Those of you coming here for the pure triathlon/ironman/multisport-training type stuff had best step out now, closing the door quietly behind you. But I suspect that most people reading this know that this was never intended to be that kind of blog. There are more than enough blogs devoted to the exer-data side of the Ironman journey. What I set out to chronicle this year was the process that has for me remained so admirable yet mysterious with other people I’ve known: completing an Ironman while still, somehow, getting the rest of life done.
For me, the latest part of life that needed to get done was the thing that has been obvious for a while would need to be done: euthanize our beloved Border Collie, Dylan.
A month ago he was given three to six months to live, but whatever had a hold of him was racing through his system like a scrub fire. He was still moving around OK during the day, occasionally showed a half-hearted interest in playing with one of his toys, was always up for a cuddle. But he would get out of breath just running across one room to greet me at the front door when I came home from work. Where he was once coughing at regular intervals, now that didn’t suffice to try and clear his lungs. While he wheezed throughout the day, the nights were worse for him.
Three nights ago things got particularly bad. It sounded like the poor guy was slowly choking to death. I got up and tried to get him to stand up and walk downstairs to get some water, since sometimes moving around seemed to help him. He just lay there. I brought the water upstairs for him and he still just lay there. Then he gave me a look.
In response to my last blog post, where I’d been wondering how you know when it is time, a friend had told me “They will tell you when it is time.” Well, you get to know your dog. You spend so much time together that you get to be able to read their body language, know their every gaze and sideways glance. But this was a look I hadn’t ever seen before. Now, I know we anthropomorphize our pets terribly, and that probably says more about us than them, but to me this look said, unequivocally, “Help me.” I knew it was time.
We made the appointment with the vet for the end of the day, and while I went to work Mary got to spend the whole day with Dylan. How do I feel about not being able to do that? I won’t pretend it was easy. But a couple of weeks before, when Dylan had been really sick just prior to me setting off for a conference, so sick that I was sure that he wouldn’t be around when I got back, I sat down with him, held him, and told him how I felt about him, everything that he had meant to me, how much I loved him. That was certainly tough, and I was a little worried about the state I was in heading off to the airport, homeland insecurity being what it is and all, but apparently looking red-eyed and weepy isn’t yet enough to make you a candidate for wanding or a cavity search.
I felt that in many ways I had said goodbye then, and these last weeks have simply been a bonus.
So when I came home we took him to the vet, and the vets did their nice, ineffectual best to be comforting while being calmly professional about everything. And Mary and I held Dylan as the light slowly went out of his eyes.
Our German Shepherd Sayla, who died two years ago will always have a special place in my heart because she was my first dog. But in many ways Dylan always felt like our first “real” dog. Sayla was a jumbled mass of insecurities, perpetually anxious and concerned about anything and everything. She was fiercely loyal and had many other wonderful qualities, but you had to really get to know her for those to be apparent. Dylan was all on the surface, and it was a happy, eager, joyful, enthusiastic surface. He wasn’t that great with new dogs (although perfectly friendly with those he knew) but he simply loved people. Having someone new over to the house was quite simply the best thing in the world, and Dylan would always do his level best to convince every new visitor that he was chronically starved of love and affection all of which needed to be supplied by the new arrival right that instant.
We’ll have a lot of memories of Dylan. Of course, quite a few of them do seem to involve him rolling happily in something disgusting. If there was an atom of squirrel poop in the yard or a hitherto unrevealed patch of slime mould in the garden then he was sure to find it. Yet we’ll also remember how much he loved simply to lie down and supervise our home gardening and construction projects, his no holds barred frisbee play, the funny cat-like pounce he had when sent to retrieve one of his toys.
But Dylan will always be special to me mainly because he taught me what it really means to have a dog in your life.
Some of you may know the story of how we got Dylan. After falling in love with a couple of border collies at an agility training class where we’d taken Sayla (and partly, I suspect, out of nostalgia for New Zealand where the breed is everywhere) we decided we were going to go through a rescue organization. They put us through a screening process of the kind that you typically only go through to get a travel visa to Myanmar. But eventually we drove out to the rescue facility which was located on a farm way the hell out there on the Eastern Shore.
We had taken Sayla with us, because it was important to see how the two dogs got along. We were put in an enclosed pen, and Dylan was brought in. He didn’t look anything like his picture, and even though this was a facility where they took great care of the dogs he looked incredibly scruffy compared with the other dogs. He proceeded to ignore us completely and ran around the pen madly eating every piece of sheep shit he could find. Finally he noticed Sayla. . .and immediately tried to hump her. Now she’d had a pretty sheltered life when it came to that side of things but she was having none of it. If she’d been a human she’d have maced him and kicked him in the nuts. He didn’t seem to take it personally, however, and simply went back to searching for more ovine waste products. Dylan capped off this winning performance by somehow managing to escape from the pen and proceeding to chase traffic down the nearby country road necessitating an all-hands rescue by the facility personnel. It didn’t come as any surprise to learn, therefore, that the rescue people had changed his name to Dillon from his former moniker, Diablo.
Mary and I took a walk to talk it through. We were both a little shocked.
People acquire dogs for all kinds of reason. All too many acquire a dog as a lifestyle accessory. Trophy Spouse-check. McMansion-check. Two-point-four ankle biters-check. Dog-check. Death-check. These people should have dogs removed from their care immediately. Probably grab their kids while you are at it.
This is not to say that it isn’t important to figure out what kind of dog is a good match with the life you lead. Many people put more thought into buying a car than a dog even though the dog will typically outlast their car (and, since we’re talking about the US, not infrequently their S/O as well). Failure to think this through is why you end up with Great Danes in condos and why in fact there were so many abandoned border collies around when we adopted Dylan (that’s what you get for taking kids to see Babe and then not being able to say no to the whiney little shits. . .er, sorry, I mean the precious moppets). So Mary and I had been congratulating ourselves that we were approaching this all rationally.
But this dog, this Dillon, was a disaster area. He was not the dog we were looking for.
Yet we didn’t walk away. Born in a puppy mill, the rescue facility was Dillon’s sixth home in less than a year. Not because he’d been bad. Not because he’d been a handful. Simply because most people are selfish schmucks. We knew that if most people witnessed what we had just seen they would never consider adopting him. Not with so many cuter dogs around. We knew we’d raised Sayla well, done a good job with her training even though we had known nothing when we started. We thought we could maybe provide Dillon some structure. Against our better judgment we decided to adopt him.
We re-christened him Dylan. And he was wonderful. It was as if he’d left the Diablo back on the farm. Could he be mischievous? Oh yes. Certainly his passion for opportunistic shit eating never abated. But he proved to be incredibly loving, and, especially for a border collie (notoriously high-energy dogs; because they are so whip-smart they need a lot of stimulation) he was wonderfully mellow. He would love to curl up at my feet while I was at my desk writing for hours on end, or underneath our feet while we sat watching TV. He just wanted to be close to you, as close as possible.
I think everyone who is a serious dog owner learns one of the fundamental lessons pretty early on: that you don’t own them, they own you. But Dylan also taught me this: that it isn’t about what the dog can do for you, but about what you can do for the dog.
Sometimes, the dog that isn’t the dog you are looking for turns out to be the dog that is looking for you.
Now I’m in that strange kind of in-between land where Dylan is present and absent at the same time. In the corner of my eye he is still here, glimpsed curled up in the sitting room, his articulated rear-end disappearing behind a door, jumping after imaginary reflections on the ceiling. But when I come home there is only one dog at the front door. I make toast–and there is silence instead of Dylan quietly padding up the stairs in trepidation that I would set the smoke alarm off yet again.
The pain is great because such also was–is–the love.
Goodbye, my friend.
In Memoriam, Dylan D.