31 July 2009

Sobaka: A Memoir

I have had two dogs since I moved to New York; both were adopted from shelters and both stayed with me for a long time. I grew up with dogs in my home when I was little, but those were “family dogs”; Sobaka and Thespis were mine alone. Thespis, my last dog, simply got very old--he was over 17 at the end and just couldn’t go on; but Sobaka fell victim to a brain tumor when he was around 14 and ultimately didn’t recover and I had to put him down early one morning. He was my first dog as an adult; I adopted him shortly after I got out of the army and had moved to New York City. When I commuted to grad school at Rutgers, I took him with me to New Brunswick because I was on campus all day long, often into the early morning hours. He lived in my car and I tended him and walked him between classes--and he even came to a few with me. (I taught an acting class in an old studio in the basement of a freshman dorm. Sobaka hung out under my table--unless, that is, he got excited at something that happened in class. Then he’d spring up and start barking!) I became known to people on the East Brunswick campus where my program was located as the guy with the dog.

I adopted Sobaka from a private shelter in the city; he was 13 months old and had been brought in originally by owners who were moving somewhere they couldn’t keep pets. The dog had been adopted once before, but he wasn’t very good with small children--he thought they were little animals, and he’d chase them--and he’d been returned to the shelter. I’d been calling all the local shelters looking for “a beagle-sized dog” for weeks with no luck when Bideawee, on 38th Street near the East River, said they had a “beagle-mix” available for adoption. I hightailed it up to the shelter and walked through the adoption kennels, looking over the prospects. None were what I was looking for, but this one dog, a long-haired tri-color with a sweet face, just seemed friendly and playful even in his cage. But he was obviously a fairly large dog, maybe 30 or 35 pounds, and I had a small studio apartment. I left the building in disappointment, but the dog was still on my mind and I turned on my heels on the sidewalk in front of the shelter and went back in. He was just so damn pretty! “I’ll take him,” I declared. So I filled out the paperwork and got a leash and so on, and learned that my new dog’s name was Trouble. Ick! What a terrible name! It couldn’t help but give the animal a complex or something. (I learned later, not being an opera buff, that Trouble is the name of Cio-Cio-San’s child in Madame Butterfly.) So, on the walk back down to 15th Street and 5th Avenue, where we would live, I divided my time between making friends with my new companion--not a hard thing to do; he was very friendly--and thinking up a new name for him. By the time I got home, I’d decided. He was really just a dog dog--nothing special except he was handsome, a real mutt. He was a sort of Everydog. One of my friends said later my dog reminded him of the Thurber dog in the New Yorker cartoons. (I described him as a canine Churkendoose because, though he was registered as a beagle-mix, his appearance suggested there were a fair number of breeds in that “mix.”) I didn’t like the sounds of Chien or Hund as names, the French and German words for ‘dog,’ but Sobaka (suh-BAH-kuh), the Russian word, sounded perfect. So, my dog became “Dog” (to anyone who knew Russian), ‘Baka for short.

I used to know a luggage repair shop near Herald Square, up in the mid-30s. The place was on an upper floor of an old highrise and I took an elevator up and it let me out in a wide hallway opposite a long window in an otherwise blank wall above the service counter which rose to about waist height. When I took something in for repair or alteration, I walked up to the window and gave my bag or portfolio to the woman, the wife and partner of the man who did the work, and told her what I wanted. There were usually no other people in the place, and little by little the woman and her husband got to know me a little, enough to pass the time of day. One afternoon, I walked uptown with Sobaka and took him along with me up to the shop. No one was at the counter when I walked up, and you couldn’t see Sobaka at my side from the other side, so when the woman came up to serve me, she could tell I was talking to “someone” but couldn’t see whom. I explained that I had my dog with me, and he rose up on his hind legs so he was tall enough to put his front paws on the counter (he could do this in my kitchen, too, which wasn’t always such a cute thing), and the woman could see whom I was talking to. Now, two things here: One, unless they hated dogs, people made a fuss over Sobaka because he really was gorgeous. Two, this couple were Russian. So, Gospozha fussed a little over the dog and I introduced him to her, saying in Russian, “Ego zovut Sobaka.” Now, Gospozha thought this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. To her ears, what I just said was, ‘His name’s Dog,’ and she called over to Gospodin and laughed as she told him this guy had a dog named Dog!

‘Baka truly was a good-looking dog. Soon after I brought him home, I noticed that his markings were nearly perfectly bilaterally symmetrical--as if some artist had designed him by drawing one side of him and then folding the drawing in half. He was registered as a tri-color--black, brown (tan, really) and white--but he was really four colors because several of the brown patches were russet, like the color of an Irish setter. He had four white socks on his paws and brown, floppy ears that ended in black fringe. The only markings that weren’t symmetrical were some black freckles on his white muzzle. I even took some photos of him with the idea of trying to get him into commercials or in the illustrations on pet food boxes. Unfortunately, I learned that animal agents weren’t interested in mutts, only purebreds. Besides, ‘Baka turned out to have a serious drawback as a canine model. He was totally devoted to me. I obedience-trained him, but he wouldn’t learn “stay.” He knew “sit” and “down” and “come,” and so on, but he wouldn’t stay put for more than a few seconds, and then he’d run up to me wherever I was. If I ever got him on a set and he’d get in place for the shot, once I walked away, he’d run right after me. So much for the dreams of fame and fortune! (But it was endearing, as you can imagine.)

By the late ‘80s, ‘Baka had had arthritis and a heart murmur for years. I knew he would die some day soon, and I thought I was prepared. Apparently I wasn’t. During the summer of 1987, Sobaka developed a hacking cough. Because of his heart problem, I became worried and took him to have an electrocardiogram. That proved negative, and the cough was diagnosed as bronchitis. Even though the coughing persisted, I was relieved that ‘Baka’s heart was no worse. Shortly after the cough developed, I noticed a lump forming on the underside of his tail. It was small, but I was worried again. When the lump got worse, I took him to the vet for an examination. The lump turned out to be a tumor, benign or malignant was never determined; the doctor also said Sobaka had developed peripheral cataracts. At his age, the surgery to fix these problems would have been more dangerous than the illnesses. The doctor predicted Sobaka would likely die of old age before either problem could cause difficulties. In a sense, the doctor was right.

So I waited, watching for more signs that Sobaka, still handsome and as sweet-faced as a puppy, was deteriorating. The dog, who used to respond immediately to my call, whistle, or even mere movement toward the door or his leash, now barely acknowledged my return home from work. Occasionally when I came in the door or awoke in the morning and found him lying motionless on his side, I’d think, ‘My God, he’s died in his sleep.’ I’d lean down to feel his breathing, and he’d open his eyes. He wouldn’t move right away, but at least I’d know he was alive.

All this time, Sobaka never showed signs of being in pain. Moans and groans when he lay down or turned over I was assured were just like those of some older people--not really discomfort, but effort and exertion. In early middle age, I made the same noises myself sometimes.

Of course, ‘Baka wasn’t as much fun anymore as he was when I first adopted him. At a year old, when I brought him home for the first time, he’d run with me, chase sticks--never balls, though I never knew why--wrestle, and play tug-o’-war with an old sock. I taught him to play catch with grapes, which he loved. (Uncharacteristically for canines, Sobaka loved fruit. An old guy in my building used to delight in feeding him bananas and when I ate an apple, I’d give him the core which he’d gobble up in nothing flat.) Now, he just lay around and went for short, slow walks. Still, I knew I wasn’t ready to give him up. As long as life didn’t pain him, I’d put up with his occasional inconvenience and generally increasing neuroses.

Just when I’d settled into the idea that he had problems I had to watch, and that a decision whether or not to operate might soon have to be made, something more immediately threatening happened. One evening in April 1988, while my parents were visiting from out of town, Sobaka seemed unable to find a comfortable place to lie. Moving around the room, he seemed to be going from one piece of furniture to another, his rear end fishtailing into a chair or a table as he passed. When he finally settled next to a chair near me, I moved over and began to pet him. I noticed a shudder each time he inhaled. I became concerned, but couldn’t figure out what could be wrong. My mother decided he might be having chills, so I got an old throw rug and wrapped him in it. He never looked up either when I left his side or when I tucked the rug around him. He stayed that way, wrapped in a rug, with my mother sitting on the floor on his right and me in the chair on his left, for an hour. Normally, he’d have hated being covered that way and would have shaken off the rug or climbed on top of it.

All the time we were debating whether or not to take him to the emergency clinic. We couldn’t imagine what the problem could be. None of Sobaka’s other medical conditions lined up with this as far as we could tell. When the shuddering subsided, we decided to wait until morning and call a vet.

On his evening walk--which I had to coax him into--he continued to list to the left, leaning against walls like Lee Marvin’s drunken horse in Cat Ballou. He didn’t want to walk at all at first; I had to cajole him until he began to move very slowly. I kept him out only until he’d done his business, then returned home where I put him to bed in one of his usual spots in my bedroom and covered him with the rug. He seemed content to lie under the cover, and I went to sleep with one ear attuned to ‘Baka’s every move or sound. Usually Sobaka changed location frequently during the night. He was free to wander anywhere he wanted, as I kept my bedroom door open when I was alone. With my parents visiting, I habitually closed the bedroom door so the dog wouldn’t wander about and disturb their sleep. Now, of course, he stayed put anyway. At about 4 a.m., however, he crawled out from under the rug and moved elsewhere. He moved again at around 6. I was encouraged--maybe he was coming back around and would be fine in the morning.

At 7, I got up to get ready for work. Sobaka seemed fine, though sluggish. He had long ago stopped greeting the morning with much enthusiasm, so it wasn’t very surprising. He was, at least, alive and awake. I got dressed to take him out. On his walk, though he wasn’t as resistant as the previous night, he still listed to one side and seemed to lose control over his back end. I came home and reported this to my waiting parents. We decided I should go to work--a train commute across the Hudson to teach high school in suburban New Jersey. At 9, my folks would call the clinic where Sobaka was treated and describe his symptoms. I planned to call home from work at 9:30 to see what was decided.

On the train ride to work, I couldn’t stop thinking about Sobaka. His hound-dog face with the floppy, spaniel ears and soft, brown eyes kept looking at me. For thirteen years, ever since I’d adopted him from the kennel, he’d been an ever-present responsibility. I couldn’t go out without planning for his needs; I had to walk him in all weather without fail, regardless of my own health; he had to be looked after if I went away; I had to rent a car and take him with me when I visited my parents in Washington; I had to get him checked and vaccinated regularly and clean up after his accidents and illnesses. Sometimes my life seemed to revolve around Sobaka. For thirteen years I did all that and knew that he was worth it. But I never anthropomorphized Sobaka. He wasn’t my “son”; he wasn’t a person. He was my pet--a dog. I thought I was being very rational about my attachment to Sobaka. Now I was wondering what my world might be like without him. When he was “visiting” my parents without me, it was always strange to come home and not find him waiting. I’d often call out as I opened the door before I remembered he was away. My schedule seemed very empty because it didn’t include our regular walks through the neighborhood. I’d save table scraps, only to remember I had no one to give them to. My plates went unlicked.

But on these occasions, I always knew Sobaka would be back. Either my parents would return him to me in New York, or I’d go to Washington and bring him back. It was always just a few days or a couple of weeks, and I knew where he was. Here was the real possibility he might be taken away forever. What would I do after thirteen years? My parents were the only people I’d ever lived with that long--no other living thing had been my companion for so long.

I got to work and went through the routine of getting ready to teach my first class. At 9:30 I decided my parents must have called the clinic and would know something. I phoned home. My mother answered. She had spoken to the clinic, but the vet hadn’t been available. She was to call back after a little while; I’d call her after 11. I taught my first class then rushed to a phone to call home again. The doctor had said Sobaka may have had a mini-stroke, and he would make room in his schedule to see him.

A stroke. It made sense, but I hadn’t anticipated anything so . . . fatal. None of Sobaka’s other medical problems were really life-threatening. Even if the tumor proved cancerous, old age would have taken him before the cancer could. But a stroke was different. It could kill him anytime--or leave him paralyzed or something. It could happen during the night or while I was at work or anytime--and I would be unable to help him. Now my imagined fears had reality. Sobaka might actually die--not in a year or so, but now. My being several hours away didn’t help calm me. At the same time, I felt vaguely silly. Sobaka was just a dog, after all. If I told a fellow teacher how I really felt, I’d be laughed at. I knew my teenaged students wouldn’t understand.

In the end, informed that Sobaka needed to be watched carefully for the next several days, we decided my parents would take him to Washington with them. I couldn’t stay with him because of my teaching job. We also discussed the possibility of euthanasia. While he was away, he had a crisis during which he couldn’t walk at all, but he came out of it after a few days. A family friend in Washington who is a veterinarian examined him and explained that dogs couldn’t really have strokes, but he was unable to diagnose Sobaka’s problem. My parents brought him back to New York. A few days later, he relapsed and I rushed him off to the Animal Medical Center for another examination. I thought another doctor, a specialist, might have better luck. If not, putting Sobaka to sleep began to look like a very likely possibility. The doctor did settle on a diagnosis: an inoperable brain tumor. There was only one feasible remedy, an experimental drug that might shrink the tumor enough to restore Sobaka’s mobility. There was no guarantee the medication would work, and there was a potential side effect that I would have to watch closely for. The drug often caused internal bleeding.

After three days of administering the medicine, ‘Baka suddenly got up and walked. I had gone out to get a newspaper, leaving him in his place in the hall. When I got home, he was gone; I found him standing in the bedroom, leaning against the wall. I actually shrieked with pleasure. I was certain he was all right and would recover. It took several more days before ‘Baka would go out for a walk, but I believed he would continue to improve. My elation was unwarranted. Less than a week later, Sobaka began to deteriorate again, and ended up unable to walk at all again. The doctor advised increasing the medicine dosage, but Sobaka didn’t respond. I finally resigned myself to the obvious: Sobaka would never recover and could not continue in his present condition. I made an appointment to have him euthanized over the weekend. I began to feel mildly depressed, and couldn’t shake the feeling. The reality of what I refused to face for several weeks was now unavoidable. I was going to lose Sobaka and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I thought I had come to grips, at least intellectually, with the decision, and made plans for a summer trip on the basis that I wouldn’t have ‘Baka to care for. I waited for Saturday morning.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night the Monday before the day of the euthanasia appointment, Sobaka began to whine and yelp. I couldn’t find anything outwardly wrong with him, and he seemed to stop if I got on the floor and held him. As soon as I let go and went back to bed, however, he started again. Then I noticed bloody saliva on the old quilt I was using for his bed. I knew then that the predicted side effect of the drug, internal bleeding, had begun. Realizing that Sobaka couldn’t last through the night this way, and certainly couldn’t wait until Saturday, I dressed quickly and carried him out to the street to get a cab to the Animal Medical Center. Now that he was obviously in pain, the situation was different. I could no longer put off what I knew I had to do. I held Sobaka in my lap on the ride to the hospital and talked softly to him the whole way. He was quiet the entire trip, but kept looking up at me. I guess he expected me to make it all right as I had always managed to do all our lives together. I had started to cry silently and hugged Sobaka. The cabby asked if he was sick. “He’s dying,” I said. The driver didn’t respond, and I was just as glad.

At the hospital, I rushed up the ramp to the clinic, Sobaka cradled in my arms like a child. At three o’clock on a Tuesday morning there were few other patients there, so I was ushered right into an examination room. The attending vet went right into action, recognizing the symptoms of internal bleeding. She began to give orders for immediate medication, but I told her not to try to treat him. I explained the circumstances and told her that I had already had an appointment to have Sobaka put to sleep the next Saturday. I asked her if we could just do it now. She said yes and ordered the injection. The doctor asked me if I wanted to be with him when he was injected. I said I did; I couldn’t imagine letting him go without my being with him to hold him and comfort him as he went to sleep.

The doctor explained what would happen so I knew what to expect. She would inject Sobaka with an overdose of barbiturates, and he would literally go to sleep; then his heart would stop. Actually there were two injections. The first just made him sleep; the second stopped his heart. It took a few minutes, and I held Sobaka while he lay on the metal table and talked to him so he would know I was there with him. It happened just as the doctor described: he just closed his eyes and I felt his heart stop beating. The doctor offered to let me stay with Sobaka while the paper work and the bill were prepared, but I couldn’t stay and look at him lying on the table as if he really were just asleep. I left the examining room and slid the door closed so I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t stop sniffling and tearing, and I felt embarrassed, though no one seemed to notice.

I paid the bill for the euthanasia and went home. I put away some of ‘Baka’s things, washed the towel I had wrapped him in and the shirt I had worn because they had blood from Sobaka’s saliva on them, took a shower and went to bed. It was about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, a school day, of course, and I couldn’t skip work. I got up a few hours after going to bed, dressed for work and called my parents to tell them what had happened. They had planned to come up on Saturday so I wouldn’t be alone, and I didn’t see any point in that now. For the next several days, I managed to get through the school day without obvious problems as long as I was working. On the train and during breaks, the depression returned and I often had to hide tears. A forty-year-old high school English teacher can’t be seen crying in the hallway; it isn’t seemly.

Generally I managed to get through the remainder of the term without incident, although once I almost lost it in class. My ninth-grade English class had been watching the film of Romeo and Juliet, and the crypt scene, with Juliet supposedly dead on the tomb and Romeo kneeling beside her, was set up exactly like the examining room. Fortunately, I was standing by the open rear door to the classroom and slipped out for a few seconds until the scene was over. Even now, years later, I can’t picture the scene of Sobaka’s death without tearing. There are several pictures of both my dogs around the apartment, and they always remind me of one or another of Sobaka’s or Thespis’ silly habits. I keep telling myself that they were just dogs, and that 14 and 17 are the usual canine lifespan or more. None of that really makes any difference. I still miss them.

It took me over a year to get another dog after Sobaka died. Since Thespis, another adopted mutt, died almost five years ago now, I still haven’t gone looking for a new pet. I don’t think it’s the prospect of losing another dog that deters me. I tell myself--and anyone who asks why I haven’t gotten another dog--that I just haven’t gotten the energy up to do the looking. Even so, I often miss having a dog around, especially when I see someone enjoying the companionship.

1 comment:

  1. So sweet and so sad. I remember Sobaka well, both when he was healthy and when he was not. He was a fine dog indeed, a standout among a really wonderful species. Where would we be without them!