04 February 2008

Good Night, My Sweet Pet(s)

It was one of those life-changing, door closing/door opening (though I didn't immediately know it) moments. I was at the Waverly Farmers Market in February 1993 when I saw a man with two of the most breathtaking dogs (that were not mine), spaniels of some sort. I could tell he was asked about them endlessly as he patiently told me they were English cocker spaniels and gave me the breeder's name.

I called Mary Ann Alston the same day and told her I would be interested in a puppy sometime in the future, as my Sascha, my first dog - a spaniel-sheltie mix and the greatest birthday present I have ever received - was thirteen and a half and I was just trying to be realistic. Little did I know I would call her again just two weeks later, as Sascha collapsed the night after my initial call and died two weeks later of cancer.

So afterwards, immediately needing to give my heart away again, I called Mary Ann and inquired about puppies. She told me she had a four month old puppy she still had not decided would be pet or show (usually determined by two months), but that the puppy was going to a new home in Japan. I was invited, nonetheless, to experience what English cocker puppyhood looked like.

Knowing I could not have her, I hoped the fence separating me from the puppy would also foster emotional distance. Fat chance. With her blue roan coat, she was a thousand times more exotic than the black and white-coated dogs I saw at the farmers market. Every description of English cockers includes the words "merry" and "melting eyes" and I knew at that moment that the puppy stage of all this would make every frustration of housebreaking and training worth it. I left Millersville dejected and heartbroken that the love of my life would soon be on the other side of the world.

Cut to the very next day and the miracle. Mary Ann decided the puppy just didn't quite measure up to show quality - or should I say measure down, declaring that the tail sat the tiniest smidgeon below the breed standard. With that, the Japanese buyer backed out. I still consider that Mary Ann performed a mission of mercy for the puppy, but even more so for me.

Sophie (named after Sascha, who was named after my daddy, Sam) came home and as soon as I set her down, my perfectly-behaved greyhound, Hannah, promptly clamped down on Sophie's entire face, as if this were the hors d'oeuvre of her dreams. With my scream, Hannah unclenched, but the very next time I let the two near each other, Sophie walked right up to Hannah and patiently waited for her to do it again. After six years of regarding Hannah's extreme interest in squirrels and bunnies, I realized she had no bloodlust in her eyes for Sophie and I came to understand it was all about dominance and not dinner. This particular manifestation of their lovefest continued for years, with Sophie usually initiating the game. Hannah would ever-so-tenderly clamp Sophie's snout in her mouth, and as soon as she released it, Sophie would bug her to do it again.

I often joked that I maintained an almost hairless head so as to finance Sophie's monthly grooming appointment and I was never ashamed to proclaim how vain I was about her beauty. She sometimes glared at me while being groomed and I told her being fabulous was hard work, but once off the table, you could almost hear her say "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." And it was her beauty, not to mention her quintessential English cocker merriment, that delighted all who encountered her.

Hannah dropped dead at thirteen and a half, probably from a stroke. Up to that day, she had been hale and hearty and looked years younger. I think she just didn't want any part of moving from Charles Village to Bolton Hill. It was obvious Sophie missed Hannah and once ensconced in Bolton Hill, would moan and wail endlessly whenever left alone (the kitty, Simcha, apparently not providing adequate company). I could hear Sophie howling up and down the block and my new neighbors were beside themselves. Sophie was pining away for her former habitat, and I imagined, a canine companion, so I called Mary Ann again.

Hennie, the exceptional blue roan offspring of Playboy and Peaches, arrived after a long wait for her conception, gestation, birth, and vetting, but this is not a completely happy story. After the first few years, an exceedingly rare condition emerged, ideopathic aggression, with no known cause or cure. Drugs can't completely control Ms. Jekyl/Hyde, and after winding up in the ER one Christmas night with a bite to my face, I should have said enough is enough. What stopped me, I suppose, was the sight of Sophie and Hennie mostly snuggled together like puzzle pieces and the intoxicating combination of pride and vanity I felt when accepting the constant compliments on my two stunning dogs.

Hennie attacked Sophie about a dozen times over the years, though never once drawing blood. But in the middle of the other night, she did. And although just last month, her vet, the amazingly intuitive and compassionate Dr. Bill Benson, marveled while treating her for high blood pressure at just how young she was for a fifteen year old English cocker, this episode proved too much for her - something about platelets and red blood cells and her age - and at 6:13 PM tonight, she was gone.

English cockers rarely make it past twelve, yet even recently I was asked if Sophie were the younger of the pair. Every day with my best friend was a blessing, especially those of the bonus years. In my last hours with her at Dr. Benson's, I told my still-stupendously gorgeous Sophie how much I loved her, asked her how she heard cucumbers being removed from the fridge (not carrots, not peppers, not cheese - only cucumbers), and thanked her for taking care of me in ways only a dog can.

Instead of cruising 695 and 795 earlier today to Dr. Benson's in Reisterstown, I snaked my way through Greenspring Valley, imagining all the while that it was the British countryside and I was in a pair of Wellies and Sophie and I were romping in the mist and headed towards tea by the old Aga stove after a day flushing out birds. That hazy fantasy, and the knowledge I could not have loved her more, plus the unwavering belief that she and Hannah have been reunited, is what holds me together at this moment. And I’m secure she's in a place where every day will be a great hair day - without ever again enduring the groomer.

But nothing will assuage very different feelings, of guilt and regret, as I prepare to put Hennie down. Mary Ann and Dr. Benson tell me there is no escaping the illness that sends her growling and snarling at me for no reason. Sometimes I am afraid of my own dog and worry she'll bite someone else. Of course, she must be gone before I can get another dog. Due to liability issues, English cocker rescue and the SPCA will not take her. For years, until I had to confront it, I pooh-poohed the notion that we know the exact right time to ease a pet to a painless end. This is different. She's sick in mind but not in body. I am bereft in a whole other uncharted way.

Almost instantaneously going from a two-dog household to a no-dog one is unfathomable and cruel beyond belief, and all because one dog hastened the other's death. I got Hennie because Sophie needed a companion, but this fairy tale ends in a nightmare.