A couple of weeks before Beloved and I got married in the summer of 1999, a friend who knew that I was desperate for a dog called me up. “I hear you’re moving from an apartment to a townhouse when you guys get married,” she said. “A friend of mine has a litter of puppies who need homes. Are you interested?”
Was I ever! Katie was the product of a chance encounter between a purebred Golden Retriever who escaped from his yard one day and the German Shepherd-mix mutt who lived at the farm next door. When we set out to see the litter of puppies out near Sharbot Lake one gorgeous June afternoon, I had my heart set on a black and tan pup, but sweet Katie stole my heart from the minute we met her. She was only four weeks old, and my friend agreed to foster her until we returned from our wedding and honeymoon and moved into our new townhouse.
Katie was about 11 weeks old when she came home to us in August of 1999, and our lives haven’t been the same since. She was the oddest combination of submissive and stubborn. To this day, at 100+ pounds, she’ll drop to her belly in submission when a bite-sized dog the size of a Yorkie approaches. And yet she was so stubborn and so mischevious that she failed puppy obedience class the first time, and I clearly remember bawling on the phone to my mother that if I could not tame this wild dog whose antics had me at my wit’s end then there was simply no way I’d ever have the stamina to raise children.
In the darkest days of our infertility, I used to joke in an “it’s not really funny” sort of way that if we didn’t have kids soon, you’d find me at the mall pushing a pram with Katie in it, a bonnet on her lovely yellow head.
In many ways, she has been our first child. As each baby arrived, she adopted him into the family with good grace and patience, never begrudging the need to share her space in our home and our hearts. She has endured boys who lift her lips to examine her teeth and tongue, who yelp and yip and gambol like puppies while tumbling over her, and who have on more than one occasion used her like a step-stool to clamber up onto the sofa. She is part dog, part sister, part babysitter, part mama bear.
She is the world’s worst shedder. I simply cannot fathom how she has any hair left on her body at the end of the day, so much of it is left in tumbleweeds under every piece of furniture in the house despite daily and sometimes twice-daily swiffering. And she is the most prolific pooper you have ever seen, pooping out her own body weight at least thrice weekly.
She has mastered the fine art of Jedi mind tricks, and can induce any of us to feeding her simply by looking at us. I’m sure she averages four meals a day, not including the toddler high-chair buffet.
And now, Katie is old. As she passed her 11th birthday this past May, I tried not to think about it. There is a chart in our vet’s office that shows the lifespan and equivalent age in human years of small, medium and large dogs. The graph for the large-sized dog actually ends just past eight years, but if you follow where the curve leaves off, when you cross 11 years it is equivalent to more than a hundred years of human time.
That’s old, no matter how you slice it. She’s aging with remarkable grace, and has virtually no significant health issues despite a family history of and breed tendency toward hip displasia. That is, until now. At an appointment last week, the vet found a lump near the joint in her back leg. They did an aspiration that came back inconclusive, but his recommendation is surgery to remove what he suspects is a “mass cell tumour.”
Given her current vitality, there’s no reason to believe she doesn’t have two or maybe even more good years. But the surgery is not free, of course. The cost for the surgery alone is in the range of $1,000. How can I possibly put a value on this dog’s life? It’s the ageless dilemma of the pet owner. Will I pay $1,000 to spend more time with her, to try to make sure that she remains healthy and vital and lovely for as long as possible? Of course I will. I simply couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. It’s a pittance compared to the value of what she’s given us over the years.
But even if the surgery successfully removes all of the tumour, at best it buys us just a little bit more time. I’ve seen this day coming for 11 years and have been denying it ever since. This will be the boys’ first face-to-face encounter with mortality, and I don’t think any of us are ready, nor will we ever be.