I’m going to tell you a story about the life of Knowledge.
Once upon a time, on a farm deep in the Ozark woods, a very special dog was born. He was one of nine, the runt of the mother’s first litter.
And he was dying.
We had just gone down to The Farm to visit my parents. I didn’t even know that they had bred their pair of mastiffs. My dad asked if I wanted to see the pups, and off we went to the barn where he’d set up a cozy and quiet place for the mom and litter. Mastiff puppies look like little sausages. They are roly-poly, chubby little chunks of furry cuteness. Really, it’s almost painful. There they all were, eagerly nursing and mewing. All except for one. One little guy was laying very still in the corner of the pen, too weak even to try to crawl to his mother; his mother too inexperienced to know to bring him back with the others. Things looked grim.
But, we can’t just let a roly-poly little sausage-puppy die! Not on my watch. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
Have you ever tried milking a dog? It’s not easy–especially when you’re competing with a litter of puppies. Luckily, one of my dad’s sheep had just had a lamb. So I milked the sheep instead. Not as easy as milking a goat, but easier than milking a mastiff. We took the failing pup and our precious container of fresh sheep’s milk back to the house where it would be easier to care for him.
My dad’s a doctor. And a rancher at heart. Our farm was an animal farm, not a crop farm, and he has always kept it well stocked with medical supplies for the inevitable times when animals need to be patched up. So, it was no surprise that he had a small syringe and a wee little intubation tube. This made feeding the puppy much easier and safer, as he was too weak to suck or swallow. We gave him tiny little bits of the sheep’s milk every half hour or so. In between feedings, I kept him warm by snuggling him up against my skin. I’ve done a lot of reading into attachment parenting, breastfeeding, natural birth, etc., and a lot of that research cites animal studies showing the need for touch and skin contact to stimulate the nervous and respiratory systems. So I kept him against my skin and gently massaged him up and down his spine. I also knew that if not licked by their mother, newborn puppies will die because it is the licking that signals them to use the bathroom. So I took a warm, wet washcloth and imitated a mother’s licking to help him pee. A little weird, but totally effective. So, yeah. Feeding sheep’s milk through a tube, constant skin contact, massage, and a wet washcloth on his puppy-junk. For 12 hours.
After 12 hours, we had to go. It was a long drive back to the city, wondering if he would live. But the next day, I got a call from my dad saying that our effort had worked. He was not only alive, but able to nurse on his own. WOOT! Happeh little sausage-puppeh lives!
And then 10 weeks later, I got another call from my dad. This time he said that it was time to come take my puppy home. What?! No, no, no. I mean, I LOVE dogs, but a mastiff? In our little house in the city? How was that going to work? But he was insistent that since I’d saved his life, he was now connected to me. And damn it, he was right. So on June 4th, 2006, we took our little sausage-puppy home. And we named him Knowledge.
We loved him, and he was sweetness itself. And he grew a little bit…
And a little bit more…
And whoa, he kept growing!
Until finally sometime around 3 years old, he decided he’d grown enough. He weighed 180 pounds. Dude, we had to buy a new car—one that would fit the kids and the dog. And you know what? Living with this dog was wonderful. Slobbery slingers and all. (If you don’t know, a slinger is mastiff-owner slang for the long strings of drool that mastiffs have a tendency to leave all over the house. No, really. ALL OVER THE HOUSE. Floor, walls, ceiling. Yeah.)
Knowledge was laid-back.
He was also playful.
It was hard to find good toys for a dog this size. We ultimately settled on basketballs. Well, he settled on our son’s basketball, and we realized that he was right–it was the most appropriate choice. Although, they didn’t last long.
He could literally put his entire jaw around a basketball and pop it. And he did it with such joy that it was hard to get upset that we had to buy a new one every couple months. He happily played with the deflated ones. He liked to play fetch and tug and soccer. And, man, could he run fast for such a huge, lumbering thing. We loved playing ball with Knowledge.
Knowledge was a wonderful family dog. He was part of the family. He loved the kids and was ever patient with all the goings-on in a busy house. He liked to be wherever we were, whether laying down by us in the living room, sleeping next to the kids’ beds or while we cooked in the kitchen. Especially, when we cooked in the kitchen. He loved pretty much all food, swallowing most of it down his gaping maw in one gulp. He particularly liked bananas. It was hard to deny that dog a banana. He would just look at you with so much hope in his eyes.
Knowledge had a great sense of humour, too. He was funny. Not in a cheeky, mischievous way. Just in an innocent, joyful way. And while he looked ferocious to people who couldn’t see past his size, we knew better. Knowledge was full of love.
Knowledge was also ridiculously silly.
And very tolerant of our silliness, too.
We took him with us everywhere that we could. He wasn’t great with the heat of Missouri summers or with long walks. His hind end had poor conformation— he had extreme luxation in his rear hocks which caused his thigh muscles to atrophy. This didn’t stop him from getting around or running, but it did make hiking with him difficult. His favorite place to go was The Farm. He LOVED swimming in the lake. It not only cooled him, but it took the weight off his joints. Knowledge was big, but not fat. His 180 lbs was a very lean 180. He just had wonky joints. What’s a dog to do?
It was after such a trip to The Farm last year that I noticed him limping. It wasn’t unusual for him to overdo things there, so I didn’t think too much of it. But a few days later, he was still limping. I figured he pulled something and took him to the vet just to check things out. The x-ray results were a bomshell. From out of nowhere: osteosarcoma of the right distal radius. Fucking bone cancer. My sweet, sweet puppy had bone cancer.
If you don’t know anything about bone cancer in dogs, it’s actually very similar in many ways to bone cancer in humans. The prognosis is grim: it grows quickly in the young, is typically metastasized by the time it’s diagnosed, is excrutiatingly painful, and the treatments suck. The standard protocol is full amputation of the affected limb followed by chemo. The amputation won’t stop the spread of the cancer—in fact, studies show that removing the mother tumor actually can cause the mets to grow faster. No, the amputation is strictly for pain management. The chemo only to hold the mets at bay.
We were told early on by both our vet and the oncologist we saw that because of his wonky hind end, Knowledge was not a candidate for amputation anyway. The next option was chemo. But after doing a lot of research and talking to friends who are vets or work for vets, we decided that it just wasn’t worth the maybe 6 months he’d gain from the chemo to have him feeling even more sick and stressed and miserable from the treatments. We were told of test treatments that were being done at some nearby universities. Calls to those departments revealed that one treatment would involve injecting our dog with radioactive substances and then leaving him in alone in a radiation isolation ward FOR A WEEK. My Bubbie alone for a week? Get out. And then we were told that when we brought him home, we would have to limit our contact with him further because he’d STILL BE RADIOACTIVE. A person actually said these words to me. And I thought, are we really being kind to our dog trying to heal him through such inhumane treatments? No. Not a freaking chance.
We looked up alternative treatments and even tried a few. For weeks, all I did was research bone cancer. I was on boards and forums. I read the stories of countless other people who had gone or were going through the same thing with their pets. This time was a study in hope and desolation. Some piece of information would seem promising, would provide a tiny glimmer of a chance. But the final conclusion was always the same. Always. The. Same. Nothing would cure him. The only hope at this point was to provide effective palliative care. Pain meds and herbs. That was what was left for us and our poor puppy. He wasn’t yet even 5 years old.
Finally, I had to back away from the interwebz and stop researching. My buddy had months to live. We wanted to spend every minute of that giving him belly rubs and playing ball. So we did. We tried our best to be happy and relaxed and normal so that our emotions wouldn’t stress him out. Because you know what? Through all of this, all of the pain, he was happy and relaxed and normal. He was our same puppy—just with a really bad limp. He still ran and played. His appetite was as big as he was. Only every now and again did he have a really hard time. But even then showed us that he wasn’t done yet. We watched him carefully, dreading the time when he would really start to deteriorate, fearing a catastrophic fracture now that his tumor had grown to the size of a baseball.
It was a few months later that while waiting for the script for his pain meds to be filled at the Humane Society, that I found another dog who desperately needed a home. Another big dog. Ronin’s story is for another time. But I bring this up, because Knowledge helped welcome this new dog into our home. Ronin had been horribly neglected, but Knowledge showed him that we were good people, that things were going to be ok. Knowledge helped show him how to be a dog again. And Ronin was a good playmate for Knowledge. He cheered Knowledge up and was a calm companion when we had to leave the house. They were good for each other.
And then in the middle of the night, a month after we adopted Ronin, Knowledge came to us clearly not feeling well. He just wasn’t right. It very quickly became apparent that he was suffering a gastric torsion—bloat. And that was it. We knew the time had come. Just like that. There was no point in putting him through an operation, not with his tumor as progressed as it was. We knew, as we called in to the emergency vet, that we had to say goodbye. Knowledge actually got up off the floor and walked to the car. I think he knew there was no easy way we could have carried him. My husband and I gently put him in the back, and I sang to him and pet him and kissed him good bye. It was so fast—so much shorter than I wanted—but we didn’t want him to suffer any more.
I had to stay with the kids. My husband held him when they put him to sleep. He says it was fast, peaceful. Then he brought his body home. We had already decided to bury Knowledge at The Farm. So at 4 o’clock in the morning, we loaded our sad and sleepy family into the car and drove his body to be buried. We picked a spot under the trees beside the lake. His favorite place to be. We all dug—me, my husband, the kids, and my dad. We dug his grave and laughed and told stories about Knowledge. But, boy was putting his body in that grave hard. We buried him with his basketball. Filled in the grave and put a marker that my daughter made on top.
A lot of people just don’t get dogs, will never understand their intelligence and unconditional love. The fact that they have personalities and thoughts and feelings. This was a member of our family. And I might not believe in any gods, but I know that dogs have souls just as sure as people do. Death is as natural as life. It is to be expected. I don’t have a problem with that. But it doesn’t stop it from being hard. It doesn’t stop the missing. I like to think of Knowledge as being one with the Cosmos now. He’s still with us.
So, this is in memory of Knowledge, who died on June 5th, 2011. It’s been a year today, and I still miss him. He was my friend, and he taught me a great deal about how to live life with humour and graciousness, and without complaint. Ever in good spirits and always with love.