YELPING JOYFULLY INTO THAT DEEP FOREVER NIGHT….
I’ve never handled death very well. It’s the reason I studiously avoid funerals, memorial services, and any other social gatherings associated with or celebrating the end of someone’s (or something’s) life. The only memorial service I truly regret having missed is the paddle-out for Auntie Rell Sunn, back in 1998, but that was an impossibility for me at the time.
When my father died (I was 4 years at the time), I was at least spared whatever possible latent psychological problems that event might have posed, by not being forced to attend the burial. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until some years later. Death was a taboo subject in my household and that was both a good and a bad thing, as I now recognise.
Years later, when my mother died, the subsequent details was taken care of by others; there was no ‘viewing’ of the remains, no eulogy, no service, and cremation obviated the need for a burial. I remained largely sheltered from death, from that end to life that all living beings undergo and that all sentient beings reflect upon until their own appointment with the reaper occurs.
My first real introduction to death and the emotional loss it creates came when the first of my wonderful Siberians passed on, about 8 years ago. The name on his pedigree was ‘Dylan’s Dynamite Junior’ and he was the offspring of two champion Siberians; to us he was always just ‘Deejay’. We had acquired Deejay as a companion to our first dog, an unpapered but pedigreed black & white female Siberian we named ‘Laika’ (after the famed Russian space dog sent into orbit on Sputnik 2, in November of 1957, mindful of the need these highly intelligent dogs have for companionship and our absence from during the workday
Deejay came to us in 2007. We had hoped that he would prove a good companion to Laika, our family’s ‘alpha dog’, and help keep her diverted during the day when we both were away at work. Since Siberians are quite clever and smart, they become easily bored from lack of sufficient stimulation, so we were hopeful that Laika and Deejay would bond together as pack mates (since both were ‘fixed’, we had no greater expectations than mere amicability).
Deejay was a most unusual dog in many ways, not least being his size. Standing a good 2 inches in excess of the AKC show standard maximum allowable height at 25 inches, Deejay was sold to us as a pet, despite his being a magnificent and highly attractive dog. Deejay was so big even knowledgeable dog people frequently mistook him for a Malamute; those blithe souls who knew little about northern working dogs thought he was half-wolf, although his demeanor and personality was hardly wolfish. Deejay was in fact a canine creampuff, just a handsome and loveable ‘glamour-boy’.
Deejay seemed to recognise a camera as soon as it appeared in someone’s hand, and owing to that trait, he was one of the most photogenic dogs I’ve ever known; a real ham who would assume a perfect camera pose at the drop of a hat. With that wonderful ‘smile’ he habitually wore on his muzzle, Deejay would typically charm the socks off anyone who came near him. It was almost as if he had been a movie star in a previous life, so genuinely appealing was the inherent and natural ‘glamour’ affect he possessed.
Despite his formidable size and appearance, in terms of being a courageous protector of his family Deejay was a complete flop, since he was by nature a very timid guy. His timidity was almost legendary, given the fact that he would go to any possible lengths to avoid associating with other dogs or people. For reasons unknown to me, he seemed to be palpably fearful of Black people, despite the fact that he had never had any contact with Blacks in his entire life. Ditto for cigarette smoke, the merest scent of which was enough to send him hurriedly in the opposite direction, tugging on his leash in a near-panic-stricken effort to get as far away as possible from the smoker.
Deejay was always somewhat anxiety prone like that, a tendency that complemented his rather timid personality quite well in retrospect. Loud noises were extremely discomforting to him, a nuance that peaked on the 4th of July and on New Year’s Eve with their loud fireworks effects. Even a shout was enough to visibly startle this great big guy, who loved nothing better than to sprawl decorously out on the family room carpet, surrounded by peace and quiet. [In all fairness, I should add that a friendly nature (even to strangers) is a bred-in Siberian characteristic, since thousands of years ago they lived with the Siberian people in villages where total strangers would frequently come and go. Deejay was just a gentle giant—a sort of canine version of ‘Ferdinand the Bull’, from the old children’s story.]
Laika, on the other hand, was clearly the ‘alpha female’ of the family pack, having demonstrated a tendency towards totally self-centered gratification in her earliest days of puppyhood. When we first looked around for a Siberian, we encountered Laika as one of a six puppy litter produced by a local area person’s two pure-bred, but unpapered Siberians. When I went to their house to look at the litter, after answering an ad in the paper, I was immediately impressed by her behavior among her litter-mates: instead of coming over to me like her brothers and sisters, she couldn’t stay far enough away to suit herself, waddling across the floor to huddle against the far wall of the room. Clearly, all the signs indicated that this was a very independent-minded pup who would never allow anyone to become too close to her, and only on her terms.
At that time, however, I was convinced that this ‘independent’ nature was a good sign, since I have always admired independent personalities in people. Instead of picking one of the other gregarious pups, who all came over to sniff and lick my hands, I selected that little ‘loner’ of a Siberian girl we ended up naming Laika. It was my first inkling of what would follow in terms of her subsequent social development, but the second clue occurred almost concurrently, since I had visited the pups just before dinnertime and the meal was about to be served.
Both of Laika’s parents were at the house and the sire seemed to be a somewhat formidable and not particularly friendly guy. Not that he was aggressive or overtly unfriendly; just that he conveyed the impression of a dog that kept his ‘leader’ dignity under tight check and remained somewhat aloof from his female and her pups.
As soon as his food bowl was filled, Laika’s ‘Dad’ started to eat, but no sooner had the food been placed there than little 8 week-old Laika waddled right over to his dish as if it were her own (the pups were fed separately from the parents). Giving her a look as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing, Laika’s sire glared at her for a second or two as she approached his dish, clearly eager to gobble whatever choice tidbits had been placed there for her pop.
Before any of us fully understood what was coming, Laika’s sire had snapped at her face and connected with the front of her muzzle with his teeth. In a split second the air was rent with absolutely anguished puppy sounds of pain as he bit into her nose hard enough to create a small gusher of blood! It was over in an instant and we merely looked on stupidly, as if unable to fully comprehend what had just happened. Poor, greedy little Laika scampered, howling in a most heart-wrenching manner, to the corner of the room as we all watched dumbfounded. It was over in a fraction of a second, and ‘Dad’ went about eating his kibbles calmly thereafter as if nothing unusual had happened. Knowing nothing about what vets humorously refer to as ‘ the drama queen’ personality in some Siberians, we thought she had been mortally wounded. But in fact, the wound was not at all as serious as it was an unanticipated shock to the poor little pup.
We had already agreed to take Laika and had even paid for her ($250 at the time in 1993) in advance, but the owners were apparently so flummoxed by this unexpected display of canine interactive behavior that they immediately offered to return the money, expecting us to want to select another, uninjured pup from the litter.
I would have nothing of their offer, of course, since I had selected her for her unique personality and the injury really didn’t matter at all, by my reckoning. As a result, we merely left her with then owners for a few weeks more, since they offered to have her treated by the local vet to repair the damage. And damage it was, for her sire had landed quite a forceful bite on her poor little nose. The repair required a number of stitches and the resulting scar remained visible on her muzzle right to the end of her days. Most pups would have learned something from this experience, but not Laika!
A few weeks later, we picked up strong-willed, greedy, headstrong, and somewhat antisocial little Laika to take her home with us, whose nose had by then healed well enough. She remained with us for fifteen and a half years, finally passing over the rainbow bridge just a few days ago (October of 2008), remaining the undisputed ‘alpha dog’ of our family pack to the very end.
In 2004, Deejay, our great big good-natured goofball of a russet colored Siberian male crossed over the rainbow bridge, the first of our Siberians to depart. He had contracted a strange malady that was likely, seen in retrospect, a rare if severe, immunological disorder that quickly progressed to the point where he had wasted away appreciably in his final days. Many expensive sessions at both the local vet’s hospital and even at the highly specialised UC Davis Small Animal Clinic failed to reveal any sensible working diagnosis that fit any recognised canine syndrome. After trying everything we could think of to reverse his mysteriously rapid decline, Deejay, having brought inestimable happiness into our lives, was only 13 when he passed over that rainbow bridge.
Laika, for her part, never accepted big, lovable Deejay as being any sort of peer for all the time that they were together, much to my intense regret. Despite weighing a mere 65 pounds to his 115 (he was truly a giant for a Siberian), she led him around as if he had a ring in nose and never once let him get near us while she was around. It was almost as if she were trying to ‘protect’ us from receiving his love and affection, despite the fact that he was an extremely affectionate guy who clearly wanted our attention. With true canine stoicism, however, Deejay accepted Laika’s incontestable ‘top dog’ status in our household and always deferred to her in all matters. It is, after all, the natural ‘way of the pack’ to work out such alpha and omega hierarchies, and northern working dogs still retain many of their ancestral wolfish instincts and primal intuitions, despite having been genetically separated from true wolves for more than 10,000 years ago.
I am convinced that in order to ‘work around’ this constant attempt by Laika to deny him access to our proximity, Deejay adopted a natural and unforced mechanism of artfully clever deceptivity. Something on the order of the behavior of a small child who, although constantly getting into trouble, puts on a great big ‘it’s OK’ smile to deflect attention while continuing his mischief. This somewhat deceptive affect, mild and amusing as it was, was enough for me to take notice of it in Deejay, and the result was my ‘familiar’ name for him: ‘Deejay Dishonest Dog’. I suppose part of that unique appellation stems from my recollections of the ‘Beany & Cecil’ kiddie show of the late 50s, the chief antagonist of which was a bumblingly sinister cad named ‘Dishonest John’, but it seemed a perfect fit for Deejay and it stuck. Deejay remained forever (and affectionately) ‘Deejay Dishonest Dog’.
Perplexed and greatly saddened by our loss of our lovable canine clown Deejay in 2004, we were again left with willful little Laika, our irrepressible alpha dog, about as close to famed writer H. Ryder Haggard’s ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ character as a dog may be. Still, and despite indications that she might well be one of those rare dogs who prefered single-dog households to gregarious ones, we still felt that leaving Laika alone all day by herself would not be good for either her or us. Thus I started looking around for another companion for Laika.
In August of that year (2004) I happened to connect with a Siberian Husky rescue group in northern California named NorCal Sled Dog Rescue, by surfing the internet one day in a moment of indolence. There I found a beautiful black & white Siberian male—supposedly about 9 years old—that was up for adoption after having been rescued from a nearby community’s animal pound. The dog in question was certainly a pure-bred Siberian, judging from his picture, but strangely he had had almost all of his heavy coat shaved off by his previous owner!
Expressing interest, I was warned in advance by the group’s contact person not to be ‘put off by his appearance’. Sure enough, upon my arrival to see him in preson, I found that he had indeed had most of his heavy coat shaved clean! The incongruity of this was perplexing, but he really was a beautiful guy and we seemed to hit it off immediately. His name had been ‘Cherokee’, according to the group’s records and it was only after his having been repetitively found in the pound several times that he was finally rescued from an apparently careless owner by the group. Details about his incarceration there were sketchy, but he apparently had a strange sort of benign but actively growing neoplastic tumor on his left foreleg. Several expensive operations had been required to remove it, all quite costly to the rescue group, but we paid the bills for his care and I brought our new guy home to meet Laika, the ‘queen’ of the house.
Cherokee was, in my opinion, a terrible name for a dog—any dog--since effective dog names need to be no more than two syllables in length, with a good firm and articulatible ring to them that a dog won’t confuse with other words. However, not wanting to confound the poor guy, I decided to rename him ‘Raki’, which although suitably short and succinct, is not all that far off from the last syllable of his former name, ‘Cher-o-kee’. Regardless of what Raki felt about this new name, he warmed up to it right away and thus began a four year relationship that was probably one of the best and most fulfilling I’ve ever enjoyed with a dog.
As might be easily understood, the average person who heard us use his name invariably thought the name was spelled ‘Rocky’ (as in ‘Rocky Balboa’ of the Sylvester Stalone film), but in fact it was an allusion to a style of uniquely fired traditional Japanese ceramic ware known as ‘Raki’. This fact required explanation repeatedly throughout the following four years, but I humor myself into thinking that a number of people we explained this to had their awareness expanded in a positive manner by that information.
Raki was a genuine joy. Everything that Laika lacked in terms of being affectionate and loving, Raki had in spades. If Laika’s chief aim in life seemed to be escape (from attention and affection), Raki’s seemed to be the opposite. I often suspect that Raki recognised acutely the difference between a loving, caring, and positive owner and one who was not, by virtue of his former experiences in the prior 9 years of his life. Although Laika tended to demean him with her air of assumed superiority, just as she had Deejay, when she wasn’t around Raki was eager to come close and was a positive joy to have near.
Sadly enough, Raki’s problem with the strange non-cancerous growth on his leg had not been fully resolved and the growth grew back several times after we got him, each recurrence requiring further expensive surgery and recovery care. Finally, however, the treating vet facility seemed to have gotten all of it removed with one last surgery and it finally went into remission and stayed away. We were just congratulating ourselves on having won that battle when a more disturbing problem turned up with Raki. Blood tests revealed that he had sustained a rather severe diabetic state, characterised by an unusually rapid onset. We put Raki on injectable insulin right away, but despite daily blood glucose testing, his blood sugar levels seemed extremely hard to maintain at a reasonably good level. It wasn’t long before he descended into an intractably resistant form of diabetes.
In addition to the diabetes, Raki developed a rather strange condition in which his footpads curled out to the side in the form of big ‘corns’. The term for the condition is ‘hyperkeratosis’ and research revealed it isn’t too uncommon in Huskies, although it is usually Zinc-responsive. In Raki there was no response to Zinc therapy, however, and this problem remained with him to the end, poor guy. Diabetes and a severe foot pad problem: we felt that was probably enough burden for any dog to have to bear, but things continued to get worse in short order.
All of this required careful veterinarian management and the level of care Raki received was probably better than that many people have with their regular health insurance programs. But it was also expensive, and I knew from my experience in human medicine that regardless of the care he received, diabetes is invariably a terrible thing for any living creature to be afflicted with. It is more so for an animal, since they can’t communicate directly with care-providers about symptoms, feelings, and other important parts of the problems in a meaningful healthcare feedback loop.
After four wonderful, full years of life with us, Raki’s conditioned rapidly worsened due to his severe diabetic state. Soon enough what had appeared to be merely some haziness in his eyes turned into full blown, opaque cataracts, and while cataracts could have been surgically removed, no ophthalmological veterinary surgeon would have willingly performed the procedure unless his diabetes were first under good control. And of course his diabetes was anything but that. Our wonderful Raki quickly became blind as a result and it ripped our hearts out to see such a magnificent guy rendered so helpless, with no possible recourse to restore his sight.
Toward the end, Raki additionally suffered from a severe impairment of his balance and hindquarter motor control, to the point where he could hardly stand by himself and couldn’t walk without careful and attentive assistance. At that point, Raki having reached the age of 13 years—just like Deejay—we elected to send Raki across the rainbow bridge, just like his predecessor, Deejay. Although the decision to do that was the hardest one I’ve ever had to make, clearly it was for his own good, as the quality of his life had deteriorated to the point where it was the only reasonable course of action to take. We said goodbye to Raki on the 4th of September, after spending an entire two days with him at home. I even slept on the floor of the family room with him, letting him crowd me off the thin foam mattress willingly, knowing that in a few short hours our great-hearted and much-loved family member would be nothing more than another cherished memory.
Raki’s final departure left a huge gaping hole in our hearts, but we at least still had Laika, the female Siberian we had raised from puppyhood. At an age of 15 plus, she gave every indication of being bombproof and immortal up to the time we lost Raki. By some strange coincidence, the very day we said goodbye to Raki Laika seemed to experience a severe nosebleed. This was mystifying, although she had been sneezing a lot before then. leading us to believe she might have gotten a foxtail in her nose. For a Siberian, 15+ years is very old indeed, with the average age of most Siberians reaching about 13 or so. Laika, by this time had lost about 98% of her hearing, but aside from an occasional bad stomach, seemed in reasonably good health.
In the following weeks, she seemed to slow down remarkably and rapidly, and one cannot help but speculate that at least part of this was attributable to losing Raki, the begrudging partner she had shared our house with for four years. Although they were rarely more than the ‘best of enemies’ (Laika being always true to her typical antisocial self), Laika clearly ‘missed’ Raki and it showed clearly in the amazing rapidity with which she seemed to suddenly age years in the span of a few weeks after Raki left us. Her appetite, never good for ‘regular’ food (since she was so spoiled by receiving treats and bits of our food), fell off remarkably and her energy level diminished noticeably.
Visits to the vet and a new round of health exams soon showed that our poor little pup (we called her ‘the pup’, despite her advanced years) suffered from severely advanced adenosarcoma of the sinus region. The condition is virtually untreatable, due to its location just under the brain pan, and survival rate rarely exceeds 120 days at most, according to the literature.
A series of skull xrays and a rhinoscopic exam confirmed that the cancer had likely already penetrated into the cranial space housing her brain and it was clear at that point that Laika would have little time left with us as a result. There was really nothing we could do to arrest the progression of this condition. ‘Heartbreaking’ is hardly an adequate term to use in describing such situations, but the evidence was clear and the outcome predictable. It would be best to send Laika on to join Raki and Deejay in that mythical pasture dogs go to, across the rainbow bridge where there is always sunshine, food, and companionship.
Laika joined Raki less than 30 days after Raki had gone, leaving us with a suddenly quiet house; it was a situation we hadn’t really anticipated in all the years we had had our canine family members, since one really never thinks seriously about death until forced to or confronted directly by it.
The pain of loss and the grieving process is always acute for human beings, since our cursed ability to reason opens up endless doors into areas of melancholy speculation that animals, unable to reason, are spared from. After much involuntary thought on the subject, I feel that we humans grieve mostly due to a sense of our being deprived of the joys of companionship with other living creatures. That is, we grieve not for the lost friends or animals themselves as much as for ourselves. Left in the vacuum of kindred company that the departed have suddenly created in our lives, we somewhat selfishly mourn ourselves and feel sad for our own misfortune. Having managed to avoid responsibility all these years of my own life for the necessity of coming eventually to terms with death, I have in the past month been rather rudely brought to terms…as all of us must… with the grim reaper.
Having lost considerable faith in my fellow human beings over the past 6 decades, I have grown to appreciate animals more than my own kind, for while human beings have been imbued with the ability to reflect upon their lives (positively or negatively), animals are purely instinctual and live according to the direct input of their senses and intuitive resources. There can be little if any beguilement or deception possible among animals, unlike among humans. For that reason (among many) our pets have grown to mean much to us in the otherwise highly deceptive reality that characterises the ‘religion’ of modern capitalistic materialism that most worship in America.
Life therefore without dogs is almost inconceivable to me and I am already planning to acquire two Siberian puppies from a breeder in Canada. They won’t take the place of my wonderful former companions Laika, Raki, and Deejay, but at least the new pups will keep me preoccupied and less inclined to reflect on the loss we’ve recently undergone. Before long and in beautiful accordance with nature’s natural processes, the new pups too will become a critically important and vital addition to our household pack; with any luck we’ll all pass over that final rainbow bridge together, at long last, all howling joyfully into the Great Forever that we benighted mortals may all only speculate endlessly about to our last breath.
In memory of Laika, Raki, and Deejay.
“If dogs don’t go to Heaven, I want to go where they go when I die!”
-Quote attributed to Samuel Langhorne Clemons (Mark Twain)
“They do not mush quietly into that final deep and darkened pale of Arctic winter; howling and yelping joyfully, all pulling together towards the glowing wonder of the timeless Aurora, they vanish from our sight…but not our hearts!”
-Quote not attributed to Jack London, Dylan Thomas, or in fact anyone, but it’s a neat thought!