About Face

I got her at the pound on my 26th birthday, a Shepherd-mix with a perfect black diamond dead in the center of her tan forehead. She was just seven weeks, not yet ready for adoption. I lied to get her out. They found her in the San Fernando hills and thought she was feral, but I told them she was mine and I’d lost her on a hike up near Mr. Wilson.

I named her Killer Dog Face. Killer as in cool. Dog because she was one. And Face after a term of endearment my mother used to call me. I figured she deserved three names, like most everyone else had, but I called her by her last name almost all the time.

My beautiful Face.

The only time I ever saw her be aggressive was the day I took her home from the pound. She was in a dirty concrete cage with a Golden puppy. I was thinking I wanted a Retriever this time. We’d had Shepherds growing up and I was hoping for a water dog. But Face wouldn’t let me touch that Golden. She practically bit its head off every time it tried to touch it through the gate.

She never grew into her paws and her ears. They remained exaggerated against her trim, medium frame and for almost ten years everyone thought she was a puppy. She acted like one too. She could pace me on my bike at 25 miles an hour. She could clear a five-foot wall or a six-foot wide river in one fluid motion. She accompanied me everywhere and she genuinely liked pretty much everybody. She learned to respond to my commands quickly, which were few and for her safety. I gave her the space she needed to play and the attention she required for her security. She helped me feel wanted, appreciated, safer, and not so alone. Forever forward, our relationship will remain one of the most stable, even exchanges of love and respect I will ever know.

I found out about the slip disks in her spine a few months after her 10th birthday. We had gone hiking up in the coastal mountains of Marin and she took off after something pacing us along a grove of redwoods. When I called for her she was way down in a gulch and I could tell she was struggling to make it back up the hill to me. The vet said she probably messed up her back jumping and that even though it was treatable with vitamin supplements, eventually she would get arthritis from the bad disks pinching her nerves. And though it took another five years, the vet turned out to be right.

I never expected to be faced with having to put her down. I assumed she’d go off a cliff chasing a squirrel, or miss when jumping over a river and I wouldn’t be around to save her. Everyone kept telling me it was time. At 15 she had hip problems, and walking problems, and was becoming incontinent. I felt sad for her a lot, watching her struggle to get up, and then fall within a few steps. And then I had my son. And Face wasn’t the baby anymore. And she was sad a lot too. Her health problems went from bad to worst, and picking up her poop all over the house where an infant crawled was more than just disgusting. It was a health hazard.

I’ve always thought that if I ever got cancer or some terminal disease I would choose to terminate my life before I was unable to do so. I didn’t want to be a burden, a useless piece of flesh wasting away, loved ones killing time at my bedside bemoaning my loss before I was gone as they watched me whither. Before I lost all my faculties I’d go in the garage and turn on the car, or find the right drugs to take me over the edge. It never dawned on me to think differently until I was faced with the responsibility of having to make that choice for a loved one.

Maybe life—living—was about existing to the bitter end and experiencing every moment we have.

I sat on the floor next to my dog wishing she could tell me what to do. She put her head in my lap then rolled onto her side for me to scratch her belly. Her pained expression turned to bliss as I gently stroked her, recalling some of our time together. Yellowstone; Breckenridge; Yosemite; the Grand Canyon; watching her tear after birds on the countless shorelines we’d strolled. We’d shared some grand adventures, but mostly quiet exchanges of affection, like the one we were sharing right then. Perhaps these moments—the times I stroked her during the day, or rubbed her belly late at night made living in pain worth it. Who was I to facilitate her death? I was suddenly torn by the choice to be made.

I had her put down a few months after her 16th birthday. She couldn’t walk. Her hind legs kept giving out. She was hardly eating, or even drinking much anymore. Treats she puked up or pooped out multiple times daily, messing her new confined space by the tiled entry. I made the call on a Saturday morning. A certified veterinarian came to my house with a truck, complete with metal table and loaded with medical equipment. After carrying her to the truck and placing her on the table, I held her head in my hands while the vet administered a tranquilizer.

“Thank you for sharing your life with me, for being my friend.” I whispered to her as the doctor removed the needle from her hind quarters. “I love you. I’ll think of you often. I’ll miss you terribly, my beauty. Goodbye, sweet Face.”

She lay on the cold metal table and stared at me until her eyes closed. I stroked her head one last time, lay my hand on the black fur diamond marking on her head and kissed her right between the eyes. I stood there crying as the doctor softly informed me that he would be taking her to his office where he would administer the fatal cocktail that would kill her. He assured me she would drift into blackness forever without waking. I didn’t ask what they’d do with her body. I didn’t want to know.

As I left the truck the doctor assured me I’d made the right decision, the ‘humane’ choice. I stood at the curb until the truck pulled away, held my arms clasps on top of my head to hold in my brain, hold my emotions in. My quiet street was deserted again and I looked around for the dog to come inside with me when it hit me Killer Dog Face was gone. My arms came down and with it any facade of composer. I sank to the sidewalk sobbing with the acute pain of loss.

Everyone told me I did the right thing, the “compassionate” thing. But I wonder. A part of me feels like I did the convenient thing, robbing Face of her moments.

The Good Life

37623-Cute-DogTo escape the bickering, and whining, and needs and desires and everyone’s demands, I took our dog for a walk on a quiet fire trail near our house. Bright and beautiful out, a sweet sea breeze came over the Oakland Hills with the afternoon sun. The mile and a half dirt path cut along the base of the foothills was mostly vacant, rarely used by even residents of the neighborhood, so I did not leash my dog for the walk.
 
I saw someone from the ridge while I waited for the dog to finish marking her territory in the open field atop the hill. A woman was coming towards us on the trail below, and I tensed as I scanned for the dog she was most likely walking, but saw none. Still, I called my 70 pound Shepherd-mix to me. My beautiful pound hound was passionately in love with people, but most didn’t appreciate her bounding up to greet them.
 
My dog came to me and I held her collar as we stood on the ridge and watched the woman trudge up the hill; her white hair looked almost like a silver helmet in the sunlight. She walked slowly, and carefully, and hunched. I made her out to be in her mid-70s. The dog started whining the moment she noticed the woman approaching, pulled to get away from me and go meet her potential new friend.
 
The woman was 30 feet away when she noticed us, looked up and stopped. I loudly assured her my dog was VERY friendly and loved everybody, that I held her securely, asserting there was no need to worry. The old woman looked at my dog wagging her tail wildly and whining incessantly, and she smiled. She confidently told me she loved dogs and then called mine to her. I let go of my dog’s collar and joined the woman on the path where she stood stroking my hound.
 
She gently ran her hand along the length of my dog’s back again and again while extolling the animal’s Sphinx-like appearance and friendly nature. Dog was mesmerized with her touch, as she was with just about anybody’s, but the old woman seemed to really enjoy the contact as well, her expression set in a soft, contented smile. She explained she’d had several dogs during the years she and her husband raised their three kids. The dogs had passed on, the kids had moved on, now with families of their own. Her husband died two years back and for the first time in all her life she was alone.
 
Her kids, even her grandkids kept telling her to get a dog. I chimed in with words of encouragement, told her about getting my dog at eight weeks old from a kill shelter in Manteca, and ranted about some great local shelters where she could rescue a dog.
 
My graceful hound took off after a squirrel, startling us both. The woman began brushing the dog hair off her pants, but a lot of short hairs were woven into the navy polyester and clung to her pant legs where the dog had leaned against her. “I’ve spent the last 50 years of my life attending to others needs—cooking, cleaning, and more cleaning, and taking care of everyone else. I told myself I deserved a break after my husband lost his three year battle with brain cancer. I would travel, get out to the movies and play canasta, live the good life.”
 
Dog came bouncing back, long tongue dangling from panting (grinning?) mouth. She came up to me first to get my pat then went back to the old woman for more strokes, which the woman gave willingly. “I’ve been on three cruises in the last two years. I play canasta twice a month, and see all the new movies I want.” Again she seemed…pacified, by patting the dog. “Turns out, the good life was when I was needed. Being counted on made me feel vital, and valued. Now, no matter what I do, I mostly just feel lonely.” She straightened and brushed her pant legs off again as my dog swaggered over to the tall grass and lay in it. “I think you all may be right and it’s time I got a dog.” She gave me a pleasant smile. “It’s been a pleasure chatting. Good day to you.” And she went on her way.
 
My dog trotted after her a few steps then came after me as I started home in the opposite direction. I stroked her as she walked by my side, glad to have her with me, counting on me, as my kids and my husband did, and probably would for many years to come. I imagined the old woman’s empty house and anticipated the tumult in mine.
 
And suddenly I felt very lucky indeed to be living the good life.