(as requested by McCall)
About ten falls ago, I was in Cleveland on my annual working vacation. My home away from home was an old Airstream in my brother's backyard. He and his family live in a wonderful century cottage overlooking Lake Erie. It is nestled in pines about fifty yards down from a busy State Route 2 and flanked by recently developed McMansions. I was token white trash. The conditions for squatting included adopting his eleven year old dog “Hana” for the duration of my stay.
One night I was flipping through channels on my (pirated) cable TV. There was a documentary called “Animal ER” that caught my attention. Various owners of injured cats, dogs, birds and such were giving testimony as to what financial lengths they did not hesitate to go to replace hips or add prosthetics for the family pet. One woman had just shelled out over $5000 for an emergency appendectomy or whatever for her cat. I rolled my eyes. “That'll be the day”
I did however find myself with a renewed yearning for a canine companion. I suffer from a rare hearing disorder and my ears are very sensitive to sound. Barking is high on the list of intolerables just behind screeching infants. I recall my mother being concerned about the volume of the frogs croaking where I lived in the Pacific Northwest-that sort of sensitivity. Hana was aware of my condition and rarely barked in my presence. I remembered a dog a college roommate had that was a barkless breed. An internet search came up with “Basenji” and I became intrigued.
My Airstream was next to the garage and every morning I would pee in the bushes then Hana would pee on my pee and afterwards we would walk up the hill to the street and proceed around the block. This particular morning we were on our walk and I was thinking about Basenji's. All of the sudden from out of nowhere this puppy darts across the street and and starts nipping at Hana's heels. Hana was a very loveable beast, but her Akida/Sheppard mix was not terribly social to other dogs. I tried unsuccessfully to shoo the puppy away. In resignation I warned: “Little dog you're going to learn a big lesson today”. To my utter astonishment, Hana began to play with this little guy. It was then I noticed how odd looking he was. Blond with a black muzzle, a very big head and completely shaved hind legs, quarter and tail. Cracked me up as I watched them carry on.
The puppy followed us back home playing all the while with his new found friend. He had a collar on, but no tags. I loaded up both dogs in my ‘78 Wagoneer, drove to my folks house and called the police. I knew there would be no problem in identifying this guy due to his shaved hind end. Sure enough 45 minutes later a woman called and soon was on her way to pick him up. Now I won't say that we had bonded in the last hour, but there was definitely mixed feelings emerging towards giving him up. She arrived with her son and neither appeared that excited to reunite. On their way out, I mentioned that if ever she was looking for a new home for the pup, let me know. Her response was immediate. “I have an ad in the paper starting Monday”. Today was Sunday and 45 minutes later I found myself with dog, kennel, toys, vitamins, leashes, the works. Her eagerness concerned me a bit (like what's with the shaved aft half) and I agreed to accept the dog only if I could first take him to the Vet on Monday and have him checked out. She said fine and that was that. She explained that she was a teacher and she had to keep him in the kennel cage during the day and he always found a way to escape into the neighborhood. As they were leaving, I asked what they had named him and she mumbled: “Fred”. Perfect fit I thought.
The rest of the day we played and I pondered my impulsive decision. How was this going to work and is his hair going to grow back? Just what have I gotten myself into? And boy is he funny looking. Buyer's remorse? I did make Fred a promise (first of many) that I would give him the best life I could and doing so could only make mine better as well.
Monday morning we went to the Vet. She assured me Fred was a going to be a great dog and that the shaved hind end was most likely treatment for an infection from urinating in his kennel. He also was flea infested. Swell. She put his age at about 6 months and his mix as part Golden, part Sheppard and part Afghan (his ears). She suggested it would be a good time to neuter him if I so desired. So I left Fred and promised to come back for him that afternoon before going to class (the working part of the vacation).
It was the latter part of November and Cleveland responded appropriately with grey-black sky's, 29 degrees, NE wind and sleet. I picked up a groggy Fred and was told to keep him minimally active for a few days until stitches were removed. We arrived home and I stopped at the top of the drive to pick up mail from the box. When I rolled down the window, Fred spotted a Golden Retriever across the street and immediately jumped out, ran out into the street and was hit squarely by a Lincoln doing about 60.
He flew through the air in a line drive right past my window landing 30 feet away on the curb by a sleet covered drain. Dead as a doornail with blood running out of his ears and nose. I let out a primal scream (muted) and ran to him. The guy in the Lincoln stopped and joined me animated in his agony. Through tears I babbled it was not his fault but that I had just gotten him and we had not even bonded with one another yet-not to mention his last memory of me would be leaving him to get clipped. The Lincoln guy diverted traffic while I ran back to get my Jeep and a blanket. When I returned he was yelling that Fred was twitching! I knelt down and felt a very weak but present pulse. We put him carefully on the blanket and into the Jeep. I called the vet only to find them closed with a message about the location of the nearest Animal ER. That'll be the day.
I went through red lights, broke speed limits, got lost briefly and wailed all the while. Somewhere an improvised song sprung out of me to the mixed melodies of the circus tune “That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “Home on the Range”.
The first question asked at Animal ER as we entered was: “Visa or MasterCard?” “Visa” I said without hesitation. This, I realized, was indeed The Day.
My folks and my brother arrived in time to hear the news. Fred was in a deep coma. X-rays showed nothing broken, but internal injuries were suspected along with head trauma. Doubtful he would last the night. I kept vigilance and my family supported my efforts as though he was my child. I had known a conscious Fred for less than 24 hours. A deep bond was developing unconsciously.
The next day I visited his previous owner. I explained what happened to Fred and she looked at me quizzically and asked “Who's Fred”? I could not believe my ears (pun intended). What sort of cold blooded being was this. I reminded her of the whole deal and she said “Oh, you mean Prince”. “Prince?” I said. “Who's Prince?” She looked at me as though I had been hit by the Lincoln. “Prince, the dog” she said. So it dawned on me that I actually couldn't believe my ears and they had somehow interpreted “Prince” as “Fred”. I numbly nodded, left, and doubted I would be changing his name back.
The third day against all odds, Fred came out of his coma. He was moved out of Intensive Care at the ER to his own room at the animal hospital. Visa or MasterCard. I was told that his chances of recovery were improving but that he was by no means out of the woods. If he did recover, it was uncertain as to the amount of damage incurred. I explained to the Doctor that I lived on a small sailboat in the Northwest and that if he was not 100% I didn't see how we could manage. The Doctor assured me that whatever happened, Fred was not going to be 100%.
Two weeks later I carried my guy home to the Airstream. A foot of snow was on the ground and my first duty was to learn how to work Fred's bladder and bowels by hand in that they were not functioning on their own. In the snow no less. (ironically this would come in very handy in the future while sailing). His progress was slow, but steady. Two weeks later he was almost able to crawl. Four weeks later I was due to fly back home to Washington.
The airlines would only take a (healthy) pet in a kennel if the temperature at both ends of travel was above 40¾ and under 70¾. Fat chance in Cleveland or Seattle in January. Christmas day was celebrated with a limping but happy Fred. I promised I”d get him back to the Northwest somehow. And I kept the promise.
After much investigating, a long forgotten disability placard, and much persistence, Fred & I boarded the plane together. I in my usual ear gear (remember my hearing condition) and Fred in is brand new “Service Animal” vest. He behaved like a Prince. Fred the service dog. Bulkhead window seat to boot. The pilot even came out and remarked what a wonderfully trained beast he was, albeit a little odd looking.
Rehab on the boat was challenging. Once Fred got to know his territory I let him roam around (limp around) with his new buddies. One evening his buddy came back to the boat minus Fred. They had been gone for about 45 minutes. A search discovered Fred in the freezing water clinging to a piling. I pulled him out, dried him off and wrapped us both up in an electric blanket and blew warm breath into him, hugging tightly as he shivered violently throughout the night. Fred survived. Ironically I had just given a First Aid/CPR class that evening on Hypothermia.
Winter revolved around skiing. By late February Fred was able to plod along rather well on the marina grounds. He was even taking a keen interest in sticks. It was time to introduce him to recreational snow. Off to the mountains we went where Fred responded delightfully. I slapped on my cross-country skis and he followed just off my starboard quarter for about a 100 yards. Not wanting to push it, I turned around to head back. I noticed these red dots in the snow on my left side every six feet or so. I stopped, looked back at Fred wagging his hairless tail and noticed his left front paw bleeding. Yep, I had unknowingly pierced right through it with my ski pole. Visa or MasterCard.
Spring brought strength, squeaky toys, sticks, sailing and swimming. Fred mastered them all. Muscle was replacing torn tendons. Frisbees were discovered. In his eagerness he lost a few baby teeth-Frisbee mouth is the correct term I was told. Ultimately, he was leaping four feet in the air for the Frisbee and seldom missing. He could make a squeaky toy talk anyone into tossing it for him. He prized his collection and never chewed through a one.
Summer was spent sailing. Fred could “hold it” with no complaints for well over 24 hours. If necessary, I recalled past skills in manual manipulation. His balance and dexterity was remarkable. He preferred standing on the narrow decks of our kayak and took a keen interest in seals, porpoise and whales. He would retrieve anything thrown to him and swam circles around Labs, Golden's, whatever. One afternoon he drew a crowd by wearing out four other dogs, beating them in turn to the thrown sticks in the local lake. He kept this up for well over four hours. This was seven months after emerging from a coma with doubtful expectations.
Fall we returned to Cleveland with a filled out Service Animal vest. Fred did not really know what a leash was and streets, cars and crowds were vague memories. I was a bit concerned about his behavior in the airport much less as acting as a Service Dog. As soon as that vest went on however, he snapped back into service as if he had never had it off: healing, sitting, lying calmly at my feet and impressing all by his “training”. Everyone on that flight stopped by our bulkhead window seat to play or complement Fred.
Soon after arrival we paid a visit to the vet where he was first treated. I left Fred in the car and after everyone asked how he was doing, if he was walking etc., I proudly said “See for yourselves”. I whistled for him and he jumped out of the window, Frisbee in his mouth, and ran right in and jumped up on the examination table wagging a very blond, beautiful, long haired tail. They were stunned. Before we left, Fred was awarded the “Miracle Dog” of the year award. They were right, Fred did not recover 100%. He recovered 110%.
November came and memories of his accident emerged. On the day of that anniversary, Fred, Hana and I were starting our late afternoon walk up my Brother's driveway. As we approached the street, Fred spotted another puppy across the street. This time he was on a leash, but slipped his collar. This time it was snowing. This time it was a Cadillac (Fred preferred luxury automobiles). This time he was hit from the other direction.
He was out cold, but his pulse and breathing was OK. On the way to Animal ER he came to and was trying to get up as I sang him his song.
Same folks at the ER. “Wait a minute” the same receptionist said. “I know, I know” I replied. “No really, this is crazy! You were in here with the same dog exactly, almost to the minute, one year ago to the day with the same injuries”. “Not exactly” I said. “This time it was a Cadillac and going the opposite direction”. She was not comprehending any of this. “Oh there's another difference” I explained. “This time it'll be Visa. We need the miles”.
Fred spent the night and x-rays showed nothing broken. A new doctor unfamiliar with the coincidence explained the only reason that there were no broken bones was Fred's outstanding muscular condition and not so much his street wisdom. Miracle Dog.
The next seven years required little use of Visa or MasterCard or Animal ER. Fred continued to develop into a very beautiful and special guy who was attached to my hip going everywhere with me. Hotels, restaurants, movies, even National Park trails. He made front page news in a local rag for tipping me off on a hiking trip to a woman's far off screams deep in the Olympic mountains. She had made a smoke fire and Fred heard her cry for help miles across a valley and communicated it to me. I did not hear anything, but knew he had and he was “pointing” toward the smoke, which I could see. She was rescued two days after we were able to contact park Rangers.
Our bond was uncanny. Fred six-sensed offensive sounds and gave me a look that warned me every time. He was never taught any tricks-not even to sit, yet he would come immediately to my voice and remain outside a store patiently until my return. The car was his car and no one dared to enter it unless I was around. I used to leave my keys in the ignition without even thinking about it. His hair grew back and his maturing body caught up to his head. My odd looking guy was now drawing complements and I was constantly asked “What mix is he?” You could throw any object as far into the woods or water in the dead of night and he always found it, retrieved it; and dropped it at your feet nudging you until you threw it again. He always was ready for a new adventure and he had many, making my life infinitely more exciting. He knew when we were nearing our driveway and would always be let out half way up so I could watch him take me home.
“Run like the wind, Fredrick Von”. And boy, did he. I made many promises to him. “I promise to take you swimming”, “I promise to take you skiing”. I only broke one promise.
Spring six years later.
I had just completed writing the first draft of the Captain's License textbooks and was at the local printers to pick up the copies. From there Fred and I were leaving for a celebratory weekend of Spring skiing. While waiting, Fred was pestering a woman demanding that she give him a pat. “Oh all right you win” she said and reached down to stroke his head and neck. “My God” she exclaimed, “get this dog to a Vet immediately”. She took my hand and lowered it to Fred's neck where I felt golf ball sized lumps. They had not been there the day before.
I rushed to my country vet and we were whisked into the back room where three aspirate samples were drawn and shipped to Seattle for a pathology report. Dr. Tony prepared me for the worst and Fred was given Prednisone to reduce the swelling. We left for the mountains dazed and denying.
We skied up our favorite trail under perfect conditions, sort of. Fred was super dog jumping off ten foot ledges and tearing up the trail. (he would have been busted at the Olympics) On Saturday the lumps had disappeared. We returned home on Sunday and I was convinced there was no way Fred had cancer. I attributed the lumps to some raw Salmon he had gotten into a few days before.
Sunday evening The Call came. Lymphoma. Six months on the outside.
I think anyone who has dealt with this in loved ones goes through similar patterns. Denial, questioning test results, second opinions, third opinions and finally deciding upon a course of treatment. Dr. Tony, my country vet, was against Chemo. “Keep Fred on Prednisone, go to Costco, get some burgers and steaks and throw him his sticks and Frisbees until the end.” I respected this viewpoint to its core, but had to exhaust all other options. We flew back to Cleveland where a well regarded veterinary oncologist examined and encouraged a protocol of an array of Chemo drugs. I have mild (well moderate) OCD, and this decision was bringing it all out. Quality of life versus possibility of side affects but prolonging or perhaps even beating the inevitable. My mother had undergone heavy chemo for a rare form of uterine cancer over 15 years ago and beat it. She also advised against it for Fred, recalling her discomfort. But then again, she was still with us because of it. But then again.
We went for a long walk in our favorite park (Cleveland Metro Park). There were memorial benches along the trails and I made Fred the hardest promise yet. “I promise you a bench and I promise to scatter your ashes wherever I go that we have been together. I promise. I promise. I promise.” It was then that we began our search for the perfect spot. A heart shaped rock presented itself at a beautiful spot and I picked it up and put it in my pocket. This would become a our ritual.
I decided to begin the chemo and see how Fred would respond. This meant returning to Cleveland every two weeks. Fred was administered his first treatment and responded by eating a steak and going for a swim two hours later. This was going to work by God. Visa and MasterCard be damned.
We returned to the NW in our bulkhead window seats. I let Fred out in the driveway and burst into tears as he pranced up ahead in his cartoon like fashion. God how was I going to go through this. I got out, threw him a yard Frisbee and spotted a heart shaped rock. After examining it I recall thinking that perhaps this was all part of master plan. I still had my family intact and Fred was going to teach me how to deal with the inevitable. The circle of life. I gave that heart a special rub and placed it next to the first one found.
I undertook massive research by all means available. Internet, conference calls with Ohio State Veterinary gurus, alternative programs and specialists, the works. I was adept at this due to a long history of investigating my hearing disorder. I returned to Dr. Tony who was completely supportive of my decision to try Chemo and suggested I speak with Dr. Jenny Johnson who shared his office. She was very attuned to the various protocols and thought that traveling back and forth to Ohio was going to be hard on both of us. Better to put my money into treatment, not travel. She recommended an oncologist in Seattle. I took Fred for an examination which confirmed the diagnosis I was still denying. She also recommended chemo but in a much more aggressive protocol called “Madison Wisconson”. We discussed the pros and cons and big decisions had to be made again. My OCD was having a hayday. I ended up agreeing to it and Dr. Johnson was to be the tending Vet back home. I have a wonderful cousin in Cleveland who has housed countless rescued Golden Retrievers and also happens to be a Pharmacist. She generously offered to help out with the medications making it possible to give Fred the best. I had records transferred, bought a book of passes for the ferry and celebrated Fred's second treatment by taking him to a Mariners game. They won. We celebrated with hot dogs.
Fred was given 9 to 11 months perhaps more. He went into remission and all was well. We spent the summer as usual with perhaps a few more swims thrown in. In August we were to go for a two week sail to the San Juans and Gulf Islands. Just before departure, he went for treatment and it was discovered that he was no longer in remission. Shoulders shrugged and a rather detached oncologist suggested treatment be stopped in that it had been unsuccessful. Prognosis now was weeks, rather than months.
We returned numbed and decided to go on our cruise regardless. I had stumbled upon an alternative treatment that involved heavy doses of a human drug not associated with chemo and having no side effects. I called Dr. Johnson from sea and she was all for trying anything. She called in the prescription to a pharmacy on an Island near by and Fred and I pulled in, dropped anchor, picked up the perscription and sailied off again to begin a new approach.
We had an incredible sail. Many heart rocks, much swimming and hiking. I think we went through at least 3 Frisbees. And I made Fred a final promise.
“I promise that when the time comes you no longer get up and go directly for a squeaky toy, or ball, or Frisbee, I promise that I will let you go. With dignity. With you in my arms. I promise I will not let you suffer”
We flew back to Cleveland in the fall for my annual working vacation. No one expected us to be together. Fred had attended over 50 Captains classes and here we were again. No more Animal ER. No more Visa or MasterCard-except for the best food I could find. Lots and lots of hikes in the Valley where many heart rocks were found and a the perfect spot for his bench was chosen. We made it through Christmas and returned back to the NW-still the Prince of Service Dogs.
March 3 rd , 2004 was graduating day for my Winter class in the Northwest. Fred had attended the entire class and befriended everyone as usual. The evening before he was insistent more than usual with his Frisbee. He slept on the floor by my bed instead of his usual spot under the stairs. The next morning he did not get up. He looked at me with those eyes and asked me to keep my promise. I did.
Jenny Johnson came over and guided us through. Fred had managed to crawl downstairs and I held him near his bed under the stairs. I got out my guitar and cried out his song. At 1252 pm., exactly one year ago today as I write this, we said goodbye.
There is just a bit more to add…..
I had promised Fred that I would scatter his ashes. Jenny and I had discussed various plans prior to his passing and I expressed my desire to have Fred cremated. She gently reminded me of this and that there was a slight problem. The pick-up for cremations in our neck of the woods only happened on Wednesday mornings and he had already been here so we had just missed it. She did say that she would try to get him on the cell phone and see what she could do. Turned out he was making his last pick up in a town about 45 minutes away. He agreed to wait there if I could get down in the next half hour. Without time to ponder, we loaded Fred in the back seat of my Subaru and off I went.
I went through red lights, broke speed limits, got lost briefly and wailed all the while. Fred's improvised song sprung out of me to the mixed melodies of the circus tune “That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “Home on the Range”. (Déjà vu?)
I got there in 38 minutes and the cremator's white van was waiting. He said he would need help in loading Fred into the van. I stammered something about how could I be sure that it would be Fred's ashes I was getting back. He assured me not to worry. We carried Fred over to the Van and when he opened the back, a pile of uncovered dead bodies almost reached the roof. We literally had to toss Fred up on the top of the heap. He then had to use his body to close the door against the mass. He turned, wiped his hands on his pants and I knew what was next.
“Visa or MasterCard?”
I got back in my Subaru and headed back with his blanket, collar, and a few toys in the backseat. I got about 15 minutes down the road and lost it. I mean really lost it. I couldn't imagine living with that last image of Fred being atop that pile of dead dogs. I did a u-turn on the Highway and chased that van down without daring to look at the speedometer. 20 minutes later I caught him, pulled him over to the side of the road, jumped out and said: “I want my dog back”. His look was, well, who cares what his look was. I loaded Fred back in and headed for home.
I called Jenny on the way and explained what had happened. She was totally supportive of my decision to rescue Fred. She had noticed my workshop when she was at my house and said it was cold enough that Fred would be fine out there overnight until I figured out what to do. So on his bed on the table he went.
I still had to show up for graduation. Everyone immediately asked where Fred was and I replied “Oh he's around”. At the end of the evening I told them this story. I will again tonight to a new graduating class.
When I got back home, my best two-legged buddy was there to help commiserate. We held vigil and at about 4am the decision was to burry Fred in the backyard. The next morning we found the spot, dug a hole and buried Fred in his bed, with balls and Frisbees and all things sacred. I was drained. I also was plagued by an un-kept promise.
There would be no ashes to scatter.
I had promised I would.
This bothered me deeply.
Still does to this day.
I wanted to carry him around with me in the car. My friend said “Jeff, trust me. You could have that car detailed professionally and you would still have plenty of Fred with you.” That was comforting, but I still wanted something physical. The answer was the heart rocks. We had found them together and they linked me to his soul. I lined his grave with many of them and now take one of them whenever I go off on a hike or sail and cast it off with a prayer for Fred. Many of them can be found under a beautiful bench in a very special spot in Cleveland barring the inscription:
Rest, and ponder promises kept
He flies through the air with the greatest of ease
That daring young dog, whose name is Freddy
He ain't got no hair and his head is too large
Ran into the street, got hit by some cars
Home, home for de dog
Where there's rivers and mountains and frogs
And he seldom barked
Even in parks
Where the sky's are kinda cloudy all day
There is plenty more to the story. This one was written as it came to me on his anniversary. No edits. Nothing clever. Just the story of Fred. That'll be the day.
Jeff and Newbe