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Our companion from June 7, 2013 to May 31, 2013
Family: Cheri Register Posted by: Cheri Register

Early in 2001 a young labrador mix–maybe a year or two–strayed from her home north of the Twin Cities. No one knows who housebroke her so perfectly or taught her “sit” and “down” and to wait for an “OK” before exiting the door on her walk. No one knows whether her leaving was deliberate or a garbage sniffing gone too far. No one knows what name those people called into the dusk when she didn’t return.

By the time she was brought to the Animal Humane Society she was skinny and dehydrated. Kennel cough left her quiet and subdued enough to lie in her pen looking demure while the other adult dogs barked and howled and leaped against the fencing.

I wasn’t shopping for a dog. Our mischievous woodwork-chewing, chocolate-binging, furniture-marking Rebel had died three years before. My life was nearing its empty-nest phase. One daughter would soon graduate from high school. The other had a year of college left and was living at home, but her plan was to go to Korea after graduation. She had turned 21 the day before and thought it an important enough milestone for an extra day of celebration. “Let’s go to the Humane Society and just look at the dogs,” she suggested. That quiet, demure black one caught us.

Over the last twelve years I have often wished I could tell those people in or near Coon Rapids what became of their sweet girl. She never got to hunt ducks, which I presume they were training her for, but all her instincts were poised on the mallards swimming in our city lakes. I apologized to her many times for my inability to satisfy them. The first time we left her home alone she found a copy of Packinghouse Daughter and not only chewed its edges but ripped the dustjacket right across the photo of my face. We bought her a kennel, and it became not only a place of confinement but her refuge from scolding looks and loud voices. She needed little scolding, however. She never chewed another object that didn’t belong to her. She never stole food off countertops, although she was a determined sidewalk scavenger.

She became the perfect companion for a work-at-home writer. She wasn’t needy, didn’t whine for attention, didn’t follow my heels up and down stairs. She liked her own space–preferably in front of the window on my Tempurpedic mattress, and she was known to move upstairs or down when the humans got too noisy. Someone once called her “catlike,” but I would dispute that. She didn’t cuddle but relished back massages. She communicated her needs with a focused stare. She was an obsessive fetcher. I couldn’t shovel snow without finding a frisbee or a deflated football in every other shovelful.

Mostly she loved to walk. We took three walks a day: before breakfast, early-to-mid afternoon, and either before or after the 10:00 news. She never learned to heel, so she always led the way, and we walked at a good clip. (I never enforced heeling, because I’d just as soon see a dog enjoy some good sniffing.) We became neighborhood fixtures. I suspect I was that woman who gets pulled around and talks to her dog. She drew attention from passersby–just an ordinary black lab, but with charisma. Salespeople stepped out of stores to offer her treats. Once a man who lived on our walking route ran across the street barefoot to hug me and thank me for taking such good care of my dog. She took good care of me. My whole body still longs to walk on that schedule.

She never passed up a meal, not until last week. On Sunday, the cook preparing to open the Thai restaurant on our walk brought out a metal bowl full of chicken and beef and set it down on the sidewalk for her. On Monday she hung around her dish asking for seconds. On Tuesday she stopped eating altogether. Even a piece of chicken couldn’t tempt her. A nasal tumor had pushed one eyesocket forward weeks before and was distending the other. Her breathing had become more and more obstructed. She obviously hurt but still never complained. On Friday, we put her to sleep.

A neighbor had objected to the planned euthanasia, which left me second-guessing the awful decision. She was, after all, still walking, still greeting people and wagging her tail. I asked our vet, Dr. Teresa Hershey, for her advice, and here is part of what she wrote in an email:

“What I like best about dogs is they find joy even in bad situations.  It sounds like Leila is doing that- she’s so good-natured. . . .Your neighbor sounds like she loves Leila, but she doesn’t see Leila all of the time like you do.  And Leila probably puts on her best face for company.”

I won’t be shopping for another dog soon. Leila, the best, may be the last, although I won’t say never. I’m thinking I can have my wood floors redone. I can come and go at will, on my schedule. I can take a long car trip. My nest is truly empty now, eerily empty.

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