Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Goodbye, Stafford

Stafford J.

A few days ago, my best friend finished his race. Stafford left us after more than twelve years of making us laugh, loving us unconditionally and standing by us through difficult times.

We got Stafford when I was in my second year of law school. We picked him out at the pound and both Mrs. ZZUB and I instantly loved him. The first time Mrs. Z held him, his tail wagged so hard I thought it might fall off. He took to us immediately and we fell fast in love with him. The pound made us wait a little over a week before we could take him home. We went back a few times in that week to see him again. Even though he wasn’t ours yet, he’d already captured our hearts and we couldn't bear to be without him.

We had no idea.

When we did get to bring him home, he was instantly a part of our family. He’d watch TV with us on the couch and his bed was right next to ours. Staff has always loved to run and he’s always loved big boy rides. The first summer after law school, we only had one car. Mrs. Z would come pick me up from work each afternoon and Staff would always be in the car with her. His head out the window, ears flapping in the wind. And when they'd turn the corner to where I was standing, I swear that dog would smile at me!

Stafford was loyal. When I was up late writing a paper, he was right by my side. When I was studying for the bar exam, he was right by my side. When my wife was sick, he was right by her side. When we lost the baby, he was right by our side, trying to dry our tears.

The thing that was so remarkable about him was his ability to adapt. You see, despite the fact that he was loved immensely by us, he was insecure. Anytime we’d bring something new in the house, he’d get all nervous, afraid we loved it more than him. The Christmas tree gave him annual fits of dyspepsia. He was suspicious of the mail. And then the day came when we brought Zzuby home and his worst fear was realized. We actually did bring home something we loved more than him. But he never showed any aggression towards her. He instinctively sensed that we still loved him very much even if he wasn’t allowed to sleep in our room anymore. And as she grew, he fell in love with her. Zzuby kept him well fed and he tolerated being made up, dressed up and sat on. He loved both his little sisters.

I don’t remember when it was that we discovered his speech impediment. We’ve been voicing his inner monologue almost since the minute we brought him home. And somewhere along the way we realized that he had twouble wif his r, l and th sounds. He also had a stutter which was mostly controlled in his later years. He used to send me emails and leave me voicemails. They always started with “hewwo.” He was silly and I reckon he made us sillier. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname, Schpupin. Only it was never spoken. If it was said at all, it was shouted, "Schpupin!" Later it became simply, de Schpup! Oddly enough, he knew that was his name. And when he heard us talking for him, he knew it was his voice. He was the living manifestation of our most ridiculous instincts.

He loved to play and he loved to pounce. When he got really excited, he’d run back and forth like he was built for speed. Indeed he was. He’d also get really happy when I came home. He’d run to the door to see me and if I didn’t give him a proper hewwo he’d follow me around and start barking at me until he got his fill of love.

And when I wasn’t home on time or I was out of town on business, Mrs. Z tells me he’d lay downstairs and stare at the backdoor. Waiting for his dad to come home.

He was waiting for me last Saturday.

I was in my office working when Mrs. Z called me and told me I needed to come home to take him to the vet. She’d found him hiding under the desk in my study.  He’d gotten sick. We knew the time had come for him. Schpup hasn’t been himself for a few weeks now. He was moving slower. He wasn’t running. His appetite was diminished and he’d developed a bad limp. There were times when he seemed confused.

Thursday night he had a horrible episode that was either a stroke or a seizure. He collapsed and we thought then we might lose him. Both Mrs. ZZUB and I got on the floor with him, stroking his head, rubbing his belly, talking to him. After awhile, he seemed ok. Not fully himself, but not in any pain or threat of harm. He was mostly ok on Friday and again Saturday morning. Until his body gave out on him.

When I got home, he looked weak. Mrs. Z said he’d actually improved significantly since she’d found him under the desk. But when I asked him if he wanted to go on a big boy ride, although his ears perked up, he couldn’t hold his head up. He couldn’t stand. Mrs. ZZUB told the girls that I was taking him to the doctor and we didn’t know what she would tell us. They said goodbye to him. She kept them in their room while I carried him out to the car. His head flopped backwards as I carried him and when I put him down to open the door, he collapsed again, peeing on himself.

I carried him into the vet’s office and they rushed us into the back. The vet examined him and confirmed for us what had become obvious. Stafford was at the end. I spent some time with him, rubbing his head and behind his ears. Telling him it was ok. He’d been a good boy.  At first, his head was laying on the metal gurney and I knew he was uncomfortable.  Schpup liked his softness so I asked them to give me a blanket for under his head.  His front paws were wet with vomit and pee.  In the fog of those moments, I was worried it was bothering him because he generally didn't like to be wet. But he was so ill, he couldn't lick his paws dry.  There was a roll of paper towels nearby.  I grabbed several to try to dry off his legs and paws for him.  It's funny the things you think about in the lonely back room of your vet's office.

Mrs. Z drove the girls to a friend’s house and then met me there. By the time she arrived, we had been moved into a smaller room.  We all knew what was coming and I thought we should have a private space.  The vet had placed an oxygen mask on him because he was having trouble breathing.  I never knew they had oxygen masks for dogs. 

Mrs. ZZUB got to say goodbye to him too.  She also rubbed his head and talked with him.  Told him he'd been a good boy. And for the last few minutes of his life it was how it once had been: Stafford and his mom and dad.

Dogs don’t have souls. I know that. But dogs can love and we can love them. Staff lived to make us happy. He craved our approval. In the days since he’s left us, we realized how much pain he must have been in for so many days before he died.  But he kept fighting through it because he was tough and because he wanted to make us happy. In the end, I couldn’t heal his body and I couldn’t extend his life, but I could reward him with the thing he seemed to crave above all else: more than softness and more than big boy rides, more than peanut butter and more than cheese, Stafford craved love and approval.  We told him how happy he had made us.  That we loved him. That he’d been a good boy.

I’ve known for awhile now that he was a special dog and I always knew when this day came it would be difficult. But I confess, I was nowhere near prepared for how much it hurts. How empty we feel without him in our home. Stafford wasn’t just our dog. He wasn’t just a pet. He was a member of our family; the most loyal friend either of us have ever known. And although he wasn’t a child in the sense that Zzuby and Little Zzub are our children, in the years before they were born, he trained us how to be responsible parents. He brought us joy and lots of laughter. He was a blessing.

If it was hard to imagine life without him before he died, in the days since he left it's been near impossible.  I see him in virtually every corner of our house.  His bed in my study and his other bed in our family room.  His water dish.  His toys. His nose prints on the back door.  
It's silent without him here.  So strangely silent.  I miss hearing his toes on the hardwood floors.  Miss hearing him running down the hall at the end of dinner, in time to scoop up the left overs.  I miss him barking at me when I walked up the front porch.
I miss the sound of him sleeping in my study as I read.  
I don't know how many of you still stop by here from time to time.  I don't know why I checked in here the other day.  But I did.  And I saw that a few of you had left comments recently.
One of the comments was from Great Biscuit.  He wanted me to know that he had prayed for us recently. It's fantastic to me that God laid me on Great Biscuit's mind and he prayed for me.  Biscuit doesn't even know my name.  But of course God does and isn't it amazing that God prompted a not so complete stranger to pray for me?  That's the kind of God we serve. 
Anyway, it occurred to me to share what had been going on with us and why God laid us on Great Biscuit's mind.