EDITOR’S NOTE — Dan and Jody Spark take turns writing about country life each Monday in The Armchair Mayor News.
COLUMN — It seemed so right, yet my heart retched watching.
The sun was low in the west, about to dip below the mountain, and the pastures were golden. Long shadows were cast from the old broken-topped birches on the shoreline. Dan lumbered with a heavy weight shrouded in a white cotton blanket toward the bank as I followed behind. As I looked at the sky, the sun, the land, the light, a clear picture snapped in my mind bracketed with pain and remembrance.
“No, girl,” I said holding my elderly redbone coonhound’s hips at that same barricade. “You can’t go down there.”
She looked down the bank at the ducks on the river and knew I was right. She would collapse on the way down.
I was taking her for what would be her last walk around our property. She walked gingerly as I held her back end, aware she could fall at any moment. She sniffed the cedars, slid carefully under the barbed wire fence, raised her grey muzzle and looked with tired eyes at the geese feeding in our pasture. At one time, she would have been after them quicker than you can say hound, leaping recklessly over the bank into the river and swimming after them with her big webbed paws, gurgling incessant bays in the water.
Resigned to the fact she would have to let them be, she slowly turned her head and limped away as I steered her gently. She raised her head to sniff the air, walked a few steps and flopped her ears forward to sniff the grass. It was time to go in and she didn’t want to go, but she was tired. So very tired.
The week prior was a surreal dream of palliative care. No longer was she waking me in the night to relieve herself outside, or waking because she wet her bed. She would stay in her bed until morning because she couldn’t get up by herself and had to wait until I came to do my rounds in the morning.
“Good morning, Coke. Did you have a good sleep?” I trilled as cheerfully as I could. “Want to go outside? Here we go. Easy now, girl. Upsie, daisy.”
I helped her up, held her frail body as she navigated two stairs down the porch. She eliminated with discomfort, sniffed the air and waddled back. Up the porch and back to bed.
All that week, moments and words said were echoes of the past.
“Mom, Koko smells.”
Koko would trot into the house, tail up with pride, “Ugh! Koko, you stink! Have you been visiting your fish again?!? Get outside.”
She would find a dead fish at the river, eat some, roll in it, bury the rest, then come back to it again another day. This time, Koko smelled because she could no longer control her bowels and something was dying on the inside, somewhere.
“Where did Koko go?”
Koko would go off in a flash. No trace except her loud bays in the distance. Oh, goodness. Let’s hope that elk doesn’t turn on her. There was a reason dogs weren’t allowed off leash in a national park. Living in Jasper was a dream for her, and it was hard not to slip off the leash for a time when there was so much to see, so much to smell. But this time, we didn’t know where Koko was because she had fallen and couldn’t get up. Dan found her in our ditch and carried her home.
But now I tried to be brave, for her, for the children, for me.
“Time for your medication. Do you want some chicken?” I tucked a pain-relieving anti-inflammatory in a piece of chicken and hoped she’d take it. She no longer ate her dog food, and only drank a bit of water from the horse bucket, if she could make it there, or from a pail I filled with cold water if I tipped it to her nose at the right angle.
Every day got worse, every day her pleading eyes told me her hope and her spirit were spilling away. If it hurt too badly to sniff the grass, if days were filled with lying in her bed, the only movement being when I changed her bedding or when the children stroked her ears, then it was time.
The day we took her to the vet, her hope was gone. She laid on her side, her head down. Unafraid, waiting.
Huge elephant tears dripped, dripped, dripped endlessly from my face onto her copper fur as the vet slid a syringe into her. This was not supposed to be this painful. Koko was a naughty dog. We couldn’t leave the house without putting the garbage on the fridge, we had to put child safety knobs over the pantry doorknob because she should open it by jigging her two paws back and forth. At one time there was no way you could catch her from an off-leash walk unless you had a stick of butter in your left hand and a fast collar-clutching right hand.
I thought we’re only to mourn good dogs, who actually brought sticks back to you when you threw them and came when you called them. Koko failed obedience school. The water bottle spray discipline method didn’t faze her. She would be soaking wet and still reaching for the steak on the counter. When our first child was born, Koko claimed the baby’s basket and curled herself up into it like a cinnamon bun. “I’m the baby, remember?”
As Dan lowered her lifeless body into the hole, a sound of pain heaved from his inside. I had to turn away for a moment, unable to cope, but turned back to help him bury her. I kicked dirt into the hole and thought of destroyed couches and mattresses. Every lower cupboard child locked. My chewed-up eye glasses. Koko was naughty, but she was also funny, silly and smart. She always made you feel good when you came home, kept the kids’ feet warm in their beds and was comfort for them through the night.
The children were in the house and everything seemed painfully appropriate, right and timely. She came to us as a couple, and we said goodbye to her as a couple. The children wanted to know where she was buried and we told them on the ridge near the river. We’ll all plant a red tree or bush where she is, we said, so you’ll always know where to find her.
She’ll be where the red tree grows.
Koko was born in the late winter or early spring of 2000. She was our baby before we had a baby. She was all red, and had a tiny white diamond on her chest, silky floppy ears, and a glistening black nose. She lived in 12 different houses, and four different cities with us, but always wanted to live on a farm. She got her dream when she turned 11. She ate bones, explored the river, rolled in dead fish, chased chickens, barked at our uninterested horse, and slept in the sunshine.
She died on a beautiful fresh day earlier this month. She was 14.
Dan and Jody Spark are in their fourth year of living on their small acreage at McLure.