As has been well publicized, we lost a special friend yesterday.
I met him three days before 9/11, a few hours after he had been born. He was to be a gift to us, figuratively and literally. The office manager at the church where I was employed at the time gave him to us. Copland was a purebred Labrador Retriever, a deep, rich chocolate color. I’ve always thought it would be cool to name dogs after famous composers, and one of my all time favorites is the great American composer Aaron Copland, whose Appalachian Spring is one of the great masterworks of the 20th century. If we ever have an English Bulldog, I want to name it Vaughan Williams, even if it’s a girl.
I remember the day we brought him home. It was a Sunday, after church, and the whole family came, including Gramma Harriet, who would only be with us for another 18 months. We had prepped our little 400 square foot studio apartment for his arrival. We had read all the books, bought the XL kennel, the chew toys, and all the trimmings. We were first time parents.
Those first few weeks were hard on me. I don’t like change, and I liked it even less when I was 23 and thought the world was still my oyster. I actually remember verbalizing one time that I thought we should give him back, that he was just going to be too much dog for our compact life.
But the weeks passed, and he learned to poop outside, and all was well. In fact, I have two lingering memories of his first year. The first was getting up in the middle of the night, freezing my tail off while he decided whether or not he was going to validate my interrupted slumber with a little piddle. The second was taking him to a community doggy obedience class, which was the smartest move we ever made. We learned, together, how to sit, lie down, stay, come, and heel. Once you and your dog understand how to do that together, the bond between man and beast is permanently etched in stone.
Some months later, we were sitting around the fire pit with Bryan and Aly and we heard a little splash in the pool, followed by the unmistakable sounds of doggy distress. Bryan was actually the first to make it over to Copland, who was furiously treading water. He pulled Copland out of the water, soaking himself in the process. Now, since that day, Copland has been known to charge headlong into turbulent surf up to his neck, so long as he could touch the bottom, but he would not ever go in that pool again.
It was around this time that Copland discovered his love language, and that was fetching a ball. I did a little math yesterday, and here’s what I concluded. I took him out to play, without fail, at least five times a week, often more. He lived seven years and eight months, which is about 400 weeks, for the sake of landing on a round number. 400 x 5 means about 2000 playdates with Copland. Erica would take him from time to time, but once we had kids, it was definitely my gig. I’d throw the ball 15-20x per session, before he’d start to foam at the mouth from perspiration. So, on the conservative end, I threw that ball 30,000 times. I became one with the Chuck-It. I am a Chuck-It ninja. I can kill a man at 30 yards with a wet tennis ball.
Every day, without fail, at around 3pm, he would give me this look:
The arched eyebrows, the tongue hanging out, the look that said, “You know what time it is, fool!” If, God forbid, I allowed a day to go by without a playtime, it would increase twofold the next day. When we would return from a trip, he would assault me until we went out to play fetch.
And what a player he was. Copland could have played center field for the Yankees. In fact, I remember playing with him at our little neighborhood park one day, and adjacent to us was a baseball field where a little league team was having their afternoon practice. Copland must have been three or four, in his prime, and he was in rare form that day, charging the ball with his muscles rippling and the wind in his face. You could throw a line drive at him as hard as you liked, and he would simply pluck it from the air. The sound of the wet tennis ball hitting his mouth was as satisfying as a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.
Anyways, after about 15 minutes, I actually heard the coach dressing down one of his players, and I swear to you, he said, “That dog would make a better outfielder than you! Show some hustle!” One part of me was saddened that this coach was giving his player a hard time. The other side of me knew it was an absolutely accurate statement.
For all his enthusiasm, Copland was a gentle soul. I remember the day we brought Ella home from the hospital, and Erica sat down with her on the couch to meet her big brother. He spent five minutes sniffing her from head to toe, curious, but not threatening. When Erica would get up in the middle of the night to nurse her, Copland would get up, too, and sit at the door of her room, facing out, a stoic centurion. When she was done, and the baby back to sleep, he would return as well. He did this, night after night, without fail, while both of our kids were nursing.
Copland had a baritone bark that could freeze grown men in their tracks, but never in his life bit a human being. He would let both of our kids actually attempt to ride him. They would pull on his ears and his tail, and he would just sort of shrug them off, roll over onto his back, and show them how to love on a pooch.
On nights where I was up late, working in our home studio, he would sleep on my side of the bed. I’d come in, tired, and he’d dutifully move and take his spot on the floor. Erica has told me that this is the thing she will miss the most, her night time cuddles.
I don’t really have a good segue into these next photos, but for some reason it sums up everything I loved about this dog. These was taken in February of 2008, on a short trip up to the snow with our friends, The Retichs, and their kids and their dog, Bailey. We found a great hill for sledding, and Copland spent the entire day chasing us down the hill…… and then charging right back up.
He did this for hours. Labs will literally play themselves to death, I’ve heard. I have no patience for the unenthusiastic, which is why I’ll never be a cat person. This dog was more enthusiastic about life than any other creature I’ve known. In the snow, at the park, in the yard, on a hike, or just hanging out at home, he lived his life to the fullest.
It was about five months ago that the bumps started showing up. The vet told us that they were normal, just fatty polyps that develop on dogs his age. Most people, he said, don’t bother with them unless they don’t like the cosmetic effect.
Around the new year, we noticed a bigger bump on his hind quarters. This one did not look like a fatty polyp. We took him in, and the vet told us the bad news. It’s a tumor, and malignant. What do you want to do? Well, we ended up running a few tests and an x-ray or two, and it turned out that the tumor hadn’t spread. Not only that, but the vet told us that he had rarely seen a large lab of Copland’s age with such a vigorous heart and large lungs, and that he was in tremendous physical condition.
He was blunt about the risks, but he also told us that he thought we might be able to get the tumor out and have him around for a few more years. We weighed our options, and decided it was worth it. On February 5th of this year, Copland had major surgery. My studio, which has the greatest amount of unused floor space, was tarped and fenced and turned into a doggy recovery zone. I’ll spare you the photos of the tumor itself, which the vet produced like a prize winning seabass, but I will tell you that my sweet dog’s backside looked like the bride of Frankenstein.
Now, he had surgery in the morning, and that afternoon, was looking at me with the arched eyebrows and the tongue hanging out, with that absurd cone on his head, his rear end stapled and bleeding, and was ready to go play ball.
He recovered beautifully. His fur never quite fully re-grew itself, but he was back outside within two weeks, as if nothing had ever happened. During this time, we started noticing a limp on his right, front let. Another trip to the vet, and this time he said that it was most likely arthritis, and prescribed some anti-inflammatories. Those seemed to resolve the problem, for a short while.
These few final weeks passed without much incident, although the limp lingered. Even slightly hobbled, all he wanted to do was play, and cuddle, eat our food from the table, and generally be glad to be on board. Last Saturday, we took him to the park, but this time in the car. I didn’t want him to have to walk there and back. We took it easy, throwing the ball just a few feet, and but a few times.
That night, he was whimpering and crying, and we decided that we had to take him back… yet again… to the vet, and see what was up.
On Monday, he had another x-ray taken, and the sad truth was revealed. An unrelated cancer, a bone cancer, was rapidly spreading through his body, and he had already developed a hairline fracture from the deterioration, thus causing the limp. After the fact, the vet told me that he want back to our round of X-rays from late January, and there was no indication of bone cancer in that comprehensive (and expensive) workup. It was aggressive, and it was the end for him.
As I paid yet another bill, and walked him out to the car, I lost it for the first time. I didn’t even make it to the car before deep, guttural sobs overwhelmed me. For some reason, the tumor removal in February, as serious as it was, never connected me with the fact that he was going to leave this earth well before I was. But Monday afternoon, when I heard the phrase, “Well… the only treatment is to remove the leg, and that’s only going to buy him about three months,” that did it. He had to put him to sleep, and we needed to do it as soon as possible. There was nothing left for him but deterioration, and suffering.
We told the kids. Ella broke down with mommy. Zion, still in his three year old bubble, remained generally blissfully oblivious. That night, we decided that Tuesday was going to be a special day.
Copland had ham and eggs for breakfast on Tuesday. Instead of going to school, and work, we went to the beach. We actually doped him up with tylenol and his anti-inflammatories, and between that and his ham and egg breakfast, he was feeling no pain.
I had a silly ritual with him. When it was time to play, I’d look at him and he’d lock his eyes on mine. I’d say… “Do you wanna go…. to the park?” and he’d leap up into the air, wagging his tail. I could do this a dozen times and it never ceased to amuse me or the kids. Just for grins, I did it again, and even on his fractured leg, he wagged and smiled and barked, “YES!”
It was a stunning day, warm and bright, despite predictions of rain. He charged, as he always would, into the water. He dug in the sand. He chased the ball. We tried not to cry, and failed miserably. It will go down as one of the sweetest days I can remember.
When we got home, a dear friend named Deva, who has hosted Copland several times as a dog sitter came over and fed him a steak. He spent his final afternoon doing what he loved to do, sitting by the screen door in the living room, surveying his yard.
My only regret in all this is that when it came time to actually put him to sleep, we had to go back to the vet’s office. He got all anxious and nervous. We just lay down with him on the blanket and scratched his belly and whispered into his ears. We stayed with him until the end. I’ve never been through that before. I anticipated a long process, but the contents of the shot work very quickly. In the end, he actually made a sound that sounded like his happy grunt, and then went to sleep. He was a good dog.
I think that one of the reasons I’ve been so emotional over this process is because his passing precedes our 10th wedding anniversary by only two weeks. I’ve already been keenly aware of the closing of a chapter in our lives, and the beginning of another. Our kids are out of diapers, and speaking in nearly complete sentences. We aren’t planning on having any more, although if The Good Lord sees fit to circumvent our contraceptive strategies, that’s certainly His prerogative.
Copland will forever be intertwined with my memories of this first decade of our home, our new civilization. He taught me that I had to be firm and patient, gentle and unconditional in my love. He taught me how to be a little less selfish, and a little more generous. I have said many times that raising a puppy for its year is outstanding preparation for an infant.
I think that, beyond that, they teach you about the entire cycle of parenting. You feed and bathe them, then you teach them a few tricks, and if you do your job right, you get to enjoy their company for a season. By God’s grace, I pray that I’ll never have to go through the agony of losing a child, but there are parallels nonetheless. They are not mine. Of their lives, I am but a steward. I will eventually have to let them go.
I can’t say I’ve let Copland go quite yet. I am simply not used to the rhythm of not having him around. I guess that even in death, that dog still has a few things to teach this human about living my life.
In an attempt to not leave this long note on a total downer, I’ll share one more story. Yesterday, after we returned from the vet after putting him to sleep, Zion was playing outside with his Papa, my dad. Zion looked straight at us and said, “Did you drop Copland off to heaven?”
“Yup, pal… we did.”
“Cool! Wanna play?”
Ok, I swear after this I’ll stop adding to this epic post, but I just found two more shots that are awesome beyond words, and since I’ve already been this self-indulgent, what’s a little more?