Those of you who know me know that my wife Ingrid and I save dogs. It’s not something we publicize, though people who need us always manage to find us. We do it because we like it and feel that it’s our duty.
If you’ve spent any time in animal rescue you know that it tears your heart out one piece at a time. You find yourself in many situations where you have to restrain yourself from punching someone right in the face, and you realize that companion animals are both helpless and blameless all the time.
In December of 2001 we got Bandit, a Collie and Shepherd mix, from Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary. My friend Sara Whalen at Pets Alive was worried that Bandit wouldn’t get adopted because he was too average, though she would never use those words.
Our Bandit was anything but average. We have seven dogs, and Bandit was the pick of the litter. Since he spent the first half of his life tied up outside all the time, he revelled in sleeping on the couch in our bedroom. It quickly became his. He also enjoyed the fine food here at Casa DeAngelis, and quickly ballooned up.
Since he was most likely ignored and/or abused, it took him about a year to warm up to us. His true personality came out, and he became the gentlest, sweetest dog we’ve ever had, and we’ve had many.
Four short years later he developed a melanoma in his jaw, which is quite common for dogs. Unfortunately he enhaled pieces of it which found their way into his lungs.
Treatments, including an amazing new experimental vaccine at the Animal Medical Center in New York slowed the growth of the tumors, but in the end the cancer spread to his spine, which made it difficult for him to walk. Tumors were also growing all over his body.
About two months ago he could no longer make it up the stairs to get to his couch. I would have carried him, but he was too proud to let me. The lung cancer was slowy strangling him, but every night when I came through the door I could hear that tail thumping on the family room floor, and as I got closer I could see that his bat ears were up and he was waiting for me to say hello.
When I got close enough he would get up and wait for me with his ears back and his tail wagging in a circle. Even when he was really sick that tail still thumped and wagged.
Last week I noticed that he was getting much worse. He was having trouble getting up and walking around, and I could hear him wheezing sometimes. He was still eating like a fiend, and I made sure he got chicken and steak and whatever else I could buy for him.
One day that week it dawned on me that there wasn’t much time left for Bandit. I slumped down in one of our kitchen chairs and put my head in my hands, lost in my own despair.
I felt a dry dog nose brush against my hand. Bandit had pulled himself up and limped over from the next room as if to reassure me. Walking for him was excruciatingly difficult, and he had made the disjointed walk across the house to show how much he cared for me.
Bandit loved me a lot. I strongly believe that dogs both sense and are grateful for people who rescue them and give them good homes, and Bandit knew and appreciated the home he had been given.
Bandit’s trust in people flowered and grew from that appreciation. He absolutely loved being around people, and would always wander into the room when someone was at the house.
So yesterday when his teeth began to fall out because the tumors had grown so large in his mouth, and he didn’t get up to greet me I knew in my heart it would be his last day with us.
I fed him loads of steak tips last night when all of the other dogs weren’t around, and I made sure that I spent as much time with him as I could.
This morning we stalled until we had to leave for the vet’s office. As we were hobbling toward the car, Bandit breathing heavy and stopping to rest every ten feet or so it dawned on me how sick he really was.
No one has slept on his couch for months. He didn’t wander into our neighbor’s yard like he used to, or sneak into the dining room when we had friends over for dinner.
I was sitting next to him on the floor when he died at the vet’s office, and I watched the pain drain from his face as his life left him. I’m a tough guy and I’ve done this before, but this was difficult. He was 13 or 14 years old, and there was nothing else wrong with him. He was a wonderful, kind, friendly, loving, sweet dog who shouldn’t be dead. The cancer was devastatingly fast and final.
So as my hand was stroking his head and my guts were churning inside me I noticed how unnaturally twisted his legs had become as the cancer ravaged his body, and I wished and prayed that we could have him back, even though I knew his heart had already stopped.
But as the pit of despair grew blacker and deeper and wider, and my hand kept stroking the fur that was getting colder and tears and mucous splattered his broken body, I heard my sweet, beautiful wife, who lost her father last May, whisper very quietly “Bye Buddy. Go find my Dad.”
There are events in your life open up a hole above the secrets of your life, allowing you to peer into your own existence and meaning. This was one of them.
I am proud of my achievements in my life — success and wealth and all that goes with them. I realized as the life drained out of my pal Bandit that I would give up everything in a second to get back Bandit or Ingrid’s father or anyone else that I’d lost. Without a second’s hesitation or regret.
And I also understood in that moment what a tiny ripple in a big pond my life represented, and how lucky I was to have found someone as wonderful as my wife.
And lastly, how fortunate we were to have won Bandit’s unconditional love, and what a terrific being he was.
Bandit had nuzzled my hand with his dry dog nose one last time before moving on to find Ingrid’s Dad.
Hope to see you someday Sport. I’d like to hear the thump thump thump of that tail and watch it wag in a circle. You’ll be able to breathe perfectly and walk without any effort. Until then you can keep Ingrid’s Dad company.