ďThank you for your gift to us allĒ
It didnít really hit me until Jacob was hugging our black lab, Kevin, goodbye this morning. We talked about it as a family and he decided he didnít want to be there when the Veterinarian gave her the injection to put her to sleep later today. This was a private moment for them and he held her for a long time before he got into Ivyís car to go to school.
Kevin is thirteen years old and her hips are so bad she canít go up and down the stairs. She has to hop down the steps with her back legs together and it has caused all the hair and skin to wear off the backs of her legs. Every time she goes down the steps, it causes the backs of her legs to bleed. She has fallen down the stairs several times as our house is a split level and she has to go down the stairs to go outside. Sheís losing control of her bowel and bladder functions and we take her outside often to prevent problems in the house. Her eyes are clouded over and she has a hard time seeing. She was almost run over by a dump truck that was slowly backing into the driveway last week because she didnít hear it. I was expanding the driveway to my shop and had 11 truckloads of gravel hauled in. I was worried I might run over her because she was always next to the Bobcat I was running. I saw her fall multiple times, sometimes tripping over loose gravel, sometimes for no reason at all.
About four months ago she was unable to walk and I thought we were going to have to put her down then. Dr. Shirley, the Veterinarian, changed her meds and put her on a daily dose of steroids. This helped immensely, but made her thirsty and more at risk for incontinence. Still, it gave us four more months with her and Iím forever grateful to him. He and I have become good friends.
It seems like just yesterday when we first got her. We had just moved to Duluth after finishing my residency in Seattle and Ivy decided this was the time to start a family. My brother in law told her that getting a puppy sometimes brings out maternal instincts and somehow ensures pregnancy. I had always wanted a black lab and I started searching the want ads.
My nine year old nephew, Matt, went with us to pick out a puppy. Kevin was one of ten puppies and choosing one was difficult, but she was the fattest, friendliest puppy and she snuggled into Ivyís neck when Ivy picked her up. She had that slightly skunky puppy breath and her fat little tail was wagging as if powered by a motor. Ivy held her all the way home and it was all Matt or I could do to pet her or even get a good look at her.
Even though Ivy picked her out, she bonded to me. She was afraid to swim the first time I took her to a lake, but soon swimming was all she wanted to do. She could smell a lake from over a mile away and I had to plan my routes carefully because she went crazy in the car if she smelled water. She was a powerful swimmer and it was majestic watching her launch herself off the end of the dock to chase a Frisbee. Jacob and Kevin and I would go swimming late at night on the hottest summer nights. Watching shooting stars and seeing the night sky from the water is somehow different than seeing it from land. Jacob and I talked about important things in the vastness of the night.
She was chasing a ball the night she ran into a boat trailer and almost lost her eye. I sat up with her all night so she wouldnít dig at the open gash. The veterinarian on call was Dr. Halls and I knew him because he volunteered in the anatomy lab in the medical school. He is a natural teacher and he gently sewed Kevinís eyelid back together with bright pink sutures. She nearly caused an accident on the way home as she had her head way out of the passenger window and was holding a bright green ball in her mouth. Her whole body was wagging her tail and she was eagerly making eye contact with anyone who would look at her. One of them was a motorcyclist and he almost ran a red light as he was laughing at her.
When Jacob was born, I came home from the hospital several times a day to feed Kevin and check on the house. I brought Jacobís baby blanket home and let her lie on it and sniff it. By the time Jacob came home, Kevin knew him and she was protective right from the start. She was always excited when we came home and there was no day she couldnít make better with her genuine happiness to see us.
When she was a puppy she liked to crawl up the seat of the truck and lay across the back of my neck and over my shoulders. It really was touching and I liked it when she did that. Once when she was fully grown, she was with me as I was driving in a snowstorm and the truck was sliding all over. She got scared and tried to climb on my shoulders as I was driving. Having a 77-pound dog on your neck isnít very helpful in a situation like that.
One of our traditional stories tells how the animals came together to give their gifts to the first Ojibwe. Animosh, the dog, was shy and kept getting pushed to the back of the line. Every time he thought of a gift, one of the other animals would give it before he could. He thought of giving his strength, but Makwa, the bear, gave it before he could. He thought of giving his vision, but Migizi, the eagle, gave it before he could. He thought of giving his cunning and hunting skills, but Wagosh, the fox, gave them before he could. By the time the end of the line came to the baby, there was nothing left to give. He looked at the baby and said, ďAll the gifts have been given. All I have left to offer is my unconditional and undying love. I promise to stay by your side no matter what happens and I will always be faithful to you.Ē
I knew this day would come, but I kept putting it off. Dr. Shirley was able to help get us this far, but it isnít fair to Kevin to keep her in misery just to make us feel better. Much of the gravel I had hauled in was to get Kevinís grave site ready. I used to sit in a tight cluster of balsam trees at my Grandma Vainioís house when I was small and I felt protected and safe there. In the spring Iím going to plant 50 balsam trees over Kevin. I canít think of a better place for one of my best friends.
Giigawaabamin, Kevin. Iíll see you later.
Miigwech, Animosh. Thank you for your gift to us all.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.