‘Now I know I’ve got a heart, cause it’s breaking.’
-The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz
This morning, James and I said goodbye to a beloved member of our family. Not a flesh and blood human being, but a furry four -legged friend named Leo. To those who’ve never loved a dog, I think the sorrow we’re experiencing might seem absurd. ‘He’s just a dog. What’s the big deal?’
I get it. As I grow older, I’m confronted more and more with my own mortality, as well as the mortality of those I love. In the last couple years alone, it has been striking how many dear friends of mine have lost parents and family members. Loss has been all around me and yet, I’ve remained, luckily, guiltily, unscathed. When so many bad things are happening to people that I love, who am I to wail about the loss of a pet?
Well. . . let me try to explain. I grew up around dogs. From the time I was a toddler, we always had dogs in the house. I’ve loved every one of them and felt genuine anguish at their passing – whether the culprit was old age or diabetes or a passing motorist.
Without diminishing any of the love I held for my childhood pets, Leo was different. He was the first dog I, we, ‘owned’ as an adult. Leo came into our lives by chance, or more likely, fate. After 2 plus years of dating, James and I took the plunge and moved in together. We were only a few weeks into our new living arrangement, and it was still, shall we say, a bit tenuous?
We knew we wanted to get a dog, and were contemplating the idea of adopting a rescue Terrier we had just met the previous day. Enter Leo. While on our way to Home Depot to shop for a new air conditioner, we pulled off an exit off of the 5 fwy, just as Leo was running up the on ramp of the same exit on to the freeway.
He was a scared stray mutt a hair’s breadth away from being run over by high-speed traffic in front of our eyes. We tried to grab him, he tried to bite, and then by some miracle, James opened the door to his truck and Leo jumped inside. We now had a freaked-out, panting dog with eyes glazed over in our car, and no idea what to do next.
We called friends and after getting advice from various animal lovers, elected to take him to East Valley animal shelter. He had no collar, and upon inspection, no microchip. He was filthy, abandoned and clearly had been abused. At 8 years old (the age the shelter presumed he was at the time) and labeled a Chow mix, there was almost zero chance he’d be adopted from a high kill shelter like East Valley. The shelter gave him even less of a chance when after the 4 day waiting period for the owner to come forward was over, they put him on what’s the called ‘the red list,’ meaning the dog could be euthanized at any time.
James and I were at a crossroads. We knew we wanted a dog, but we knew nothing about this guy. We wanted to get a puppy or a younger dog, not an 8 year old. We didn’t know anything about his history, whether he was aggressive, or whether he had any personality whatsoever. At our first meeting, he was understandably shell-shocked. When the shock wore off, what kind of dog could we expect to find?
But we also knew that we couldn’t rescue a dog from near certain death on the freeway, only to have him be euthanized in a shelter. We debated, we argued, we worried, but in the end we decided to take him home and give it a shot. We could say that we chose him, but in the end, when he jumped into our car that day, wasn’t he choosing us?
Just over four years later, taking that stray mutt home was one of the best decisions we could have made. An amber haired fox, we named him Leo because his mane resembled that of a lion, and after he grew out of his initial shyness (he’d been hit, and would cower when we go to pet him and cringed when we touched his ears), he developed a feisty personality to match.
Over the last 4 years, he’s been our constant travel companion, and has road-tripped with us to Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, Monterey, San Diego, and many points in between, often accompanying us to major events like weddings (o.k. he stayed in the hotel room), including our own wedding last October.
Having Leo in our lives has made us more tolerant, more compassionate, and more patient. As the 3rd member of our little family, he has improved and strengthened James’ and my relationship, and I daresay, his wandering into our lives by way of a freeway exit ramp ended up making us better people too. What some people might say is ‘just a dog’ has opened up my heart to a kind of love I’ve never experienced. Alright – I’m not a parent- and know I can’t and won’t compare the two, but this sweet little guy is at this point in my life, the closest thing I’ve known to a child.
That kind of love is also why, over the last six months, James and I witnessed Leo’s physical decline with an inordinate amount of patience, denial, hope, and ultimately, acceptance. He went blind, and whittled away to an almost skeleton-like frame. He developed severe arthritis in his hind legs. He had breathing trouble, and he needed teeth pulled.
An x-ray last December revealed a growth in his nasal cavity – likely a tumor, but the procedure involved to diagnose that with certainty was both expensive and (more importantly), too aggressive for a dog of his age. We went through a few vets (who either told us there was nothing they could do, or seemed to be only in it for the money), before we finally found, through the kind referral of one of James’ friends, a sweet man named Dr. Prabhakar at Panorama Pet Hospital in Panorama City. He told it to us straight – it was likely cancer, and that he was older than we thought, probably about 14 years old at this point. He advised us that any medical procedure at his age would be too hard on him and wouldn’t be successful anyway. Better to keep him comfortable and take it day by day and we’d know when the time came.
Which brings us to today. After fighting, denying, trying everything we could think of, James and I finally arrived at the only decision we could make. We weren’t ready – we’d never be ready – but Leo was ready. He told me so two nights ago with a plaintive bark (he never, ever barks) when he struggled and failed to stand up on his own. A bark that said, ‘help me.’ Coupled with his rapid weight loss and his inability to keep any food down for days on end, we knew that the time we had been dreading had arrived.
If you’re not a dog lover, I don’t expect you to understand what we’re feeling right now. And that’s o.k. But I can tell you this: in the short four years that he went from being an abandoned, scared mutt on the freeway to the love of our lives, Leo opened up our hearts and our minds. Creatively, he’s the inspiration behind our production company, Punk Monkey (one of his many nicknames), the umbrella under which we’re launching our one-act noir play festival P L.A.Y Noir this summer.
In the end, James and I are different (and better) people because this sweet little red-haired dog wandered into our lives. Today, we grieve his loss and celebrate his memory. Rest in peace, Leo Bear.
Until next time, friends.