Kineo’s gift

Kineo, our ancient beagle boy, passed on to new adventures a few days ago. He died on my birthday.

Your dog dying on your birthday sounds like the saddest blues song ever. And it was. But there were gifts in it, too. Between my tears, squeezed out from heartache, I am able to acknowledge the timing, the lessons about beginnings that eventually must turn to endings, and back to new beginnings. I am accepting Kineo’s gift.

Kineo was the first and last thing I “did” each morning and every night. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and for being the best dog ever,” I’d say, wrapping him in a velvety hug. Then I’d regale him with an ever growing litany of noble titles before going to get my coffee or going off to bed. You’re welcome, he’d snuffle, his big brown eyes pouring the depths of his love right back at me. And he’d keep on keeping on—for days, weeks, years beyond what a seasoned beagle owner in her right mind (or any dog owner) could reasonably expect. He was two months shy of turning sixteen.

It almost got to be a joke, how he’d keep needing his annual shots, his celebratory cans of Ol’ Roy gravy dinner, and another five-pounder box of biscuits. I’d mark the calendar for his birthdays, then his half-birthday and, finally, his three-quarters birthday just before Mother’s Day. I’d do the dog-to-human years calculations thinking nobody must have told him he was pushing a hundred and twelve. Until there was no more fooling Mother Nature.

In the end, Kineo gave me the gift of one more boat ride, of watching his ears flap softly in the breeze as his nose tried to hoover out every last early summer scent coming off the lake. He devoted all of his days to making the best of mine, of ours. He shared the wonder of living every moment close to the earth, far from worry. And the grace of going peacefully, gratefully, when the time was right. He came to us a dark, stocky little puppy, ready to live up to his rugged Maine mountain name, and left a wizened, lumpy old hound happy to just waddle around after us and sleep in the sun.

On the afternoon of my birthday, Kineo listened mostly with his heart as I smiled through my tears, kissed his old grey head, and whispered one more time. “Thank you for being my dog again today, and the best dog ever. My Lord Bemis camp beagle, ruler of the afghan realm, the far rug regions, the tall pillow plateaus, the deep, dark blanket bayous, the vast, uncharted forest floors, and all the known couch counties. For being my sultan of the Subaru, titan of the Toyota, baron of the biscuits, guardian of the garden, and prince of the porch piddles. For living in regal beagle splendor all of your days, until this last day, Mumma’s birthday, the twenty-seventh day of May in your sixteenth year Atta Doggonie.”

And then we closed the circle.

He’s got Beagle Diet eyes

All Kineo dog wants for Christmas is a treat…or two…or three. Trimmings from the holiday roast. Blueberry pancake morsels smothered in cream cheese. A can of Ol’ Roy filet mignon flavor “wet dinner” that, in days of yore, would almost split the seams of his Christmas stocking till it was plopped into his bowl in all its glistening glory.

All he’s gonna get, though, is a big, lumpy elk antler chew, and the hope it’ll distract him from what will not appear to his wondering eyes this year. 

“Merry Christmas, old guy. Gnaw on this instead.” I’ll say, unwrapping it for him and tossing it his way. “Ol’ Roy never got anything this healthy.” Kineo will probably lick it a few times, give it a half-hearted push with his snout, sigh, and continue staring mournfully at his empty food bowl. “And because Mommy bought this special bone, she’s helping to rescue another good dog like you who can have a nice Christmas, too,” I’ll tell him.

Still not impressed, Kineo will bury his head behind his Santa pillow and resume the endless wait for his next meager meal. Inconsolable, he’ll be, and nothing short of presenting him with some juicier, meatier, elk parts—or any animal by-products—will renew his holiday spirit. Because, alas, he’s on a diet and has been since before Thanksgiving. Without consultation or consent, his Purina chow scoops are closely rationed, his table scraps a dim, cherished memory.

Who goes on a diet at Christmas? A beagle who’s starting to look like a Yule log, that’s who. A dog who’s so far down on the “smartest breed” list that, given the chance, would crawl into the Purina bag and not come out till he’d housed the whole 20 pounds. A cherished family member who needs some extra tough love to guide him through the holiday eating hurdles so he can scamper rather than waddle into the New Year. And, judging from his expression, he’s not hopping on board with a “healthy eating” regimen, better nutritional habits, or any other feel good way of sugar-coating the fact that his steady food stream is down to a trickle. He’s die-ting. As in he feels like he gonna die ’cause every little ting that used to be tossed toward his yapper between meals is now gone.

“At least you’re not wearing a cone of shame ’cause you’re recovering from surgery and have turned into a licking time bomb like last Christmas,” I told him. “That hurt worse than a few tummy grumbles. Besides, you’re Lord Bemis Camp Beagle, Ruler of the Afghan Realm and Beyond. You gotta live long and prosper. And that might not happen if you’re too rotund to lord over anything but the couch.”

Not one for words or, thankfully, much whining, Kineo just gave me a long, sad look saying that he still was not buying any of it. “Talk to the belly!” he pleaded with his enormous gingerbread eyes. If only he had manual dexterity and enough energy to get off the couch, I swear he would’ve picked up the phone and tried to call the Franklin County Animal Shelter to come get him.

Five years ago, Kineo had witnessed his brother Toby (may he rest in peace ‘neath the snow drift in the back yard) go through the same weight-loss journey. But his nonexistent neural capacity didn’t allow him to remember, never mind learn, from how hard that lesson was. How Toby’s ritualistic dinnertime prance around the pantry was suddenly rewarded with one measly scoop out of the food bucket and, a few gulps later, he’d be dumbfounded worse than ever as he contemplated his empty bowl. How instead of pre-washing every dish before it went into the dishwasher, Toby was left standing in the kitchen, watching me with pitiful, gravy-colored eyes as I rinsed the dishes myself, and his favorite bad habit trickled down the drain. How, because he was named after a majestic Maine mountain, he vowed he wouldn’t cave like Toby and follow in his fat footsteps. 

“C’mon Kinny. Who’s my Little Drummer Beagle?” I said, tapping his shrinking tummy as I tried to lift his spirits with his all-time favorite Christmas carol. But he didn’t even care that his paunch percussion was off, that his ra pa pum pum wasn’t reverberating like a taut bowl of suet this year. 

A few more days of being followed by Kineo’s silent, hungry stare, and I started changing my tune. To match his hang dog mood, I made up a new version of Bette Davis Eyes even more haunting than the early ’80s ballad.

He’s getting fat and old 48375837_285833858950553_6017139209058385920_n
He wants a treat surprise
He thinks I’m mean and cold
He’s got Beagle Diet eyes
He’d rather turn into dough
He’s not believing the lies
He’s eating dirty snow
He’s got Beagle Diet eyes

But try as I might to mirror his suffering, Kineo couldn’t muster more than a weak wag of his tail. “You’re just killing me softly with your songs,” he seemed to say, his pupils lipid and dark as the pools on Bemis just before the freeze. 

He’s still my Zen beagle, though, my mentor—the face at the top of my Spirit totem. Because sooner rather than later, I know he’ll be inspiring me to shed my increased holiday heft, too. Till then—and even though I know the only sound he really wants to hear is more kibble clattering down into his bowl—I can’t help but add a little Smokey Robinson into the mix:

Now there’s some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a hound
When there’s no food around


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Channeling my inner beagle

All I really need to know about retirement I’m learning from my beagle.

It’s not that I lack two-legged role models. My husband Tom, who should be a poster boy for AARP, is a shining example, as are many friends and family who have crossed this bridge before me. But when it comes to learning from the best, old Kineo dog is my Zen Master.

I always thought leaving the world of work-for-pay behind would feel more eagle-like than beagle-like. I’d soar up, up and away from earth-bound limits and weighty commitments, honing my sights back down on what I really wanted and needed. But then my path toward retirement became as roundabout as a rabbit trail through the pucker brush. And when I finally made it to the finish line, I was channeling b + eagle energy.

Sleep. Eat. Romp around. Repeat. Become enraptured by a leaf. Let the wind tickle your nose and flap your ears back. Drop when you’re weary but scamper while you can. Kineo’s teachings are as simple as they are profound. He’s never read the Tao Te Ching and can’t begin to explain how he walks his path with so much delight and gratitude. And he certainly doesn’t know that “freedom from attachment” is a thing. Still, he shows me “The Way” way better than my shelves full of New Age books and hours of fireside philosophizing.

“Watch and learn from the Beagle Buddha,” I remind myself whenever Tom and I take Kineo off road far enough to unleash him. We’ll be half way up the hill behind our house and Tom will reach down and unhook him from the tether that’s so often necessary for the traits of his breed—a nose and heart as big as the North Woods and a brain the size of a pea. “Good boy. Go on now you’re FREE!” I holler. Then I stand back and watch a live demonstration of the power of letting go.

It doesn’t happen all at once. So bent is he on sniffing every possible leaf and hummock that, at first, he can’t feel the loss of pull-back from his master, can’t shift his own weight into forward momentum. Then, like a lightening bolt, his new reality hits home. He stops, looks up, and a pinpoint of awareness flashes through the dimness of his primal dome. ZING! He’s on his own! His tail wags double time and I swear he smiles. Then, in a nanosecond, he throws himself into overdrive so fast his hind legs almost outrun his head. Woooosh! Suddenly a floppy-eared Taz/Wile E. Coyote shape-shifter, Kineo beats feet off trail. He’ll circle back eventually. But not until he’s celebrated every square inch of his independence.

“Ever wonder where you’d end up if you took your dog for a walk and never once pulled back on the leash?”

I started pondering that quote by author Robert Brault about the same time I started pondering retirement. “Hmmm…I’d end up somewhere deep in God’s Country where I wouldn’t turn around till my legs gave out, or my heart or my belly called me back home,” I thought. I wouldn’t really know for sure, though, until I went from kinda retired to full-on retired. And I was kinda retired, or at least I told myself that, for a long time.

As I said, mine was not a direct route, a threshold I just crossed over one day and then…boom…I was done working. Already a veteran technical writer before my Big Move to Rangeley, I’d been laid off and rehired, had quit and switched jobs so many times I was worn out enough to just fade away and not look back. Then, when Tom retired from teaching and I settled into a new home office steps from the Big Lake—and many miles from anyone needing the “propeller head” networking guides that used to be my claim to fame and a nice paycheck—I was ready to follow him out to pasture for good. Until I got a “remote” writing contract doing the exact same challenging but cool stuff that used to require commuting all over the place. Wonderful manager, terrific customers, most of whom were on the West Coast and didn’t need me at my desk till late morning. Good pay, flexible hours, great projects using the latest in high-tech publishing tools.

“But I feel like I’m retired,” I’d tell folks who wondered when I’d match my husband’s occupational status. “I travel. I make my own hours. I get tons of fresh air and exercise whenever I want. And I get paid.” Best job I ever had.

Until it wasn’t. Six years later, the fulcrum started to shift. Updated tools sent digital book making back to the Dark Ages. “Challenging” lost its cool factor. And customers got really cranky. For awhile, I kept pushing forward in “it’s OK as long as I can travel, take boat rides, and ride my bike” mode—sucking all the goodness I could out of life in a rural retirement community while telling myself I wasn’t getting sucked in the wrong direction when I’d turn my back on the lake and return to my desk. Gradually, though, I began to feel the pull-back—of meetings and deadlines and the never-ending cycle of rewording the same old stuff—more than my freedom. It might be long and really pliable, but I was on a leash, nonetheless. A retractable one. And my collar was beginning to chafe.

Finally, I cut myself loose last May. I got on early Social Security, bought myself a brand new laptop cleared of any company-sanctioned templates or Skype for Business appointments. I was free! Free to write whatever and whenever the “right” side of my brain wanted while relegating its nerdy left side to crossword puzzles in the Mountain Messenger. Free to watch the lake and the open road without watching my watch.

But none of that happened all at once. At first, I just couldn’t let it. I’d been a good, loyal professional too long, was too conditioned to pats on the back from my managers and the sweet treat of a bi-monthly paycheck. Could I actually shift into autonomy, embrace freedom? Or would my ego convince me I needed to fill up my calendar with some sort of busy work that kept me tethered to reward and recognition?

As with most life altering questions, it didn’t take long for full immersion into Rangeley summer to grant me an answer. And, as usual, when the answer hit I was on my bike heading off into the wild blue and green yonder. Suddenly, mid-pedal, I knew in my core that I didn’t really need my watch or my odometer or most of my old habits. A pinpoint of new awareness flashed through my self-induced fog. I was FREE, and I honestly and truly felt free. I’d turn around when I was damn well good and ready, beckoned home by a warm bowl of food, family, and all the comforts that really mattered.

Somewhere back on my New Age self-help shelf I remembered a passage that likened the power of detachment—of letting go with “focused surrender”—to shooting an arrow from a bow. Authentic freedom, it said, isn’t attained simply by releasing the arrow to fly, straight and true, toward its target. The act of pulling back the bow, of grounding yourself and shifting your sights on what you’re aiming for before you actually let go, that’s where the real magic happens. Kineo already knew that. Fortunately, it didn’t take me a dog’s age to catch on. No reading or over thinking required. ZING! Woooosh! Reality aligned with everything I was shooting for when I came to this retirement community in God’s Country. And like my beloved beagle mentor, I began to master the art of moving meditation, to honor the wisdom of returning to stillness.

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A licking time bomb

If by some Christmas miracle the ghost of my Nana could have visited Kineo, she would have gently cradled his head, met his big brown eyes with her own, and said: “If it ain’t your hip, it’s your ass or your elbow.”

Even though he’s not a little, old Scottish lady but an old beagle, Kineo would have agreed. Maybe not about the hip part because, last we could tell, his hips were fine. But his ass end and elbow? Not so good. And one eye was pretty sore, too.

He wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas catastrophe. He was supposed to be all healed up from his minor “elective” surgeries. He was supposed to snap right back just in time for his mommy and daddy to drop him off at doggy daycare and celebrate their 40th anniversary in the balmy Bahamas without worrying about his beagle boo-boos. But, of course, he hadn’t really elected to be operated on. He never said “Oh, sure, as long as I need to have a cyst taken off my elbow and a skin tag off my eyelid, you might as well go ahead and take my testicles, too, while I’m under.” We said that on his behalf—and then forged merrily ahead with our best laid plans.

The pre-op vets concurred. Kineo was a Stugged Wonder. Well, actually Stugged (Sturdy+Rugged=Stugged) Wonder was our nickname, but they saw how he got it. “Wow, he’s so strong and healthy for an eleven and a half year old dog!” said the Maine Woods Mobile vet, who previously only saw him for an average of ten minutes a year to administer vaccinations. Unlike his older brother Toby (may he rest in perpetual peace ‘neath the rabbit tracks in the back yard), Kineo was not plagued by assorted issues. Unlike Toby, the only PetMD search Kineo had ever prompted was “Why does my dog insist on eating dirt?” Yup, naming him after a stugged Maine mountain had been a good call. And we were super proud (and kinda cocky) that we could rely on quick trips to the Oquossoc Fire Station once in a great while when the backwoods vet swung through to meet his health needs.

‘Twas a few days before Christmas when Kineo finally set feet inside a real animal clinic in Farmington. “Wow, he’s in really great shape for an old dog,” the vet remarked. “He should do fine.” He wagged his tail and sniffed, totally unaware that this first-time visit was gonna be a doozie. Why risk anesthesia just to neuter the old boy, we always said.  But now that Kineo was a candidate for one-stop surgery, might as well “fix” the potential plumbing issues that plagued old Toby and, while we were at it, make him a better playmate for his doggy girlfriends, we figured. So we signed all the consent forms to “get ‘im done” and left to do some last-minute gift shopping.

“Mommy bought you a can of Ol’ Roy filet mignon flavor dog food for Christmas!” I told Kineo when he walked gingerly out of recovery later that day. He wagged his tail, unfazed and not too much worse for wear after his stem-to-stern overhaul. “Do we need to put one of those cone head collars on him?” I asked almost as an afterthought as we were leaving the clinic.

“Is he a licker?” the vet wondered.

“You mean like Baileys or Kahlua?” I thought to myself. “No he’s a good boy,” I said. “We’ll keep an eye on him.” We lifted him into the Subaru and went on our way back up the mountain, leaving the $12 plastic cone (that the vet had in ample supply for a very good reason) an hour a half away in Farmington.

It took a few days for the anesthesia to wear off and Kineo’s instincts to kick in. Apparently, he didn’t agree with the post-op instructions to let the stitches dissolve gradually as he healed. He preferred to try to self-heal—to tug out those silly little suture knots and lick his wounds to his heart’s content. By then, of course, keeping an eye on him meant never closing our eyes at the same time for more than a second, night or day. And keeping both ears open, too.

“Heard him going after himself again at about 3 a.m.,” Tom said wearily when I found him curled up on the sofa with the dog’s head in a gentle but firm vice grip for the third morning in a row. “The little bugger got a pretty good head start on reopening his incisions before I got to him.” From parenting newborns to providing hospice care and everything in between, we were keen to all manner of threatening night time sounds. But, until then, chronic dog lapping had not been one of them.

That’s when our answer to the perfunctory “How was your Christmas?” line of questioning changed from relating our travel and festive dinner plans to quietly smirking and saying our holiday was different this year. We didn’t think folks wanted or needed the whole ugly truth: We spent Christmas peering at our dog’s shriveled sack and zippered elbow, fretting about foul discharge and how to keep his head pointed up and away till we could talk to the vet. And, being resourceful Rangeley woods dwellers, we became very, very inventive. We adapted YouTube videos about homemade cone collars to make use of materials already on hand. For the first prototype, Tom cut a cone shape out of a giant laminated poster I’d kept from my cranio-sacral therapy training and affixed it with Velcro strips and duct tape. But that didn’t stop our Beldar Conehead beagle. He became a 3-D illustration of the human spinal column and how a canine can twist his vertebra like a Slinky. Prototype # 2 featured an airplane neck pillow, a rolled up towel, a backwards tee-shirt and tons more duct tape. It kept Kineo from reaching his elbow but was no match for his Houdini hound contortions toward his crotch.

How the heck Dr. Jeff the Rocky Mountain Vet could go to Mexico and all over creation to spay and neuter hundreds of dogs and let them walk out of the free clinics unfettered by any head gear became a subject of fascination for me. Maybe Animal Planet just didn’t want to show all the “bad” dogs who ended up festering in the jungle. Or maybe I had a particularly tenacious licker on my hands. Regardless, there I was, a few days after Christmas, snapping a photo of oozing dog junk stitches to send to the vet in Farmington for further instructions. (And making a note to myself to delete that image from my Christmas in Rangeley 2017 photo album as soon as possible!)

“Anyone coming through Farmington today who could pick up a cone collar and antibiotics from my vet on their way up?” I posted on the Where Can I Find It In Rangeley Facebook page. Less than a minute later, I got a yes from a beagle lover and my new best friend, Amy Cooper. And just in time, too. While Tom went to town to meet her, I was “keeping an eye” on Kineo as he lounged by the wood stove. I was doing OK—not eating or going to the bathroom or anything besides staring at his intact sutures. Until the nanosecond in which I left the room to grab my glass of water, and came back to the dreaded sound of serious, hard core slurping.

Tom came home to find me one-arming Kineo’s head on my lap, while my other hand pinched his bleeding elbow boo-boo into a desperate version of a backwoods butterfly closure. We clamped him into the “cone of shame,” pumped him with penicillin, and heaved a huge sigh of relief. He had no choice now but to hunker down and heal up.26172266_1787177327968668_3443104351945885544_o

“Spending New Years Eve with this ol’ dubber, (my parents’ 11 and a half year old beagle) keeping him from incessantly noming on his nads,” Helen posted on Facebook. The caption prompted plenty of comments on how she could liven up her baby sitting stint with festive cone decorations, including shoving plastic olives on a long stick into his cone and making him into a “beagle-tini.”

“Hah! He’s a liquor after all,” I commented with a smiley face.

We were in the Bahamas celebrating our anniversary,  just far enough away from our chaotic Christmas to see the humor.

“Awwww…what a good boy!” we said.

 

 

 

 

Talking about Toby

I knew this time would come.

I knew it a few months ago when I taped Christmas bows on Toby’s crate and made him Facebook famous for recovering from surgery “at the Bemis Mountain Home for Aged Beagles.” I knew it a few years ago when I dubbed him The Beagle Loser and celebrated how he’d lost enough weight to sprint rather than waddle. I knew it way back when I first bought him a leash and a shiny new bowl to replace the ones I’d just thrown away because I was done with dogs. With every new nickname that was a different twist on calling him a silly old dog with issues, I knew. Someday, sooner then I could bear, I’d be talking about Toby in the past tense.

He was my wish list beagle.

Before Toby, I swore I didn’t  want to talk about another dog ever again. Couldn’t handle it. We’d just put down Jasper, our second dog, who’d performed his duties as the girls’ growing up companion like a trooper. “Raising kids without a dog is just wrong,” I decreed after a brief spell of doglessness in the early ’90s. So we found a good dog, gave him a good ole boy name, and brought him home to fill the spot at the center of our family that Spunky, our “house warming beagle,” had left vacant. And there Jasper stayed, from kindergarten till college, faithfully watching for the school bus to bring his girls back to him. Then, just when his job was done, Jasper’s old beagle body just gave out.

I promptly tossed all the treats and the chew toys and had our carpet cleaning guy power-enzyme the whole house. “Now we won’t have to bother anymore,” I told Tom. “We can just take off whenever we want for as long as we want. It’ll be nice.”

Of course it wasn’t. While not having a dog might have been freer, cleaner and easier in ways that appealed to my rational side, my heart—my soul—couldn’t endure that kind of tidy, unfettered, unruffled nice. I started hanging out at the SPCA, became the local Reiki dog healer, just to get my dog fix and try to heal myself. When that didn’t work, I secretly let owning another dog creep into my thoughts. (What would Tom do? He’d said no more dogs before, too, and they kept coming anyways. Could he make room for one more?)

Then I dreamt of Jasper. He was young, healthy and not in pain, sitting atop his dog house like the old days. He thanked me, for his wonderful life, for making him safe, loved and comfortable till the very end. “You’re not done with dogs,” he told me. “You’ve got too much yet to give. There will be another. And his name will be Toby.”

That was all the permission I needed and then some! I began talking about Toby in the near-future tense, making a list. And it wasn’t long before I shared it with Tom. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t been telepathically inspired by a Spirit beagle, but he had been silently allowing new dog thoughts to creep in, too.

“I want him to be past the puppy stage,” I recited. “No endless nights whining because he feels insecure in a crate. He has to like being outdoors without barking too much when we’re away at work, but want to stay close when we’re around. Not too fat, medium-sized, so he doesn’t pull too hard on his leash, and smart enough to not run into traffic.”

“That’s quite the list,” Tom said. “And it sure doesn’t sound like any beagle in the known universe.” (If you haven’t already guessed, dog is synonymous with beagle in our house. Always has been. That’s because we don’t merely have a preference for one breed over another. We have a love crazed blindness that obliterates anything from sight except black, brown and white, floppy-eared, barrel-chested, braying babies with hearts and noses as big as the North Woods and brains the size of a pea.)

“Oh, yeah, and we have to call him Toby,” I said. “Jasper told me in a dream. I looked up the name and it means God Is Good.”

Well alrighty then, Tom must have thought. But I saw him start mouthing the name, imagining how it would sound if he hollered it repeatedly in the middle of the woods. And a few weeks later, he found Toby.

His first name was Boo Boo, bestowed upon him by our friends, Butch and Sandy, his owners since birth. He came from the best beagle stock, and could out-run and out-sniff the finest rabbit hounds in the land. But other than that, he was timid, afraid of his own shadow. “He’ll hunt like hell,” Butch said. “But then he just wants to come find you ’cause he needs people, doesn’t like to stay out on his own too long.”

Perfect, we said. When I petted him for the first time, he made a soft, snorty, purring sound we soon came to recognize as his signature “happy snuffle.” He snuffled all the way home, wagging and sniffing at his comfy crate and his repurposed dog house, then Velcroed himself to Tom’s side wherever he went.

“Are you really sure you want to be tied down to a dog for another ten or eleven years?” my mother-in-law asked when she first saw me holding Toby in my lap like no other beagle had ever allowed.

“Yes, yes I do,” I thought. “I want to tie myself to this dog, with my chin resting on his warm, snuffling head for a long, long time. And please use industrial grade, steel-core rope, double-knotted right through my heart strings.”

292633_3367999795029_656751184_nDuring our first summer together, Toby and I stayed tethered like that for hours on the porch. He could sit in my lap, watching the lake and the squirrels through the ripped screen door that used to be an escape route for beagles who wanted to get out, not get smothered. “But my Toby wants to stay with his Mumma,” I whispered, “and not be sick, or hurt or grow old too fast.” He always snuffled agreement and did his best to live up to my wishes, even when he started having seizures and other issues that weren’t on the original list. It was all good though. Toby was right where he needed to be, my “almost empty nest” beagle, a fairy tale with a few caveats. Over the years, Toby convinced me that raising kids without a dog was definitely wrong, and I was a giant eight-year-old. He even helped Tom and me feel like we were still young, trusting and foolish enough to bring yet another dog into our lives. Coaxed by Toby’s gentle ways, we opened our hearts just wide enough to let the math going flying out of our heads. Two dogs plus another decade or so added onto our beagle legacy? We could do that! So we welcomed Kineo into the family. Bred by Butch and Sandy from the same stock as Toby, we named him after a rugged mountain in Maine, the backdrop to my childhood happy place. And there we were, blissfully roped and knotted tighter than ever, our two beagles romping out ahead of us toward our new life past middle age.

Our beagle boys were like book ends, a tri-colored, two-headed bundle of brotherly devotion. On good days, they both had boundless energy, too. But slowly, try as Toby might to stick with the program of staying forever young, it became more and more obvious he couldn’t physically cooperate. Ever so gradually, like when a part of my own body is not really in synch but I refuse to rest, I could feel Toby unraveling.

Even before his last invasive procedure, Toby was really lagging behind. We’d kept his seizures medically controlled for 10 years, had him neutered in an attempt to shrink his prolapsed prostate, had half his chronically bad teeth yanked, and pumped him full of doggie glucosamine. Then, at age 12-and-a-half, the vet opened him up and found enough stones in his bladder to plug every culvert between here and Route 17. Plus, on top of all that, his heart murmur measured a level four on a scale that stopped at six.

“It’s OK, Toby, we’ll take good care of you at the Bemis Home for Aged Beagles,” I said as he lay snuffling in his crate post-surgery. He recovered valiantly and, for a few glorious weeks in January, could pee like a young stud dog. But then even the simplest pleasures a dog should have while surrounded by miles of pucker brush, plenty of food, and a loving family, started slipping away. And by late February, I uttered a new set of promises to Toby. “We’ll take good care of Kineo,” I told him. “And we’ll save you a spot out on the dock this summer.” He snuffled, held out his paw, and thanked me.

On a dreary March day, with a veil of late winter mist hanging heavy over the melting snow and the first hints of spring, Toby took his last whiff of the damp forest smells he loved so much and laid down forever. “We tried our best, Toby, and so did you,” I told him, stroking his soft, soft ears. Then we held him close as he went from struggling to be good and strong and always there for us to having done his job till the very end.

I’ve spent weeks now wondering how the hell I was going to tell Toby’s story, to write about him in the past tense while just the other day he was right here under my desk, sitting full weight on my toes till I’d finally get up for the fifteenth time in an hour and let him try to go pee. At first, I just had to let the grief of having him gone roll on over me like a freight train. And slowly, as I’ve begun to smile more than cry when I picture his old white face, I know what story to tell. Toby’s tale is about more than floppy ears and all the warm, steady things that made him my best friend. And it’s certainly about more than the long chronology of ailments that were at the center of our conversations for so long.

As much as I hated to admit it, Toby taught me impermanence, to live fully and freely, grounded in the knowledge that all things, however good, must pass. When he could barely toddle down to Indian Cove, he taught me to lead, to stay strong with a soft heart. Together with his brother, he showed the true meaning of “down to earth,” the natural balance of being as close to the land as his little barrel of a body could keep him, ever joyful along the journey. In his honor, I can dare to keep loving the nine-year-old beagle he left behind every moment of every new day. Thanks to Toby, I can hope to know when enough is enough, to be at peace when abundance eventually swings back toward scarcity and suffering. That’s what Toby was all about. And, ultimately, he left me knowing how noble it is to hold a blessed being, gently but firmly, across love’s final threshold.
Toby
Yes, my sweet, loyal Toby. God is good.

 

 

 

The Beagle Loser

“Let’s get you on that scale, Toby!” she ordered.

Suddenly, the room filled with as much drama as could be mustered on a March morning in Rumford. Tom and I held our breath, waiting with hopeful trepidation. Watching the flashing electronic numbers climb, then dip, then soar again was like a moment straight out of my favorite TV show. Except there was no music building to a suspenseful crescendo, no Alison Sweeney in a tight dress and high heels wishing Toby luck (and making Tom wish for things he couldn’t have). And there was definitely no Dolvett the trainer waiting in the wings in Spandex, flexing his biceps and flashing his Hollywood smile.

“Thirty-eight point six,” she announced when the numbers finally stopped. “Toby’s gained over seven pounds!” Tom and I did a classic “agony of defeat” expression just like on the show, jaws dropped, shoulders slumped. But teammate Toby just whined a bit and waddled away. Nope, he was not The Biggest Loser and probably wouldn’t be for a very long time. He was an old, fat beagle, plain and simple. And that verdict was about to be unceremoniously verified by Dr. Kent during the dog’s annual day of reckoning at the Countryside Animal Hospital.

For the first time, Dr. Kent’s assistant had to use caution when hoisting Toby onto the exam table, lifting with her knees not her back so they could proceed to prod the hound’s expanding girth. Toby just tried to maintain his footing and a scrap of his dignity, too complaisant to put up a fuss, and much too simple to remember what happened on that cold, hard table last time he was there. A year ago, after an eye-popping search for his prolapsed prostate, the vet recommended neutering. “Plus, while I got him under I should really yank a bunch of those rotten teeth, too,” he said.

“Guess the poor dog needs help on both ends,” I agreed. “And whatever you do, don’t let us leave without a refill for his phenobarbital. Wouldn’t want to be back up in Rangeley and have him start seizing again!”

Seizures, we’ve discovered, are a beagle thing—almost as common in the breed as their unbridled urge to eat until they pop. Luckily, Toby’s seizures are kept under control with Phenobarbital and, luckily, he is the only family member on meds. Preventing his little brain from misfiring means administering small doses of a controlled substance twice a day,  blood tests once a year to check for side effects, and stockpiling a steady stash for him up in the woods an hour away from the nearest pharmacy. I’m pretty sure drug cartels are masterminded with less planning than scoring Toby’s pills!

“We’re hoping the poor guy’s liver isn’t shot from the medication,” I told Dr. Kent as he continued to poke and palpitate. “Seems like it’s distended. And his hind end is starting to give out a little. He can barely hold his tail up anymore. I read that was a side effect, too.”

The vet cast us a knowing smile. He was no stranger to old dog owner denial, and ours was a classic case. “This dog’s just fat,” he chuckled. “He’s getting old and he’s eating way more than he needs.” No liver problems. No masses. Just beagle blubber. Turns out that two cups of Purina is an excessive amount of dog chow, especially if the cup measure is an ancient oversized coffee mug, and the dog who’s chowin’ on it is devoid of metabolism-boosting testosterone. Plus the real Catch 22, according to Dr. Kent, is the poor pooch can’t exercise because he can’t exercise. Increased poundage stresses his joints making him unable to walk much faster than a turtle, which results in—you guessed it—increased poundage.

“It’s official, Toby,” Tom announced as we loaded our lard hound into the Subaru and headed back up Route 17. “You’re on a strict diet.” Toby just wagged his tail as best he could and stared out the window, oblivious. The reality of his new regimen would not start to sink in (if anything ever really sinks in) until later. His ritualistic dinnertime prance around the pantry would be rewarded with one measly scoop out of the food bucket and, a few gulps later, he’d be dumbfounded worse than ever as he stared into his empty bowl.

That was over a month ago. And while Toby isn’t saying much, we think it’s slowly starting to dawn on him like an overcast morning over a very shallow pond: his two-scoop days are over. Getting a peanut butter chaser to make his Phenobarb slide down easier is a thing of the past, too. And, instead of pre-washing every dish before it goes into the dishwasher, he’s now left standing in the kitchen, watching me with sad, gravy-colored eyes as I rinse the dishes myself, and his favorite bad habit trickles down the drain. It’s hard, we imagine, being on a doggie diet. He’s got no Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz, no buddy system or online support. He can’t “go out and do something special for himself” because he’s been good all week. He can only go along with the program, his unconditional love for us—his food dis-ablers—still somehow compensating for the growling in his stomach. In many ways, though, he’s got it easy. He has no dilemmas about working healthier eating habits into his lifestyle, no worries about midnight binges, no choice whatsoever in whether he’s going to slip up and put the food bag back on big time. And, best of all, Toby’s got company. So as to not follow in his fat footsteps, Toby’s brother, Kineo, is cutting back too. (He’s still young and pretty trim but, hey, he’s named after a rugged mountain on Moosehead Lake and can’t just be letting himself cave in.)

Toby Tubbette. Mr. Pin Head. Little Fat Boy. Sausage Pooch. Beagle Bongo Belly. As Toby looks less and less like a circus balloon dog stuck too long atop the air tank, our pet names for him will most likely change. But, for now, we’re just glad he stopped walking like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh while his brother gallops ahead, and that even his “erect tail dysfunction” is going away. Course we won’t get the official weigh-in till next March when we go back down the mountain for blood tests and another drug run. Meanwhile, Tom got an interim progress report the other day when he couldn’t help sneaking a peek on the bathroom scale. “Toby’s lost three pounds already,” he announced after weighing himself, then hopping on while holding onto Toby. Good thing for our beagle loser it wasn’t me getting on the scale with him! Then I’d be dropping pounds, but the numbers wouldn’t even budge for poor starving Toby Tubbette!