Originally published in September 2008.
Requiescat in Pace, Old Friend
Our family stands together, wracked by grief. Our first baby, our best friend, and our constant companion passed beyond this life early Saturday evening.
Trapper came to us on an Easter sunday in April of 2002. My wife Sarah and I had been married for for hardly any time at all. I had started my career as a graduate student in Chemistry at the University of North Texas; Sarah had began anew in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with her career in public relations. We had started building a life together, but we were missing a vital ingredient.
I was experiencing some difficult times in the months before; graduate school was not going well for me. I was making good grades, but the stress of trying to teach responsibly, research according to the demands of a scatter-brained advisor, and and take courses in the rarefied heights of physical chemistry had taken its toll. I found myself subject to violent mood swings.
On one occasion, while driving in a car to visit my parents, I became so unreasonably distraught (for no reason) that I felt as though I were having a heart attack. My wife rushed me to an urgent care center, where an EKG showed that I was having difficulty with my heart rate. I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, given treatment, and ultimately told that there was nothing wrong with my cardiovascular system. This started a journey that would last through the winter of 2001, until I ended up with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was relieved at first, but a crucial part of me couldn’t wrap itself around such a “bullshit” diagnosis. Had I not had an irregular heartbeat?
I was offered counseling, which I refused. I was offered pharmaceuticals, which I also initially refused. I became irritable and even more mercurial than before. My wife was helpless before my sudden changes in demeanor. I continued to meet all of my commitments, but the personal cost of it was a weight on my soul that I could not lift. I was terribly unhappy. What was worse, I was unravelling at the seams, and I refused to help myself.
I began to read and research treatments for anxiety. I realized that I did indeed have a disease that was caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry. I also began to read that people with anxiety (and depression) responded well to pets, particularly dogs. I had already fallen in love with Sarah’s family dog (Phil, who also recently passed). I had learned first hand how the unconditional love of a canine friend could be a balm to the most weary spirit.
I began searching humane society lists for a suitable candidate. Like everything else that I do, I approached it methodically, making lists of pros and cons. Around the same time, I finally gave in and submitted myself for pharmacological treatment of my anxiety. The search for a new member of our family and the subsequent new balance of brain chemistry proved therapeutic enough that I could function with some degree of stability. Sarah and I began to heal some of the damage that I had caused in my own selfish refusal to treat myself, looking to expand our family.
One afternoon, we were looking on Petfinder, and we saw Trapper. The Metroport humane society had listed him as up for adoption. He was a golden retriever/border collie mix who lived in a local suburb. He was almost five years old, having been born the year before Sarah and I graduated college. His picture, though tiny, conveyed a sense of mischief. He had bright, intelligent eyes, a soft brown nose, and a white stripe that ran the length of his nose and forehead, belying his collie ancestry.
We made an appointment to go visit him.
He lived in a mansion in Southlake, TX. If you don’t know the area, the average home price there is well over $250,000. It is one of the richest areas of north Dallas. I was daunted at first; if Trapper liked us, he would be moving from a large house and yard to a small, two bedroom apartment on the third floor. Would he even like it? Could we provide a good enough home for him?
Trapper was somewhat of a problem for his current family. They had four children, all under the age of six. Trapper was in last place in the household, behind the demands of small children and an obviously overworked housewife. It was obvious that they loved him very much, but they also knew that he wasn’t getting the attention that he deserved. They were offering him for adoption so that he could find a “forever” family that would love him as his sweet spirit deserved.
I went outside into the impeccably landscaped back yard with Trapper. He greeted me with a happy thump of his tail and immediately licked my hands. (I would later learn that Trapper only licked those he considered worthy of being a packmate.) There was a rope bone, woven of many different colors of yarn. He immediately brought it to me, pawed and my hand, and we played together on soft, St. Augustine grass. It was almost love at first sight. Trapper and I clicked on a level I can’t explain to this day. I knew at the first tug of the rope bone that I had found my new best friend.
Sarah had later explained that she had intentionally hung back so that Trapper would bond strongly to me. I never really understood how much that must have cost her, especially given her longer experience with dogs as constant companions. I still remember looking over my shoulder at her and through the French doors of the house, seeing her talking with Trapper’s old family. She knew that I had fallen for him; she met my eyes, and the little half smile she gave me showed that she had as well.
We played it cool. We left after a perfunctory rub on the ears, saying that we would be in touch. We wanted to think about it, maybe talk it over. It was useless. I remember getting in the car and telling Sarah: “That’s our dog.” Sarah couldn’t help but conceal her indulgent exasperation, but I could tell she agreed.
Trapper came home with us on an Easter weekend. We had been to PetSmart and gotten several toys. Having made the effort to make our apartment as dog friendly as possible, we took custody of Trapper. His old family shed tears over his departure, but they also understood. I think they knew the kind of life that he would have with Sarah and me.
Trapper’s first act in our apartment was to pee on the wall just under our bar. Sarah and I were astounded. We had been assured that he was house broken, but his act flew in the face of experience. We immediately took him outside without scolding or castigation. It turns out that he was marking his territory for the first time, and we experienced no other incident of him peeing in the house in seven years of friendship.
Trapper was a step in a long journey that allowed me to cope with my anxiety. He did what no one else could, and I am forever in his debt. This is no small feat. Had you known me before, the difference would have been incredibly striking. I owe him my life and my sanity.
If you’ve never had a dog before, you may not be aware that dogs have a range of emotions as broad as any human. They can pout, they can be angry, they can love you, they can be indifferent, and they can “punish” you for transgressions, whether real or imagined. At first, Trapper pouted. His new surroundings were smaller than he was used to. Anytime he went outside, he was attached firmly to a leash. Gradually, though, he came to enjoy his new life. Anytime we would leave, he would pout, but on our return, he was a ball of tail-wagging energy. His attitude on our arrival was always a combination of unconditional love and eagerness to share his enthusiasm for a game of rope bone or fetch.
Sarah and I had had some debate about whether or not the dog would be allowed on the bed. We had gone back and forth on it, but not too long after we had Trapper, we discovered that he was terrified of thunder storms. If you live in north Texas or Oklahoma, you know that severe storms are the norm in the spring time. The last reservation Trapper had about his forever family was the night of a particularly strong storm (in which lightning directly struck our apartment building). After a thunder boom that was particularly loud, he jumped up on the bed between us and tucked his head beneath our adjoined pillows. He was shaking, but after a few kind words and some firm ear rubs from both of us, he calmed down and sighed in contentment. I still remember the look that I exchanged with Sarah over his slumbering form. It was a combination of reservation and tenderness that I never repeated until I saw my son for the first time. He had already captured my loyalty, but it was at this moment that he completely ensnared my heart.
We wondered if he could even bark until I bought a house. Only when he had a larger domain of his own did he give frequent voice, declaring his canine overlordship to other dogs and passersby. When I first got him, he would stand at the door and “talk” to you in a combination of energetic whines and “rawrs” until you got his red leash to take him outside.
Trapper went through life with us, gaily unafraid of anything. Trapper saw Sarah and I through some difficult times. He snuggled her as she received the news about the death of her Grandfather. He served as a sounding board for me as I began to seriously develop my writing career. He got me through graduate school, listening uncomplainingly as I wondered how I would ever accomplish everything that I needed to do. He would cock his head at me as I explained how to derive the Maxwell relations. He sighed as I would yell expletives at my computer monitor while playing video games, probably thinking that I was such a silly human. He spent lonely nights with each of us as the other traveled on business or pleasure, filling the gap of an empty pillow with drool and panting.
The first night of my son’s life, when he was in the NICU for slow respiration, a quick trip home to bury my face in the scruff of Trapper’s neck was enough for me to go show a brave face to the grandparents and my wife. I remember telling him about his new little brother and how perfectly formed he was. I remember telling him that they would be “partners in crime” and that once he got used to him, he would come to love him as his packmate. Trapper licked my face as I cried a few tears of worry, assuring me that all would be well. As far as Trapper was concerned, he knew that all would be well as long as Sarah and I were around to snuggle or play ball with.
I had a habit of taking him to Sonic, a local drive-in that is known for its fountain drinks and milkshakes. I would tie a festive bandana around his neck and we would drive down the highways of our hometown. Sometimes, he would bark at the window, demanding that I roll it down so that he could let his tongue loll freely in the wind. The carhops (what Sonic called its waitresses) would always bring a courtesy tray with treats over for him. He was a great favorite at the local Sonic. At times, they would bring him tater tots or french fries. Trapper was an equal opportunity beggar, and he would accept food from most anyone that he thought was an easy mark.
Trapper refused to consort with other dogs, which was always a source of contention for us. I’m still not sure to this day if he felt that he was human or if he just didn’t like other dogs. If we met fellow dog owners on a walk, I’d have to keep him on a short leash, lest he go “yell” at them with a bark that was so incongruous with the rest of his personality.
Sarah walked Trapper just about every morning for seven years. Her day always started with a dose of doggy breath and the thump of a tail against a comforter or mattress. I remember that she would sometimes grumble, or sometimes ask for more sleep, but in the end, she would get up and take him for long walks. I could substitute, but I was really inferior for this chore. This was their special time. I imagine that Sarah talked with him in the mornings, just as I did in the evenings. If so, he may have learned some things about her that even I don’t know. To this day, she claims that he’s the best weight loss partner a girl could ever have.
Perhaps the most unpredicted impact that Trapper had was on my parents. They loved him as a grandson, going as far as to buy him Christmas presents and treats every time we were all together. My mom had pictures of him on her desk at work. My dad would talk about him to his friends, bragging on him for his intelligence and his personality. Growing up as I did (in a household without a house pet), I never would have predicted my parents’ reaction, but my mom always looked forward to Trapper’s visits. Since their house was in the country, their larger yard (at least an acre) was his playground. He would chase rabbits and squirrels, stalk chipmunks, bark at the birds, and pee on the neighbor dog’s head to show his disdain for her lack of welcome. (Seriously.)
Trapper’s last hours were spent suffering through aspirational pneumonia, as a result of repeated regurgitation (different from vomiting) due to an elongated esophagus. When I left for Dragon*Con on Friday, Sarah and I had discussed Trapper’s illness, but we had no idea he would fade so quickly. Saturday he went to the vet for fluids. By Saturday afternoon, he could barely breathe. Sarah took him to an emergency vet (at the instructions of our regular vet), where we learned that the prognosis was grim. I was actually at dinner, trying to make connections and “work it” for my writing career when I got the call from Sarah with the bad news. In an effort to provide some absolution, I listened quietly to Trapper’s chances, and told her to “Do it.”
It’s funny that two simple words have such a ring of finality.
Trapper was not getting better. Anything that they did for him was prolonging the inevitable. Should I elect to have him suffer horribly with an incurable malady just to selfishly scratch his ears one more time? I tried to make the best decision that I could based on the information that I have, but I can’t get over the feeling that I killed my best friend.
I will not remember Trapper as my imagination will tell me that he looked there at the end. Sarah is horribly scarred by his final moments. I will remember the Trapper that laid his head in my lap at the dinner table to beg morsels of food; I will remember the Trapper who wore the red bandana and insisted on sitting in the front seat of my truck. I will remember the Trapper who enriched our lives so much that our home feels empty and deserted without him. I will remember delicate panting and the broad doggy smile that helped me through so many dark points in my life.
Lee Stephen, a frequent poster and author of the Dawn of Destiny series, recently lost his best friend, too. In an email to him, I remarked:
Trapper is such a large part of our life (he’s now a partner in crime with out 17 month old son) that I can’t imagine living without him. My wife and I have discussed often about whether or not dogs with a sweet and gentle spirit are present at the Master’s table at the end of all things. While I know in my heart that salvation belongs to those who can understand and believe, I can’t help but have a little part of me desire a homecoming that includes a furry head in my lap.
I hope with every fiber of my being that this is true.
God rest your soul, Trapper. I’ll see you when I get home.