When Connor (rest in peace, buddy) was a puppy, still toddling around on too big paws and unbalanced legs, we took him to a friend’s house to visit. Our friend’s had a three year old daughter and the mom guided her daughter’s small hand under Connor’s front legs to feel his puppy-sized heartbeat. I remember it clearly because I felt foolish for never having previously stopped to appreciate a detail so small yet powerful. Throughout Connor’s life I remembered that moment and occasionally would pause to slip my hand under a front leg and onto his chest to feel that solid thumping. I had no idea one day I’d be slipping my hand under his leg and onto his chest for the last time to feel the absence of his heartbeat.
The night Connor died we had been checking on him but giving him his space as we waited outside for the vet to arrive. When the vet finally did get to us and we took her inside, Connor had already died. But I was in shock. I didn’t believe that he was dead. I put my hand on his chest, grasping for that reassuring thumping of his heart. I’d felt it so many times before, was thankful for it, and for that friend in the beginning pointing out the magic of it, I was sure it would still be there. It wasn’t. I only felt the pounding of my own heartbeat against his rigor-stiffened ribs.
Those heartbeat moments have been on my mind lately. The special ones at the beginning where I realized I needed to take time to appreciate the small miracles of life, and that final time that I felt his fur against my hand and the absence his heartbeat. They are on my mind because we are getting a new German Shepherd puppy. I am beyond excited. But the excitement is tinged with sadness. If our sweet dog hadn’t died so young, we wouldn’t be getting a puppy.
I know that when we pick up the puppy, the first thing I’ll do (after crying my eyes out) will be to put my palm against his small chest and feel the power of his heartbeat against my hand. Our new furry family member will be named Hinter. That’s not a typo. Hinter is short for Hinterland, one of the defitions is “an area lying beyond what is visible or known.” I think that is perfect. There is so much we don’t know, certainly we never expected to lose our young dog so soon, nor to expect another new spirit in our lives. Hinter also mean’s “after” in German, which seemed a fitting honor for the dog who is coming after Connor.
There is much to be sad about in the world, the ailing health of family members, strained relationships, changes in jobs and income and careers. But if we can find the little moments in life that give reminders of the wonders of life, the miraculous in the common as Emerson put it, we can remind ourselves about the joy in the world that is present in the small things.
Appreciating the heartbeat of my new puppy will not take away the pain or the memory of losing Connor. But will instead remind me to appreciate all of the little, special moments that makeup every day. I am trying to take my own lesson of gratitude that I talked about earlier this week to heart. Being thankful isn’t just for the month of November, or a series of Facebook updates. It’s a choice we have to make every day to remind ourselves how fortunate we really are.
Without further ado, please meet Hinter…
All puppy photos are courtesy of Candle Hill Shepherds. If you are looking for a German Shepherd breeder, I highly recommend checking them out. And if you want to know why, feel free to contact me so I can let you know why I’m such a fan.
It’s been over three months since our German Shepherd Dog died in our home due to a brain tumor while we helplessly watched and waited for the vet. Three weeks from now will mark the one year anniversary since he had his very first seizure. He made it only 7 short months after that first seizure. But this is not a post about his death, it’s a post about what I’ve allowed his death to teach me in life.
The first week after Connor died I reached out to a local woman, Sara Baker of the Pink Pinecone Studio, who made a lot of seasonal décor and who I knew had a formal fine arts education. I asked her if she could make a portrait of Connor, with lots of color and not necessarily a portrait that looked exactly like him, but something that captured his essence. She agreed.
Three days after Connor’s death an out-of-town friend, who had been scheduled to visit for several months, arrived. This friend had lost her mother only a few months earlier. The first couple hours of our visit was spent sitting in my dim living room rehashing my recent trauma and discussing her loss as well. It was sad. It was cathartic. It deepened a bond between the two of us. Her presence delivered a gift of lightness and energy to one of the saddest times in my life. When she left 5 days later, she said that she felt that the timing was meant to be, that she was meant to be in our lives that week. I cannot believe anything else. She absolutely was meant to be there for us. We were blessed to have her.
Time passed. The artist I contacted about painting Connor started sending photos of the progress she had made in sketching out and then painting our dear pup. Every photo was a gift and sent me into a fit of tears. Loss is hard. I felt the need to say to people, “I know he was just a dog but…” in order to protect myself in case they thought my level of sadness was unusual or weird or that I should just “be over it.” In retrospect, I don’t have to justify my grief at all. No one does. Grief is grief. If I say I’m sad, and I need time to process and work through my pain, that’s my right. If I’m going to work, if I’m paying my bills and not crawling into a bottle or strangers’ beds or going through cases of Doritos, there’s no need for concern, just empathy.
I think life is one long lesson, one after the other, you either get smarter on the lessons you’re learning, or you just bang your head against the same damn lesson your whole life through. One lesson I have struggled with is how to express empathy. It’s not that I haven’t had concern for people, it’s that I struggled to really put myself in someone else’s shoes in terms of coping with a sick loved one, grief, or really any type of trauma. The loss of Connor finally split my heart open wide enough for the lesson to take hold. His death gave me empathy. I can now empathize with the feeling of being a helpless bystander as a loved one endures an illness that has more questions than answers and no clear path to wellness. Or perhaps no path at all. The illnesses may vary, the scenarios each unique, but the helplessness and the worry and the tears are all universal. And I can say with so much more conviction, how sorry I am, and offer hugs and inappropriate jokes and anything to give a little emotional release. It does not matter that Connor was “just a dog.” We had a deep and unusual connection, and I took his death very hard.
The piece of artwork resembling my sweet dog continued to take shape in someone else’s home as I waited (mostly) patiently. I should add that Sara, the artist, is not someone I knew personally but to whom I would send unsolicited blogging advice. Yes, you read that correctly. She started a blog after I did, and I would send her articles that I thought were helpful and informative. After all, I had done the reading of a ton of crappy and good articles, why not share the good ones with someone? I assured my friends (who thought I was crazy) that I wasn’t critiquing her actual blogging, just passing on information I thought was helpful. (they still thought I was crazy). I felt a kinship with her because she is local to the area and we both have creative talents.
I received the final photo of the painting last week, I gave my okay and she applied the final seal and we arranged for me to pick up the painting over the weekend. I pulled up to Sara’s house and as I was walking up the drive, she stepped out the front door with this enormous canvas with my dog’s energy looking out at me. I burst into tears. Me, the one who doesn’t like crying in public, burst into tears in front of a stranger. And then we hugged. I not only cried in front of a stranger, I then HUGGED her. Grief makes you do weird things. But it also opens your heart to people you might otherwise not have been open to.
It was like Sara was meant to make this painting for me, to help me heal, that she would gently soothe my sadness with the loving strokes that she put down on canvas. We stood and chatted for a bit about her desires for her own business, that doing fine art, painting, is where her true passion lies and that it is a path she hopes to move further down. I thought that was amazing, that here she was giving me this gift of my dog, but this was also meaningful to her as it was a step toward something she wanted to develop for herself. And in the same way my friend was meant to arrive the week that Connor died, I believe that Sara was meant to put this piece together for us. She was so sweet to work with, and the piece of art she created for us is not only amazing for its artistic quality and her talent, but because she managed to capture our dog’s spirit in those paints. It is something mystical that she was able to translate with her painting.
If you’d like to check out her work, her website is here and I highly suggest you follow her Facebook here, that is where you can see her artistic journey unfolding.
Thank you, Sara, for this wonderful gift.
If you would like to follow me on Facebook, you can find me here. I’d love to have you as part of my growing community of amazing people.
I don’t know where to start, so I think I’ll start at the end. Or the beginning of the end, rather. Last weekend Connor had three seizures. Two within two hours, the third a little different than all the rest, with a prolonged stage of stumbling before he went into the grand mal. On Monday I called the vet to discuss our next steps, which I assumed would be another dose increase. And the vet did advise a dose increase and left a refill of meds for me at the front desk. But he also told me he was still concerned that we could be dealing with a brain tumor and that either way we weren’t looking at a very good long term prognosis. He was unhappy with how quickly the seizures had progressed and how quickly we had to increase the doses. The seizures only started in August. He told me at some point, even if it was epilepsy, we would have to make a decision about quality of life. Evaluating the balance between managing the seizures and having a dog doped up on high doses of anti-seizure medications.
The conversation sat heavy in my gut. I had done a pretty good job of believing we were just dealing with seizures, and as complicated as it was, as much as his personality changed (we assumed due to the medications) we would keep marching down that road and pay as much as we could manage for the medications for his seizures. But the conversation with the vet yesterday brought me back to a reality I had convinced myself couldn’t be real. I called my mom. I called my good friend. I cried, I talked. I worked on reports in between fits of worry and sadness. And then the headache that had been mounting with every tear I tried to hold in got too much and I decided to leave work early. I cried on the way out to my car. I cried on the way to the vet’s office to pick up the medication. And then I told myself how ridiculous I was being, I would go home, I would take the dogs to the back yard and we would lie in the grass, take photos with that crisp spring sun shining down on us. It was not to be. My gut was right.
As soon as I walked in the door I knew something was wrong. Shelby ran to me as usual. Connor sat in the room in front of the door and looked at me. He did not come to me, he did not even look like he recognized me. I said his name and saw the slobber on his side. I figured he must have just had a seizure and was still coming out of it. I tried to approach him to comfort him, as I have done every time he has had a seizure. He shied away from me, not moving, but pressing his body back away from me. I tried to grab Shelby and approach him with her next to me, thinking that would help his recognition. Shelby wanted nothing to do with him, and he pressed himself further into the wall, trying to keep away from us. He trembled as we approached and started foaming at the mouth. At this point prickles of fear started forming on my neck. He was foaming at the mouth so much I was honestly alarmed that he could be rabid. Or that he would attack me or Shelby out of fear. I put Shelby in the kennel and came back into the room with him, his body continued to tremble and he foamed more and more at the mouth.
At this point I called the vets office, in what I’m sure was traumatic for the poor reception gal. Into the phone I sobbed that my dog looked rabid and I didn’t know what to do. She got the vet on the phone who told me to get him into a room alone where he couldn’t hurt himself or me or Shelby. I approached him and tried to take him by the collar, I do think I got close enough to brush his ear, but he shied from my touch. I didn’t want to push the issue, so I let him be and left Shelby in the kennel. I stepped outside and called my husband, asking him to come home immediately.
My husband at first thought it was just another seizure, and he’d get home and Connor would be normal and we’d all go for a walk. When he got home, he too was alarmed by the state Connor was in. We called the vet back, desperate for help. We couldn’t entice him with treats, couldn’t get him to move from his spot in the room, couldn’t get him to follow commands. There was no way we would be able to get him loaded into the truck to take him to the vet.
We made arrangements for a house-call vet to come out. She was the first person to talk about putting him down. Up to this point, despite his wild state, I thought we’d get to stabilize him and get him back. We didn’t. The next hour, waiting for the vet, he declined further into repeat seizures and the throes of death. We didn’t know that’s what we were watching. We tried to talk to him, to comfort him, but he didn’t even seem to recognize our voices, the sounds just frightened him.
When the vet finally arrived, he was gone. He was still warm to the touch, but he had left his body. She took a paw print and filled out the paperwork for the doggy undertaker to come and remove his body. She left and we sat alone with him, stroking his fur and saying our goodbyes. My parents came over and said their own goodbyes. This dog was a favorite of many. The younger and wilder of the two, he captured hearts with his cuddly nature and big personality. My parents mourned him as much as we did. And so we sat, the four of us, around his body. We poured a drink, toasted his honor and essentially held a doggy wake while we waited for the guy to come pick up his body.
We sent him to the canine morgue wrapped in a blanket and draped with lilacs and white flowers from our yard. If a dead body can be beautiful, his was.
Really, Connor gave us a tremendous gift in his death, he made the decision for us. He didn’t make us decide that it was time to put him down. There was no doubt left to haunt us. It was his time. You can’t ask the universe “why?” because you’ll never get an answer, or one that really makes sense. But I did ask my parents, why did we have to be the people who only got to have this dog for so little time? Why did we have to have a dog who ended up with a brain tumor and died in a dramatic and rather tortured way? My mom simply said “Because someone has to.”
“And because we’re strong enough to handle it?” I asked.
In unison, both of my parents said “Yes.”
We were lucky to have Connor. His full name was March’s Chance O’Connor. Because he was born in March, the house that we had just moved into belonged to the O’Connor’s for many years and their names were in several spots around the house. And the Chance came from the fact that I desperately wanted Connor, but Dean was unconvinced we should be getting a second dog after just buying a house. So we flipped a coin. And my side of the coin won.
That big goofy bastard could be a huge pain in the ass. He was always too aggressive with other dogs. He chewed important things long after his puppy stage. He constantly stole food off the counters. But he was so full of love for life and for me and my husband. He would wake up in the morning and come wake you up, yawning and yowling and telling you how happy he was to greet the day and to see you again for another day. I wish I had half of his exuberance to meet the day.
I started a draft blog post to give people encouragement when coping with dogs with epilepsy. I had it mostly written, but I just hadn’t got around to refining it and posting it. I’m glad I didn’t. I would have felt like an ass hat, telling you how to cope with epilepsy and then a month later having my dog drop dead. Well, writhe into death. Dropping dead would have been a blessing. I think I’ll still work on that post, because some of the information is valid, but it will have a sad conclusion now. And I’m not sure that’s what owners who have dogs with epilepsy want to hear.
We had an amazing run with him. He got to travel cross country with us for our wedding in Wisconsin. He took hikes in all the states along the way. He even got to ride in a cage elevator in a hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota. When we checked into the dog friendly hotel in Cody, Wyoming he lifted his leg and peed on the bed skirt as soon as we got into the room. The very next day we hiked with him and Shelby east of Cody and watched wild horses as we walked along a dirt road. He and his sister got sprayed by a skunk at least 4 times in his life, I’m sure to his delight and our misery. He hiked to Crater Lake outside of Teton Village in Wyoming. But the biggest thing he did for me, was adore me. That dog would be anybody’s best friend, he loved being with people. But he absolutely would have followed me into fire. I never had my own dog growing up, I never had a dog I really connected with before the way I did with him. When an animal trusts you, loves you, believes in you, the way he managed to communicate, you don’t soon forget it. If ever.
There might be some people who won’t get my grief. Who have had way more trauma in their life and think I should buck up. If anyone ever disparages your grief, just move on. Grief is highly personal and varies so greatly from person to person. And no one should ever determine what should cause someone to be more or less upset or depressed.
But even in the deep end of my grief, less than 24 hours since my dog left this world, I have found pockets of humor. We have joked about how he saved us a lot of money, because we got to return that $113 dollars’ worth of medication I just refilled. It sounds a bit morbid, I know it is, but it made us LAUGH. I’ve talked before about needing to have humor to get through life, well, getting through death is no different. It’s fucking depressing and I will make jokes all I want if that’s what helps me get through. (I apologize to my mother-in-law for using the F word, but I think this painful topic warrants some stronger language.) And whatever helps you get through, is what you should do. Unless meth and robbing liquor stores is what helps you cope, then I think you may have gone too far.
As much as it hurts, as dramatic and traumatic as his death was, my life is richer for having him in it. You can’t ever let the threat of pain hold you back. You can’t have joy without pain. If you have dogs, go take some selfies with them, give them a couple extra treats and really live in the moment with them. Life goes so fast, make sure you absorb the good times as much as you wallow in the bad times. And send me pictures of your dogs, or tell me dirty jokes, or tell me your sweet animal stories.
We are graced with the presence of two long-hair German Shepherds. They are a rambunctious set, ages 5 and 7 from the same parents. Shelby is highly intelligent but neurotic as hell and not very affectionate. Connor is sweet and loving, but not as well trained and especially aggressive with other dogs. We knew from the beginning this was going to be the case when all 12 fluffy pounds of him barked and growled at Shelby the first time they met. He was 8 weeks old.
If you want an exciting life, get a German Shepherd. If you prefer a predictable and stress-free domicile, I highly discourage you from owning German Shepherds. They are too smart for their own damn good and frequently find trouble to get in to.
I know everyone thinks their dog is the most intelligent. Less frequently there is the argument that their dog is the biggest pain in the ass. I offer for you today a story demonstrating that our dogs may very well be high in intelligence and pain-in-the-assiness.
Connor has a destructive streak as wide as the day is long. Over the years he has destroyed a beaver pelt hat, leather chinks (short chaps for the non-horsey people), a pair of leather boots, faux wood blinds, a 3 foot section of carpet and several baseball hats. (The blinds and carpet are a story for another day.) The cost of Connor’s companionship is high. For that reason we leave our bedroom door shut when we are gone.
Recently the bedroom door was mysteriously open when we would get home. At first we thought it was operator error. We became more vigilant. The door was still open when we came home . A box of tissues shredded to confetti provided evidence of their roaming. Last week the door was open every single day of the week, even though it was firmly shut in the morning. We decided one of them figured out how to open the door using the handle and we would have to change to a door knob. We left home for a little excursion and thought nothing more of the door handle.
Damned door handle.
We rented a cabin in Eastern Oregon. We explored the wilderness area, hung out with our friends and kept the dogs with us. We hiked them over 5 miles in the morning. At lunch we decided to leave them in the cabin while we went and ate lunch with our friends at a campsite a quarter mile away. We tucked them in their beds and closed the door. The handle made a satisfying click. Locked.
Sitting with our friends, eating lunch, they asked us if the dogs were tired from all the activity that morning.
“Oh yes.” We agreed. “I’m sure they’re passed out. Dog tired.” Yuk yuk yuk
Now here’s where you need to know that I am not taking any creative liberty when telling this story.
No sooner had the words left our mouths than the dogs rounded a bend, bounding toward us, tongues hanging out, faces split with joy.
“WE FOUND YOU! WE’RE HERE!” We’re sure they were thinking.
My husband could not believe his eyes. “Are you kidding me?” I think he swore. Yes, he definitely was swearing.
The dogs used the skills they honed at home to open the door to the cabin and set off searching for their surely endangered owners. When the shock wore off, we thanked our lucky stars they didn’t run off in the wilds, chasing after deer. We said a prayer, so thankful no animals were harmed in the making of this adventure, courtesy of Connor.
Like I said, if you like a peaceful, stress-free life, do not get a German Shepherd.
But if you love a little spice, if you like an animal that thinks for itself and readily shares his opinion (sometimes by destroying a pair of beloved boots) then get that German Shepherd. He or she will definitely eat something you love, and will at some point challenge your patience, but they will leave you so in awe of the intelligent and loving mind they possess. As loyal and honest as they are persistent and naughty.
By the way, not too long after our little trip, we stood in our bedroom with Shelby and locked Connor out. We called to him, beckoned him. Within 30 seconds he had that door handle pushed up, unlatched and the door open. To think we used to say he was the slow one.
For the faint of heart, they are not.
Anyone out there have memorable items that were sacrificed to your precious dog’s chewing desires?