On Mandela the dog, there will be no final word. I originally planned to make one last entry about this important milestone in my life. But after a month of sleepless nights, reminiscing, dreaming, reflecting, crying, laughing and looking through pictures, I realize the cathartic therapy of writing will outweigh my concern of topic fatigue. So this is my attempt to cover a lot of ground, but I know there will be more thoughts to consider; more memories to set down in word.
Given my own limitations with expression, I often turn to others for inspiration.
In The River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean beautifully articulates the pain of loss, and how the memories of those we love who have gone before us, continue to haunt.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
On Saturday March 2, 2019 at 12:30 pm, my sweet Mandela drew her last breath. It was heartbreaking. I knew it would be, but there simply is no way to prepare for that moment. I take some comfort I suppose, in the fact that the act was rehearsed and orchestrated by the animal hospital; designed to be gentle and painless for the animal. When I walked in, carrying Mandela in my arms, the receptionist recognized us and did not say anything but took us straight back to an examining room. I already could not speak.
After a few moments, an assistant came in and went over the procedure with me. Then they took Dela to the back to put in a catheter. I was completely distraught by now. Powerless. When the doc brought Dela back in and put her in my arms, she tried to leave. Weak as she was, she tried to climb down to get towards the door. Her back was arched, I presume from the pain, and she was so exhausted it was pathetic to see her like that. So I brought her back and put her in my lap.
The first two shots into her catheter relaxed her and put her in to a half-sleep; her eyes barely open, as she looked at me for comfort and understanding. She trusted me completely. She stopped trembling and sank deeper into my arms. About 5 seconds after the 3rd and final injection, she trembled slightly, then exhaled deeply, and immediately I felt her gone. Her eyes were open and I felt all her muscles go completely limp and relaxed. It was devastating. The vet left and I sat with her. I don’t know how long. I stroked her and told her I loved her and was so sorry. I wanted her to understand she gave me much more than I could have ever given her. I wanted her forgiveness for this final act as her caretaker. And then I got up and went out the back door. I was shattered, and crying uncontrollably. The staff was kind and gentle and understanding. I sat in my car for a long while. Again, I don’t know how long. I was afraid to try to drive.
Finally, I left and drove to Cleveland. At least the drive gave me time to get my composure. Although I took a call from my mom; she was calling to make sure I was okay. I could not finish the call. The next day, I called back and Dad could not speak about Dela. He was also too emotional yet to talk about it. One of my final enduring images is as I was leaving mom and dad’s house a couple of weeks before, when Dela’s condition was clearly deteriorating; As I was leaving with Mandela, Dad, who has a difficult time with movement, laid down on the dining room floor in front of Dela and cradled her head in his arms to say goodbye. At that point, none of us knew for sure if she would survive each night.
Mom and dad also loved Mandela very much. They kept Dela when I was traveling for work, and over time, really grew to love that little dog. They spoiled her. It was easy to do. Dad walked her several times a day and loved the freedom of walking a dog that required no leash. Sometimes he would go hit golf balls. Mandela would lay down and watch while he hit a pile of balls a couple of dozen yards. When he was done, Dela would get up and follow him down to where the balls were and lay down while he repeated the process. Then they would go again.
Mom is not a natural dog lover. But she also fell under Dela’s charm. In the last months, mom was cooking special meals; chicken and gravy and such, just to get Dela to eat and to keep her strength up. She would also sit with Mandela and rub her ears when Dela was sick. They developed their routines, just as we had ours at home. And the loss of those routines is a powerful reminder of how important the relationships are that we develop with animals.
In the day I had to take Mandela for her final visit to the vet, mom sat on the kitchen floor in her bath robe next to Dela’s bed. It was early in the morning and mom sat hand feeding Mandela bits of chicken and rubbing her ears. I had been up with her most of the night and it was clear the end was now very near.
For me, Mandela was a precious gift. The most loyal of companions. She was canine perfection. In 14 years, I never took a decision that did not consider her well being. The houses I chose to live at needed to be dog friendly and near green space. The new bed I ordered when I moved to Cleveland was a low platform bed–so she could easily get in and out.
So, some general reflections as they rise. These are random memories; set down as they have come over the past couple of weeks, with little thought to structure or flow or writing technique. Just automatic writing.
As word spread of Mandela’s passing, condolences came in from all over Ohio, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Boston, New York, New Orleans, UK, Germany, Amsterdam, Namibia and even South Africa—home of her namesake.
Mandela was born of what might charitably be called a date rape situation—when the much larger border collie who lived next door to my friends Billy and Valynne jumped the fence and courted the much younger and smaller Pebble the Rat Terrier. Well, courted is the charitable bit.
I was considering getting a rescue dog when Billy told me he had a few pups in his garage. I drove up the mountain to his house and sat for an hour or so with the pups. Two were pretty typical in that they sniffed and inspected me and then moved along to more interesting things. But little Mandela, the runt, came and crawled in my lap and did not get up until I had to leave. And so we made our choice of one another.
In her earliest days, she would lay and sleep at my feet at our house in Pocatello, while I set down my story that was to become ‘Silicon Valley to Southern Africa’. I would write for a few hours while she lay and slept and then we would walk down the street to the park for an hour or so where she would run and explore and roll in the grass. We would repeat this several times a day before moving to the deck for dinner. From day one she accompanied me most places. We would walk to the store and she would sit outside by the door while I shopped and then we would walk back home. She never wandered except perhaps a short distance to find a morsel to scavenge or take advantage of a kind hand for a rub.
Mandela was not a natural water dog. She was a hesitant, but ultimately elegant swimmer. We first coaxed her into the water through that time honored tradition of tossing a stick into the middle of a small mountain lake. Being a dog, she knew she had to complete this ritual by fetching the stick. So she waded in as far as she could, took one last glance back at me, and pushed off. Away she went. She looked exactly like a little otter with just her black head sticking out and her little feet in synchronized paddling motion. She was a swimmer now. Hesitant, but sleek and graceful.
When it came time for bath. Again, the reluctance with water. But she was stoic and allowed the process to unfold. She understood the give and take of relationships; sometimes we endure things unpleasant to us at the request of the other. We have faith that the request would not be made were it not important.
I never considered myself a dog ‘owner’. We were partners and friends. True that I had more choices and more control over our relationship, but I was keenly aware of her moods and if she had expressed a significant desire to move to another home I would have known it and indulged her. But that wasn’t the case. Even if I were gone for several weeks on a long trip she was always ecstatic to seem me when I returned. And me her. I missed her terribly when I was on travel. I substituted other dogs whenever I could. Once, last year in Tokyo, I spent an entire day walking a part of the city and stopping and petting every dog I saw. And I told every single person then about my magnificent dog back home.
All she ever wanted, was to be as close to me as much of the time as possible, and to go for walks. I am not one to try to draw complicated parallels between actions of an animal and our way of living—but it seems instructive to remember that dogs get enormously excited for the small things in life. A walk outside to look around, see what’s to be seen, smell what’s to be smelled, and get some exercise and to spend time with those they love the most. Maybe life really is that simple.
In her last days, she could no longer get up on her feet without help. She had to be carried outside to go to toilet, or to go from from room to room. For she always wanted to be near her people. The last two months were a roller coaster ride of vet visits; good days and bad days intermingling with one another. Hope and despair; hope and despair. Agonizing. But it focused our attention and affection. We knew, at her age, she may still yet have some time, or her race may be nearly run. Some days it appeared she was getting better—only to follow with a day where she hardly got out of bed. Mom and Dad were amazing. Spoiling her. Loving on her. Making sure she got her pain meds and her beloved carrots. Mom continued cooking her special meals and feeding her by hand when necessary. It’s what we do with loved ones when they are sick; we cook what they might eat and help them eat if necessary. Food, comfort, and affection are our most basic needs and what we can give when all else fails.
So, she’s running with the big dogs now. That’s what we say. But Dela was always outsized. No one who ever met her doubted that. It’s who she was. Size mattered not to her. She dominated nearly every dog relationship she chose to engage in. If not by size, then by grace and intelligence.
Who knows where dogs go after they take their last breath, but Mandela is surely one of the best in class in that place.
She loved being with me; and I loved being with her. When I read, she sat at my feet—often using my foot for a pillow. When I cooked, she sat at the edge of the kitchen, mesmerized by the food and hoping for a scrap. When she was young I would flip food to her and it never hit the ground. Later in life, with cataracts and slowing reflexes, occasionally a piece of cheese or meat might just bounce off her nose before she was able to capture it.
In her first year, I took her to Boys Weekend in McCall Idaho. She was very small then and full of spunk. I was still learning how to be a dog handler and she was still training me to understand that she would not be handled. That she in fact did not need to be managed and would be her own dog. One day, we rented a house boat to go out on the lake for a few hours; I had her on a leash, because I was new to her world and thought I needed to protect her from the hustle and bustle of the other tourists in the dock area. Soon enough, when she saw something interesting, she slipped the collar off and walked over to investigate. It was one of her many skills—a collar for her was an indulgence she allowed when it suited her; but when she felt the need, she could slip it off quick-like. She always gave me a certain look at that moment, when the collar slipped over her head and lay at her feet. It was probably her most defiant look; I learned to respect it and to understand that we were in a partnership. She allowed the leash until it did not make sense for her. And when she made her choice to slip free, she made sure I understood the deliberateness of her act and her need for independence. It was simply her way of letting me know she would play along with my charade. But when she needed to be free, she needed me to allow that. And so I did.
Occasionally, when one human or another insisted on treating her like a dog, as some do, Dela accommodated this indignity with stoicism and grace—accepting that some humans were simply not as enlightened as others. She was not here for anyone’s amusement and would make sure that was clear in case there was any confusion.
Mandela had an elegance and dignity that is rare–in dogs or humans. It would be incorrect to say I never met a dog with similar demeanor, but it is the case that I have met only a handful of dogs who were her equal in this respect.
When she was in her first few years, we did a lot of mountain biking and she picked up the nickname ‘mudflap’. She was deceptively fast for a little dog and ran so close to my back tire that if I braked too quick she ran right in to the bike tire. She covered a lot of miles with her little legs. She also hiked. All over Pocatello and central Idaho and later in the Tetons. Her and Kyon were both terrific hikers. Kyon liked to be in the lead so she would scout out a hundreds yards ahead or so—stopping to wait if we got too far back. Mandela would circle back between Kyon and us—always true to her border collie instincts for herding.
She was smart. Very smart. She understood more words than any other dog I have seen. She walked many city miles with me, always without a leash, and never once stepped in front of a car. She would stay next to me and when we got to the crosswalk, she would stop and look at me until I said go and then she would jog across the road. People in cities adored her when we were walking; reacting to her good behavior and loving manner. I have no idea how to train a dog. Never read the first book; Dela just figured it out and made me look like a responsible handler.
Dela moved in with me first when I lived on Spence Place in Pocatello. We then moved in to the big house on top of the hill in Pocatello and later to Victor. She camped with me dozens of times in multiple states around the west. She took airplane rides with me, snuggling in under my seat by my feet; New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Boston and Chicago. She was a frequent flyer and adored by the flight attendants. We drove long distances together; taking road trips from Idaho to: Oregon Coast, Southern Utah, Montana, New Orleans and Cincinnati.
She hated doggy day cares and after the 2nd stay in one I refused to send her again. I took her once in Chicago. She bravely tolerated day one, unaware that she was being left with strangers. Day two, we pulled up in front of the place and she simply refused to get out of the car. When I got out to let her out of the passenger side, she moved to the driver seat. I walked around to driver side, she moved to passenger seat. We repeated this a few times. And then I went back to the hotel where I was staying and took some time to organize a dog sitter at the hotel.
I still remember her favorite places to hang out in every house we lived in. On Spence she liked being in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room to capture the late afternoon sun and looking from the hill down on the city. On Marilyn, she would sit for hours and stare out the glass in the front door. I would always say the same thing to her; ‘I hope you find what you’re looking for’. When I moved to Columbus I bought my condo in large part because it was adjacent to a big metro park where we could walk the trails. There she sat looking out the French doors at the birds, raccoons, coyotes and deer that wandered the edge of the park. When I was looking at homes in Cleveland, all buying options took Mandela into consideration. Although this was just as she was becoming sick. She did not live to see the place I picked out for us here.
Now I find myself thinking about where she would be if she were here. Sitting by the patio door probably, when I am reading or writing, where she can see me and still look outside. In Columbus, when I was in the garage working on the canoe or camper or some other project, she would lie half in the garage and half outside on the driveway. Again, so she could keep an eye on me and also at what was happening in the park.
In bed, I still want to feel her warmth and pressure.
Years ago we would snowshoe into the cabin on top of the mountain in Lava Hot Springs. The snow would be 4’ – 5’ deep and so Mandela had to jump from one snowshoe indentation to the other. Once, she got too close to the edge of the road and fell down into very deep snow and could not get back out. September and I had to make a chain and I could only just reach Dela’s collar to get her back up to safety.
There are certainly more painful things than losing a dog. And surely there are hardships people endure and still carry on, including many people I know who have far more difficult lives than my own. But the acknowledgment of one does not lessen the pain of the other. So this is something I just need to intellectually process and let the emotional side run its course. I still can’t think of the clinical act of deliberately ending her life without a flood of tears and immense guilt. Intellectually, I know she was suffering and it was only going to get worse. Emotionally, I find the decision extremely difficult to accept. And of course the house is lonely without her. She had a massive presence for such a small animal.
She was an alpha when circumstances brought her around other dogs, but generally speaking she was not a dog’s dog. She was interested primarily in human interaction. The exception to this was her decade long friendship with her very close Labrador friend Kyon. They were great mates from the time they met. Ironically, Kyon was born two months before Mandela and died two months before Mandela. They had a nice connection those two. The only dog Dela ever really accepted as her friend.
She had a dignity in her ways and movements that is unusual. She had a multitude of facial expressions using her ears, tail, and head positioning to express her amusement, concurrence, misunderstanding or disapproval. She dignified many cafes and coffeeshops, lying under the table and people-watching. Many restaurant workers and retail employees came to love her and bring her small treats and always some good loving and rubs. She was well known to the Home Depot crew and eventually became conditioned to believe that anyone wearing orange would have a treat for her.
Dela did not suffer a fool and was not particularly partial to young children. She did not disdain them, but also did not understand them. She was interested in intellect, rubs, or treats. Children offered none of these things and so were of no more than passing interest to her.
This much I know is true. No one who ever met Mandela failed to fall in love with her. It simply was not possible to be around her and not be attracted to her dignified and peaceful presence.
She was my friend. She was Hobbes to my Calvin. My loyal companion. My sweet and clever little black dog. And she will be missed.
Sleep well my girl.
Photos are random and I will add to them over time, just as I will add in stories as they rise to the surface.