Lena died yesterday following a long decline. She was surrounded by her family of loving, humans and two kind veterinary professionals, out in the sun, in her own yard, in the warm grass. It was a peaceful and fitting end to a life well lived.
We first met Lena in 1998, when she was four weeks old and the size of a baked potato. I had used this wonderful new invention called “the internet” to find the perfect litter of puppies at the right sort of breeder (it’s easy to go very wrong with this breed) who happened to be down near the West Virginia border. Then, among that litter, I subjected several of the plump, squirming creatures to rigorous personality testing. Among them, Lena stood out as an exemplar of calm temperament, confidence and sweetness. She was the runt and not valuable as a show dog like some of her litter mates, because her coloring was “smutty” (slightly black sheen over her red fur), her white wasn’t flashy, and her tail wasn’t straight enough. She was pet quality, and perfect for us. We put a deposit of $200 on her and went home to work on our new house. We were moving into a sort of transitional, somewhat crime-oriented neighborhood and I needed this tiny fat puppy to grow into my protection dog. Indeed, getting a protection dog was a condition by which I had agreed to move into Ohio City in the first place.
We named her after Lena Lindgard, a character we admired from Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I gave her the middle name of Rose, which was part of her mother’s name (Royal D’s Maserati Rose), and also the middle name I gave to my childhood dog, Wart. Royal D is the name of her breeder. This is how she looked when we first brought her home:
Lena was an American Staffordshire terrier. This is a breed I chose because I wanted a dog that would deter home invasion, protect me from assailants on the street, while also secretly being the sweetest baby doll on Earth. She was true to all these qualities, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Indeed, in our neighborhood, she became a sort of Rorschach Test of what sort person was approaching me. If they were a nice, normal person, they would come over and pet Lena and comment on her cuteness, good manners and overall charm, to say nothing of her remarkably expressive, velvety ears! If the person were a hoodlum, drug dealer, or involved in the horrible world of underground dog fighting, they would do one of two things: cross the street in dread, or approach me to buy puppies. “That’s a pretty dog you got there– can I get some pups?” And when they learned that I had spayed her they would respond in horror: “Why would you throw away good money like that?”
And, thirdly, if they were South African, they would say, “Have you read Jock of the Bushveld?” I honestly have no idea why all these South Africans kept showing up on the streets of Cleveland, but there they were. After the third or fourth South African said this to me, I went to some effort to track down this obscure account of a Staffordshire Bull (a slightly different breed, shorter and stockier than Lena’s), and his adventures out in the bush in South Africa in the late 1800s. (The dog was wonderful, but the racism in that book would curl your eyebrows.)
Puppy Lena developed a taste for fine leathers. Perhaps it was her good breeding, but she could easily tell a cheap fake from a Brooks Brothers belt, or a Coach wallet. She ate many, many expensive things in those days, much to Ben’s extreme frustration. Also I remember applying for a new driver’s license, with my arms riddled with puncture marks from her little needle teeth. There’s a point on the license application where they ask you directly if you use drugs, and while I said no, I could see two pairs of eyes staring openly at my track-marked forearms. If only I had thought to explain that I just got a puppy. She also chewed on wooded furniture, leaving little rows of needle punctures, which later were joined by Isaac’s flat teeth marks.
Young Lena, like some human children I know, was easily distracted at school. She loved all the other puppies so much that she found it very difficult to concentrate. It took her three tries (six weeks each) to pass the final exam of Puppy 1. Then, slightly improving, she got through Puppy 2 in only two tries. I learned early on that her tremendous physical strength and her total imperviousness to physical corrections of any kind made clicker training (giving small treats as rewards) the only option to get her to do anything whatsoever. With treats, she was quite willing to learn. She eventually picked up steam and managed to pass Prenovice, Novice, and Dog Attention in rapid order. In fact, I credit her obedience work with saving her young life.
One day, when she was a brainless teen, she darted out the front door amid the legs of a group of Ben’s homeschool students. I was upstairs at the time and heard Ben issue a raw, primal scream of terror that I had never heard before in my life and hope to never hear again. I ran downstairs and found the door open and the floor and porch littered with dropped backpacks. I asked a kid what had happened and he said, “Lena was run over by a bus.” The terrible words could not process, but I looked out into the street, Bridge Avenue, where the busses always drove too fast, and down the way there was our girl stunned and confused, running around in traffic. Ben was trying to corral her. I ran down the sidewalk and knelt in my skirt on the pavement, spread my arms wide and called her, as we had done so many times in puppy class. She turned and ran directly to me.
On the phone with my mother, I did a brief emergency exam of Lena. She was bruised and scraped and had oil marks here and there on her fur, but did not appear to be going into shock, suffering from a concussion, or bleeding internally. Apparently she had been rolled around under the bus, between the front wheels and out one side, but the wheels themselves had all missed her somehow. The next morning I took her to the vet for a thorough exam. After he went over her carefully, he said, “Sweet little Lena got hit by a bus– How’s the BUS?!”
“How’s the bus?” became sort of a catch phrase around our house. Such an amazing girl! She was so, so tough and so brave and so wonderful! This is what she looked like around that time:
A Catholic friend told me that God had protected her because she had a purpose in life, something that He wanted her to see through. Although I find it hard to accept a God that would allow such things as the Holocaust and yet intervene to rescue an errant puppy, looking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder if he was right.
In April 2001, Ben and I lost our baby. In the profound grief and depression that followed, Lena stood out as ray of hope and light. That summer, I was sitting in my cubicle at the bank where I worked, and a co-worker came in to talk and cry with me. Her husband had left her and she said she was feeling like life had no meaning anymore. I agreed that life had no meaning, and said that I was only managing to continue living because others around me needed me too. But then I said that it was just too great a favor to live through pain like that for other people, and I had to find something that I sincerely wanted to live for myself. My friend agreed that this was the problem, and she was searching for something too. For her, she decided that she could hang on and live because she loved drinking coffee. We laughed over that, but it was at least something. For me, I decided to live because I loved seeing Lena run in the woods. Ears flying, paws rarely touching the ground, Lena in the woods was the embodiment of pure joy.
I credit her with getting me through that horrible summer, and in a small way she helped manage the confusion of 9/11 after it– I was locked out that day, having forgotten my keys that morning. The bank and the rest of downtown Cleveland underwent a chaotic evacuation because the 4th plane, the one that turned around and landed in Pennsylvania, was right over us for a time. (This was before we had cell phones, too, a very dark and difficult world!) After spending a few hours at my boss’s house watching the unbelievable news, I managed to connect with Lena’s dog walker who had a key. He let me in when he came by, baby on his back and four dogs in tow, making his rounds as if it were a normal day.
In 2002, while I was staring down the possibility of a high-risk pregnancy and potential months of bedrest, I trained Lena to fetch things for me that I indicated with a laser pointer. I could lie on the couch and get her to bring me, say, a magazine, or a newspaper, or the phone. She got quite good at it, and then would sit at my feet, asking for more ways to help. Just her presence itself was helpful. Although I was alone for many long days while I was expecting Isaac, I was never truly alone with Lena beside me. And when Isaac was born, Lena took her new role as the nursemaid dog very seriously.
Here she is checking out his new bongo drums on his first birthday:
Investigating his baby pool:
Walking with the grandparents:
One of our low-grade fears in getting a tough dog like this (some would say she was a pit bull…) was that she would do something wrong. I mean, not like maul someone to death, but bite someone in the way that a regular dog also could, but that because of her breed and the hysteria surrounding it, we’d end up being sued or there would be some other horrible repercussions. That never happened. She never bit any person in her life. (Okay, except she nipped, without breaking the skin, one time when a guy came to the house to fix the garbage disposal. I was very shocked! And checked his hand for a wound, which there was none. To be fair to Lena, though, the guy was radiating evil. Since I was home alone, other than Lena, I appreciated it that she put him on notice early and kept a sharp eye on him for me.) But she did get in a few dog fights. She loved a good scrap, unfortunately, and this did pose a problem at dog parks and other venues where dogs frequent. It wasn’t that she started fights, she didn’t. But if someone else started a fight, she was happy– more than happy– to escalate it. With her physical strength and innate fighting skill, she also tended to win.
One snowy day when Isaac about two, he and I and Lena were walking down a quiet tree lined street in our neighborhood. Lena was on leash and heeling perfectly. Then across the way, this brainless woman came out of her house with two even more brainless beagles on Flexi-leads. In a moment, they managed to pull the leads out of the brainless woman’s mittened hands and rush towards us. I could see this was not going to be good. I had Lena up on her hind feet, pulled tight against my thigh. I had Isaac on my shoulder. The dogs ran down the block towards us full tilt, barking their heads off. I was backed up against a parked car and had nowhere to go. The dogs swarmed around us, and one began biting Lena and of course she went for it. I threw Isaac over a fence into a snow bank to keep him safe and turned around to try to pull Lena out of the fray. In a moment, she had one of the two beagles pinned on its back and was latched onto its neck. The other beagle and the brainless woman were running around in circles, both yapping. Somehow Lena’s harness and sweater had already been pulled off, so she was leash less, and collarless and naked. I began trying to get her to let go, no easy task. I started by yelling at her and whapping her nose. That didn’t work, so I moved on to punching her nose as hard as I could with my fist. That didn’t work, so I grabbed a flex-lead, and began beating her nose with my full strength, and screaming her drop command, “Give! Give!” Finally she let go. One guy who had come out of his house was comforting Isaac. Another guy and the brainless woman both began screaming at me– “Why do you have a dog like that, you can’t control!? Why don’t you have a muzzle on that dog!” and things like that. To which I calmly replied– okay, screamed back, “My dog was HEELING on a leash when these dogs attacked us! SHE lost control of her dogs!” That sort of seemed to appease them and we all went home, quite shaken. I heard later that the one beagle got stitches from a neighbor who was a doctor, and that there was no serious damage (just chomps in the baggy neck skin, thank god!). Lena’s face was completely swollen the next day from the beating I gave her, and my hand was black and blue.
Another time that year, I actually think I saw her deter some thieves from our house. I was at a stoplight about a block away, when I saw a group of four suspicious youths standing on our front porch with empty duffle bags. Around that time in our neighborhood there had been this rash of daytime burglaries. Perhaps these youths with their empty duffle bags were just selling Bibles or raising money for their band trip and left because we were not at home. Or perhaps they were there to rob the house, and saw Lena, as she always did, throwing herself at the glass of the front window, trying to get at them to tear their legs off, and decided to choose a different house. She did like to make a show of force when there was a perceived or real security breach. In any case, they left. I drove along covertly following them for a time, and eventually called the police. (Having a cell phone really might have changed the outcome here– they were not caught!)
When Elias was born, she greeted the news with her usual calm and good cheer. Although the children bothered her at times, she never snapped or growled at them whatsoever. If she had a complaint, she would bring it to me. Look at this weary face!
In her prime, she could jump four feet in the air to catch a frisbee, or a stick. But she was one of the rare dogs who simply could not swim. For safety, I tried to teach her, but she literally sank. I think it was because she had close to zero percent body fat, tiny paws and sleek, slippery fur. She invariably ended up paddling wildly with her feet way out of the water and her head totally submerged.
She almost never whined and was amazingly stoic in the face of pain. She tore her ACL, twice, and never complained about it at all, just carried her useless leg and kept right on playing. I say “almost never” because one rare time I heard her whining in the kitchen. I went in to see what was the matter. She had eaten most of a beef tenderloin that was on the counter, but the last bite was out of reach. She was standing on her tippy-tippy-tippy toes trying to get it, and whining in despair.
When she was nine, we moved out of the city to a much bigger country place. “It’s like having our own park!” exclaimed four-year-old Isaac. It was, and Lena had a lot more freedom here. But she couldn’t run off into the hills either, and there are neighbors with dogs, and roads, and garbage cans to tip over, and coyotes and such. She developed “selective hearing” and would not come when called, not until she had finished smelling and chasing everything she needed to smell and chase. Usually in nice weather we would keep her outside on a long dog run, a long metal cable that went from our house to a tree 75 feet away. She would have water and shade and fresh air. She was out there one day, and I was inside working on the computer, when I heard a commotion of some kind outside. I looked out the window to see a man, a complete stranger, running full-tilt across our yard. I mean, a flat-out sprint. A short distance behind him was Lena, also running flat out, looking like a cross between a tiny race horse and a guided missile. But again, she didn’t bite this intruder. She just chased him until he got across our driveway, which she perceived, rightly, as our property line, and then came back. She was very proud of herself and enthused and winded. When she got home I found the broken chunk of metal cable still dangling from her harness. She had just hit the end of the line and kept running. The guy, it turned out, was a houseguest of our neighbor. He had accidentally let their dog out and was trying to find that dog when he stumbled onto Lena, sleeping under her tree. Oops!
One of her most urgent self-appointed tasks was monitoring the feeding habits of the cats. She had keen hearing, especially when it came to the gentle distant –tink– of a cat’s collar hitting the side of his water dish on the opposite side of the house. This sound would wake her from a sound sleep and send her tearing, lights and sirens, to put a stop to it. She persisted with this habit well into her dotage. So much so that I posted a picture of her on dogshaming.com. (You can click on any photo to see it larger.)
Not so with the chipmunks and mice. We have had various infestations over the years. I took this picture one afternoon as chipmunks were running willy nilly through the house with their little tails straight up in the air.
Her health was good until about a year ago, when her back legs started to give out. Along with them, went a lot of her bowel and bladder control. But we just kept up with cleaning, and tried to keep her comfortable and organize the house in such a way that she could still enjoy life. She had some good times even recently, sitting outside in the sun, no longer in need of a leash. At the same time, she started falling more, getting stranded in little hollows in the grass or under shrubs outside and barking for help. I took her to a holistic vet who adjusted her spine and provided her with traditional arthritis medication as well as Chinese herbal remedies. She gradually began to need more and more nursing care, baths every day, a special bed. For a time we tried diapers. We tried an incontinence bed. She developed a series of intractable urinary infections. She had a growth in her mouth that was benign, but invasive. We had it removed and it grew right back.
Our vet suggested a wheeled cart for her to maintain her mobility, and I got one custom made.
For all those long months, our thinking was that it didn’t matter if it was inconvenient or uncomfortable for us, we would not give up on her. How could we? It was unthinkable. The alternative seemed worse that we could imagine. I began to pray that she would die quietly in her sleep. She didn’t. She was much too tough for that. In recent weeks, an infection in her hind quarters exploded. It didn’t respond to any antibiotic, and we just couldn’t get it under control. She, the calm stoic girl, began screaming at night in pain, or maybe despair. We would come running, give her a drink of water, a pillow, medication, anything to make her more comfortable. But the reality was that nothing we did could truly help. She was fifteen, already past the end of the range of her breed’s life expectancy.
I took this picture of her with the boys just a couple days ago.
We set the date for yesterday and tried to prepare the kids. Yesterday as I wandered through the day trying to brace myself for 4:00, I kept having quotes drop into my mind. One was, “shuffling off the mortal coil.” I looked it up and it was from Hamlet. Then, “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” It turns out, this is from Hamlet too. You probably knew that but I didn’t. This is why yesterday found me sitting outside in the sun with my freshly bathed and fed and beautiful dog, reading her the To Be or Not To Be speech from Hamlet (I read her the complete text, but edited it here) :
“…to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
… To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all…”
It was the word “cowards” that stood out to me. I felt a sinking dread of realization. We have been cowards, and our cowardice had made our dear, sweet, beloved girl suffer. Because we couldn’t bear to part with her, we’ve kept her on this earth too long, in a body well past its functioning. This realization did nothing, though, to stem the horrible, wrenching pain of parting from her. It would have been awful six months ago, or six month from now, or as it was yesterday. That’s what I understand now.
Isaac wanted nothing to do with any of this, and planned to hide in the tv room with his trusty Xbox the whole time the vet was here. But he came out and joined us for a time. We stood in a circle over her, holding hands and praying, trying to encircle her with love, all sobbing without any hope of restraint. Then the vet came, sedated her into a state of grogginess. I stroked her sweet head and repeated endlessly what a good and wonderful girl she was, and how grateful we are to have known her, and how lucky that she shared her life with us, and how beautiful and perfect she has been for all these years. 15 years is so long in some ways, so so short in others.
She died quite quickly, too quickly, shockingly quickly. Ben lifted her in her favorite 15-year-old tattered blanket into a coffin he had custom made at work. We tucked her in, and Elias put in a note he had written about seeing her in heaven. We all wept some more, and then the cremation man came and carried her away — a horrible, bottomless finality. Isaac had retreated by that time, but Elias, all dressed in army gear and carrying a heavy pack full of guns, and Ben in his tie, and I with pockets and hands full of wet tissues, stood in the driveway and waved goodbye.
Goodnight, sweet girl. May flights of angels sing thee to thy well-earned rest.
Royal D’s Lena Rose
June 26, 1998-October 14, 2013