Archive | August, 2014

Diesel

13 Aug

This Sunday, at about 1:30 AM, my best friend of nine years passed away. He was a 110 pound mutt named Diesel:

Diesel

We were never entirely sure what breeds Diesel consisted of. We were told that he was one-half Labrador retriever, one-quarter German shepherd, and one-quarter pit-bull.

The first time I saw Diesel, he was small with huge feet. My brother brought him around to our house. My brother was going to keep Diesel for himself, but we knew he had a terrible track record caring for dogs, so we convinced him to leave Diesel, not yet named, with us. We had planned to give him away, but we ended up keeping him. Before we officially decided that we were going to keep him, he grew into a big gangly puppy.

One day I thought of a name for him. Everyone in our family understood that once you name a dog you are never going to give it up. Here was this big, gangly, mostly black puppy that, for some reason or other, made me think of a farm hand driving a tractor. The name that came to me was “Diesel”. The name stuck, and Diesel stuck with us. Sometimes people think I named Diesel after the actor Vin Diesel. Actually, I named him after the fuel oil that is used to power heavy engines. I seldom actually called him Diesel. I eventually started referring to him as the “Bid Old Weasel”. I am not sure why that nickname made sense to me.

For the next nine years Diesel lived with us and went with me and our other dogs on our long beach walks.

Diesel was like a cagey old man that never lays his cards on the table. I once tried to teach him how to play fetch the same way I had taught our Australian Shepherd to play fetch, but he refused to do it. After two attempts, he sat down about thirty feet across from me and stared at me like I was an idiot. I was not sure if he was unteachable, or if something else was going on. One day, my niece said that she had been playing fetch with him all afternoon. She hadn’t taught him. He just did it. When she tried to show me, he wouldn’t do it any more. Naturally, I didn’t believe her. Days later, she did it again, but this time she made a video. I could not believe what I was seeing. Here was my big gangly mutt playing fetch exactly as he had seen our Australian Shepherd playing fetch. Apparently, it was below his dignity to play fetch in front of me. I guess guys just don’t do that sort of thing.

Diesel would never pick a fight with another dog. However, whenever a dog came too close to me, he gave it a warning growl. Diesel had a deep warning growl that would terrify anyone or anything. If you did not realize what a big marshmallow he was, you would certainly be afraid of him. Whenever he was up the street from me and I would call him, he would come lumbering toward me like an attacking bear. I always noted that I was glad he was on my side.

Whenever I came home from work, our dogs got excited and barked. Diesel would usually sing. He had the most beautiful baritone voice of any dog I have ever heard, and he could hold a note for a long time.

I loved to hug Diesel. He had a big barrel chest that you could really wrap your arms around. When you would hug him, he would reciprocate by pushing his head into you. It was a real hug.

Diesel loved to have his butt rubbed. He would come over to anyone that was willing, twist around, and push his butt up against them. He got a very satisfied expression whenever someone would rub his butt.

For the first few years that we had Diesel, he was always trying to “de-flea” us. He came up to us and did this nervous gnawing where he moved his teeth quickly like electric hair clippers. He seemed to lose interest in that as he discovered that it made people nervous and that they would often wince when he caught a bit too much skin.

I learned a lot about dogs and animals by observing Diesel and the way he interacted with our other dogs. Most of the things we have been told about animals, especially dogs, are wrong. They are far more complex than we are told. Their social structure is far more varied and dynamic than we are told. There is not always a clear alpha dog, and the dog in charge changes depending on the activity and location. They do not lack a sense of time passage. They do not learn only through participation. They have deep rich interior lives and are every bit as conscious as humans…possibly more so.

Until just recently, I took our three largest dogs for walks on a beach below our house that led to an adjoining park. The other two dogs, still with us, were Adelaide and Petunia. Adie is a female Australian shepherd. Petunia is female and appears to be a miniature Doberman without her ears or tail cropped. We actually have no idea what Petunia is.

When we got to the park about a mile down our beach, we would always go up a trail that went in a loop and came back down again. On the trail, my dogs walked in single file in front of me. When they did this, I had an odd notion that we were a group of nomads on some religious trek. I referred to them as my “three dingoes”. As they walked in front of me, their butts each swaying in their unique way, I felt that everything was right with the world. Everything made sense when I was on the trail with my three dingoes.

During our walks, Diesel kept track of everyone to make sure they were not getting separated. He would often stop and look back at me and forward to the other dogs.

One day, when I was walking the dogs in a thunder storm, a lightning bolt struck the ground about 40 feet from us. From then on, Diesel had a terrible fear of deep sounds in the distance. During thunder storms, he would try to run away or find some way to “get out”. One day he climbed on top of our water heater, and it took several of us to get him down.

We eventually discovered that when he was frightened all we had to do was put him in a bathroom in the middle of our house that had no exterior walls. Whenever he became agitated, we would take him to his “safe” room and turn classical music on. He quickly learned that when he was afraid, all he had to do was come to us and put a paw on our leg, and we would know what he wanted. Then we would follow him as he led us to his safe room. He would flop down on a memory foam pad that we kept in the middle of the room. We would turn on his music and the fan, turn off the lights, and close the door. Several hours later, we would check to see if he wanted to come out. Sometimes he would be waiting at the door to come out; sometimes he would just lie there, look at us, and wait for us to close the door again.

Diesel could never understand that he was a big dog. He saw how our smaller dogs sat on our laps, and he was determined to do the same thing:

Diesel on Lap

Diesel often used pillows in the same way as a person:

Using Pillow

Diesel was incredibly tolerant. He would let other dogs play on and around him. He never got angry with them. Our smallest dog, Benito, often slept with him or even on top of him:

Sleeping with Benito

Diesel was very reflective. He spent a lot of time sitting on the knoll behind our house just looking off into the distance. Often, he would walk into our living room and just gaze around for a while.

I often got the feeling that Diesel wanted something from me that I was not giving him. Sometimes, he behaved in a way that seemed to say, “When are we going out to find some girls? When will you finally let me grow up?” Maybe he thought he was supposed to have some sort of job. Maybe he wondered when he would be expected to earn his keep. I often thought he would make a good Seeing Eye dog. Maybe he just had some existential notion that there must be more to life.

Diesel was always bringing us things like socks or slips of paper to trade for treats. To make this exercise meaningful, we created some “tickets” made of foam and placed them in a magazine holder. We eventually made a game of “tickets” where he and all the other dogs got treats when he brought us a ticket. Diesel loved this game and it seemed to make him feel like he had a purpose.

About three weeks ago, Diesel started behaving strangely. He acted sick and weak. We took him to see a vet and he was diagnosed with cancer. It was hopeless. The x-rays showed tumors all through his chest. Apparently one of them had been bleeding and caused his chest and lungs to fill up with fluid.

We left him at the vet for the night and they pumped the fluid out of him. After that, he began to return to normal, but we understood that his condition was grave. Diesel hated going to vets, and the experience had been traumatic. We determined that if he got worse again, we would have him euthanized.

We decided that the usual beach walk I took our dogs on was too hard for Diesel in his weakened condition. It was not so much the walk itself, but the way all of our dogs behaved when we started out. They got excited and started roughhousing. For the next three weeks, Diesel, Adie and I explored several parks on the island.  We did not take Petunia, because she is terrified of riding in cars. I was determined that Diesel was going to have fun during his last days.

For a while, he seemed like he was recovering. He acted like his old self. We gave him lots of pain killers, so there is no telling what was really going on inside his body. He absolutely loved our walks in the parks and got very excited whenever we would go out to get in the car.

Every once in a while, when we were out on these walks, I would realize I was thinking of Diesel as if he was already dead. I would look right at him and say to myself, “He is with me now.”

This Saturday night, Diesel’s symptoms returned. He started to behave like he was terrified. We knew what had to be done. It was nearly midnight. We found a vet that was open all night and took him in to be euthanized.

Four of us went to the vet with him. I stayed with him to the very end while the rest of my family waited in the reception room.

I watched as the doctor, an attractive young woman with a sweet disposition, gave him a series of three injections. He went as peacefully as anyone could imagine. He just breathed more and more softly until he became perfectly still. The doctor checked his heart and said, “He’s gone.”

I stroked the back of his neck just once very briefly. It seemed inappropriate to embrace an empty shell. I said, “We made it to the end, big old buddy.” That seemed like the right thing to say at the end of a noble life. I said to the doctor that I was sorry she had to do this, but she explained that she didn’t feel bad about it because it was something she could do for people.

Now, I constantly find myself wavering between seeming to feel too much and seeming to feel too little. Yesterday, I noted that I seemed to feel no grief and was disturbed at how quickly I was getting over Diesel’s death. Today, when I was talking about Diesel with my family, I cracked up and started crying. Like most men, I am not sufficiently in touch with my feelings and constantly struggle to clarify them.

Life is so much easier without Diesel. He often stared at us when we were eating and would come up and push his huge nose into our laps. He often stood next to our treat jar acting as if he expected to be given something. He was always lying on the floor in the most inconvenient places. He loved to lie at the intersection of hallways, in doorways or in the small space around my desk. He made it impossible for me to move my chair. Whenever I prepared for our walks, I had to put him and my other two dingoes in our backyard to keep them from getting excited in the house and breaking everything. To keep Diesel from standing up against our back door and breaking it, I had to place a piece of furniture in front of it. Diesel had problems with his toenails and we had to give him expensive medications to combat it. By the time he died, the whole regimen of pills he received became onerous. Oh, what I would give to have all that back!

Is there a heaven? Do dogs go to heaven? If they go there, what do they do? Are they with people? Are they with people they know? Do they wait in some kind of stasis or ignorance for people they know? Are they merely freed spirits lacking any form that is similar to when they were alive? Maybe Diesel finally has that thing he seemed to be asking me for that I could never deliver.

Last night, we had a surprise thunder storm. My niece commented to my sister that she was upset because Diesel was somewhere alone and we couldn’t comfort him. My sister and I got a different message: that he had conquered fear and death; that he, who once feared thunder, was now the master of thunder. 

Today, we received a card from the vet where Diesel was euthanized. The picture on the cover gets to me. It perfectly captures the friend who left me for distant shores:

Diesel Waiting

Of all the souls I have known, there are too many to count that now have the answer to the ultimate question: my two grandfathers, my grandmother on my mother’s side, my cousin, my uncle, one of my aunts, my father, my oldest friend’s father, a handful of less close relatives, friends and acquaintances, and countless dogs and other pets that I knew and loved. It will probably be hardest when my mother finally dies, but I won’t know until that day comes.

Of all the souls I have known that have gone to the other side, none left a hole in my life like Diesel.

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