Sunday, July 15, 2012

Our Funny Valentine

Yesterday was Bastille Day here on the hill, a beautiful day of perfect temperatures and a light breeze, after a week of 90+ degree days. Yesterday was also the day that we decided it was time to say goodbye to our beloved sixteen year-old beagle mix, Valentine, aka, "Val Montrose."

Before I met her, my wife, Leia, was living in Southern Indiana, an area well known for torrential rainstorms. On Valentine's Day 1997, one of these storms forced her to detour down a road she didn't usually travel and as she drove, she caught sight of a pair of six month-old dogs, apparently litter mates, leaving a small creek near the road. She stopped and tried to coax them to her car so she could take them to a shelter. Only one, a female, came to her willingly, so she took her home, dried her off and held her to keep her warm through the night. Leia decided to keep the pup, appropriately naming her Valentine, but quickly shortened it to "Val," a handle she lived with the rest of her days.

Leia and I met online in October of the same year and I quickly learned that of all the pets they had, and there more than a couple, Val was the most special. When I first "met" Val in person, she promptly peed at my feet; I took that as a sign of her future fealty and she had my heart at that very moment. Ours was a bond that remained unbroken ever since.

When we were about to get married in May 1999, Leia had to give away most of her pets for adoption, but we wanted to keep Val and move her to California. The little pseudo-beagle (as I would call her) spent a few months with a woman who boarded animals for a nominal cost while we looked for a house. Even after we found our new home, it took several months for construction to be completed and by October, the woman presented us a hefty bill for Val’s care and feeding. We still weren't sure when our house would be move-in ready, so we bailed our dog out and boarded her with my future in-laws.

With the construction finally completed, we flew Val back with from Indiana on December 31st, 1999, a day before the infamous Y2K meltdown-that-never-happened. She survived that traumatic flight, and after a couple of weeks of getting adjusted to the dry heat of Southern California, she settled into her life as a West Coast dog, at least in name only. The most ironic thing was even though she was found coming out of a creek, she shunned water, including the mighty Pacific. While other dogs cavorted on the beach, she eschewed such canine sport, instead looking askance at those of her species. Val never thought she was a dog.

This wasn’t the only thing different about our Val. She didn’t like chew toys in the least — no squeaky Busy Bees for that gal, no sir. Instead, she liked to chew on rocks for fun. More than once, we’d find rocks in her bed that she smuggled there to support her incessant gnawing habit. Sure, she’d rip into a nice rawhide bone like any other red-blooded American hound when given the chance. But rocks, well, they were her favorite chew toy of all.

Unlike most other dogs that would lick your hands or face, Val rarely (if ever) deigned to lower herself to that level. Strangers would come over and she’d sniff their fingers, then after satisfying her curiosity, she’d go off to find a pebble to play with. Visitors would always marvel that she didn’t like to lick, but we were used to her slightly offbeat ways and got amusement from others’ reactions.

Val could charm the pants off a stranger, but she was aloof at the same time, even with us. She would love being with her family, especially my wife, and would suffer terrible separation anxiety when we’d leave her alone for even a short while. However, she wasn’t one for climbing up next to us except on rare occasions. Instead, she was happiest just lying in one of her many beds with us in the room. I could count on one hand the number of times she jumped up next to us uninvited. One time, I was lying on the couch, taking a nap, and she launched herself from the floor and jumped on my chest to join me. That never happened again and I had no idea what prompted it in the first place.

When we moved to the area we live in now, we were at the local pet store and my wife asked me to get Val a new name tag and have it engraved at one of those self-service machines. I had three lines for the information to include. After a few moments, I decided to write this:

                                 (XXX) XXX-XXXX

When my wife read that, she quipped that Val had a new last name, “Montrose.” I corrected her, telling her that no, this was the name she only used as pole dancer. After she began wearing her new tag, we would frequently refer to her by her new stage name.

But exotic dancer wasn’t the career Val would’ve chosen for herself. Leia somehow stumbled on this video (warning: a wild bird gets shot in this):

A turkey dog! Was our little beagle mix bred to hunt turkeys? Sometimes, if Val would flash us a look of disdain for some infraction (like if one of us got up from a chair, for example, because she liked her den mates to stay where they were), either Leia or I would speak for Val by saying something like “You people kidnapped me from my home where I could’ve had a successful career as a turkey dog.” No doubt, if she could talk, she’d give us hell just like that.

Over the years, I took on the job of feeding Val, at least most of the time. It wasn’t like my wife or stepson wouldn’t want to do it, it was just that I’m a man of routines and I easily adopted feeding Val into that process. This really became instantiated when Leia had to fly back to help her mother with her dying father. I would feed treats to Val at the same time in the morning when I woke up to have my own breakfast and then around the same time in the evening, I would feed her, too. Dogs (and the guy writing this) love schedules, and from then on, I tried to maintain at least that much on a constant basis.

Val had been Leia’s boon companion and comfort, through good times and bad. Almost five years ago, I was seriously ill with dermatomyositis and had to spend a month in the hospital while doctors pumped steroids and other medications into my system to arrest the disease. There was a small chance I wasn’t going to make it out of there, certainly without having serious and lasting side effects. While my wife kept a brave face during that time and worked tirelessly as my health advocate with the medical professionals, it was Val she turned to when she got home to shed her tears. A dog’s love is truly unselfish — we take much more than we give — and Val was there for Leia during the “dark times,” as we refer to them now, never wanting anything from her in return.

About a year ago or so, we figured out that Val had gone mostly deaf, which led to some comical results. While other dogs are deathly afraid of vacuum cleaners — including Val when she was younger — now she would just lie in her bed while my wife would push the vacuum around in front of her, even refusing to get up so her bed could be moved out of the way. She slept peacefully through fireworks shows, which we can hear easily from our little enclave, while in the past, she’d run cowering for our comfort. The same went for the rare thunderstorms we have in Southern California, though she did act a bit put out during the two or three hailstorms we experienced over the years. At one time in her life, she ran with abandon through Indiana snow; now a little bit of ice under her paws annoyed her to no end. Getting old ain’t for sissies!

We noticed the signs of aging more and more since discovering Val’s deafness. Her nap times became more frequent and longer and oftentimes, she’d go into such a deep sleep, she wouldn’t sense us anywhere around her. She began limping, a little at the beginning, then a bit more and more, very gradually. At first, we thought it was her pads had gotten tender because she slept so long and wasn’t walking around enough to keep callouses on them. Eventually, we concluded she had developed arthritis, which in recent months we tried to treat with glucosamine supplements, but to little effect.

The recent heat we had here over the last month really did not agree well with our old dog. As late as last summer, she seemed to have no problem with the hot days, always finding a shady place on our back deck to hide in depending on where the sunshine landed. Now it was obvious she was in distress most of the time. When she began throwing up, we figured it was heat exhaustion, so we started bringing her in our air-conditioned house to keep cool. But even at night, she seemed increasingly lethargic and unable to keep food or water down, really unable to stand steadily on her own. We finally (and reluctantly) concluded our baby was coming to the end of her earthly journey.

Neither Leia nor I wanted to take Val to a vet to have her put to sleep. She absolutely despised going there and the only time we’d do it was to board her when we went out of town. With that in mind, my wife went online and found a few vets that perform in-home euthanasia. After reading reviews on Yelp, we settled on our angel of mercy. I called her yesterday afternoon and scheduled an appointment.

A couple of hours before the vet was due to come, Val lay on her side a the doormat in our breezeway that leads to our kitchen. She never got up again; I don’t think she could. Just like a clock winding down, she was running out of time.  My wife & I just sat and petted her, both of us anxiously awaiting the inevitable.

The vet arrived promptly at 5:30 PM. Unlike with the mailman earlier in the day, Val didn’t bark or even growl at this new stranger. She was done with all that nonsense. After examining her, the vet confirmed what we already knew — that it was Val’s time. She gave her a sedative / painkiller cocktail and after five minutes, our little dog was fully in the Land of Nod. I carried Val to her favorite bed on the back deck against the glass door adjoining our bedroom, and laid her limp body down in a comfortable position. The vet shaved our pup’s hind leg and inserted the IV, and when we gave her the okay, she made the final injection. Val was gone in a minute or so, with us petting her all the way through.

After giving us a few minutes alone with her, the vet and I carried Val on a stretcher to the her SUV. Leia & I said our final goodbyes to our beloved dog and off they went. The vet took her to an organization that cremates pets and sprinkles their ashes at sea. An unexpected final send-off for a dog who despised the water, but as this is how we want our own remains to be disposed of, we thought it fitting. She can yell at us about it when we meet again.

I didn’t have pets as a child — my mother didn’t (and still doesn’t) like animals — but I got my love of animals from my father, who grew up with cats around. Val was the first real pet I lost to a death; I had to give away my one and only cat when I moved to another state years ago and the only dog I jointly owned went with my ex-wife when we divorced. Losing a pet that has lived with you for so long truly is like losing a member of your family. They are a constant in a sea of turbulent times. They love you unconditionally, only expecting food, water, affection and in Val’s case, an occasional rock to chew on. We will miss her like crazy, but we take solace in the fact she’s in a better place, chasing turkeys and gnawing pebbles.

Goodbye, old friend. It was an honor knowing you.