All Dogs Go to Heaven….

This past weekend, I said goodbye to my first fur baby, Rem.  He was a beautiful, spunky….and for most of his years….an incredibly high energy Black Lab.

I picked him out, nearly 16 years ago, from a litter of 12 puppies….an usually high number for the breed.  The owner of the pups was a disabled Vietnam Veteran who lived on an expansive piece of property in Chesapeake, Virginia.  He wasn’t a breeder and had never intended to breed his Black Lab female, but after an unsupervised encounter with a male Lab left her expecting puppies, he was determined to find them all the best homes possible.

I chose Rem, because when I visited the property, all the other adorably round and chunky puppies were lying around, snoozing away the afternoon, while Rem ran at them like a tiny bull, knocking them over and trying, unsuccessfully, to get them to wrestle.

As I stood watching him play, he ran over to me and began to chew on the strap of the flip-flop I was wearing.  When I bent to pick him up, he wriggled and squirmed, fighting for his freedom to run….and that’s how he lived most of his life.

In our early years together, we spent our free time at a dog friendly beach where we would swim and play hours of fetch.  But he had a wild spirit and I would almost always end up chasing him down the beach at some point in the day….commanding him to return….while he ran full sprint down the shoreline totally ignoring me.

Eventually, when he became a dot in the horizon, I would give up the chase and return to my beach chair.  Within an hour or so, he would come jogging back up the beach with a concerned beach goer….or five….trailing in his wake.  I would look up from whatever I might be reading, give him a smile and a wave and he would trot over to sit beside me, knowing all was forgiven.

Until age rendered him too slow to outrun me, he always had an affinity for taking off any chance he got.  The more I tried to tame that side of him, the more determined he became to seize any small window of opportunity to escape.  It wasn’t that he was unhappy or mistreated, he just wanted and needed the space and freedom to roam on his own terms.

At first, I would worry myself into tears when he disappeared.  I would call animal control and the non-emergency police line.  I would walk and drive the neighborhood calling him for hours, concerned he might get hit by a car.  But he was smart about his travels.  He always stuck to wooded areas, backyards and any open space that afforded him the most room to run and play freely.

Over the years, my fears lessened.  He was clearly capable of taking care of himself, but I still worried a bit and I still made the occasional phone call to the authorities….often learning he’d been spotted and reported….but in the more than 15 years we were together, he was never injured or caught by anyone.

He came home when he was ready to return.  Sometimes it would be after a few hours, other times a whole day/night would pass and I would get up from a restless nights sleep to find him lying at the backdoor in a doggie hangover.  I’d greet him and he would waltz in for his breakfast and then retreat to his bed to sleep off his adventures.

When I married my husband, Rem became a part of an extended blended family that now included two small children and he loved to spend time with them.  He allowed my step-daughter to ride him like a horse, he liked to sleep on the floor of my step-son’s bedroom and he loved to show off his swimming and retrieving skills and the many tricks I’d taught him over the years.

When we purchased our lake house, it was obvious how much Rem loved it there.  All we had to do was say the word, “Maine” and he would prance and circle and jump and leap into the car, his tail frantically wagging, a giant doggie smile on his face.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, juggling treatments and doctors appointments, my pregnancy, work and a high energy dog who had grown accustomed to having so much of our free time and energy, all became too difficult for us to manage.  Rem started acting out in ways I knew were signs of frustration.  I discussed the situation with my dad….who lives on a quiet and secluded piece of property with a large, fenced-in backyard….and he agreed to let Rem come and stay with him for a while.  But when it came down to it, I couldn’t send him away.

After our son was born though, I knew I needed to.  I was still undergoing treatment, we were caring for a newborn and trying to manage the rest of our lives as normally as possible.   I wanted to be able to do it all, but I couldn’t.

So, in late 2012, Rem went to stay with my dad.  There, he settled into a new routine, he had the run of my dad’s backyard and plenty of attention and he traveled with my dad for every visit to see us.  Each time they came, I could see that the years were beginning to slow him down.

When they traveled to our lake house for their summer visit this year, it was obvious Rem was an official senior citizen and when the week was up, we all agreed he should stay.  At 15, Rem had already surpassed the average life span for his breed and I knew he wasn’t likely to make it through the winter and  I wanted his last few months to be with us in a place he had loved so much.

He spent the rest of the summer ambling along our property in Maine.  He still loved it there and you could see him light up every time we arrived.  He swam a little and he could muster up the strength to retrieve a ball a few times, but mostly, he made slow laps around the yard and napped in the shade.  His days of adventure were behind him, but I would often catch him staring, somewhat wistfully, at the wood line.

As the summer came to end, his condition continued to deteriorate.  He struggled to control his bowels, often becoming saturated in urine or feces.  It was an indignity he seemed to feel and understand.  I would tell him it was all right, give him a hug and a pat, but he would head toward the basement door, head drooping and stand there until I opened it and allowed him to retreat to the basement alone.

He doesn’t appear to be in any pain though I would tell myself.  As long as he seems to be getting some enjoyment out of life, I don’t want to take it away.

The truth was though, he was getting very little enjoyment out of his life.  He slept most of the day, he was eating, but losing weight and he could no longer wag his tail or bark.  His back legs were barely able to support his weight, he had difficulty walking on any smooth surface and he often had to be lifted up and down even just on step, let alone several.

On the occasions he mustered up the energy and strength to retrieve a ball, he was rarely able to slow his forward momentum as he jogged and would often end up falling, face first, to the ground as he bent to pick it up.  Then he would struggle to pull himself up, grab the ball, bring it back and then look at me as if to say, “Ok, let’s try that again.  I can do it!”  

Though he possessed the spirit and the heart, the physical ability was gone.  One night, I made a list of all the things he had enjoyed doing throughout his long life and there was virtually nothing on the list he could do any longer and I knew I wasn’t prolonging his life for him.  I was doing it for me.

I called the Vet and arranged for him to come to our lake house this past Saturday.  I wanted Rem to pass in the comfort and warmth of his own home, in his own bed.  We enjoyed a final Thanksgiving with him, filling him up with Turkey and trimmings.  When my step-children were heading out to return to their mother mid-day, my step-son bent to say his goodbyes and immediately broke into tears, his arms wrapped tightly around Rem’s neck as he cried.

Rem had never been a snuggler.  When he had your attention, he wanted the moments to be action packed.  He wanted to wrestle or run or play tug of war.  He allowed belly rubs, but when he was done with you, he would head off to his own space and he was rarely interested in extended displays of affection.  But in that moment, he stood patiently, allowing my step-son to hold him tightly for as long as he needed to say his goodbyes.  Then, Rem stood at the door and watched until they kids drove away.

We headed off to Maine that afternoon and the next day we woke to an incredibly beautiful and unseasonably warm Friday.  The sun was bright, the lake was calm and quiet and we spent a good portion of the day wandering around our property together.  We threw a ball for him and he made a few runs, before calling it quits, preferring instead to just walk and check out the smells of the outdoors.  That evening, he was exhausted and appeared to be uncomfortable, so I sat with him on our living room floor rubbing his hips and thighs while he sighed and slept.

On Saturday morning, the Vet came to our house at 9:00am.  Rem rested comfortably on his bed and blanket and I held him tight, petting him and reminding him how much he’d been loved as he went very peacefully into forever sleep.  He didn’t make a single noise.  There weren’t any involuntary muscle movements or sighs, he just drifted off.

I hope like crazy that he’s running again somewhere….just as fast and as freely as he can.

Love you, old man.

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