The other day, as a treat, I took Noah to Dairy Queen for some ice cream. He always chooses vanilla ice cream in a cone. I always get a hot fudge sundae. We are predictable like that.
The Dairy Queen is within walking distance so, to get out of the house and get a little exercise, we walked to get our frozen treats. Getting a 4 year old to walk any further than 12 steps when it isn’t his idea is quite a chore but, I persevered. And, even though he complained the entire time we walked there, he was happy licking his ice cream cone the entire walk back.
When we walked into the house, my sundae was already almost gone but his ice cream cone was still just barely licked and was dripping down his chubby little hands and wrists.
Naturally, all of this dripping ice cream was rather interesting to our dog, Poplar, who immediately began following Noah around waiting to clean up any drips (she’s a great cleaner that way).
Well, all of the following and licking made Noah a little flustered and, before I knew it, he was screaming to me from the living room that Poplar was eating his ice cream.
I walk out to find Noah standing with an empty cone, pile of vanilla ice cream splattered on the floor, and our black lab, Poplar, helping herself to the splatter. So, I do what any good mother would do.
I got a bowl and a spoon, scooped up the remaining ice cream, checked for any random hairs or dirt, and handed it right back to Noah. He immediately stopped crying and all was right with the world.
A month ago today, I said goodbye to my sweet Kenan. The amount of support and kind words I received in response to my farewell to him, Doggie Heaven, has been so meaningful and compassionate and I am truly thankful to all of those that kept Kenan and my family in your thoughts.
It’s been a long time since I lost someone close to me and, while I always knew that I sucked at grief, I had no idea it would be so incredibly hard. As a counselor, I have all of the tools I need to get through this. I have helped numerous people deal with grief at many different levels. I am not afraid to admit that, when I do have a client who is struggling with the loss of someone close to them, I have been known to cry right along with them. They have always said that it helps them to know that their struggle is real and legit and not easy.
But, without Kenan, I feel so alone and empty and lost in such unfamiliar territory. It has been a ridiculously horrible month. Let me first say that, with Kenan’s disease being of a degenerative nature, we knew that we would eventually have to make the decision that we did. The one thing that I said to Matt (who, for what it’s worth, has lost pets in the past) was that we wait until after Christmas to make the decision. He agreed and I was left in a weird mix of happiness and denial. The big problem was that, when I looked at Kenan, I still saw a healthy and energetic puppy who could run for miles without stopping. My mind ignored his back legs dragging behind him. I chose not to think about the rubber mats that we had to line the house with so that his feet didn’t slip all over the place when he tried to go to the kitchen. And I justified his crying and moaning at night as loneliness and aggravation that he couldn’t do the things he used to.
On a Tuesday night, I got up with him around 2:30 in the morning. I had to lure him outside with jerky treats and I had to carry the back half of him most of the way. He made it all the way outside to the grass, turned around, and looked at me with eyes that finally admitted, “Mommy, I just can’t do this anymore.”
I sat down with him, outside on our back deck, only in my pajama shirt and bedroom shoes, and I held him while I cried. It was the first time that I was able to see how much pain he was in. It was the first moment that I didn’t think of him as a puppy anymore. And, in that moment, I realized that it never occurred to me that he would die. I never thought about a time in my life when he wouldn’t be there.
The truth is, I don’t have any regrets about the time that Kenan let me be his mommy. In fact, he taught me how to be a mother. His stubborn nature and lack of consideration taught me how to be patient, even when tired and frustrated. His dislike for the slightest movement or disturbance taught me how to move slowly but surely as I tried to slip out of the room or escape from under the covers. And his ridiculous antics taught me how to laugh at an impossible situation rather than get angry or upset.
During our last night with Kenan, we brought all of the mattresses down from upstairs and made a giant floor-bed so that we could all sleep as a family one more time. We spent the night telling funny stories about Kenan. Matt reminded me of the time that, on his way to Asheville from Chapel Hill, after he and I had a huge fight, he was less than five minutes from his parents’ house when Kenan stood up in the passenger seat and vomited and vomited all between the console and the seat and then tried to lick him in his face.
Then, there was the time that I had to hold Kenan down when he was just a few months old, so that Matt could try and clip Kenan’s toenails. He wriggled and writhed until, obviously, Matt clipped a toenail too deep and Kenan’s toe began to bleed. He immediately began howling and crying at a pitch that sounded as though we were beating a cow into submission. He ran, full speed, up and down the stairs of our rented apartment, leaving a stream of blood everywhere he went. He never let us cut his toenails again. We tried taking him to the groomers a few times but, after the 2nd groomer called us and told us never to bring him back again (while we can hear him crying and moaning in the background), we decided that he would just have long toenails. And then, in the first moments after we said goodbye to Kenan, while sitting on the floor at the veterinarian’s office, I wiped my tears away, blew my nose, and said to Matt, “Do you want to cut his toenails?” We laughed for a minute and then cried together.
The hardest thing I have ever done is to walk out of the veterinarian’s office and leave Kenan’s body behind. I could have sat in there for days, just holding him and rocking him. Matt asked me if I was ready to leave and I just shook my head, “No.” He sat back down and held the two of us while I cried.
What’s crazy is that, before Kenan finally faded away, I looked down and noticed a large wet spot on the leg of my jeans. When I looked further, I realized that the wet spot was from Kenan’s tears. He was crying. But I don’t think it was sad tears. I think it was a sign of him letting go. I think he was trying to tell me that he was ready. And I think he was excited about being able to run again. He wanted to go to the dog park and chase the birds in the yard. He wanted to run to the door and bark at the UPS man. And he wanted to jump up on the bed and snuggle up beside me on Saturday mornings.
Our house is so much quieter now. The hardest part is when I walk in the back door after work and no one barks at me to make sure that I am not a burglar. Poplar, our black lab who just happens to be the sweetest and quietest dog in the world, doesn’t make any noise (unless she stands too close to the wall and her tail bangs against it). The silence is deafening and it breaks my heart every time. I spent the first 2 weeks avoiding our house as much as possible. Matt finally asked me to “try and come back to him” so I worked really hard at spending more time at home.
The truth is, I really do suck at grief. The empty hole in my chest is still empty and I spend every day “grief-shopping” just trying to fill it. I realized that as long as I stayed busy or bought “stuff,” I didn’t hurt so much. But the house is still quiet. Matt, because he is so wonderful, texted me one day that he was home and we got a package delivered. He texted, “The UPS man just rang the doorbell and Poplar barked for almost 3 minutes. It felt safe again.” I sobbed like a baby.
Kenan, I desperately miss you. I’m not sure when this pain will pass but I want you to know that your presence in our lives left such an impact. I still hear you sometimes. When I am up by myself or when it gets really quiet, I hear you howling. I have even turned a looked a few times to make sure that all of this grief has not just been a bad dream. I hope that you are running faster than all of the other dogs and that you have found a comfortable spot on the couch next to a really warm and still angel. And I hope that everyone up there has a ton of patience because you really are so amazing if people give you a chance. I am working every day to get by and to move forward. But I think about you all the time. And, even though I know you’re not coming back, I feel you here with me. I just wish it wasn’t so quiet.
When Kenan meets you tomorrow, I need you to make me a few promises.
Be kind. He is a very special dog, full of quirks and bad habits. He is mixed with grizzly bear and teddy bear. He moves with the speed of lightning and the stubbornness of a thousand mules. It is easy to shout and push. But Kenan deserves so much more than forcefulness. He deserves hugs and snuggles, loving words and mountains of praise. And, when you feel like you have given all the love and encouragement that you can give, he will surprise you with the nuzzle of his nose, the soft touch of his ears, and the most grateful look in his eyes.
Be patient. I’ve always said that Kenan is the kind of dog that only his mother can love. While some people might describe him as annoying, I would describe him as interesting. He talks and he cries. He will never let you watch your favorite show. And he makes sure that everyone in the house knows what he wants and when he wants it. But he is loyal and sweet. He can sense when you are upset or hurting. And he knows just when to lay his head, ever so gently, right in your lap so you might be distracted, just for a few minutes, from whatever is causing you pain. You just have to be patient enough to give him the chance.
Be a protector. Kenan is so used to guarding us that he often forgets to watch out for himself. He wore a dirt path in our yard along the fence line, and yet, he never once asked for protection in return. He barked every time someone rang the doorbell or pulled in to the driveway. And on the random nights that I was home alone and Matt was away, Kenan stood guard by my bedside, without sleeping, just to make sure that I was safe. Yet, as I watched so vigilantly over him, he still developed this terrible disease. I watched as his toes began to curl under as he walked. I looked away as he began to get up more slowly every morning. And I denied that this was more than just arthritis in an old and tired dog. And now, as I sit, cuddled up beside him on the night before we take him to the vet to take his final breaths, I blame myself for not protecting him.
Be fun. He loves to run and chase. He loves to be mischievous and impish. I can’t count the hours that we played outside, playing a one-sided version of fetch. I would throw the ball, he would run and get it, bring it back, and then refuse to give it to me so I could throw it again. Instead, he wanted to play tug, and jump, and wrestle. We had to put blockades under the deck because of the number of times he crawled under there to hide and couldn’t get out. And then there’s the time he caught the ground hog…
Be still. He doesn’t really like it when you move, or when you’re too loud, or when you disrupt him in any way. In fact, when he used to sleep under the bed, he would growl if you happened to turn over while on top of the bed. And, if he snuggles up next to you, don’t move, or shift, or itch your leg. That also bothers him.
And, as I am not positive if dogs go to doggy heaven or people heaven, please, whichever heaven Kenan manages to smuggle his way into, please help him to find friends. Help him to discover again how amazing he is. Help him to be able to come and go back into our lives as we need him. Help him to remind us that we are not infallible human beings and that we must be grateful for what we have. Help us to be able to sense him when he visits and be able to love and support him, even in spirit.
I have this ridiculous fear that he won’t fit in when he gets to heaven. No matter what dog park we went to here on Earth, he was always the outcast. He was always louder and more vocal than any other dog. He always ran faster without looking than any other dog. And he could never quite take the social cues that the other dogs put off. I hope heaven would be different. I hope in heaven, there are other dogs with curly tails, loud, boisterous voices, and wildly rambunctious crazy runs. I need him to know that he is the king of dogs, in heaven, and in our lives.
I’m desperately afraid that we have made the wrong decision. And I am even more afraid that we have made the right one. Kenan, I love you… More than you could ever know. Thank you for being the best dog, the worst dog, and the most amazing friend I could ask for. I only hope that you can say the same for me.
A different kind of parenting
While I completely understand that dogs are not kids, and kids are not dogs (although there was this one time that Noah stripped down naked and ran his butt across the carpet), I first became a mom 10 years ago when we adopted Kenan.
I didn’t grow up with dogs. Mom was always a cat person and, turns out, I am severely allergic to cats so I never really got all that attached. But the summer before my senior year in college, Matt moved to Chapel Hill, we got our own apartment, and, long before Noah was even a possibility, we decided to head over to the Orange County animal shelter and become parents.
There was nothing amazing about the little brown and white puppy at the shelter. He was tiny, had a swollen belly, and he walked as though his back legs were a little shorter than his front ones. My mom even said later, “Of all the cute puppies there, why did you pick that one?” (Thanks mom- sarcastic tone intended) But he was mine. I knew it the minute I saw him. Kenan was my first dog and I was his mom.
Now, the first few years were interesting. We learned that Kenan is not like other dogs. In fact, I have begun to refer to him as a special needs dog. He just has some very peculiar quirks that only a mother could love. For example, Kenan talks. And when he talks, he has inflection and emotion. You know exactly what he is saying to you even if you don’t understand the words. And sometimes, he yells at you. If you are in his seat on the couch, he will lay his head on your knee and howl and bellow at you until you finally get tired of it and get up.
We have to give him sedatives to go to the vet because he really hates it there. We actually left our last vet because they labeled his file as “vicious dog.” Now, we have an amazing vet who takes her lab coat and stethoscope off before she comes in the room. Then she slathers one hand in peanut butter, gets down on the floor with him so he can lick it off, and then examines him without him even knowing it.
All his quirkiness aside, he has been there for Matt and me through thick and thin. He has challenged us, comforted us, protected us, and scared us half to death. One time, we were visiting family in Asheville for the holidays and Kenan managed to escape out of the car and run across a major highway (3 times!). Fortunately, it was Christmas day and the road was somewhat empty but I nearly had a heart attack.
He moved with us from Chapel Hill to Cincinnati and lived in the tiniest apartment you could imagine. We finally got him into a bigger house when we moved back to North Carolina and he had his own fenced in back yard (which he protects and guards 24/7). We have walked hundreds of miles with him right beside us and he has peed on every tree and fire hydrant at every park in Greensboro. And he has comforted me in times of deep sadness and fear with those same sparkly eyes that I fell in love with so long ago in the animal shelter.
Well, last winter, we noticed that Kenan was starting to walk a little funny- almost as though his back hips hurt a little. We took him to the vet and, because the vet is such a horrible experience for him, she gave him some anti-inflammatory meds for what seemed to be a little arthritis. It seemed to work a little and then all of the stress from the holidays distracted us and pulled our thoughts in different directions.
In February of this year, we noticed that Kenan was starting to curl his back toes a little when he walked which caused him to drag one of his legs slightly. We assumed it was the arthritis getting worse and took him back to the vet for confirmation. She agreed, prescribed some more meds, and asked us to keep an eye on him for any progression.
We took him and Poplar (his little sister who is a black lab mix) to the beach in late May and it became very evident to us that something was seriously wrong. His foot prints in the sand looked as if he was dragging rolling luggage behind him. His back end started to drop if he stood too long and Matt had to carry him up and down the stairs.
The crazy part is that it seemed as though the front half of him had no idea that the back half didn’t work anymore. He ran down to the ocean, chased seagulls, and protected the beach house from potential threats just as he always had. He was just much slower. And when we got back home, he would still take off running out to the back yard and, on occasion, his back legs would go flying off to the side and bang into the sliding glass door.
His condition had progressed so quickly that, when we took him to the vet when we got back, she immediately referred us to a neurologist. She suspected and later confirmed with a blood test that Kenan has Degenerative Myelopathy which has an incredibly sad prognosis (the disease can be compared to ALS in humans).
Fortunately, there is not a lot of pain associated with the disease and, it doesn’t appear as though Kenan is even aware that something is wrong. But, at the end of the day, he is my first baby. The joy that I have gotten in watching Kenan and Noah interact and play has been tremendous. I truly don’t think Kenan knowsthat he is not a human as he and Noah play and bicker like brothers. Noah shares his snacks, pets him on the head, and talks to Kenan in a way that you would talk to your best friend.
The idea of saying goodbye to Kenan when he is still so vibrant and enthusiastic breaks my heart in a way that I never knew was possible. And, even though I am a counselor and I am trained to help others cope, I suck at grief. Just as you change when you have a child, you change when you adopt a dog. I didn’t choose Kenan that day in Chapel Hill; he chose me. And, while I truly do hope that I have so much more time with him to show him how much he has given to me, I would like to think that he would choose to be part of our family all over again.