Throughout his long happy life he never once snarled, bared his teeth or raised his hackles at a human being. Despite his fierce contenance, athletic build, and warrior lineage, a gentler dog was never born.
When he died my fingernails stopped growing. When growth started again, the stop appeared as a shallow groove spanning across each nail. Toenails, too. It took weeks for that reminder to grow out.
It has been three years now, and I still miss him. These were my thoughts on the day of his death. From the Herald-Citizen, Thursday, August 31, 2006.
Porch is gone.
The tan Shar-Pei the family had named D. J., but whom I always called Porch Patrol, is gone. It’s Monday, and he had a stroke Saturday a week ago. Since then he has gradually lost his strength.
Yesterday he was very weak, and he got weaker throughout the day. He was just limp in my arms when I’d take him into the yard to try to stand. But he could not stand; his legs dangled helplessly when I’d lower him to the grass. He drank only once all day long, in the morning. With help he could still stand then, and I’d put some ice water in his bowl. He wouldn’t eat anything, even Kibbles ‘n Bits, his favorite treat.
I stayed with him on the back porch last night until eleven. I’d put his bed, a carpet remnant, in the middle of the floor, and I laid him on it. I turned him from his left side to his right side occasionally and back again later. A few times he found enough strength to lift his old head. I stroked the side of his wrinkled face and put my cheek against his.
“You my little buddy, you my little buddy,” I told him, my usual saying. In thanks, somehow that good dog would find the strength for a feeble tail wag.
He was breathing awfully hard, trying to get enough oxygen. I measured his respiration rate by my running watch—64 breaths per minute. Yellow mucus oozed out of his eyes; I’d wipe it away with facial tissue.
I thought he’d not make it through the night. But this morning he was still lying there, his old ribs heaving with each hard breath. He’d moved a little—enough that I knew he’d tried to get up during the night. He still managed a faint tail wag when I stroked his head and spoke to him. I felt of his feet, and they’d gotten cold. Circulation to his extremities was waning—his body was shutting down.
Jo Ann and I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I called the veterinarian. Dr. Thomas Holt came out. His examination confirmed what needed to be done. He filled a syringe with a pink solution of Phenobarbital and shaved a place for the needle on Porch’s left front leg.
“Are you ready for me to do this?” he asked.
“I am if you’re ready to see me cry.”
He pushed the needle in. The dog’s blood pressure was so low he couldn’t pierce the vein, even after sticking the leg several times. Probing, he wagged the needle back and forth, but couldn’t find blood. He decided to try for the jugular vein and stuck the needle in the dog’s neck several times. That didn't work either. Finally we turned that patient dog to his left side so as to try his other leg.
“He likes laying on that side better anyway,” I said.
Several more sticks, still no success. Finally, Dr. Holt said, "let’s try this." We raised his head and chest to an upright position. I knelt beside his limp body and cradled his head in my hands. His tail gave the faintest of wags, little more than a few trembling jerks, but unmistakably a wag.
"Did you see that?" I said, looking up at my wife—her eyes were wet and red. She nodded; she had seen it too.
Dr. Holt pushed the needle in. I saw blood rush into the syringe.
"There it is," the vet said. He emptied the syringe into the leg. Almost at once Porch relaxed the weight of his old head into my hands, and I eased him gently to the floor.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Holt said. “I’m sorry it took so many sticks.” We knew he couldn’t help that.
The dog’s body rests there on the back porch yet, covered with one of the towels I used during my swim training for Ironman. It’s a garish rag, red, yellow and brown swirled together in an African motif. I’d rescued it from the throwaway box, and it became my favorite towel—a canine funeral shroud now.
I have to go dig a grave.
This place won’t be the same without him. He leaves an empty space. The empty space will be everywhere: on the cool concrete under my front porch chair; in his corner near the French door on the back porch; around my folding chair in front of the shop when I sit watching the sky at night and eating popcorn; in Jo Ann’s garden when she waters her flowers…
Who knows how many times I've laughed because of him, how many stories I’ve told about him? What is the value of laughter? Of stories?
I spent more time with that gentle dog than with any human. In my day-to-day routine he was a constant presence, watching for me after my morning run, trotting across the yard to wait at the top of the driveway, my simple return being his happiest present. And on and on.
I wrote about him in 2003, in the last paragraph of my book. In equivalent human years, he was at the age of 63 then, as I was. Out of pure exuberance he’d run back and forth fast across the back yard each night. He was old but still strong. I imagined in his running a metaphor for mine.
He came to our back porch in May of 1994, a little pup. Twelve years and two months later he lies on that porch. He ended up where he started out.
I have to go dig his grave.