An "Ode to Frisco"

Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really. ~Agnes Sligh Turnbull

Earlier this week, our 15-year-old shepherd/doberman mix "puppy," Frisco, did not wake up. He had regularly been whining during the nights for weeks now, his poor kidneys demanding frequent relief. So when he did not cry out for 2 nights in a row I wasn't sure if I should rejoice or be concerned. The morning after the 2nd night of complete quiet, I opened his door hesitantly, turned on his light, and could immediately tell he was gone.

This week was his 15th birthday. We adopted him shortly after his first birthday, when I was 5 months pregnant with my first child. So that makes him, like, my first kid.

We have as many Frisco stories as we do children and friend stories. And we have as many "Isn't he cute?" stories as we do "THAT $^*?&?!! DOG!" stories. You know what I mean...


Isn't He Cute?

He was a big guy, as you can see from the photos. But he often thought he was still truly a puppy, trying to jump up on our bed or in our laps. He learned to settle for shoving his snout under our arms and demanding a hug or scratch behind the ears. He was a leaner ... you know, when enjoying a good rub his whole body would start leaning toward me til sometimes he'd either lose his balance or I would be supporting his weight. We called them Frisco hugs.

He loved being with his people. So much so that he would not eat without us. Early on, he would take a mouthful of his food, trot out to the living room or kitchen where we were, drop the kibbles on the floor, then proceed to crunch. Two more mouthfuls he transported like that before he would stay in his room to consume the rest. It became predictable.

If we were outside, he needed to be there too. During the years our TV was upstairs, we would often hear him creeping (read: pounding his 85 lb frame) up the stairs. We waited to see his head peer around the chair. If we didn't acknowledge him, or shoo him away, he would quietly curl up at our feet as if thinking, "They'll never notice." And if there was a storm, he was glued to my side no matter where in the house I was.

Frisco had a ferocious growl and an intimidating bark. When we lived in a home with a chain link fence surrounding our back yard, he wore a path along the alley fence line as he protected his people from dangerous neighbors, children and occasional strangers cutting through the neighborhood. We knew that we could leave our toddlers playing in the backyard safely because Frisco would protect "his people." No sane person got near our fence, much less attempted to enter the yard.

At the same time, Frisco allowed the children to do almost anything they wanted to him. Toddlers aren't gentle creatures: they pull tails, poke eyes, sit on bellies, pretend to be cowboys with a horse, hug you til you choke, use you as a pillow. We often marveled at Frisco's unending patience with the little people we brought home to him. If they got a little too aggressive, he would simply sit up and walk away a short distance to settle down again. Sometimes he just endured, looking up at us with a helpless expression as if to say, "Really? Can you help?"

And if you dared sit down in the middle of the floor to play a board game, or tie your shoe, or just watch TV—it didn't matter—he assumed you were there to play with him. He lived to wrestle with us, though if he ever actually captured an arm or hand in his mouth he would stop, let it go and lick it. The gentle giant.


That Blankety-Blank Dog!

Of course, he could drive us insane. Stay home and eat his own food? Whatev. One time I caught him climbing (not jumping—climbing) that chain link fence. He was tall enough to put his front paws on the top bar and strong enough to pull himself up. But he didn't count on getting his back foot caught in a link on his way down the other side. I was inside, with a 8-month-old, when I heard horrible yelping outside. Afraid he was dying, I ran out to see his predicament. I freed his foot, but that meant he was also free to run off and cavort around the neighborhood. I had to corral the baby, then chase the dog home.

Another time, he truly ran off, earning jail time in the pound for 3 days. We told him it was his only "get out of jail" card (because it wasn't free!). I also remember a day, when I was 7 or 8 months pregnant, chasing him around the living room because he did not want to go to his room (I was trying to leave for work). Jumping couches to tackle him in my condition did not make for a happy mama.

Frisco's height gave him the perfect leverage to find and steal food from the table and counters. An abandoned lunch was fair game. In recent years, he lost all sense of decorum and pretty much shadowed the kids around the kitchen, hoping they would just turn their backs for a second. He was known to have snatched food right out of the toddler's hand. Hey, it's right there on my level, so he must be offering it to me, right? I'm strangely proud of the fact that he stole his last sandwich the day before he died. True to self, til the end.

Frisco and I shared a weakness for pizza in particular. He begged, shook hands, sat, "talked" or lay down on command for a scrap of crust. Or he would just steal half a pie off the counter. Whatever he could get away with.

The Aftermath

The worst part of the first day was not discovering him in his room, nor carrying him out to the truck, nor watching my husband break the news to the kids, nor taking his body to the vet. Yes, I cried through most of those events, but something else was harder to take: returning home to an empty house.

It's not like he was a bundle of energy these past few months. But he was there. He still came to see me, still needed to be let out, still scratched or sighed. He was a companion til the end, and I miss that, especially now that I work from home most days.

I found myself ruminating over several themes the last few days:
Grief is exhausting. I know, it's just a dog. Right? No. I cried longer and more often the first day than I can remember in years. I am in fact impressed at my typing ability because the screen is blurry even now. My eyes were puffy for a couple of days. I understood in a new way why my mother kept so busy after the loss of my stepfather—activity distracts you from the pain, gives you something else to focus on. That's not such a bad thing sometimes. A good night's sleep helps too. 
Mercy: The loss is more bearable because we saw him decline over the last few months. The kids aren't traumatized—they can actually feel sad for themselves but glad for him. We all started sharing memories of his quirks and funny experiences, evoking smiles and laughs at times. But then someone would get teary-eyed. (One even created a Minecraft cemetery...a creative processing technique!). So it comes in waves and know it will get better, maybe enough to get a new dog within the year. But Frisco is remembered well.   
Friends: In times of loss, friends who understand and give us space to grieve are a gift from God, evidence of his grace. The ones I initially contacted all responded with compassion, allowing me to weep over a pet who has been part of our family longer than our children have. No matter what or who you lose, don't underestimate the power of compassion and empathy. Allow the grieving one to talk or not talk, acknowledge the loss, and be there.  
Answered prayers: I'd been asking the Lord for months to spare me the decision of when or if to take him to the vet to be euthanized, and to spare him unnecessary pain. I found him in his room—where he felt safest—early that morning, while my husband was home to help transfer him to our SUV (we made the swift decision not to make the kids have to see his body) and to break the news to the kids (he knew I would have choked and sobbed my way through that). So no hard decision to make, and an uncomplicated goodbye. Pretty much what I had begged for. Thank you, Lord.
Perspective:  While we love and will miss our pizza-thieving, playful pal, we realize that his loss is but a hint of what it is like to lose a child or mother or other loved one. Just this past weekend, a colleague's teenaged son died unexpectedly and tragically. My husband will be performing that memorial service later in the week. What will he say? There are not enough words in the English language that can bring that boy back and restore that family. We grieve with them, and I think experiencing our pet loss has made me more sensitive to the emptiness they are feeling. It pales in comparison, I know. But between the two events, I hug my kids a little tighter now.
Have you lost a beloved pet? What did you learn after that process?


Maellen Mathews said…
I share your grief He really was a super pet. I remember the early days, and you chasing him around the house with the fly swatter .I will miss his welcoming sniff when we come over. My Maggie was 14 also and I still cant talk about her without tearing up. The love they give is unconditional and all they ask is that you take the love they gave to us and give it to another pet in time. Love you all.
Sorry, Kelley. I understand loss. Glad to see you're writing too!