In early January we noticed a small sore on our dog Grover’s tongue. It looked almost as if he had bitten it by accident, as you do. The vet said to keep an eye on it, it should heal on its own. Two weeks later it was four times as big, and looked like it was infected. Dr.Wages prescribed antibiotics and wanted to see him in a week. On our return, Grover stubbornly refused to open his mouth to be examined, and so had to be sedated so she could get a good look. The once small sore now looked a lot like cancer to her, and if it was, half of his tongue would need to be removed. A biopsy and one more visit confirmed the diagnosis.
And so, last Friday, we dropped him off for the surgery. I got a call around 10:00 a.m. They had found two more tumors in his mouth, one on his flank, and one in his lymph node. They were, it turned out, an aggressive (but fairly common) form of melanoma, and the vet guessed at about two weeks before Grover would no longer be able to swallow comfortably.
We adopted Grover the day after Thanksgiving in 2007. The story that we heard from the rescue agency that was sponsoring him was that he had been a backyard dog in Berkeley, and when his owner had gone away for a lengthy period, the neighbors had taken him to the Berkeley Animal shelter rather than see him starve. He was, they thought, somewhere around five or six years old, and had been in the shelter for seven months before a foster home was found for him.
Though I hadn’t really noticed his picture on the rescue’s website, as soon as I saw him in person I fell in love. He was big with a dark face, but radiated a calm and gentle energy, and had an incredibly striking brindle coat. Kirk wanted to name him Ajax, but I put my foot down and we went with Grover. When we took him to our (then) vet, Dr. Lynn, she pointed out his crooked snout and missing teeth, which could have been the result of either neglect (backyard dogs left on their own often wear down their teeth chewing on fence posts or other backyard debris) or abuse. She watched him walk up and down the hall and diagnosed dysplasia in both front elbows, and then spent the rest of the visit tossing him treats and generally fussing over him. She declared him a keeper.
Later we would have a trainer tell us that Grover was, to put it delicately, mentally challenged, though again he couldn’t say whether this was because he had been abused or simply neglected. This was kind of how it went with Grover for the time he was with us; he had a ton of complicated medical problems and he would sometimes revert to his yard dog persona, but he just had this way of winning people over with his gentlemanly charm, even non-dog people, or those wary of pit-bulls.
Our family had cats when Rucha and I were growing up, and as an adult I had two, Lulu and Ike. In my late twenties, I started getting migraines daily, and it turned out I was allergic to the kitties. I re-homed them, but I missed them and just couldn’t stand not having animals in the house. Kirk suggested a bird. Or a dog. My friends Dave and Alicia were fostering dogs for a local rescue, and they suggested we could do the same, see if we liked it. We met a dog named Trixie, fostered her for a while and then ended up adopting her (between the two events is a whole other, long story for another day).
We’ve adopted three rescue dogs over the last nine years, and fostered two more. Somewhere along the way I’ve become one of those dog people who will talk endlessly about their pets at parties if given half a chance, ooh and ah in a loud voice about a cute pup in the street, remember a dog’s name while having no idea what their owner’s is. I’m the stereotype of the kooky childless woman who dotes on their pampered pooches. At least I haven’t graduated to the dog themed tee-shirts, but you never know, I may make it there yet (lets hope not). I don’t really see myself as someone who ‘rescues’ dogs, I just adopt dogs that need a little extra care, and I feel I’m able to give that to them.
My dad has asked ‘why pit-bulls??’ (all of the five dogs I’ve worked with are pit-bulls or pit-bull mixes of one kind or another.) I’m not that interested in joining my voice to the raging debate about these dogs, but what I do know is that they are loving, loyal, quirky, intelligent (okay, maybe not Grover so much, but he was wily if not bright), brave dogs. They are, just like any other dog, animals and not cartoons, and thus must be handled with care and respect.
I think they are gorgeous, wonderful dogs and can’t imagine choosing another breed. If you are interested in the debate, I recommend this piece about the dogs bred by NFL star Micheal Vic to kill other dogs, most of whom have been rehabilitated in one form or another:
It’s hard to believe that we only had Grover for a little over three years, and in fact, my first thought when Dr. Wages told us the news was ‘I’m not ready’. But that’s the thing about death isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if we are ready or not, and I guess whole religions have been founded on how to begin to be ready for it. We picked Grover up from the vet that Friday, and he seemed perfectly fine, chipper even. We spent the next days spoiling him rotten: a burger, pizza crust, cheese, bananas, leisurely walks, many belly rubs, bed privileges. For a few days he did great, but by Thursday evening he was having difficulty eating solid food, and trouble breathing (he kind of sounded like Darth Vader). On Friday it was obvious that he was in some pain, he had a tremor to his body and couldn’t sleep well. So we made an appointment with our vet for Saturday morning. We gave him ice cream and beef tail puree for dinner, and slept with him between us.
In the morning Kirk took him for a nice long, slow walk and then put him in our old Honda, in which he had spent many happy hours, tip of the nose out the window. His favorite vet tech was ready and waiting for us when we arrived, and we made him as comfortable as possible on a rug from home. Kirk and I sat with him while they gave him a sedative (which he wasn’t too pleased about) and then he put his head on my lap, looked up at me. I told him how much we loved him, told him he was a good dog, thanked him for being who he was. He died that way (I still didn’t feel ready), with his head on my knee, for which I feel deeply honored.
On the way home we told each other some of our favorite Grover stories: the time I took him to the river (I don’t think he’d ever seen sand, or a river. He spent a good hour standing in the water, biting at his reflection). The time our nephew Royal tried to pluck his eye out and he just lay there, confused about what to do. The time about six months later when Royal, now terrified of big dogs, laughed hysterically when Kirk put a tee-shirt on Grover (somehow this made him funny and not scary). The time we took him for a long hike in Brevard, and when we stopped for a while, he went to soak his paws in the river like a weary traveler. How he went from being very tense about being touched, to being a dog who relished a good cuddle. How hilarious it was the few times he played with Stella, when he totally exciting, barking like mad, would throw himself on his back with his feet in the air, growling and huffing but clearly loving every minute. And so on, and so on.
I feel a bit embarrassed to experience such grief at the loss of a pet, it seems a little obscene when compared to the losses friends of mine have faced, some of whom have lost spouses, children, homes. It’s not the same as losing my mother in 2007. Still. There it is.
I’ll leave you with the farewell song Kirk for him, which I listened to it about twenty times yesterday: