Monday, December 7, 2015. Makai is the dog to whom all things dog in my life – which is pretty much everything in my life – are dedicated. She was with me from the time I was 22 until I was 36 years old, important years, to be sure. She was my constant companion, my sidekick, my shadow, seeing me through two graduate degrees and several career moves. This tribute to her was written long ago – 19 years ago, as I sat with her during the final days of her life. Where has the time gone? I am only now posting it. Why now? Well, of course, blogging didn’t exist in 1996 but aside from that, I don’t know. It just feels right to share this now.
This tribute was written as I sat with Makai during the final few days of her life with me. She was helped on her way to a peaceful death on November 13, 1996 after bringing me close to fourteen years of joyful companionship. Sadly, the last few months of her life were difficult as she and I both struggled with her worsening condition. Makai was born on December 26, 1982. She was a great dog.
Sarah Richardson, November 1996
A TRIBUTE TO MAKAI
This is the story of Makai. She’s my Labrador Retriever–a big boned girl of the chocolate persuasion. My sidekick for almost fourteen years, my ever present companion, the light of my life. In the twilight of her years, and in an empathetic tone, people often comment how our canine friends are like family. I nod affirmatively but in my own thoughts I respond like this: “no, she IS my family.”
I feel like I grew up with this dog. That is to say, I learned various lessons of adult life with her by my side. She’s by my side now–a still beautiful, somewhat crippled, increasingly senile old dog who wears her various scars from the good life with nonchalance. Those scars are memorials to great adventures, sort of like notches on the bed post. I know the memories of these adventures are stored away somewhere. I know that because of the times she danced fervently when we returned to a town in which we’d spent good times with good friends. (How did she know we were back? Did she read the road signs?) I know because of the times she greeted people with the enthusiasm of complete love and adoration–even when she had not seen them for years. I know because of the way she always responded to water when we neared an ocean, river, or lake. I wish I knew what she sensed because she responded to water in the most intuitive, sensual way. I imagine that the smell of water must have brought back a flood of associations: that summer of 1983 (her first) when we lived on a sailboat off the coast of Vancouver Island; those near daily visits to the “Research Park” in Texas, a city park full of muddy ponds for swimming, good sticks for retrieving, and a few resident ducks for taunting; her favorite swimming hole, the final stop at the end of our frequent runs. Though her memory now is clouded, I know (I hope) Makai still remembers water.
My dog and I have been around. I haven’t exactly been living the settled life since I first adopted her from the stable litter environment from whence she came. I’ve lived in three different cities in three different states, two of them on multiple occasions (she’s lived in four thanks to an extended summer vacation with her “grandmother” during a very busy summer of travel for me). We’ve moved in and out of ten different homes, had at least fifteen different roommates, and she’s had more “dads” than I care to remember–some of whom I don’t care to remember. One of those, her first, insisted that I name her Makai when I wanted to name her Micah. He won. He’s long gone and she’s still here, along with her name, which I’ve grown to love (it means “toward the sea” in Hawaiian, or so I was told).
My car has 120,000 miles on it. Makai has been my navigator on most of those miles. As my veterinarian reminded me, she’s even responsible for many of those miles. He was referring to her many visits to vet schools, near and far, replete with their specialists in this and that. Makai has had a lot of this and that.
A defining characteristic of Makai is, unfortunately, her ability to require medical attention. She is a textbook example of just about everything that can go wrong with dogs. On her second day with me she lay down on a nest of angry fire ants. Her eight pound puppy body almost doubled in size from the swelling. That was the first of our many, many vet consultations. She’s had four major surgeries, a serious pancreas problem, complications from arthritis treatments, resulting from the arthritis, resulting from two knee surgeries, one on each knee, and has had numerous lumps, bumps, coughs, cuts, and sneezes. Her old age has ushered in a series of neurological problems and she probably has a brain tumor growing behind those loving eyes. However, she has never needed behavior counseling. In fact, I’d say that she has been the stable one in our relationship, always sure of herself and others. Nope, there has never been any question about Makai’s nature. She’s just steady, ready, stable, and sociable Makai. My friend Bobbie and I like to say she’s from the “old school”, rather than being from the new high strung “Generation X” dogs. Given what I hear about the outcomes of over-breeding, this may indeed be true.
Bobbie is one of my dog friends. That is to say, she’s a human friend whom I met through my dog. Linda, Lisa, Merren, Vicki, Gabriela, and their various consorts are also my dog friends. Dog people seem to attract each other. Perhaps it’s because we’re the only ones with whom we can talk about dogs for hours on end (or perhaps it’s because we carry some hidden canine scent ourselves). I remember going to a party once only to spend the entire evening in the kitchen with a woman I had just met, talking about our dogs. People came in and out of the kitchen, muttering “dog nerds”, as they passed us by. It was a great evening! My dog friends understand me. They understand my sorrow. They ask me how I’m doing. They understand my tears.
Makai is in the twilight of her life. She is a month away from her 14th birthday. I have taken very good care of her. She has taken very good care of me. She has been the epicenter of my day to day world, my rock, a source of consistency and stability, the one responsibility I couldn’t neglect, discard, or put on hold. She’s kept me honest in that way. I don’t understand how she got to be so old. It just seemed to creep up on us. Four years ago she stopped running with me. Three years ago she went cross-country skiing for the last time. Two years ago she stopped being able to go on extended walks and hikes. A year ago she started having occasional trouble getting up and down. Slowly, insidiously, her failing mobility has taken its toll. Today I help her with most things. When she lies down I pet her and talk to her to help her relax. She’s deaf so I doubt she can hear my words, but she knows I am there. When she drifts off into a deep sleep she sometimes dreams about the good times. I know that because she yips and yaps and moves her paws as if her body were once again free. I don’t understand how she got to be so old. It just seemed to creep up on us. My dog friends say she’s hung on to life because she feels my love. I’ve hung on to her because I feel her love. It’s for those very reasons that I know I must now let go. My dog friends understand my sorrow.
I have learned a lot from Makai. I have learned that it’s a good idea to stretch when you first wake up, that a little routine and exercise can go a long way, that you’ll never get that stick unless you just jump in, and that you make a lot of friends if you choose to trust people. Perhaps the most important lesson Makai may teach me is that aging and death are inevitable. I haven’t been a great student of this lesson. In fact, I’ve thrown myself into rejecting it. I’ve researched all the possible treatments–conventional and alternative–for Makai’s myriad of age-related symptoms. I have sometimes joked, as I have set out in search of yet another possible treatment for her arthritis and senility, that I am looking for the canine fountain of youth. But, it is no joke. I have been searching for some way to avoid facing Makai’s final lesson for me. And now, as I look at my beloved Makai and caress her gray muzzle I am confronted with the blatant reality that time marches on. It marches relentlessly on. Fourteen years later and we’re both going gray. Fourteen years later and she’s gone from puppyhood to very old age. Fourteen years later and I’ve gone from young adulthood to early middle age. Fourteen years later and my beloved friend must now move on. My dog friends understand my tears.
Some people refer to their dogs as their children. Others refer to dogs as their friends. Makai is certainly a friend to me, and my care for her resembles that of a parent toward a child, but my relationship with Makai is in a class of its own. We’re much too equal for her to be my child. Yet our lives are too enmeshed for her to only be my friend. I definitely don’t think of her as my “pet”. That sounds too hierarchical and trite. The truth is that she’s a little bit of everything to me. She’s my kid, my friend, my companion, my confidant, my rock. She’s my dog.
My arms are sore from lifting my old dog. I lift her in and out of the car when we go to the vet. I lift her to a standing position when she is having trouble getting up. Makai waits for me to lift her. She knows I’ll help her and she patiently waits. I don’t let her down. I’m so used to lifting her that I instinctively tried to lift a friend’s four year old lab out of a truck the other day. This athletic, virile dog quickly jumped out of my arms, then looked back at me like I was nuts!
Makai is a fighter. That’s why she’s still around. She could have died, and probably should have died a number of times before. But she always fights back. She fights her arthritis by insisting on getting up, by insisting (until recently) on walks. This last summer she fought what should have been a fatal situation. She always fights back. I’ve called my vet twice before to discuss “putting her to sleep” (the language doesn’t disguise the terminal reality of the act for me, although it does make it somewhat more comforting). On each of those occasions, she fought back. She rallied and rebounded. Makai is still a fighter but her fighting is now hurting not sustaining her. The unfortunate combination of her arthritis and senility has resulted in several frightening accidents, leaving her with injuries. These scars are not tributes to great adventures. They’re not notches on the bed post. They’re signals that I need to listen. They’re signals of the end.
Makai, I am listening. Tomorrow I will hold you as you pass on to a better place, or a better state, or at least that’s what I desperately want to believe. Where does all the energy of love and life go? I’m reminded of a colorful postcard I once saw. It read “In dog heaven there are fields and fields and fields”. It’s time, Makai. Run free.
Note: Since writing this tribute I have learned that the postcard to which I referred was created to announce a beautiful and comforting book, Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant, 1995, The Blue Sky Press, New York.