A Dog's Life
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
Morgan's person

Our pets touch a place in us that even our family can't reach.
- Chet Williamson

It's far too easy to take a dog for granted.

A good dog is always around -- sometimes underfoot, at others just relaxing just inside your peripheral vision. Her affection is unshakeable, her loyalty unfaltering.

A dog is the love that money can buy.

She's a call-when-you-need-it pal, ever ready to frolic, play, walk, romp, run or, of course, eat your table scraps. When you're not in the mood, she'd lie close by, dozing quietly or just watching you.

With proper care, a dog can be a friend for many years. I had Morgan for nearly 15 years; then I was forced to make the difficult decision to help her stop suffering with the many pains and ailments an old dog will suffer.

Fifteen years isn't enough time. Morgan, I miss you.

• • •

I found Morgan at the Humane League of Lancaster County, where I had gone looking but not expecting to find the "right" dog on the first visit. But there she was, lying in a silent and miserable ball in the corner of her cage, surrounded by dogs who were barking and leaping in a canine "look at me" frenzy.

But this dog wasn't part of the party. She no longer expected to find a home. Her eyes were sad, resigned. When I checked her chart, I saw she'd been there 10 days; with the kennel packed to capacity and more dogs coming in, she was certainly on the short list for extermination. Puppies are quickly adopted, but "old dogs," like this healthy 2-year-old, are often overlooked by judge-by-the-cover shoppers. Besides, she was a mutt -- half Australian cattle dog, half English fox hound -- and so many people will consider only a "pure" bred dog.

I am fond of peppy dogs, but something in this one's eyes held me, brought me back every time I wandered away. Finally, I asked one of the league assistants to bring her out and let me have a closer look.

While the dog walked slowly around the kennel yard, the assistant told me she'd come in as a stray, a broken loop of thick rope tied around her neck. Her coat showed signs of living outdoors, the woman told me; her skin was bruised when she came in and her skittish attitude indicated an escape from an abusive owner.

That was it. There was no putting that dog back in her cage, no leaving her to her fate. I signed the papers, paid the fee and put a bright red collar and leash around her neck. It wasn't until I opened my car door, however, and said, "OK girl, hop in," that my melancholy new dog exploded into a happy dance of unrestrained delight. It was June 14, 1991.

Soon named Morgan -- I had no idea what her original name was, after all -- and installed in my city home, this dog quickly won the hearts of my extended family, all of my friends and relatives who came eagerly to meet her. As for mine, it was won back in the shelter, and I never regretted my choice.

Well, how could I? Never has anyone felt so much love from a dog. She was the happiest of creatures, smiling through her eyes at every attention. For years, she followed me everywhere I went, to the point of some major property damage and nearly jumping from a second-story window in her desire to follow me to work. (The more extreme measures of that desire were quickly discouraged.) She also had her own throne, a comfortable old chair in the living room that she claimed in a deal to stop her jumping on the sofa, dining room table, bed and the rest of the furniture. She watched me with bottomless brown eyes, and she smiled all the time.

She wrestled with me, walked with me, hiked with me and optimistically, futilely chased deer and rabbits in the woods. She stole chocolate whenever she could, then promptly threw up on my floor. She tolerated the addition of two cats to the household, even the one who, as a kitten, would sleep on Morgan's head. She later welcomed my wife and two young children, who sometimes overestimated the durability of a dog.

Morgan was a patient soul.

For most of our life together, she slept curled in a ball by my bed. I bought her fancy bedding, but her favorite was always one of my old blankets or some clothing left foolishly on the floor. She snored, and sometimes she barked softly in her sleep. Awake, however, she almost never barked.

Sometimes, I'd wake in the morning and turn to see Morgan standing by the bed, chin resting on the mattress beside me, just watching me sleep.

She never liked water -- I suspect that her first owner used a hose for punishments -- and baths were always an adventure in wetness. After years of confusion, she learned to open her own birthday and Christmas presents.

Once, in a bound of pure puppy joy, she leapt up to embrace my very surprised grandmother, knocking her down (and, luckily, into a comfortable chair). Grandma, never at ease with most dogs, sat back and roared, great gales of laughter filling the house. Morgan merely looked pleased. During many dinners at Grandma's house, Morgan hovered at Grandma's elbow -- knowing her to be a soft touch -- and occasionally nudged her arm to remind her that doggie tummies need filling.

But as the years rolled by, she began to slow down. Several bouts with cancer took their toll -- only the dedicated efforts of her veterinarian saved her leg from amputation (and woe to those sorry people who question the wisdom of paying medical bills for "mere animals"). She ran and wrestled less, then not at all. She found it harder to leap into her chair. The stairs became an ordeal. She suffered two serious onsets of geriatric vestibular disease, a vertigo-inducing byproduct of aging that sent her into seizures. And yet she still gamely tried to follow me whenever she could, suffering at times the indignity of being carried in my arms.

In a moment of folly, I took her on a one-mile hike when she was still a spry 13; I carried her most of the way back down the mountain.

In her final year, she lost control of some of her more basic functions. It bewildered her, and she always had the good grace to look embarrassed as I cleaned up the messes. On the plus side, we moved from a city home with its tiny yard to a gorgeous neighborhood on the west side; Morgan finally had grass under her feet and a lawn from which to watch the fascinating array of birds, squirrels and other folks' dogs.

But her eyes, once so deep and brown, had clouded over with age, and her sight had dimmed. Her keen hearing, too, had faded to near deafness.

We were in our new house less than two months when Morgan escaped through an improperly latched door. Morgan didn't know the neighborhood well and, with her stiff bones, she wasn't going very far, but driven by fear in the bone-numbing cold, my wife and I searched for two hours before finding her just two blocks from home. It was late on Christmas Eve, and we agreed that the best gift was bringing Morgan back safely.

Now, with Christmas fast approaching again, I found myself faced with a choice. Her vet, a very caring man, told me months ago that I would know when it was time for her to go. Two new tumors -- one in the usual spot, her leg, and the other, larger one growing rapidly in the pit of her left shoulder -- were inoperable at her age. And when I looked into her eyes, I saw pain. I saw confusion -- she didn't understand why she sometimes fell while walking. I saw fatigue. After nearly 17 years -- two bad, 15 very good -- she was simply tired. And, while I was content to let her spend whatever time she had left just sleeping the day away, I couldn't bear to see her suffer.

Dogs have pride. And I wanted Morgan to end her life with dignity, not misery. And so I finally made the call. Later that day, with her head cradled in my lap, I told her it would all be over soon, and she could rest.

Those last days, I kept Morgan with me as much as possible. I fed her treats that weren't good for her, but which she gobbled down with obvious delight. She laid by my side while I did usual household chores. When I shoveled snow from the driveway, she nested under a bush, warmly wrapped in a scarf and blanket, and watched me work. And, overall, she perked up, showing more energy than she had for a while. But I knew it was temporary. We'd been through these up-and-down cycles before. And the tumors were still growing.

At least, I kept reminding myself, she was spending her last few days well, with less pain than usual and a better sense of balance. She had her dignity. She was still happy -- I believe she understood what was coming and was at peace with it.

Years ago, when she had her first operation to remove a tumor in her leg, I took her by the head, looked her in the eyes and told her, "Don't you ever leave me." She has followed that command to the letter, until I finally, reluctantly had to release her from it.

• • •

On Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005, I woke with a heavy weight in my chest. Inside, part of me was screaming to call the vet, cancel the appointment and keep Morgan safe at home. But I knew, on instinctual, intellectual and emotional levels, that it was time. Morgan was ready. I was not.

We spent some quality time together on the floor. Then Morgan and I got in the car -- my family drove separately, to give us a final ride together; after all, the sight of Morgan and me driving down the road with her looking over my shoulder was a familiar one in my neighborhood and, while she couldn't stand any more, it was good to have her there, at ease on the seat behind me. We visited my parents, where everyone had a chance for final goodbyes and Morgan had a few final treats -- especially the sliced American cheese, something she'd demanded of my mother for years every time we came by. And then I lifted her back into the car -- "Jump, girl!" I said as I lifted her, hoping she recalled the days she could bound into the backseat without a thought -- and my wife and I drove silently to the vet.

We had more time for goodbyes. The doctor explained the process gently, let us know what to expect. Then she gave her the injection, an innocent-seeming translucent pink fluid that looked more like candy than medicine. And she placed a stethoscope on Morgan's chest, listening as her heart began to slow down.

Morgan died serenely, with peace and dignity, her head in my lap and her eyes fixed on mine. She slipped into sleep for the last time, and she got the rest she so richly deserved.

Morgan and I spent nearly 15 wonderful years together. She has been my confidante, my boon companion, my wrestling partner and my dear, dear friend. Other dog owners may protest, but let me assure you -- mine was the sweetest, friendliest, happiest, best dog in all the world. And I will miss her.

by Tom Knapp
17 December 2005