lives, even if only a little bit. And each person so influenced will, in turn, throw their own rock and make their own waves.
The height of the wave doesn’t matter, neither does the distance it travels. What matters is how you throw your rock… how you live.
Leena lived joyfully, eagerly, cheerfully, and with unconditional love.
I miss her terribly.