Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Remembering Kylie

Kylie on her 10th birthday

Most of us don't get to know in advance the time of our birth or death. They are just dates on a calendar that mean nothing until they become important enough to remember. It's a horrible thing when it falls to you to choose a day for something to die. It seems unnatural and wrong...

We got our German Shepherd, Kylie, in the late summer of 1995. She was 12 weeks old, mostly black with some tan markings, and over-sized floppy ears and paws. She was darling. We were living in Willow Grove, PA at the time, in a small church parsonage which we filled to bursting at the seams. Kim was almost 15, Amy had just turned 13, Michael 8 and Stephie 6. We had a small fenced yard for Kylie to run around in but I took her everywhere I went to socialize her. She went to soccer games, to the park, on long walks around the city. She was incredibly intelligent and learned quickly. We taught her not to jump or lick or bark without a reason. She learned to sit, heel, stay and go to her crate the first time she was told. She loved to ride in the car. Over the next year, she grew into a large, dignified black and tan dog of nearly 100 pounds and strangers on the street frequently stopped to tell me how beautiful she was.

When we moved our family back to MN in the spring of 1997, we had Kylie flown home on Northwest Airlines. I'll never forget the day we picked her up at the airport. They let her out of her crate and she raced to us, crying for joy. I have never before or since heard a dog make a sound like that. We brought her home to our house on Clear Lake and she got to enjoy the best kind of dog life you can imagine. She never had to be tied up and rarely was she kenneled. She had the run of our large, shaded lot and three story home. She cooled off in the lake during the hot summer days and laid on the carpet outside our bedroom door in the winter. We took long walks down country roads nearly every day where she chased rabbits and gophers in the ditches and was as happy as a dog could possibly be.

Kylie was an observer of many family changes. In August of 1997, our 5th child,Victoria, was born and Kylie took her arrival in stride. Since we had never treated our dog like a princess, she didn't feel upstaged in any way by the appearance of a new baby. She endured endless poking and pinching from a toddler without a growl or complaint as if it were her duty to do so. Ours was a busy, noisy house over the next 8 years. There were endless parties, company, clients and staff for our business coming and going. Kylie was the perfect hostess, announcing arrivals and then politely stepping aside. She didn't like arguing and she'd show her disapproval by quietly getting up and leaving the room if one of the kids were being punished or if some conversation between adults became heated. That's when we knew we were out of line: "Look! Now you've upset the DOG!"

Kylie was a protector, so you had better approach the house with confidence--especially at night--something more than one teenage boy had to learn the hard way. She guarded our house against anyone she deemed suspicious and once chased our tentative dentist back to his own car when he came to inquire about furniture refinishing. Why did he run? she seemed to ask as she stood panting outside his rolled-up car window. She killed skunks (thanks so much) and woodchucks that dared enter our yard at night and bore on her body the scars to prove it. She maimed dozens of garter snakes and crushed bees with her bare teeth. Kylie was a brave dog.

Kylie enjoyed the simple things in life--a good roll in the grass to scratch her own back, a nap on the porch--feet wildly chasing something in Dreamland, a ride on our pontoon boat. Once, when we'd neglected to bring her along on a family outing, she raced almost halfway around the edge of the lake barking at us to come back and get her. If we were out swimming in the lake, she'd check on us from the end of the dock and even swim out to us if we called her. Kylie loved People Food but manners kept her from stealing it either from the kitchen counter or easier targets, such as small children. Many times, she would sit patiently and watch a child with an ice cream cone or other treat just waiting in case something dropped.

Kylie was a good sport and was happy just to be wherever we were. In 2006, our family sold the lake home and moved into town. If Kylie missed the country, she never let on. With failing eyesight and hearing, she seemed content with her new apartment in the garage with heated bed and her own door to a fenced-in kennel. Rabbits and squirrels freely frolicked mere yards away and she never noticed. The past couple years, she was no longer bothered by loud 4th of July fireworks or thunderstorms.

Kylie was my companion. In her old age, she was content to follow me around the yard as I pulled weeds or watered the flowers or simply rocked in my chair on the porch the long weeks when my own cataracts were too thick to see anything. She understood the fine art of just hanging out--no distracting chatter--no constant nudging to be petted. She just wanted to be with me.

Unfortunately, dogs wear out much too soon. Over the past year Kylie continued to fail. She couldn't hear us when we called her from five feet away. She couldn't see my hand if I waved it inches from her face. Even her sense of smell was fading and she spent a lot of time with her nose to the ground trying to find me when I was right in the yard with her. She'd bang her snout into my leg, then sneeze, and wag her tail as if to say, "Oh, HERE you are!" She began to stumble more and it was an effort for her to get up from a resting position. If I moved furniture or plants in the yard she'd crash headlong into it. Just watching her ascend and descend the four steps to our porch was excruciating. But she wanted to be as close to me as possible, so I let her struggle. Lately, she had become indiscriminate about where she relieved herself and I knew I couldn't put off what needed to be done.

This morning, I made her favorite breakfast of eggs and fed them to her along with a few other treats from the fridge which she daintily took from my fingers. I took my time brushing out every inch of her thick fur while my own tears rained onto her back. When I got out her leash, she perked up like a puppy and cheerfully hoisted herself into the backseat of the car shunning the help I expected she would need. As we drove to the vet's office, I looked back at her. She was smiling, her eyes half-closed, face to the open window.

My last moment with her was to bury my face in the softness of her head, right behind her great big ears where the fur grew short and silky. I sucked in the doggy smell of her and felt my heart break. I couldn't bear to even look back when I left the clinic.

My heart is heavy as I contemplate all that I've lost today. It seems like more than just a pet. I feel saying good-bye to Kylie was like signing off on more than a decade of my life. Our family was so young when Kylie came to live with us. Since then, four of our children have graduated and left (or are leaving) home. Two have married and are parents themselves. Ron and I are older and grayer. His parents are both gone. It's not that I dislike change. Some is good. I like hellos and births. I hate good-byes and deaths. I am sad because you can't have one without the other. I miss my dog already.....

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