Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sweet Owen

                                                                                                                              Written Sept. 10, 2012

His bowl of last night's uneaten dinner is still in the refrigerator. I can't bear to throw it out. His collar is on the table where my husband placed it after he took it off his neck. His hair is still sprinkled all over the floor like snowdrifts.

But Owen is gone.

I keep looking outside on the patio to see him sunbathing in the grass or pawing at the back door, his ears pricked up and looking like the world's largest rabbit. But he's not there.

Dogs have been a constant in my life since I was 7 years old. And we've lost a few. But Sweet Owen is MY first dog to go. And it has slammed me to my knees, unexpectedly.

Everyone loses a beloved dog; everyone I know has. Why did I think I would escape this pain? Owen has been with me for so long, how will the days look without him? 

I'll be honest: Having three dogs, three part-time jobs, a psycho mortgage and two kids was often quite hard. There was always a living, breathing being needing me, or a deadline or a due date demanding my attention. Some days, that just taxed me. My most difficult days were the ones where a dog would pee on a box of blocks, or throw up in the house, or a kid would grab the markers and redecorate the couch or decide it was an awesome day to remove a filled-up diaper by himself—and these usually revolved around days I had to teach class or submit a feature story to a magazine.

But at the end of every day, I loved my dogs. Especially Owen. He was our first special-needs dog. In 2001, I had just launched my own freelance business, and I thought the time was perfect for adding to our family of three. Annie, my sweet German shepherd mix who found us in 1997, needed a buddy. But after months of searching every animal shelter in a 30-mile radius, I could not find the dog of my dreams: a female, black Labrador-mix puppy. Instead, my heart and mind wrapped around this anorexic-looking, teenage, male, white German Shepherd mix with anxiety issues. I will never forget how, at the first visit in the shelter, he bounded around his concrete kennel, looking all the world like a silly clown. Then, when I went back a week later, he was moved to a kennel far off the beaten path, and he appeared to have given up. Curled up on the floor, he looked up at me with his perpetually worried brown eyes, but didn't lift his head.

"How about we stop this nonsense and go home now," I asked him.

And that's just what we did 11 years ago Sept. 5. We met Annie and my husband at a nearby park, prepared to call everything off if the dogs didn't accept each other. One sniff was all it took and the two were bonded. Well, Owen was bonded to Annie, his idol. No matter where he went from that day forward, as long as Annie was with him, Owen was just fine.

I can remember having doubts about this poor pup with an obvious abuse history. Could I handle it? Would I fail him? A few days later, when Sept. 11 happened, I sat on the couch with both dogs right next to me, watching the horror unfold in New York City, and I realized I could handle anything this poor pup could throw at me. There were worse issues in the world.

For the next 11 years, we did just that. Handle anything. Owen had his problems, but what dog doesn't? He had massive anxiety, feared men in baseball hats, freaked out over fireworks, marked everything outside and way too many things inside, shed like an oak tree in autumn. But he was mine. As my niece once said, "Do all of your dogs have issues?" Yes, yes they do. I have a soft spot for the underdog.

In his youth, Owen was a constant source of merriment. We socialized the pants off that dog, helping him see that people can be nice and loving. He soon began to think that everyone should love him. I remember one time I had a repairman come to the house, and I asked, "Do you like dogs?" Sure, he said. So I opened the back door, and both Annie and Owen rushed in, bounding for the guy. The look of fear on his face was almost comical, especially when it evaporated after both dogs showered him in kisses and tail wags.

This dog, who we believe was part Whippet, could chase down a rabbit like no one's business. Unfortunately, they often didn't survive his attempts at playtime. When staying over at "Camp Grandma," Owen once caught a small rabbit in my folks' yard. He tried to play with it, but you all know how that turned out. So Owen went and got my mom, leading her to the deceased rabbit on the grass. He looked at Mom, then the rabbit, then back and forth, as if to say, "My toy broke! Fix it! What happened?!"

Owen wasn't partial about his playmates, either. He loved to nab possums off the wall, and some of those nocturnal creatures were nearly as big as he was! Owen could leap and snatch one off our 6-foot fence, not a problem. In fact, one time, he leapt so far, he wound up in our neighbor's yard, peeking his large rabbit ears into the door to say, "Hey, dude, I need some help here!"

Oh, and was he fast! When we first got Owen, he was a runner. Now that was scary—especially when he and Annie played Escape Artist one Christmas at my in-law's house. But soon, he learned that he had it good here, and we could leave the front door wide open without Owen stepping foot on the porch. The first time we took him to the dog park, he got spooked and took off running. Well, a spooked, running dog is nothing but prey for the other dogs, so Owen ran the perimeter of the park, with about two dozen dogs chasing him. He rushed to me, jumped into my lap, turned to the other dogs and then growled, knowing he was safe in my arms.

As he got older, Owen got crankier, less willing to play and happier to just hang out outside. He still loved a good rawhide and a spoon filled with peanut butter, but his dog park days weren't something he enjoyed anymore.

Unlike Annie, Owen never once had a single health issue. Aside from vaccinations and dental work, Owen didn't require any medical intervention. But his health changed this past weekend. Literally overnight. He began coughing late last week, which isn't anything that unusual. Something in his throat perhaps? He acted his normal, cranky, bouncy, goofy self. But when this coughing didn't clear up after a couple of days, I figured a trip to the vet was needed. It didn't seem to be an emergency; my mom came over Saturday and Owen bounded in the house, jumping on her and giving her kisses. (What a great kisser that dog was! Hugs, not so much. But he loved to give kisses.) Then Sunday, he just looked sick, within hours. His breathing took on more of a panting quality, and he didn't want to eat his dinner. I grew more anxious, thinking, "could he have kennel cough? Pneumonia? Could it be his heart? He is getting up there in age. But Annie is nearly 16! Owen is still a pup compared to her."

I set the alarm early so I could call the vet first thing, but when I walked into the living room at 7 a.m., I quickly realized it was over.

Owen was stretched out on his side, just like he loved doing on the grass, paws crossed. He mirrored Annie's position on the carpet just a few feet away. He was looking right at her, most likely the last thing he saw on this earth. Seeing him right there next to Annie, looking so peaceful, broke my heart. So many nights in this heat, Owen wanted to sleep outside on his own. I thank God I didn't put him out there that last night. It's one of the only things I don't feel guilt over.

I suppose feeling guilt and regret are normal when something happens unexpectedly to someone you love, to someone you are responsible for. Normal or not, I am consumed with such emotions right now. Every good thing I might have done for him, from rescuing him from the pound to taking him to agility classes, is eclipsed by the guilt I feel. Should I have called  the vet sooner? Should I have encouraged him to stay inside more? Was I too annoyed with him when he would wake me at 3 a.m. to go outside and chase possums off the back fence, or when he would pee on a toy or basket of clean laundry (I mean, really?)?

 I feel guilty because life has gotten so much more complicated than it was when I first brought Owen into our family. Did I let the crapstorm of life overshadow what really matters? Or did I appreciate him enough when he was here? Was I nice enough? Did he know how much I loved him? Did I spend enough time with him? How often is this fear muttered in the dark hours after someone dies? Too often, I am sure.

 I am consumed with the woulda-coulda-shoulda thoughts that often do nothing but eat holes in our heart.

I know I loved him, and I know I did right by him. I know no one, not even Mother Teresa, would be pleased and joyous when a dog pees all over freshly folded laundry, or when the whining of an anxious, possum-wanting dog wakes a finally sleeping newborn. But right now, waterboarded by grief like I am, I only see my failures and shortcomings. 

I am so grateful Sweet Owen went on his own terms, in his home and surrounded by all of us who love him. I am so thankful to him that we didn't have to make that dreaded trip to the vet for "the shot."

But most of all, I am so grateful he was with his Annie. For as much as I know he loved me, he lived for Annie. I am trying to take comfort that she was a source of peace for him as he crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

I once heard that there aren't dogs in heaven. That's crap. How can a place called Paradise be such without dogs? The movie "What Dreams May Come" features one scene that lifts my heart. Robin Williams' character dies, and as he's crossing a pasture in the afterlife, trying to get his bearings, out rushes his beloved dog, now fully healed and healthy and happy once more, tackling him to the ground and showering him with kisses. It's like that legend of the Rainbow Bridge: Our dogs wait for us over there to help lead us home. 

Sweet Owie, I will see you there, and I hope you're waiting for me with those big rabbit ears and lots of slobbery, on-the-mark kisses. You took a part of my heart with you, big guy. Oh, how I miss you!