Inspection- Counting My Life in Collie Years

We’ve had so many collies, “collie years” seems apt, though “dog years” would work as well.
For my birthday I would like to honor someone we’ve lost we loved dearly. I started writing this almost a year ago, and then returned to it the day after our collie, Frankincense, died. Looking for my usual commentary? Yes, I’ll be commenting on how we handle death as a society. But there are also a few stories to tell. Each and every dog I have had has had something to teach me, something to say about the times we live in and how we value the lives of others. And, sometimes, they certainly seemed wiser and more understanding than some humans I have known.

by Ken Carman

 Last time we were in this very dark, difficult place, I was on the road and my wife had to make the decision, be there, see life flee from Terhune the collie’s eyes. This time I had to make the difficult decision: watch as they inserted the needle, watch as he faded into nothingness… or wherever dogs go. I’m hoping we all go the same place, if we “go” anywhere at all.
 When I first started to write this, almost a year ago, I was looking at Frankincense, our 14 to 15 year old collie: a true, tri-color collie in the rough, who was laying on the floor next to me, as I typed another column. Frankincense was our fifth collie: one of three from collie rescues. A year ago I knew his time was a lot shorter than it was long, kind of like mine. Only collies rarely even live to 14, and if the vet who assessed him after we picked him up from collie rescue was right he was probably 16, closing in on 17.
  Yesterday morning he collapsed on the floor… quick rush to the hospital with him yelping in pain all the way. I would reach back in the Jeep, hold his paw, and he would get quiet.. when I let go he’d start again. The vet told me his stomach had twisted. After a predicted many days, and an intensive operation, considering his age, even the doctor said at his age surviving would have been questionable. We also had to consider that Frankincense had a severe back issue and increasing dementia: dementia to the point where a few times he would just walk off my four foot high porch rather than down the stairs at one end, ramp on the other into the big dog pen. Stairs, ramps, even just standing up sometimes, suddenly seemed impossible obstacles to him. Watching him try to stand was painful and tramadol would just make him sleep… if you could get him to take it. (Peanut butter helped.) Once awake again, often, he would meander around and around in circles: often half here, at best. We had turned our house into a “gated” community for him so he wouldn’t go in the bathroom and get stuck on a heat grating, like he did once, or fall off the porch.
  The collie who used to love to herd our smaller dog and track a Frisbee like he had a computer inside his head had to be gently led places. We knew something was up when once upon better times he would bump the Frisbee out of our hands he was so eager, now he didn’t even seem to know what the Frisbee was.
 We would try to help him but often he resented that, but would quickly get confused if allowed to do most things himself.
  The night before he passed I slept three hours because he kept getting caught under the edges of the bed, or stuck in a corner and had to be fished out. He even tried to get between the bed and the wall, an impossible task for a full sized collie in the rough. It had to be tough for him: a formerly very independent dog.
  I long to type that all this made our decision easier… but I would lying.
 After telling the doctor all this, and petting him until his eyelids closed almost all the way, and his eyes went soft and blank, the doctor said of what would have been, at best, a long recovery at 16, “I’m not sure I would have put my dog through that either.”
  I had to transfer money to pay for it all and the teller was sympathetic: “You did the right thing.” I looked at her and said, “I guess so, but if it was so ‘right’ why don’t we have the same option for our loved ones, or ourselves?”
 She whispered, “I think we should.”
 Some people might be offended by that. I understand. This isn’t easy for anyone.
 I have to thank Murphy Road Animal Hospital, Doctor Bell and all the nurses. When I finally collected myself enough to tell them I had an emergency they rushed out and very gently carried him in. By “they” I mean pretty much every nurse and tech in the place. They went way beyond anything called “a job.” There’s a passion at Murphy Road Animal Hospital other facilities I’ve been to could certainly use more of.
  Dogs deserve much more than the brief lives they are given. They don’t care if you’re gay, or straight, or a leftie, or a rightie, rich, poor, a Christian, a Muslim or an Atheist. I don’t have to listen to them rant at me without asking me what I think, or having the slightest respect for my own opinions, as if I were some marionette with strings to be pulled whichever way they want me to go. Dogs often seem up for anything, even something a human might get all persnickety about. They’re all for the adventure, especially if it means an adventure that includes being with you.
 Dogs don’t get divorced from you because you chew too loudly, or might be out of sorts from time to time. Dogs don’t get caught up in the ever so messy theology of others deciding if we are good enough believers. They don’t try to shame people into agreeing with them. I’ve never had one who held a grudge. They would follow Jesus if he were the savior, or an illegal immigrant.
 But having a good heart sure can help. They can tell.
 I’ve had 5 collies, and there were other mixed breeds I grew up with. Millie’s family never had dogs, but sometimes these days I think she may be a bigger lover of dogs than I am. They are our children, I suppose, since we never had any. Millie is more a small dog fan: Batmutt, the current mixed, is somewhat brainless: barking at moving leaves, trying to bite sea waves. I’m the collie fanatic: a breed who has more class than I probably ever will, can border on smarter than some humans I know and often love their family so deeply there seems no bottom to that endless ocean of love.
  I can count my life in dog years, and in collie years.
 I was born into a family with a dog: “Lucky.” Lucky, a pitch black mongrel wasn’t very “lucky.” For a violent time: both Kennedys, MLK, Vietnam and my elementary school where even a teacher or two had their own issues with violence, Lucky was also a violent dog. He loved to escape, and if he thought you might even think of getting in his way he’d take a chunk out of you.
 Right about that time JFK was assassinated they took Lucky away. So while a 9 year old boy searched the neighborhood: tears in his eyes, hoping to find another dog, asking if anyone was selling puppies, the nation had tears in its eyes too.
 Gordie…
 I had begged for a collie, having just read Lad, a Dog, by Albert Payson Terhune. Gordie was supposed to be a collie. He may have been part Border, but that’s about as far as it went. We named him after the dog catcher who brought him to us. Gordie filled our days with joy through some very dark times: Vietnam, assassinations, Watergate and my mother dying. He was very smart: I taught him to bark “outdoors” or “go for a walk,” and he really did know the difference. So much good, up, music played while we played with Gordie: Cherish by the Association, It’s a Beautiful Morning: Rascals, Spanky and Our Gang’s Like to get to Know You, Chicago’s Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?. I think he helped us through a very difficult era.
 Not sure we would have done as well through it all without him.
  As body bags filled our TV screens, and weekly reports of yet another dead woman found in Central Park from one more botched abortion, Gordie would rest his head on our laps.
 Sometimes we decide life and death as a society with less concern and compassion than we should. Should someone who claims to be frightened, feel threatened, be able to decide life or death for a young teen? Should a society be able to force their members to kill, then put them in front of death’s scythe?
 Yet, on the other hand sometimes we torment ourselves too much over life and death issues. Should we get to decide only as individuals, or as a society? Would peaceful resistance really have worked once Germany started goosestepping across the globe?
 Seems unlikely, at best.
 Will banning a procedure where the individual decides for another actually stop it?
 Seems unlikely, at best.
 But can we ever find that sweet spot in society where such things happen rarely, war is mostly a past nightmare, someone in a hoodie or in a car with loud music might not end up dead, and we actually respect each other?
 I have my doubts.
  Hidden beneath all this is the fact that those who fear government deciding for us are sometimes willing, even eagerly, accept just that… when it’s more convenient to their political position, social concerns or theology. Some who would rather government decide sometimes flip to claiming the individual should. And the biggest oddity: neither side usually realizes the 180 degree spin they do.
 My only points here being: consistency thy name not be human, and these decisions are indeed very, very hard.
 I sincerely hope the main reason we are less conflicted when it comes to those who have shared our lives since humanity first started to dream we were a more sentient, intelligent, species, is not because most of us think so little of these blessed companions. I really hope, instead, it’s because love: uncomplicated by our prejudices, less tainted by the philosophical and theological quicksand-like traps we build for ourselves, makes it easier for us to let go of those who have been so loyal, and who loved us when maybe they shouldn’t have. Maybe this more uncomplicated love helps us understand with greater ease when it’s the right thing to do. When we love a dog, and they love us back, we don’t always have to answer all these messy philosophical, theological questions. So much easier to see what’s best when nonsense doesn’t cloud our vision.
 Even then… it makes nothing “easy,” just less complicated. These are hard decisions to make: and they should be.
  To honor them all, a short list of collies and an honorary mention…
  Lad: who greeted a barely married a year couple who just moved to Tennessee. He saw us through the Reagan years brilliantly. He followed me, snuggled so close, the week he died of natural causes at close to 20, I swear he was trying to crawl up inside me. Achillies (so I could say “Achilles heel”) the giant, Terhune the moody, and Cobalt the quirky saw us through the Bush I and the Clinton years. And, of course Frankincense and his first love, a beagle named Peppermint.
  And maybe, unlike Lucky, I’ve just been lucky. All my dogs have loved us, and cared for us. We have tried to be worthy of that love. And, to be honest, most of our pundits, pols and armchair philosophers could learn a lot from them. I’ve found there to be something of divine worth in our human, collie, mixed and cat family that goes far beyond how humans frame each other, or how we think others should think. Not sure I’d ever want to go to any place for an eternity where I must listen to all those who can’t understand that, or those who too eagerly decide the worth of others. Most of those folks are not nearly as wise as they think they are, and more arrogant than they’ll probably ever willingly believe. And if there is a heaven I’m not sure I want to go if they’re there, but my collies and other pups aren’t. For if there is a heaven, an afterlife, those who care for us beyond all that folderol should be let in first.

                     -30-

Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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