Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

What Now?

a eulogy

He was a dog who did things his way.

When Mark, Jack, and I adopted Kobalt in October 2015, I felt like he chose us. We drove two hours to meet him, a black German Shepherd dog who’d been found wandering the streets of Sacramento, and the first thing he did upon meeting me was rub his head against my midsection. We were convinced. I drove up again three days later to pick him up.

The first few months were tough. He had his own ideas about the role of a dog in a house, which included barking at other dogs (we later grew to suspect that he just didn’t know how to play, and his idea of “play” was to run at the other dog barking, which usually led the other dog to attack him in panic, totally reasonably; though sometimes he also did seem to be warning off other dogs) and biting strangers he thought were threats.

We despaired of being able to keep him. We went so far as to write a letter to the rescue agency saying that we wouldn’t be able to keep him. But then, around that time, Kobalt came into my office and I remember him giving me a look. Most dog owners are familiar with the “what now?” look: head raised, eyes wide, ears up. From this dog, who’d survived as a stray on the streets and felt supremely confident, it felt like a sign that we’d earned his trust. He wanted to stay with us. He wanted to know what the rules were.

We never sent the letter we’d written. Instead, we worked on a series of compromises. The (brand new) couch was fair game for him, always; the most we could do was put sheets on it so it would be easy to clean. Taking food from our table and plates was a no-no and incurred the worst punishment: banishment to a room we weren’t in. We only did that a few times, and then he learned to respect us, and we learned not to leave food unattended.

Kobalt was the smartest dog I ever knew, insatiably curious about his environment and what the rules and patterns were. He had figured out how to live in foster homes, and he remembered how to live in a home where he was The Dog (we never found out his backstory, but he was so gentle with people that he must have been loved). Once he realized that we were the latter and not the former, he adapted. In any new situation he explored and watched, looking for the patterns so he could anticipate them, whether it was the angle at which we’d kick a ball or the times of day he went for walks or where we would hide Kongs for his dinner. Any new game we invented, he learned the rules within a few tries. He invented some games of his own, with his favorite ball or with the Kongs, and then when we got good at his games, he’d cheat. There was always intention and opinion behind his actions, and he seemed to take time to think about them. And he dreamed so much! We have countless videos of his paws twitching, and I caught his tail wagging in his sleep a couple times. Every indication was that his mind was highly active and engaged.

We loved that about him. When we could see how much thought he put into his life, how deliberately he made his choices, we knew that whenever he chose us, that was something he wanted. It was how he showed his heart. I don’t know that he obeyed us so much as he let us explain why it was better for him to sit, or wait, or lie down, and then decide that we had made a persuasive argument. He made us laugh so many times when he figured out a pattern and took a shortcut.

He knew he was responsible for his pack. When he wouldn’t listen to us, it was never angrily, but calmly resolute. Most often the example was that two of us went for a walk and one of us would split off to go to the store. Kobalt strained to follow the departing pack member, and if denied, he would simply sit down and stare off in the direction they’d gone. He wouldn’t complain or bark, he’d just give us that look: well? What now? Sometimes he could be coaxed with treats, and sometimes he’d see another dog and forget why he was waiting, but sometimes we gave in. The moment we took steps in the direction the other person had gone, he would spring up and lead us happily there.

He wasn’t demonstrative. He wouldn’t wag his tail when we came home or bark excitedly or jump up on us. But he showed he loved us in so many other ways. For example: he would come to the door when we returned, if we’d left him alone. We made him sit before we would open the door, but we never had to worry about him running out; if we were coming in, that’s where he wanted to be. And true to his nature, after a few times being told to sit when we came home, he would run to the door, see us, and sit without being told, staring eagerly through the windows of our door until we came in.

For another example: when one of us took him for a walk, when he came back he’d run around the house looking for the rest of us, to make sure he knew where we were. If one of us went to the bathroom and closed the door, often we would open it to find him sitting or lying there, looking up at the door, waiting for us to come out, whereupon he’d follow us back to wherever we were going. If we left the door open while we showered, he would come into the bathroom and poke his nose into the shower, making sure he could see us so he knew we were safe.

He did everything his way, the way he thought was best, and while he was very food-motivated, mostly what he thought was best was that the four of us should be together. That made it easy for us to make the same choices, to prioritize being with him whenever we could. If one of us left on a trip, he wouldn’t be visibly stressed, but he would look for that person in the places he usually found them, or he would sit outside their room hoping they would come back there. When the family member returned home, he might favor them with some rare kisses, or he might pout because they’d left, or both, but he definitely relaxed and was most content when all of us were home—as were all of us.

As the years went on, his mobility declined due to back issues and arthritis in his elbow, but he adapted. He learned to run after his ball with his back two legs pushing off together rather than alternating; it wasn’t as fast as he had been, but he could still run well. When even that became too difficult, he adapted further, taking rests on his walks when he needed to. When his back was diagnosed with herniated disks in summer 2020, the neurologist told us that she expected the condition to deteriorate so that he could no longer walk in 6-18 months. We hired a physical therapist to do exercises with him, and in March 2023—some 30+ months after the 6-18 month prognosis—though he could barely get up on his own, he could still trot after his ball with surprising speed. True to his nature, he developed strategies: he wouldn’t put on a burst of speed unless he knew he could get to the ball before us. If we were kicking it along the ground and he was walking alongside, he would walk a little ahead of the ball because he knew eventually we’d kick it forward to him.

In late 2021 he started having persistent nasal discharges with some blood sometimes, and that turned out to be a carcinoma in his nasal cavity. He underwent two procedures to fight it, in September and December 2022. Both succeeded for a month or two, and then it returned. But he never let the cancer or his mobility issues get in the way of his joy in life. When he couldn’t follow us from room to room, he barked if we left him alone to tell us to get back where he could see us. When he no longer wanted to go on long walks, he went on short ones; when he no longer wanted to go on short ones, he was very happy sitting in the grass of our back yard, rain or shine, and catching balls we’d toss to him. He’d guard them between his paws, and if we reached in to get them, he’d press his neck down to pin our arm or foot in place.

In March 2023, I had booked a six-day trip to Texas for a convention, and because a friend’s dog had recently passed after a very fast deterioration, I was scared the same thing would happen to Kobalt. I promised to cut my trip short if anything happened. But nothing did; I came back and got welcome-back kisses from him, and the next day we played out back in the sun and grass. He caught his ball and chased it and he was happy with all of us there around him. It was a very good day.

We’d known the day was coming when we’d have to make a decision about his quality of life. We made checklists of the things he loved to do and whether he could still do them: eat his food, play with ball, be with us. But we should’ve known he wouldn’t let us decide that for him. The day after that very good day, when he got to do all the things he loved, he woke in some distress, and his condition deteriorated quickly. We rushed him to the hospital, but he passed on the way there. Even at the last, he knew best and he died in his own way, in his own time, surrounded by family rather than on a hospital table. I know that these sudden things are often beyond our control, but I believe firmly that he made some decisions. I believe that he waited for me to get back, that he was happy to be with his family when his time came. Even the small mercy of dying on the way to the hospital rather than at home meant we could grieve him and then leave his remains to others rather than have to call someone while he lay at home. He was a very good boy to the end.

One of the very last pictures we have of him, from that morning, is of him looking up at me as I approach. What now? he’s asking, in pain.

I didn’t have a good answer then; I knelt behind him and stroked his head and chest as he rested in my lap, reassured him that he was with family and loved, and his quick, distressed breaths slowed as he calmed. That was the last meaningful interaction I had with him, and I could not have chosen a better one.

When I see him in my mind now, which I do all the time, he’s lying on his bed in the living room and perked up as I come into the room. His ears go up, his eyes widen, and he looks expectant. What now? he wants to know.

We’re asking ourselves the same thing. The house that felt too small to contain his boundless energy when he arrived now feels too small to escape his absence. He was part of our routines, ever-present in our lives for seven and a half years. Without him, we have to rebuild routines around the reminders that are everywhere.

But he left us with so much love. We built our family with him, and through him we learned to be patient, to be communicative, to be loving. We will continue to be all those things for each other, and because he would want us to. In time, other things will fill our days, but there will always be a black German Shepherd curled up in our hearts.

And I know that if there’s a place for the very best dogs to go when their time with us is done, he’s there for sure, asking, What now? He’ll figure it out quickly, and he’ll know just what to do.


One response to “What Now?

  1. Ryan McNally May 3, 2023 at 2:10 pm

    May The Light shine on him and keep him, May he shelter in the palm of The Creator all his days, May the last embrace of The Mother welcome him home.

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