Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A friend once told me, “A dog’s love is the purest love you’ll ever find. A dog loves you unconditionally, without any expectation of getting something in return, without any judgment of what you look like, how much money you have, or what kind of car you drive. The only thing a dog wants is to love you, and if they get love in return, it’s just icing on the cake.” I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken. I know, because I experienced exactly what my friend described during the much-too-brief time my dog, Sam, was in my life.

            Sam was a spunky little white and brown Shih Tzu whose huge personality more than made up for his small stature. His full name, Samson, was bestowed upon him not only because of the adorably poofy and elaborate mane he sported as a puppy, but also because of his strength –- not of physicality, but of will and mind. Sam was the most stubborn and indignant little dog I’ve ever known, and his moniker suited him perfectly. He was also the best dog I’ve ever known and I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to have had him in my life for almost 15 years. I’d give just about anything to have him back for even 15 minutes more.

            Sam left this world on February 17, 2013, after a years-long battle with several illnesses that eventually wore his little body down to the point that it was difficult for him to even breathe. I was there with him at the end, at the very last second when he slipped peacefully from this world to the next. I saw, heard, and felt him take his last breath. I held him in my arms as his tired little body just let go and for the first time in a long time, he wasn’t struggling or fighting anymore. It was as peaceful and graceful and quiet and calm as you could ever imagine. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.

            Sam came into my world when I was 18 years old and home from college in the summer of 1998. My childhood dog, Petie, had been gone for about a year and though we all missed him, my family was ready to bring a new dog into our home. My mom had researched different breeds, and finally decided that a Shih Tzu would be a good fit. One day she came across an ad in the newspaper for Shih Tzu puppies who needed good homes. My mom, sister, and I decided to make the hour-long drive to have a look and maybe bring one home. As soon as we arrived and looked at the puppies, one of them came straight over to us and propped himself up on the side of the little enclosure he was corralled in with his brothers and sisters. We bent down to greet the little burst of fur and he excitedly attempted to climb the wire fence that separated us. That was it. It was love at first sight, and we knew this little bundle of energy was meant to join our family. We brought him home, showed him around, and introduced him to my elderly cat Spooky, who wasn’t too thrilled about this fuzzy live wire that had just invaded her tranquil space. But even Spooky came to love Sam eventually.

            Sam’s puppyhood was entertaining, and challenging, for all of us. It didn’t take long for his personality to shine through. He was so dang cute that he could get away with anything. Even his occasional penchant for stealing underwear out of laundry baskets and ripping them to shreds was adorable and elicited more “Awwwwwws” than scolding. Sam was a trouble maker, for sure, but that was part of his charm. And my god, was he spoiled. That dog had more toys than the most spoiled child in the history of the world. And if there were certain toys that he really liked, we got him doubles just to make sure we had a backup and he wouldn’t have to be without one of his favorites. Sam had a habit of destroying his plush toys in a very methodical way. The first thing he did when he got a new stuffed toy was carry it into the family room and examine it for any weaknesses, most of all the eyes. If the eyes were made of little plastic beads, Sam knew it was his starting place for the carnage that was to come. He would chew on those little beady eyes until one or both of them popped out of the stuffed animal’s head. He knew that once those plastic nuisances were out of the way, he could use the small holes that were left to really get down to business. He would sit, holding the toy between his two front paws, his back legs splayed out behind him, and excitedly pull out every piece of stuffing that had once been in the toy. He didn’t stop until A) he was caught in the act or B) nothing was left but a fuzzy shell and the squeaker, and poly fiberfill stuffing was flung across every square inch of the room. It sounds a little barbaric, but I swear watching him in action was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

            Sam was smart, one of the smartest dogs I’ve known, but he was also stubborn. If he didn’t want to do something, then we could just forget about it because he wasn’t going to do it. There were many battles of will waged over the years, and Sam didn’t lose very many of them. He demanded fresh water when he went to get a drink from his bowl, and soon he would drink only bottled water -– liquid from the tap was unacceptable. If the water in his bowl wasn’t fresh enough, or if the bowl was running low, Sam would sit in the kitchen and quietly growl while staring at his water. If that didn’t get someone’s attention, he would eventually resort to more drastic measures. He’d take his fuzzy little paws and stomp right on the edge of the bowl, flipping it over and sending it careening through the kitchen, spilling its contents in the process. Once that was done, and someone had come running into the room to see what was going on, there Sam would be, prancing around proudly, wagging his tail and beaming to the point that he looked like he was smiling at what he had accomplished. It was so cute that the human’s response was usually to burst out laughing, rush to get Sam the fresh bottled water he was demanding, and then clean up the mess.

The thing Sam was most stubborn about, though, was food. He was the pickiest little dog to ever live, and to him, the thought of eating dog food was akin to putting a plate of cow manure in front of a human. He just didn’t like it, and it didn’t matter what kind –- dry food, canned food, refrigerated food, Iams, Science Diet, Alpo, dog food imported from a tiny bakery in the south of France –- it didn’t matter what it was. If it was meant for a dog, Sam didn’t want to have anything to do with it. On the rare occasions when we wouldn’t give in and feed him human food, he would stage his own little doggie hunger strike and starve himself to the point that his blood sugar got so low he would have a seizure. After experiencing his first seizure, it was terrifying enough for my mom, sister, and me to vow that Sam would never go hungry again, no matter what we had to feed him. He apparently didn’t think it was such a big deal because his hunger strikes continued intermittently throughout his life, despite our best efforts to prevent them. We very quickly learned what a strong-willed little dog we were living with, and about our own weaknesses when it came to enforcing the rules. His sweet, innocent, adorable little face with his toothy underbite and big brown eyes was our Kryptonite.

I have countless wonderful memories of my life with Sam –- the way he snooped through the bags when someone returned home from the grocery store to see if there was anything in there for him; the way he would bulldoze my (current) cat Libby, knocking her over like a bowling ball striking a pin and leaving her sprawled out on the carpet, thoroughly annoyed; the time he climbed under the Christmas tree, finding and pulling out all of HIS presents and proceeding to unwrap every single one; how he jumped up fearlessly anytime a squirrel dared to come near the back patio door, and he barked as ferociously as he could until the critter turned tail and scurried away from HIS house; his trips to the bank drive-through where he would bark into the speaker until the teller sent him a Milkbone through the magic treat-producing machine. This also usually included his gesture we came to call “Sammy want” where he would put his two front paws together and wave them up and down frantically anytime he saw something he wanted. And he always got what he wanted.

One of my favorite memories of Sam is the first time he decided to try swimming. A family friend, who I’ll call “J”, has a plot of land on a small lake out in the country and generously let us bring Sam out there whenever we wanted. On one occasion, when Sam was feeling particularly brave, we let him out of the car for his usual bounding run around the property as we tried to keep up. This time, however, Sam decided he wanted to give that big wet thing out in the middle of the ground a closer look. He took off at full speed down the dock that led straight into the lake, and when he got to the end he took a giant leap, fully extending front and back legs into a proper diving posture, and splashed down spectacularly into the water. My sister and I were there along with J and we all immediately ran as fast as we could to the dock to get to Sam. We could tell he was a little confused at what had just happened, and that it wasn’t quite what he was expecting. But, he quickly swam over to the frantic humans on the edge of the dock waving like crazy people at him and let them pull him out of the water. We knew Sam wasn’t sure it was a good idea to take a flying leap into the lake because he never did it again. He stuck to running around in the weeds and tall grass and fishing out on the boat whenever someone was willing to take him. Sam loved to go fishing. I mean loved it. He would sit and watch as everyone cast their lines into the water, and he eventually learned to watch the bobbers on each line as an indication that a fish was about to come into the boat. If the bobbers weren’t moving fast enough for him, he would stomp his feet and let out a high-pitched, exasperated whine to show his impatience. But when someone finally caught a fish? Holy moly, it was the most exciting thing Sam had ever experienced! He would cry and bark and squeal as the fish was being reeled in and once it was out of the water, he had to inspect it. Carefully. Thoroughly. He checked over every fish that was caught, sniffing and giving them the once over, and finally licking them before the fisherman was allowed to throw the slimy creature back into the water. He had to lick every single one, like he was saying, “Why hello, Mr. Fish. Nice to meet you!” It was the same routine fish after fish, and it was like Sam’s own little heaven on earth. He came home dirty, smelly, and exhausted, just how he liked it.

The older Sam got, the more his health started to deteriorate. He’d had health issues from the time he was a puppy, including severe allergies and stomach problems, and more conditions were added to the list as time went on. Thankfully, we had a fantastic vet who knew how much Sam meant to all of us and was always willing to try whatever he could to make Sam well. Toward the end of his life, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which we were able to manage and control with medication for a while, but there was no cure. Eventually, the congestive heart failure led to chronic kidney failure and liver failure, both of which were treatable but also not curable. Although Sam, ever the fighter, pulled through after every treatment, the problems became more and more frequent and the treatments harder for him to bear. The congestive heart failure caused fluid to build up in his body, sometimes in his stomach, sometimes in or around his lungs making it hard for him to breathe even when he was just lying in his bed. It made him cough, sometimes uncontrollably, until we could see he was at the point of exhaustion, and there was nothing we could do to help him. He was uncomfortable, he was occasionally in pain, he was sick, he was exhausted, and most of all, he was suffering. It was something that was so hard to see and be powerless to help. But we all knew the alternative, and none of us could even fathom losing him.

It took a couple months before my mom, sister, and I knew that we couldn’t let Sam suffer anymore. We couldn’t stand by and watch him struggle to take every single breath. To try and sleep and not even be able to lie down comfortably. It was heartbreaking. We all knew what the next step probably would be, but we hardly ever talked about it. None of us wanted to let Sam go. I know I said a prayer more than once that God would let him pass peacefully in his sleep one night, and sometimes I feel terrible about that. It was partly because I didn’t want him to suffer anymore, but mostly it was out of selfishness because I didn’t want to have to make the choice for him. I didn’t want to have to be the one to say, “It’s time.” Who was I to make a decision like that for another living being? The longer his suffering went on, though, the more I realized it was the only choice we had.

I was with my mom and sister on the night of February 16 and Sam was not well. He was struggling to breathe. He hadn’t been eating and had lost so much weight that we could see his ribs. He was coughing non-stop and couldn’t get comfortable for more than a few minutes at a time. We all looked at each other, and one of us, I don’t remember who, said, “I think we should call the vet in the morning.” I remember being shocked that this was even being brought up. I remember saying, “But tomorrow’s Sunday. The vet won’t even be there on Sunday,” knowing full well that the vet would come in if we called. And I remember knowing in my heart, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind behind all the denial and doubt, that it was time. It was time to let him go. But still, I didn’t want to believe it.  

I laid awake that night, praying that God would miraculously heal Sam. Praying that if he couldn’t heal him, he would take him so we didn’t have to do it. Praying that I could have just one more day with Sam. But that’s not how it turned out. The next day, Sunday afternoon, my mom called the vet’s emergency line. Because the vet clinic wasn’t technically open on Sunday, we didn’t know which vet we would get. It would only be Sam’s regular vet, who he knew and was fairly comfortable with, if that doctor was on call that weekend. As it turned out, it was the clinic’s newest and only female vet who called us back and was waiting for us when we got there. She had never seen Sam before. She didn’t know his history. She didn’t know him. But it was a strange twist, because all his life Sam was always more at ease around women than men, no matter what the situation.

My mom, sister, and I made the 20-minute drive to the clinic, which seemed like it lasted three hours, and parked the car. My sister was holding Sam in his bed on the ride there, and when we arrived, she said, “I can’t do it. I can’t take him in there.” My mom echoed her feelings, and I knew it was up to me. Sam had always hated the vet’s office. He was terrified every time he had to go, and he had to go a lot throughout his life. He would shake, he would cry, he would pant. It was a very stressful event for him. This time, though, he didn’t shake or cry or pant. He just laid in his bed, exhausted. I knew how hard this was going to be for my mom and sister. They both loved Sam every bit as much as I did, if not more. My sister, who is the strongest person I know, had even warned me months before that when the time came, she wasn’t going to be able to take Sam to the vet. I didn’t know if I could do it, either. But I couldn’t let him go in that exam room alone. I couldn’t imagine him being in a place he hated so much, a place he was so scared of, all alone with no one there with him but a stranger. So, in the back seat of my mom’s car I somehow found the strength to say, “I’ll take him.” And I did. I scooped him up still in his bed and walked into the vet’s office, knowing it would be the last time he had to go inside. The whole way in, I just said over and over through the tears streaming down my face, “I love you so much, Sam. You’re the best dog I could ever ask for. I love you, buddy. It’ll be ok.” I don’t know where I found the strength to put one foot in front of the other and go inside. I just knew I had to do it. I had to be there with him when he left this earth. So I was.

The vet met us inside, and took us to the exam room. The medicine that would put Sam to “sleep” was on the table, and the vet told me what to expect when she injected it into his leg. She was calm and patient and gentle and gave me as much time as I needed with Sam before she started. Sam’s little body was so weak that his veins had collapsed and the vet wasn’t able to just use a syringe. She had to call in a tech for help, which prolonged the process by about 20 minutes. But it was 20 more minutes I had with Sam, who just laid in his bed the whole time, peaceful and calm. The vet tech arrived, and both she and the vet did their work while I wrapped my arms around Sam and held him, tears pouring down my face onto his soft fur. I kissed his head and told him how much I loved him over and over. I told him what a good dog he was. I told him what a good friend he had been to me. I just wanted him to know I was there and that he wasn’t alone. I felt him breathe one last, long breath. His eyes closed, his body relaxed completely, and then it was over. It couldn’t have been more quiet. It couldn’t have been more calm. It couldn’t have been more peaceful for him. It was almost like he was giving a sigh of relief. He had fought so hard for so long, and he finally got a break from struggling. I asked the vet if that was it, if he was gone, and she looked at me with tears in her own eyes and said, “Yes. It’s over.” She checked his heart just to be sure, and then leaned down, petted Sam’s head, and whispered to him, “It’s ok, Sam. You can rest now.”

The vet wrapped Sam up in his favorite blanket that he slept with every night and put him back in his bed. He looked so peaceful. He looked like my Sam. But I knew he was gone. J had come to the vet’s office to offer his support, and stood silently in the doorway of the exam room while saying his own goodbye. When it was over, he carried Sam out to his truck and took him out to his farm, where he buried him. It wasn’t easy for J, either. Over the years, J had taken care of Sam when we were all out of town or on vacation, and he grew to love him just as much as we did. You couldn’t know Sam and not love him. I’m so grateful J was there and that he buried Sam with love and dignity in a place Sam loved so much. It’s been five months, and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to visit his grave. I couldn’t go out there and see him buried. For whatever reason, that part seemed too hard to me. Too final, maybe. But I told him goodbye while he could still hear me say it. And for that I will always be grateful.       

I have missed Sam every day since February 17. Coming home without him that day was unbelievably hard. Walking into the house and seeing his things everywhere, knowing he would never be there again was agonizing. I was glad that he wasn’t suffering anymore. But I was overwhelmed by the sadness and grief I felt knowing that he was gone. I loved Sam in a way I don’t think I could ever love a person –- unconditionally, without question, without hesitation, without fear, without reservation, and without regret. The same way he loved me. I know some people might read this and think, “What’s the big deal? He was just a dog.” But he was so much more to me than just a dog. He was a member of my family. He was my friend. He was my companion. He was a comforting, healing force when I was sad or hurt. He made me laugh, he made me forget about my troubles, he made me happy just by being his goofy, adorable self. He was so much more than just a dog. To me, Sam will never, ever be just a dog.

I’m sure that someday I’ll have another dog in my life. I just don’t know when that will be. It still seems too soon. It still feels like I would be trying to replace Sam if I got a dog now. But I know he will never be replaced. There will never be another dog like Sam. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope it’s somewhere that he can run and fish and play. I hope he’s eating whatever he wants. I hope he’s breathing freely and without struggle. I hope he’s happy. And I hope I get to see him again when my time comes. Until that day, though, I’ll hold onto every happy memory I have of him. I’ll remember him as the spunky little dog who was so full of life, and who made my life so full. And I’ll be forever grateful for every single minute he was with me. Some people have said that Sam was lucky to have me as one of his pet parents. But they’ve got it all wrong. I was the lucky one because I got almost 15 years of joy and love from the best dog who has ever walked this earth -– my Sam.