Thursday, May 25, 2023

Good night, Mr. Big

This is not about education. It's about our dog.

My wife brought home Mr. Big (the name was a result of her Sex and The City love) before we were married. He was fresh out of a litter of eight, and there are few things cuter than a chocolate lab puppy.

She already had a pet rabbit, the most cantankerous creature God ever put on Earth. It did not approve of the new addition, and was not shy about it. Big did not care. This would turn out to be a pattern, a piece of his fundamental nature.

Big did not have a single angry unkind bone in his body. In thirteen years, I never saw him lose his temper, run out of patience, or take offense (or a hint) from other persons or creatures that did not like him. In all his life, Big never met someone with anything less than certainty that this person or beast was his new best friend. Big was mostly interested in people, not other dogs. It is possible he did not actually speak Dog, which would explain when another dog barked "Come over here so I can chew your face off before I kick your butt," Big's reply was, "Of course I would like to be your best friend."

When he moved into this house, still younger than two (important because, until they turn two-ish, labs are nuts) we were reluctant to crate him, and so he chewed up baseboards and table legs until we accepted that he actually needed a place to lie and calm down. Once he got a little older, he became more free rangey around the house--though he absolutely refused to go down the steps into the basement. We assume there is some monster down there that only he was aware of.

Outside he liked to do the usual lab things. Run. Fetch a tennis ball. Our yard backs up on the river and he liked to swim in there, though not always at times convenient for his humans. I played lots of catch with him in the back yard and I learned to always position myself between him and the water. There's a bike trail nearby and he would enjoy long walks on that, including side trips to do things like trying to climb a rock wall in order to fetch a ten-foot stick. Big loved a good stick, enjoyed the process of finding its center of gravity so that he could carry it in his mouth without tipping over, liked to chew it to smithereens.

After a few years he developed a problem with his knee, causing it to just come unhinged (we called it "poodle knee") and has to have an operation that involved sticking a piece of titanium in there. It helped, and it was cool to have a bionic dog, but it put limits on just how much romping he could do without needing some extra rest and recovery time.

Big was mostly a quiet dog. He had a particular plaintive whine when he needed to go outside (we called it The Poop Song), and a bark for "Hey, I bet you wanna be my friend." He was absolutely the worst guard dog in history. When we had our occasional mouse incursion (as old houses do), we imagined that he just happily greeted the tiny dogs and told them where the food was.

He was never a particularly selective eater. Any food was fine. He also liked kleenex. One time he ate a huge portion of a toilet paper twelve pack; this resulted in some extra-special renditions of The Poop Song. He also liked popcorn and would sit patiently at hand any time I made some, waiting for the inevitable spillage.

When the babies arrived, he was puzzled by the tininess of the new humans, but otherwise took it in stride. They learned to protect their food from him, and he learned to hang around them when they had food. He couldn't really get interested in the things they did to pass the time, but he was happy to sit near them, and they grew up being gentle and kind with him. Also, he found that their little socks made an excellent snack, and if unguarded, he would slurp them up; they would later re-emerge from one end or the other. 

He was not a super mooshy dog. Not one for licking (unless you tasted like something delicious), but would gladly sit up against you or rest his head on you. And if you sat on the floor he would gladly try to squeeze his 95 pound bulk onto your lap. If his water bowl was empty, he would come toss it toward you. "This thing is broken--can you fix it?" He had a tongue too large for his head, and it would wander. My wife and I were remembering how, when she had put lotion on her legs, he would casually wander by and the tongue, seemingly of its own volition, would slip out and take a taste of her lotiony leg.

These last several years he has been my retirement buddy. Sometimes he would sit in whatever room I was working in. When the weather allowed the front door to be opened to just the screen, he loved to watch door-o-vision and whatever was passing by, or sit on the back porch for back-door-o-vision, which was mostly birds and bunnies (which he was never inclined to chase). He appreciated my singing and my willingness to narrate for his benefit whatever I was doing.

As I sit here typing this, the kids in bed and my wife at rehearsal, a part of my brain is still tuned toward listening for his footfall as he pads from one end of the house to the other to switch channels or to come check on me. A part of me is still expecting the slurpy slurpy slurp of him getting some water. And when I cam downstairs from tucking the boys in, a part of me expected him to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs to see me and get his after-bedtime snacks. 

But of course he wasn't there. He's had a rough year. I built him a ramp so that he could more easily get in and out of the house, but it was still hard. A couple of months ago he had a bad 12 hours when he couldn't get up at all, then he rallied, and we got some medication that seemed to help. But a few days ago, his stomach rejected everything. He lay on the floor whining--very unlike him--and then for 48 hours, he couldn't get without help, his legs wobbly and uncooperative. He stopped eating. We made an appointment with the vet.

Our vet is an old friend (through theater, because this is a small town) and we talked it through. I went through something similar with my previous dog; that time I simply couldn't bring myself to stop Trying Things until the poor dog was miserable, and I have to carry some blame for making him suffer so that I could feel better, or at least not feel guilty about having "given up on him." Dogs, my vet friend explained at the time, will fool you because they don't complain and whine about how hard everything is. They just keep going until they can't. Big's decline wasn't quite so sudden, but it's still hard not to see that he is still himself, so maybe if we just did this, or that, or something.

You want to keep him around longer, and you can--it's just a matter of how much you can bear to make him pay to do it.

I don't judge anybody's decisions about how to handle this final stage of a pet's life. It's a huge and impossible choice, and you do the best you can. The best we thought we could do today was release Big from the body that was failing him so badly.

He was a good dog, a kind, loyal, loving, patient, and joyful dog. I learned things from him (go hard, be present, eat all the snacks, stay close to your people). He was, in the hokey, old-fashioned sense, a good and stouthearted companion. 

He left this world gently and gracefully, his lady friend and man friend with him till the end. We cried. Afterwards, we still cried. Then we got in the car and cried in the car. We drove to a mall, walked around, bought some swim trunks for the boys, got some lunch, and then headed home so we could pick the boys up from school. And as God is my witness, as we drove home, my wife, gazing out her window, said, "Look, there's a rainbow." And there was.


  1. Well now I'm all choked up, looking at my solemn one-eyed old boy in the corner on his dogbed.

    A well-loved, well-cared for dog - and especially one living in a house with a big yard backing onto a river! - has perhaps the best lot in life of all of us: love, frolics, a comfortable home, and a quiet heart. Well done Mr. Big.

  2. Mr Greene. We disagree on a good bit when it comes to education policy. But it's nice to know that we have common ground when it comes to dogs. My dog, Titan, is 13 and having mobility issues. I fear the day is coming when we will be in a similar place as you and Mr. Big.

  3. I get it. As always, your words are right on.