Gumbo came to live with us in the spring of 2017. He graduated from obedience school with a B+ average because he could not sit still if there was a person to greet, which meant he bounced up every time the instructor walked by. His tail wags furiously in the presence of any human. At some point in the relationship he decided I was his main person. He follows me everywhere. The only time we separate is when I insist on privacy in the bathroom. He orbits me like a satellite, ball in his mouth. If I ignore him for too long, he pokes at me with one of his toys. He shoves his head under my arm when I sit at the computer too long. He paws at me if I stop petting too soon. He is my walking/kayaking buddy. He is my comforter and confidante. He is at my side for every death; my brother-in-law, mother and sister. He knows my innermost thoughts. He is my ticket to humanity. I’m not an outgoing person by nature, and in our travels he connects me to people I write about in this blog. Everyone falls in love with him. He has a sweet nature.
Wednesday was ordinary. After supper Gumbo went missing—meaning he wasn’t sitting at my feet or on his nearby bed. Ben found him lying on the garage floor. We call his name; his tail makes a few feeble waves. We rush him to the local emergency hospital. Gumbo has a naughty habit of eating weird things. We think he has been naughty again and anticipate some stomach pumping action and perhaps a charcoal chaser. After an examination they tell us they are concerned and want to keep him overnight for observation. We are concerned too.
Thursday morning, I get a call from the very kind hospital veterinarian. He says that Gumbo is a very sweet dog. He tells me Gumbo’s gut and organs are filled with tumors. He says more words. Likely hemangioscarcoma. Widespread. Aggressive. Rare in a dog so young. Surgery or chemo would not be effective. So sorry to tell you this.
I ask him whether Gumbo could travel to the beach one last time—cancer takes time, can he make it to April? He gently explains the advanced disease could overwhelm Gumbo any day and it would be exceedingly painful. I’m told to take him home and love him while you can. I hang up the phone. I tell Ben. We are stunned. I drive to the hospital to get him. He is brought to me and the vet tech ruffles his fur and tells him he is a sweet dog. He trots out the door at my heel, tail waving. Sweet. Happy. Unconcerned. At home, he flops on his bed, tired.
Friday the prescribed steroids and anti-nausea meds kick in and his eyes are bright. He shows me his toys. He demands pets. He bursts into the bathroom to keep me company. He follows me around the backyard and I sing his special song to him. I have always made up songs for my dogs and sing only for them, as only a dog would put up with my singing voice. My songs aren’t creative but that’s OK because dogs don’t care how or what you sing, only that you sing to them. My yard chores done, he gallops over to where we keep his ball-launcher, and I oblige him by throwing the ball. His first run is joyful at full speed. He retrieves the ball a few times and lets me know he is tired.
Anyone who invites a pet into their life will confront this moment. There’s a special kind of heartbreak associated with losing a young pet. When old age and sickness takes its toll end-of-life decisions are cleaner. Gumbo is 5 years old, 6 this spring. It’s so tempting to believe that the drugs masking his disease mean I can will him to live as long as my crushing love desires his presence. Giving in to that desire would subject him to a grisly end. We love him too much to be so selfish—but oh, the idea of losing him hurts. Our penance is 5 days of anticipatory grief. I share that with a friend, and she says “better that you hurt than he hurts.”
Take him home and love him. Doctor’s orders. All weekend he is showered with food and love. All house dog rules are suspended. Eat all the treats. Sleep on any piece of furniture. No more crate. Car rides to nowhere, windows down in 30 degree weather. I take him to Cabela’s where he gets pets from all the late afternoon shoppers. They tell me he is such a sweet boy. Ben and I take turns curling up with him, whispering that he is a Very Good Boy Indeed. His tail thump-thumps with happiness. Sunday night I run my hand over his bare belly, shaved for the ultrasound test that revealed the disease. His belly is distended. The monster is taking him over. We take turns crying. Gumbo, blessedly oblivious is his usual sunny self.
Monday the hospice veterinarian arrives. She is a lovely person; Tiffany. Gumbo greets her with his usual bonhomie. He holds his Subaru stuffie in his mouth to show off, and circles her the way he does. He is delighted with this new visitor and he sits in her lap. She smiles and tells us he is a really sweet boy. We have a brief conversation and take our places. The first shot to calm him takes effect. He relaxes onto his bed, comfortable with me and Ben by his side. We stroke and hold him and I sing his favorite dog-walking song…”There was a lady had a dog, and Gumbo was his name-O, G-U-M-B-O, G-U-M-B-O, G-U-M-B-O, and Gumbo was his name-O.” He focuses on me for the opening bars, then his eyes glaze and he sags onto his bed. Still holding his stuffie, he heaves a contented dog sigh. It is time. We tell Tiffany to go ahead. I stroke his beautiful red fur. We tell him he is the Very Best Boy ever. He stops breathing. I feel his belly; the tumors are there, but he will never feel the pain they cause. We load our Gumbo into Ben’s car to take him to the funeral home. At the funeral home, the reception person lifts the blanket covering him. His red fur glints in the sun. She says he is beautiful. Then she sees the Subaru stuffie toy in his mouth. I tell her to let him enter the after-world with it. She smiles, and says he must have had a sweet nature.
Indeed he did.
“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”A. A. Milne / Winnie the Pooh