Sunday, August 13, 2006

Five: Requiem For A Good Dog

Lightning was born in January of 1992, on a lovely acreage just outside of St. John's. His mother was a Newfoundland-Lab cross, and his father a purebred Black Lab, but Lightning got a goodly helping of the Newfie genes, growing up to look exactly like a Lab-sized Landseer Newfoundlander.

The breeders were a lovely couple with young children. The father was a University professor and still mourning the loss of his beloved dog the previous year. They had me in for tea, and we spent a pleasant afternoon chatting and playing with the puppies, because it was vitally important to them that I take my time to choose exactly the right one. As it turned out, there really was no doubt. There were thirteen puppies, and twelve of them were just dogs - cute and frenetically wriggly, but just dogs. The thirteenth however, climbed into my lap, snuggled under my chin and settled in as though there was simply no question to whom I belonged.

It turned out that Lightning (for that was the temporary name they had given him because of the crooked white streak down his forehead - and it stuck) was the odd dog out in his litter. He never quite fit in with his siblings, never got the hang of doggy culture - always on the fringe, prefering instead to play with the humans in the home. Suffice it to say, we understood each other.

A few days after he came home with me, I attended the end-of-year weekend retreat for my residency program. It began with a series of lectures and presentations, held in a country hall, and since they told me I couldn't bring Lightning inside, and the day wasn't hot, I parked my little pickup in the shade and left him in the back, with a blanket and a water dish, and the screen windows open. A few hours later, I heard a little scuffle of feet and there he was, pleased as punch to have found me. He had clawed through the screen, wriggled out, and found his way across the parking lot, into the crowded hall and straight to my feet. He won a reprieve from the powers that be, and spent the rest of the day snuggled quietly on my lap.

In June of that year, Lightning and I took the two day ferry ride to Goose Bay, Labrador, to begin the next adventure. He came along on my very first date with Rob - we went to see the canoe regatta at Northwest River (the big event of the year) and Lightning gamboled in the rushes by the lake while we began the happy process of acquaintance and attraction. In fact, since there wasn't much to do in Goose Bay but hike about in the bush, Lightning was an integral part of most of those early dates.

He was a tolerant traveller - by plane or by car, and since my life in those days was pretty much summed up by the Tom Cochrane song, we did plenty of travelling. In the summer of 1993, Rob and Lightning and I drove from St. John's to Victoria in my little red pickup, my (still unculled) possessions crammed into every available inch. Lightning gamely wriggled into the little cubby left behind the seats and on top of the luggage and spent two weeks happily barking at cows across Canada.

He had an exceptionally deep and sonorous bark, which he particularly liked to display with startling suddeness in the car at farm animals we passed. It was just bravado, though - if we lowered the back window, his mouth snapped shut and he curled up in the corner looking crestfallen, apparently concerned that an offended cow would hurdle the fence and fly through the window at him. Lightning always did have a bit of an Eeyore-ish suspicion that things were out to get him. One of the reasons I have very few decent photographs of him is that he hated the camera and would slink away looking deeply offended if ever it were pointed at him. The low point came when a friend of ours held a Belgian endive to his eyes, and Lightning shot him a filthy look and skulked out.

Contrary to every legendary trait of his ancestry, Lightning was not fond of swimming. He did eventually work up to paddling around cautiously in shallow water, but if Rob or I went swimming, he would stand on shore, barking furiously to alert us to our imminent peril. He did love to run, and gamely accompanied me during training for my first marathon. When the mileage got up around 30 km though, he took to hiding under the bed on long run days.

He was loving and loveable and loyal, and charmed everyone he met with his happy, quirky personality. When I ran into old friends from Newfoundland at a national medical conference recently, Lightning was all they wanted to hear about. Since Rob and I both worked long hours, we got him a couple of cats for company when we bought our little starter home in BC, and they spent hours playing and snuggling together. In Winnipeg, we finally had enough room for a second dog, and Guinevere joined the family.Despite her vastly superior size and strength, she always deferred to Lightning. On occasions when they needed to stay at the kennel, she stuck to his side like glue, never letting any other dog near him in the exercise yard, especially as he became unsteady with age. In return, he taught her to bark, and to dig enormous holes in the lawn (neither of which are sight hound traits.)

Lightning got a bit stiff over the last few years, particularly in the harsh prairie winters. Many's the morning one of us would have to stagger out through the snow in our housecoat and slippers to help him back onto the deck after his morning constitutional. It never seemed to bother him - he was as waggy and bouncy as ever, although a little miffed if we didn't appear on the first bark.

We always knew we couldn't bring him to Whistler, but the idea of euthanizing him on a schedule other than his own seemed unbearable. Thankfully, I suppose, he has begun to decline over the last two weeks. He doesn't seem to be in pain, but where he always used to stagger gamely to his feet, wagging and smiling for attention, of late he just seems too tired to bother.

So, our vet will come to the house late this Monday morning, and Lightning will go to sleep one last time in the peace and comfort of his own home, with Rob and I by his side. And even though it is the inevitable outcome of letting a dog into your heart, it still seems so terribly hard.