On 26 June 2010, I had to say goodbye to one of the best friends I ever had, a rescued Saint Bernard named Monte. Monte was a young dog, a week shy of his sixth birthday. Unfortunately, he had a congenital spinal abnormality which quickly manifested in degeneration of neurological function.
Two weeks ago, my six year old Saint acted like a two year old. One day he started limping – initially my thought was arthritis (best case scenario) or osteosarcoma (worst case scenario, but fitting with his age and breed). At the vet’s office, x-rays indicated cervical spinal stenosis. Our vet told us at the time of diagnosis that he would likely eventually be paralyzed, saying it could happen tomorrow or six months from now. It took about a week until he lost nearly all function in his rear legs, to where even a single step was painful for him, despite anti-inflammatory pain medications and muscle relaxants. He seemed to age a year for every day after the diagnosis.
My husband Jim and I were willing to visit Cornell’s board-certified veterinary neurologist with Monte, but could not get an appointment for three weeks. Monte just didn’t have that long to wait.
I am the kind of person that believes a life without toys, sniffing, playing, romping, and hiking truly is no life for a dog. It became evident quickly that Monte would never again do any of those things again. With a heavy heart, I called our veterinarian. I am so thankful that she made the trip to our home Saturday to help us take Monte’s pain away.
“Ode to Boy” is my tribute to a dog whose size was dwarfed by his huge impact on my life.
Yesterday, I said goodbye to you, Monte.
You were my best friend. My hero, my hope, my inspiration, my rock. This last week has been really hard, watching you get worse, slow down, fall apart, and knowing that there was little I could do to take your pain away. I so hoped we could save you, $12000 of surgery would have been a bargain to have even one more happy day with you, but sadly this was not to be.
What an adventure we had, what a wonderful journey we shared together. I thought I knew a lot about dogs until I met you. Thank you for being so gracious in showing me my ignorance and inspiring me to learn more about dogs and how best to love them. Thank you for your unfailing devotion to and patience with me – brilliant dog that you are you saw potential in me – even this primate is a trainable animal. Your love was the strongest positive reinforcement I’ve ever received as a pet parent.
I remember the first time I saw you on petfinder. Looking at your face, I knew you were the dog I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. I remember picking you up at the shelter, so sick, bones hanging off skin, never bathed or vetted, covered in ticks and fleas. Hungry and sad. And yet, as soon as I came to get you, you ran across the room and leaned against me with all your body, looking up as if to say, “can we go home now, mom?”
I remember teaching you your new name on the car ride home with a six piece chicken McNugget from McDonald’s. I remember feeling so sad when your body didn’t know how to process good food – the months of diarrhea as your body adjusted to a regular, healthy diet. I remember the frustration of my failed Dog Whispering attempts, and my subsequent guilt at having put you through all that when I better understood you.
I remember all my hopes for you. I thought to myself, if we just feed him well enough, exercise him well enough, train him enough, I would be one of the lucky few that got to see her Saint thrive until 13. Sadly, you will not see your sixth birthday next week.
Yesterday, I buried my nose in your fur. I wanted to breathe you into me, to absorb the memories of a thousand adventures, a million smiles, waterfalls, woods, creeks, play dates, untold laughs and fun times. I wished I could have breathed some of my life into you and given you more time. The least I could do was give you lots of lamb, barbecued chicken, and some chocolate chip cookies.
Truly, nothing in life is free. Today I pay for each of those shining, sparkling memories with a tear. Yet, my pain is a bargain, the best deal I ever made and a worthy exchange for the honor of loving you for four and a half years. Far more than I ever saved you, you saved me.
I will never forget you, angel. Truly, I will remember you each time I help a pet parent choose empathy over confrontation, each time I see a smile bursting with pride at a dog’s good behavior, each time i see a little girl thrill at her puppy’s new trick, each time I help save a dog from the fate I was forced to resign you to yesterday. Teoti was right – the price of rescuing from your pain was a lifetime of my own. Again, a bargain.
You were not only my angel, but a hero and an inspiration to dozens, if not hundreds, of dogs and their people. I remember celebrating your honor last year in San Fransisco at the APDT conference, my heart swelling with pride as I saw your picture twenty feet tall in front of hundreds of the country’s best dog trainers, all applauding the relationship built from our teamwork. I remember all the people your story has helped, even if only to let them know there is hope for reactive dogs and that hope is based in compassion, understanding, empathy, forgiveness.
I wouldn’t trade one second of the sunshine you brought into my life. You made every second I spent with you sparkle. When dad was murdered, and I hurt so much I could hardly walk or breathe, you were my salvation. We laid together for hours, until your soft fur was sticky with my tears. This has been the worst year of my life, and I really don’t know how I’ll get through it without you, friend.
Of course, your happy spirit shone through until your last breath. Unfailingly thankful, the last part of your body to move was your tail thumping, as if you were trying to give me your last bit of strength to make the choice I had to make. Until the end, you supported me and gave me strength to survive.
Perhaps we loved each other too much. I think you tried to cram twenty years of love into the four years we had together, and that all the strength in your body went to loving and taking care of us. Everything I had went into giving you the best care I could, as well.
I am eternally thankful to Dr. B, who made the trip to our home yesterday so that your last moments could be spent with your family, where you were happiest. Before you left me, I told you, as I had so many times before, “I love you, boy. I’m your momma, I take care of you. That’s what I do.”
I laid with you for hours afterward, thankful to have one last chance to kiss you, to feel your fur in my fingers, to breathe you in to the Monte-shaped hole that will always be in my heart.
My heart broke and soared at the same time as we took you for your last car ride today – breaking with my own pain, and soaring with gratitude that I was able to rescue you from yours. I just didn’t have the strength to see you hurting anymore, boy. I owed you more than that, the last gift I could give you was dignity and freedom from agony.
You were my hero, my rescuer, my confidante, my fuzzy body pillow, my inspiration, my hope, my mentor, my trainer, and my best friend. Truly, you helped me to become a well-trained human, and for that every dog I ever meet will carry your legacy. I would not trade any second of our shared joy, and would gladly relive this pain for another four years with such a brilliant, noble, loyal, and honest animal. It was an honor to walk this earth with you.
Perhaps you were called home because my dad needed a friend. If this is the case, I have given him the best gift I could ever give him, the gift of you.
Mokie and I sat on the back porch today and smelled you on the wind. Someday I too will be ash, and my wishes then are to have my ashes scattered with those of my dogs, someplace where we can always wander the creeks and forests together, for eternity.
That’ll do, piglet. You’ll always be momma’s angel.