June 1980 to September 1999
They say when you die and go to heaven all the dogs and cats you’ve ever had in your life come running to meet you.~ Kinky Friedman
SEPTEMBER 7, 1999. Today at 2:45 PM we took our beloved dog, Cirocco, to the vet, where she was given a lethal injection. She died in our arms and seemed to feel no pain. I wish it was the same for myself.
I got my first Shetland Sheepdog shortly after returning to California from Woodstock. We had a friend with a big, messy old house out in the Marin County woods, and she had half a dozen rather scruffy Shelties running all over the place, and a new litter. We couldn’t resist taking one. We had been reading Mervyn Peake’s wonderful Gormenghast books, and named her after a character in them, “Lady Fuchsia of Gormenghast.”
Though Fuchsia was a purebred with several champions listed on her pedigree, she was not the Sheltie ideal. She was the runt of the litter. We got a breed book from the library and noted that her ears stood straight up when she was alert (they are supposed to curl over at the tips), she had an overbite (hell, so do I), and her hind feet stood too close together, a condition called “cow-hocked.” We didn’t care. She was sweet-tempered, and so damn pretty. Little kids went wild over her: “Mom, look! It’s a little Lassie!”
She had three litters during her life. The first two times she chose the father herself from the various mutts that capered through the marijuana fumes that drifted over Hippie Hill in Golden Gate park. Each time she had five little mutt pups. One was born dead in the first litter, and in the second, one was born with club feet and a hole in his side. Fuchsia licked the hole until the internal organs were coming out. When it died we played a quick shell game with her, shuffling five pups and returning four to her, and she never missed the dead one. So glad dogs can’t count.
The third time was after we had moved to Eugene, Oregon, and we sent her to another Sheltie owner’s back yard and she presented us with another litter of five. We sold these for $100 each! Like most dog moms I’ve known, Fuchsia was glad to see the last of them.
By the time she reached her eleventh year, Fuchsia was showing her age. She hobbled a bit, her coat was not good, she lost some teeth. (We later learned she probably had a thyroid condition common in Shelties.) She had never shown any inclination to roam, but on the morning I was scheduled to fly to Hollywood for my first meeting with people who wanted to turn my short story “Air Raid” into a movie, she wandered away. I drove all over the neighborhood but couldn’t find her. I had to get on the plane, and my wife and kids promised they’d keep looking.
I was limoed from the airport to the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I lunched with John Foreman (producer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” among many other movies), Freddie Fields (former agent to Judy Garland), Douglas Trumbull (special effects wizard for “2001”), and David Begelman (who that very DAY had been sentenced to community service for forging $80,000 in checks in the name of Cliff Robertson to cover gambling debts). I sat there surrounded by movie stars (Dustin Hoffman was at the next table), and we talked movies until a waiter brought a telephone to John. He listened a moment, then handed it to me.
That’s how I learned that Fuchsia had wandered into the path of a car and was hit. The distraught woman driver bundled her into the car and drove her to a vet, where they amputated her tail and were talking about taking off one of her legs, when she died on the operating table.
I didn’t quite break down, but I guess it was obvious how disturbed I was. I wondered if there was a worse place to be when you learn your dog has died. All four men insisted that the meeting was over, we’d see each other again that evening. They offered their condolences, and left me to my grief.
Shortly after that we moved to a great house on a hill overlooking Eugene. The fenced back yard was steep. Fuchsia had been in the vet’s freezer for some months. Now we had a place to bury her (I would have had her cremated, but Stefan wanted a grave). I dug a hole under the garden path and put her in it, wrapped in a blanket. I never looked at her body.
We decided we wanted another dog, and there was never any question but that it would be another Sheltie. There was a breeder only a few miles away. She had dozens of them in outdoor kennels, and two entire litters of selling age. I sat in her living room on the floor and was assaulted by about a dozen puppies. After half an hour one stood out. She would hang back, but responded with affection when I selected her. She seemed a little calmer than the others. It was a tough decision, but I chose her. I was informed that she was a “cull,” because she didn’t conform to the strict breed standards. Her kennel name was “Too-White,” because she had too much white fur on her hind legs, and a little white spot on her butt. As such, the woman would not sell her as a breeding animal. I could get her papers, but only if I had her spayed. Since I didn’t give a rat’s ass about breeding or showing her, I was happy to take her at a bargain rate of $150. Her brothers and sisters were going for $600.
At that time I was writing my “Gaea” trilogy, and we named her after one of the characters in it: Cirocco.
It was clear from the first that she was very special. She had no overbite, her hind legs were perfectly proportioned, and her ear tips flopped over perfectly. But as she got her growth … her coat, her fantastic coat!
Shelties were developed on the Shetland Islands of Scotland, where they also have small sheep and small ponies. They are herding dogs, and the Islands are very wet. These “Miniature Collies” have a double coat. The outer one is soft and fine, but the inner one is even softer and finer. It makes them pretty much impervious to everything but a dunking in a lake. It also means that, as house pets, they need regular grooming to thin out the inner coat. We got into the habit of monthly professional grooming, and frequent brushings in between.
I’m prejudiced, but I have been to half a dozen dog shows and never ONCE saw a Sheltie with a coat as glorious as Cirocco’s. People simply couldn’t keep their hands off her. She loved it, or tolerated it, depending on how well she knew you. Like most Shelties, she was stand-offish with strangers at first, you had to take a little time to get to know her (though the offer of a French fry or a nacho would shorten that process considerably), and fiercely loyal to and protective of her family. She didn’t care for small children very much, which was fine with me. I don’t, either. When she interacted with them, it tended to be herding behavior. She seemed to have an urge to round ‘em up and head ‘em out.
I took her to obedience classes just long enough to teach her to heel on a leash. It didn’t take her long, and from then on she would trot happily along at my side, never straining at the leash unless she was startled. She learned “sit up!” very quickly, never quite got the hang of “stay!”
How can you tell of nineteen years during which not a day passed that she didn’t at least comfort me with her presence, and often delighted me with her antics and her love? You can’t, that’s all. I can only relate a few special and horrible incidents, a few beloved traits.
In that big old house on the hill I had a pinball machine called “Gorgar!” She would sit and watch me play, no doubt wondering what the damn idiot was doing that made so much noise. One day I picked her up and let her look down through the glass and see the little silver ball bouncing around … and she went bananas! She almost struggled out of my arms, trying to get at that ball. So I set her on the glass and let her go. Completely unworried about being three feet off the ground, she would spin and bark and dig like crazy to try to get to that ball. It became her thing. Every time I had a party one of the highlights was setting Cirocco on the pinball machine and letting her chase the ball. It cracked everybody up, no matter how many times they had seen it.
She hated balloons, fireworks, and thunder.
One day she got it into her head to dig out under the wooden fence in the back yard. I didn’t notice her missing until I went to let her in a few hours later. I drove around the neighborhood in increasing panic, and finally headed for the animal shelter. I hurried to the pens … and there she was in the third cell, romping and playing with a little black dog, having a terrific time on her big adventure. The moment she saw me … she hung her head and tried her best to look miserable. The papers clipped to the cage said something like “Sweet-tempered, smart, clean … this is somebody’s precious baby.” I choked up. I went to the desk to pay her bail and take her home, and was told there was already quite a waiting list to adopt her. And she’d only been there a few hours. It was a comfort to realize that, if I ever did lose her, she would have NO trouble finding a loving home. She would not languish like the hundreds of unwanted black labs that “got too big” which you can see in any dog pound in the country.
She could be quite an actress. Every time I took her in to be groomed she would resist, acting like I was doing something awful to her. “Please, B’rer Master, don’ tro me in dat briar patch!” She NEVER whined, not once in her life that I can remember, but she would tug on her leash and look accusingly at me as I went out the door. I felt rotten about it until one day one of the groomers at the Hollywood Poodle Parlor let me in on her little secret. The minute I was out the door … she began to romp and play, have a grand old time. All the groomers said they were happy to see Cirocco come in the door, because she was a pleasure to work with, unlike many of their clients. She’d stand there and enjoy her brushout and trim as much as any Hollywood matron in a Beverly Hills spa.
Sometimes I could actually read her mind. She had absolutely no fear of going to the vet. She would sit there at my feet in the waiting room and watch while big bruising Rottweilers, mastiffs, German shepherds and other fierce dogs were DRAGGED in by their struggling owners, whining, shivering, spreading their legs to avoid going through doors, literally pissing themselves in their terror. And she’d look up to me and say, “What a pussy!” I never understood it. She was operated on twice, once to remove infected anal glands, and a late-in-life spaying (because the vet said it would make her healthier, and I trusted her absolutely because she had diagnosed the thyroid condition that had hit Fuchsia so hard; one pill once a day and Cirocco was in better shape at 18 than Fuchsia was at 9). It had to have hurt, you’d think she’d associate the vet’s office with pain, like the other dogs did. But she was indifferent to shots and examinations. She clearly didn’t care for the anal thermometer, but she endured it quietly.
Once when we went to a new groomer they had one of those pot-bellied pigs that lived behind the desk. They are probably cute when they are young, but they grow, and this one was HUGE. He came snuffling out through the gate, his belly one inch from dragging on the floor, with jowls bigger than my ass, and a great big snout. Cirocco was RIVETED! She froze and her hair stood up and she watched every movement. Then she looked up at me and said, “That is the UGLIEST dog I EVER saw!”
I almost lost her once more. We had moved into a great apartment over the Monte Carlo restaurant in Portland, and carelessly left the door open. She decided to go on another adventure, down the stairs and out onto the busy city streets, maybe trying to find her long-lost love, the little black dog from the pound. Once again we searched frantically, then went home and waited. That evening we got a call from a curator at the new Oregon Museum of Science and Industry down by the river. He had seen Cirocco looking lost out on the lawn. I almost fainted, realizing that to get there she had to have crossed Grand Avenue, four lanes of slashing traffic going north, and MLK Jr, four lanes of slashing traffic going south. She hadn’t wanted to come to him, but he found the way into her affections with a hot dog from the snack bar. We went to his home, where she was frolicking with his two golden retrievers. What a joyous reunion.
We tried once to breed her. A friend had a sweet little Sheltie named Jesse, the most gregarious Sheltie I’d ever seen. He liked everybody, instantly. He was nowhere near as beautiful as Cirocco (that’s not prejudice; he really didn’t have much of a coat), but I thought he could give her great puppies. And he was willing enough … but not forceful enough. He would start to mount her, and she seemed ready, but he’d hesitate, and Cirocco would turn and snap at him, which seemed to shock him so much he’d back off until she came sniffing around him. Then he’d try again, and she’d snap again. Finally he gave up.
So Cirocco never experienced the joys of motherhood. I’m just as glad. Fuchsia’s three litters took a lot out of her, I’m convinced. I think one of the reasons Cirocco survived 19 years in such good health is that she never gave birth. After we had her spayed, she gained a little weight, but you couldn’t tell it under all the fur. Before that, if you wet her down in the tub you’d think she was a greyhound: skinny legs, slim waist, deep chest, narrow head.
She was still going fairly strong on her 18th birthday. We threw her a party with a hamburger and a big soup bone. She was arthritic, about half blind, but she seemed to still have her love of life and of us. She could no longer run, but she had all her teeth, good appetite, and she was still gorgeous. She was going deaf, too. You could sneak up behind her easily, and if you called her then her ears would perk up and she would take off … in whatever direction she happened to be facing. It seemed that all sounds seemed to come from directly in front of her. I think she was deaf in one ear and hard-of-hearing in the other.
She made it to her 19th birthday and three months beyond. We took pictures of her at her 19th party, where she had a cake shaped like a hamburger, but I didn’t send the pictures out like I did for her 18th because, frankly, my heart was not in it. She had gone far downhill in that last year, and went even further in the next three months.
We had both been thinking about euthanasia for some time now, but we hadn’t spoken of it until this weekend. I admitted that I had been hoping she would die in her sleep one of these nights. Lee said her quality of life was pretty dismal, and I had to agree. We decided to take her to the vet after Labor Day.
Her blindness had become almost total. She could still see shapes and could detect movement, but when we went for walks she would stumble over curbs, go down, and be unable to get up again. Then, she would try to jump over cracks in the sidewalk, thinking they were curbs. (A “jump,” to her, was hopping about two inches with her front legs. Pretty pathetic for a dog who used to have springs in her hind legs.)
She never became completely incontinent, but for the last year she had to go more and more frequently. It got to the point we would have needed to carry her up and down the stairs a dozen times a day. We would have done that, but we couldn’t tell when she needed to go, and I’m not sure she could, either. Her hind legs were so crippled and distorted by the arthritis that she walked in a perpetual squatting position. So we rolled up the area rugs and tried to just clean up after her, thankful that our floors were of no particular character. No lovely parquet or precious hardwoods; just old painted boards. We mopped them a lot.
For the last month things got much worse. She was no longer able to get on her feet by herself. When we set her on her feet she could totter around for a while, until she lost her footing.
Then the worst indignity of all. She would try to squat to do her business … and fall down, in the mess, and have to lie there until one of us noticed her plight and carried her to the bathtub for a hosing down. It would break your heart to see how sad she looked, lying there in her own mess.
This morning, another low point, and my determination to go through with the euthanasia increased. She had soiled herself and lain in it all night. We got her into the bathtub, on her back, and started rinsing her. She struggled at first, as any dog on her back in a bathtub will … then she just seemed to give up. She lay there, taking it all, and didn’t even move when I picked her up in a towel and started drying her. She wouldn’t look at me. I put her on the floor and she just lay there on her side, breathing hard, and she stayed right there for hours. I brushed her a little, and she never moved. It began to seem like this might be easier than I had feared.
Then Lee got her up and brushed her some more. She actually walked around a bit, though she fell, as she usually did now, when we gave her treats to eat. She would lunge out at random, unable to see the treat but smelling it, and the effort would knock her down. We gave her a whole Oscar Meyer wiener, and heated up the last of a can of Alpo.
So, naturally, she looked better than she had in months when it came time to take her in. We took her to the park for her last hour of life, and she walked around with us, very slowly. She seemed to take an interest in what little she could see. I remembered we had some chicken in the fridge and wished we’d given it to her. At least she could go out with a full belly.
The vet said she was in constant pain. She never complained, never whined once. The vet said that being unable to get up was no life for a dog. I agreed, in theory, but was suddenly a lot less sure.
They shaved her leg and the vet stuck in a needle and injected a pink solution as I held her. Almost instantly, the life went out her eyes. Lee cried, I cried. The vet’s assistant asked if I wanted to keep the body, and I said no. Then she asked if I wanted the ashes, and I said no again. I’m not much interested in the body. It’s just dead meat that looks like somebody who used to be my best friend.
But then she told us what would be done with the body. Cirocco will be put with all the other pets that died or were put down that week and they’ll all be cremated together. Then the ashes will be scattered in an apple orchard in the Hood River Valley. I found that I was pleased to learn this. I don’t know that it makes any difference, but if the disposal of one’s mortal remains is important at all, you could hardly do better than the Hood River Valley. We were up there a month ago. The air is so clear, Mount Hood towers over it all, and in the spring the trees will be full of apple blossoms. I think The Princess would have liked it.
It was much harder than I expected. Was it the hardest thing I ever did? Yeah, I guess it’s up there in the top two or three. Which means, I realize, that most of the sorrows and horrors so common in life have, so far, passed me by. A friend of mine recently lost her mother. Put this in perspective, okay? I mean, get a grip!
I can’t. I keep … I wanted to say “bursting into tears,” but it’s not bursting. I sort of collapse into a helpless puddle. An unlovely, uncertain, ugly mess of a puddle. What gave me the right? And yet … she might have lived another year, in pain every moment. What would give me the right to keep her alive in those circumstances? In the natural course of things she would certainly die, in a lot more pain than she did.
As an agnostic I don’t believe in God, an afterlife, a heaven or a hell. But, as an agnostic, I don’t DISbelieve in them, either. The whole idea has always seemed so bloody unlikely … but so has every other speculation about death, from reincarnation to permanent oblivion. I can tell you one thing, though. If there IS a heaven, it better have a place for dogs in it, or I say screw it, I don’t want to go there. I couldn’t respect a God who drew a distinction between humans and dogs. In EVERY WAY I can think of, save only intellect, they are so much better than most of us. And, frankly, intellect doesn’t look so goddam great at this moment.
I’m going to miss her for a long, long time.
DECEMBER 2003: I still miss her every single day. I can hardly look at a Sheltie without choking up. And though I know we did the right thing, it still haunts me.