She was born in mid-August of 2014. About five weeks later, my mother finally and mercifully succumbed to her years-long battle with Alzheimer’s. Several weeks after that, as if the stars had aligned in some sort of cosmic, preordained way, I came across an advertisement on Craigslist from a breeder offering Golden Newfie puppies for sale.
Having spent the bulk of my life keeping company with large breed animals, the last of which was my final English Mastiff (Millie), who passed not long before my mother, I looked right past the “Golden” part and imagined in my mind’s eye a Newfoundland which I thought would be a great partner to keep me company through my transition to a new life after caring for an Alzheimer’s patient.
I will never forget the first day I met Daisy. Having exchanged several emails with the breeder before calling her the day I was scheduled to pick Daisy up, she reminded me- just to make sure I knew what I was buying- that she was a so-called Golden Newfie – and I assured her that I understood. The entire time, of course, I was visualizing a yellow-coated Newfoundland. No such thing exists, I would learn soon enough, but once I had decided to get this dog, she could have been pink, purple, green, and red for all I would have cared.
I set out for the 3-hour one-way drive to Connecticut, bursting at the seams with anticipation and excitement about how this new dog would improve my life once I picked her up. By the time I finally got there, it was almost dark, and I could barely see her, although when the breeder put her down in front of me, what I COULD see was a fat, black, fuzzy ball of love that couldn’t have been happier to meet me.
We went in the house, and she put me in a chair to wait while she got Daisy ready to send home with me. About 5 seconds after I sat down, a gorgeous red Golden Retriever turned the corner, sat down at my feet, put his chin on my arm (resting on the arm of the chair), and looked me right in the eye. It was only then that I came to realize what golden Newfie actually meant, but over the nine subsequent years that Daisy and I shared a life together, I saw her father in everything she did even though she looked like her mother – 125 pounds of unconditional love – until the day she died.
The ride home was pretty amusing. The poor thing was scared to death, having just been yanked away from her mother, handed over to someone she had only just met, and made to get into this strange boxy-looking thing with weird sounds coming out of it. Fifteen minutes later, she was going 60 miles an hour, rolling down the highway, laying on the floor in complete darkness.
Looking back on that day now, I realize that- for all of my excitement and happiness – in the eyes of a puppy, it must be one of the most terrifying experiences they will ever endure. By the time we were 30 minutes away from home, Daisy had worked her way up onto the seat, inching ever closer to me mile by mile, winding up behind my back and halfway up my shoulder. Not once in the 3-hour trip did she whimper, cry, fuss, or complain. Nor did she ever, across the entirety of her life.
It’s worth mentioning that she didn’t get the name Daisy until the day after I brought her home. It was my job in those days when I was still able to drive safely to pick up my granddaughter from school. I had already whittled down my name choices to either Lady (Lady and the Tramp) or Daisy (Driving Miss Daisy) because I had big plans for her and me to travel all day, every day, all around the state. Because my granddaughter was in kindergarten then, I figured I was earning brownie points by letting her choose which name once they met for the first time since she would spend a lot of time with Daisy as they grew up.
Once all the kindergarteners poured out of the schoolhouse, squealing at the site of this chubby little 8-week-old bundle of black fur, Jillian took one look at her and announced her name absolutely had to be Daisy. And that, as they say, was that.
Our first several weeks together were not unlike any other new relationship between a man and his dog; understanding who pees and poops inside and who pees and poops outside is, perhaps, the only difficulty this relationship will ever encounter and, with every fiber of my being, let me assure you that this was the first, last, and only stretch of difficulty our lives together ever encountered.
Three months to the day after Daisy was born, as fate would have it, I had my third stroke and was forced to move out of my house and live with my daughter and her family, bringing with me both Daisy and the final surviving canine of my years in Texas who was named Scooby.
It would take Daisy and I several years to figure this out, but, over time, it became clear that hours was a working partnership far more than a pet owner-pet relationship. With the latter, the dynamic is frequently one of bending the will of the pet to that of the owner, but in the case of the former, as was the case with Daisy and me, it was much more about establishing a mutual understanding.
About a year and a half after the stroke, after a lot of Therapy and Rehab, I got my own apartment (with no small amount of resistance from my family and my doctors about living alone unsupervised), Daisy, Scooby, and I settled into our own new beginnings. Scooby, already well into his human 90s, lasted another year or so before having to go meet his maker. Once he was gone, Daisy and I became insufferable and inseparable, co-dependent soulmates, neither of us ever wanting the other out of our sight. At this time, when she was roughly halfway through her third year, the nature of our relationship really began to mature and flourish.
Although significant eyesight loss was the worst of the things that came with the stroke, and my mobility was more or less intact, I needed to use a cane when I was outside because of a big change in my balance. As if she consciously understood this, Daisy steered me away from divots in the landscape and walked around icy spots whenever we were in the yard or taking a walk in the park. She would also pull or release whenever we were confronted with inclines or declines, and I would always tell her what an amazing dog she was to help me avoid falling on my ass, especially in winter time, and how amazed I was by her “reading” my movement and body language and how much in sync we were as we wandered around in the outside world.
There wasn’t a human being she ever came across that she didn’t love, wag her tail almost all the way off her backside, or give wet, sloppy kisses to , if they would hold still long enough. Though never a fan of other dogs, put a kitten in front of her, or a baby, she would love on that thing as if it was her very own.
I remember joking fairly regularly that she was a terrible watchdog; if you pulled up in front of my house, she would fly off the steps as you opened the door of your panel truck, lead you into the house, show you where every valuable could be found, and help you load them up into the truck and take them with you… So long as you gave her a ride and let her ride shotgun.
Amazingly, even though this is hard to do, I trained her- over the years- not to bark when we sat on the porch late at night as the drunks wobbled their way home on foot after leaving the bar a few blocks from my house. She would pick up her head and look in the general direction they were coming from, and I would look at which way her nose was pointing so I could scope out, as best I could, what was headed our way while whispering to her not to bark and let them know we were sitting there. She never unlearned the instinctive”boof” sound that dogs apparently can’t help themselves from making, but she otherwise stuck to the job of letting me know something was amiss without making a scene out of it and waking up the whole neighborhood.
She loved any kind of water, which is no surprise given that both of the breeds from which she came are water dogs, but the first pond I introduced her to made her nervous and unsure of what to do with herself. She sniffed it, pawed at it, unimpressed, walked around in it roughly ankle-deep (ankle and wrist-deep if we’re being precise), and then walked out of it and back up to the cabin where we were staying. I remember talking smack to her the whole way back up the hill, telling her I thought I should get some sort of rebate after buying a water dog that didn’t like water, but that certainly changed the first time she met the ocean.
Of course, canines are not especially well known for thinking too far ahead; she drank that ocean as if she hadn’t seen water for weeks. I kept telling her to stop… Telling her it would make her throw up. I even tried taking her by the collar and walking her out of the water. The only thing that accomplished was getting my shoes wet because the minute I let go of her, she went right back to drinking the ocean.
Humans being at least a little bit better at thinking ahead, I took her out of the ocean and walked up to the parking lot to wait for our ride home roughly 30 minutes before they were due to arrive. On the one hand, I wanted to give her some time to dry out before putting her in the back of someone else’s car, which would smell like a wet dog for weeks, but I was even more concerned about making sure she had enough time to put at least some of the ocean in the parking lot rather than in the back seat of their car. I wasn’t wrong; as other people were coming and going, each of them wanting to Pat her and love on her, I knew the excitement in her would facilitate the emptying process. It did, but good God almighty… It was every bit of 2 gallons before she finally composed herself. She eventually figured out salt water is bad, but I’d be lying if I said she never did it again.
By the time she turned five, I had decided that I would try to write a full-length book. This lifelong dream was put off for decades because… Life… Was further delayed by losing my eyesight. Refusing to give up and having engineered decent workarounds, I got busy trying to do it. Daisy, effectively my canine soulmate at this point, transitioned to sounding board and creative consultant. I am aware that this sounds rather peculiar, but the methods and tools necessary to do this work require that I dictate through a microphone into a screen that displays the text as I go along and utilizes a grammar and spell checker running in the background that pops up blue and red indicators over problem areas. Once all that’s done, I highlight areas of the text and play it back in my headphones, making changes along the way until it sounds right in my head. What this means is that Daisy, over the course of our writing years together, heard me speak millions of words and, all that time and across all those words, I can’t help but wonder what effect all of that talking out loud had on both of us.
Between growing up in the ’70s, now being in my mid-60s, and having had three Strokes – pick which one you choose to blame – I have this “thing”(my neurologist says it’s officially called “word finding”) where I absolutely know what it is I want to say but can’t think of the damn word to save my ever-loving life. With Daisy by my side over four years of writing and publishing three books and countless essays, poems, and short stories, I can’t even begin to count how many times I would look over at her while she was sound asleep, say “Hey” (to which she had learned very early in life meant I was talking to her) and she would snap her head up and look me directly in the eyes (exactly like her father had done the first day I met her), hanging on my every word, as I would say to her “what’s the word Daisy? What’s the damn word? It starts with a freaking ‘G’…C’Mon, what’s the word?!” before flopping her head back down and going back to sleep. 4 years of this, each and every day, and never did she once complain.
You know, sitting down and trying to collect your thoughts so you might thoroughly assemble a retrospective on a happy and full life, well-lived and thoroughly enjoyed is hard; the more you try to relive it in your own mind, blurred by the ocular mist you are trying to fend off, the less justice you feel you are adequately doing in order to convey the wholeness of the life Daisy and I shared, with others. It’s certainly how I have grown to feel after a week of mourning my loss of her and another week spent trying to figure out what my new life, in her absence, is going to look like.
I have never been much of a crier, not because of some prideful masculine vanity but because – contrary to popular advice telling you you need to get it out of your system – crying, at least as it relates to sadness and loss, doesn’t make me feel any better; it just makes me feel that much worse and doesn’t change anything about what caused me to feel that way in the first place. Having said that, however, I admit that I cried when my children were born, I cried when my oldest daughter got married, and I have been known to leak from time to time at the end of a good movie…” A Dog’s Purpose” anyone?
I waited as long as I did and spread this retrospective out long enough, precisely because what matters most of all is that chibi remembered for more time than it takes the tears to dry, put up collar and harness, and get rid of the sticks and toys and bones. Several years ago, I invented a quote, specific to Daisy and what she brought to my life, that I wanted to make sure would outlive us both: “If your dog hasn’t taught you things about yourself you never realized, you aren’t paying close enough attention to what she’s trying to tell you.”And It’s those things about myself that she taught me that are most worth being celebrated and remembered.
As much as she grew to love water, diving off the dock and swimming until I had to make her get out of the water, there were three things that gave her endless joy. She loved rolling around on her back, kicking her feet to intensify the itching and scratching – like a bear backing up to a tree or a human to the corner of the door jamb – and no amount of begging or pleading ever got her to stop until she had scratched whatever itch that needed to be attended to. She was so relentless about this that I eventually made it a game, encouraging her by repeating over and over again, “Happy dog! Happy dog! What a happy dog!” until she got it out of her system.
If you even walked toward the garden hose, dropping anything and everything she might have been doing as you did so, she would beat you to the knob and wonder what the hell was taking you so long to turn on the water. Once you did, nearing Mach speed, she would get to the end of the hose as the Water started burping out and then look up at you, wondering why she wasn’t already soaking wet. She loved biting at the water as it came out and, as I would keep saying, “Good girl, get a drink!” and would not stop until I turned the hose off, looking at me with great disappointment as I headed back to the handle to do so.
The thing I am quite sure she loved most, other than giving endless kisses, was something that she actually taught me. For all of the nine years we had together, the one thing we always did no matter the time of year, outside temperature, or overall weather conditions, we always sat on the front porch before going to bed and “talked” about the day we’d had and what we ought to consider doing the next day. Of course, I was doing the talking, and she was doing the listening/snoring, which had always been the nature of our relationship anyway, but I talked to that dog like she was a human who was just happy enough in her own skin to listen. A Midsummer Night a couple of years back, though, she decided we were doing it all wrong.
It was a night like any other. We came out of the house, walked down the three steps to the sidewalk, turned right, and went to the end of the property line where she could check her “Pee Mail” that had been left by the dogs that had lifted a leg on their way by our property line, we did our customary u-turn and walked to the other end of the property line where she checked that Pee Mail, left her own reply, and we took another u-turn and headed back to our sidewalk where we would go up the steps to the porch and sit down. She was having none of it; on this particular night, she simply refused to go up the steps, making a hard left turn and all but dragging me to a spot in the middle of our yard under a beautiful 60 ft tall hemlock, and she promptly plopped down and refused to budge. As if I was going to get an answer, I asked her what the hell she was doing and – after she gave me “that look”… You know the one I’m talking about, as if to tell me “not only no, but hell no I’m staying right here tonight”… And then look down the street as if to tell me it was not up for discussion.
This moment in our life actually inspired an essay I wrote titled “To BE Your Dog Is To REALLY Know Her and conveys, I think, quite well the idea that putting yourself in your dog’s shoes is both humbling and enlightening and teaches you that, from a dog’s point of view, they act more like we are their partner than their overlord and the better we come to understand the world through their eyes the more likely the relationship will be strong and deep and unconditionally loving and respectful. That certainly describes our connection, at least. And for what it’s worth, every day after – except when it was raining – until the morning she died well over two years later.
We laid together in that spot. We laid together in the snow, and we laid together under warm summer star-filled night skies. I talked, and she listened. I used her back as a pillow, she draped her wrist over my arm. She slept, I talked more and, especially laying in the snow in my long johns and winter coat, when I’d had enough of being a dog in the yard, I woke her up, and made her come in the house.
Somewhere around Daisy’s 9th birthday, she began to change noticeably. She started slowing down, began to lose that spring in her step, and seemed increasingly disinterested in the squirrels, the Birds, or the dogs walking past the yard while we sat together in the morning drinking coffee. Her enthusiasm was unchanged; she was no less affectionate with me or other people she encountered, but she just didn’t have that “pep” I had grown so accustomed to over the years. I sort of understood, given she was in her early human sixties at this point, but it just seemed to happen almost overnight.
She always had this “thing” she did where I would put my hand under her chin, loving and scratching and rubbing her neck and throat affectionately, and she would drape her wrist over mine as if to say, “Don’t stop.” I didn’t notice then, but she seemed to do more and more of that over the weeks between her birthday and when I finally realized something was going on with her health.
In mid to late September, one morning, out of the blue, she refused her food and all of the treats that she had been given routinely throughout the day her entire life. There have certainly been days over the years where she turned her nose up at her food, but when she refused her treats, I understood something more serious was happening. A call to the vet recommended I give it a couple of days… That maybe she had a bug or something that needed to work itself through her system. But after three days of no eating, she began to lose strength in her back legs and struggled to get up and down the stairs.
I made another call to the vet, but no appointments were available for the next several days. I took her to the emergency room vet because I understood that too many more days of no eating would mean the end of her life. They told me that “she most likely had cancer” but that more testing and a referral to a canine oncologist was the only way to be sure. I felt at that moment, and I texted as much to my daughter, that all of the oxygen had been sucked out of my lungs, and my world was swimming as I tried to wrap my head around what was happening.
The ER vet sent us home with a prescription for steroids, telling me that sometimes one of the side effects of the drug increases appetite and that it might give us more time with Daisy while we figure out what we’re going to do next. It worked! Within 4 hours, and up until the drugs stopped working about a month later, she ate voraciously and regained much of her weight and, for a great stretch of 5 days or so before her death, some of the “old” Daisy was still in there somewhere.
By the time the steroids no longer had any effect on her appetite, and she had stopped eating altogether, she had become visibly weak and frail and, especially the last two days of her life, I had to carry her kind of like a suitcase, holding on to her by her harness, up and down the stairs. The night before she died, I laid with her in the yard one last time, and we watched the sunset together like we had done for years. The two hours we spent that night inspired an essay I published called “One Last Sunset” and had everything to do with my having decided to invest the time and emotion necessary to ultimately write this retrospective celebration of our time together over the span of the nine years the good Lord saw fit to give us.
On the last morning of Daisy’s life, I got up at the same time as I do every day, went through the same routine we have gone through – along with the two cats – and offered her food (which she wanted no part of), made coffee, and took her to her favorite spot a full 2 hours before we would be picked up for her final trip to the vet.
She was so sick, visibly uncomfortable, and exhausted from the trip down the steps and out into the yard at her favorite spot, and it was all I could do to keep my emotions in check. I positioned my body as close as I could to hers, opened my thermos of coffee, and just started talking.
I told her I didn’t want her to go… That I wasn’t ready to say goodbye… And how much I wished we could have more time. I asked her if she remembered that time we went to the beach, and she threw up all that water.
I asked her if she remembered swimming out into the middle of the cove, retrieving a fish I had thrown back that I didn’t want her to have, only for her to get it anyway and torture it on the shore no matter how hard I tried to get her to stop. I retold the story of that time we went camping with Scooby, I reminded her of those two kids next door and how they squealed and came running to love on her every time they saw us together in the yard. I reminded her, as well, that the two girls across the street were never going to stop asking me where she was or how she was doing.
I told her to make sure everyone in Dog Heaven knew – if there was such a thing – that she was the only dog there that could brag to the others about having helped write three books and countless poems, essays, and short stories. I told her that if ever there was a dog deserving of a life after this one, surely it was her. And I told her, probably a thousand times in those two hours, that I loved her, that I was proud of her, that I was going to miss her, and that my life would never be the same without her being smack dab in the middle of it.
There were several times during our conversation that she picked her head up and put it on my leg like she always did (and like her father had done all those years ago), and every once in a while, she draped her wrist over mine as if to tell me she understood what I was saying while trying to reassure me that everything would be okay.
When we got to the vet, I went inside and asked if they could bring a stretcher out because Daisy would never be able to make that walk across the slippery tile floor in the waiting area. They wrapped her in a blanket in the back of my daughter’s car, lifted her up onto the stretcher, and wheeled her into the room. My daughter… Already fighting back tears… Wanted no part of being with us in the room… waited outside. Once we got into the room, they lowered her all the way down to the floor but left her on the stretcher, wrapped in that blanket, and left us for a few minutes to collect ourselves before the vet came in.
I laid down on the floor in front of her, hand under her neck and loving on her chin and throat as I have since the day we first met. We looked each other in the eyes as I continued talking to her, and she continued to listen to me as if she understood everything I was saying. A couple of minutes later the vet came in, took one look at her, and said I was doing the right thing as he confirmed she showed all the signs of the cancer the other vets hesitated to confirm without my having to spend thousands of dollars I didn’t have on tests that would only prolong the pain and suffering she never complained about, not even once, from the time she first showed signs of it, until the morning she was put to sleep.
As they shaved an area on her hind quarter, needing a clear injection site, she never blinked, and I never stopped talking. The vet explained what was going to be happening, and Daisy diverted her eyes toward where the voice was coming from before looking back at me. I told him I understood and went back to talking to Daisy, who, and it took me several tries before I could finish this paragraph, continued looking me in the eyes as she draped her wrist over mine just as the vet gave her the push of Propofol that would knock her out, and just like that, she was unconscious. I kept rubbing her neck anyway, and her wrist never moved from its position draped over mine. Once he confirmed that she was unconscious, he administered the second push of whatchamacallit barbital, and in less than a minute, she was gone.
I chose the title of this retrospective precisely because I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, Braveheart, in which Stephen says to William Wallace as he is about to mount his horse for what they both know is likely taking him to his death, that he would “see him after”each understanding that after, in this case, would be more likely in the next life. None of us knows, of course, whether anything happens after we die, and there’s no way of knowing for sure until we do. But if there is an “after” then I want to believe that I will see Daisy there. And before I got up off the floor, I looked into her now-blank eyes and said exactly that… I’ll see you after… And left the room before the saltwater made my vision too blurry for me to find the door.