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Monday, January 18, 2016

A Requiem for Mr. Gorgeous

I'm so sorry to have to report that on October 6th of 2015, the world became a less beautiful place. Mr. Gorgeous, my longtime collie friend, passed away.

His back legs were too weak for him
to stand for long periods of time.
It was time. While his degenerative myelopathy had progressed more slowly than is the case for most dogs, the inexorable degradation of his spinal cord had advanced to the point that he had only tenuous control over his bowels and his hind legs had become so weak that rising and standing and walking had become difficult. Despite having a hearty appetite, he was wasting away. Although his beautiful coat masked the severity of his thinness, he weighed only half of what he did in his prime. He really truly had become a shadow of his former self. He spent most of his time sleeping and sleeping and sleeping and sometimes seemed a bit befuddled when awake. Laryngeal paralysis (which is fairly common in large, old dogs) had reduced his bark to a whispery exhalation and it often left him anxious and overheated. Thirteen and a half is old for any dog, but especially for a dog his size. He was deteriorating, slowly but steadily, and soon the day when he would not be able to get up at all was going to be at hand. His family had been talking with me about trying to make the decision to help him cross over and I think I will share what I wrote because I believe in what I said and it just might help someone else someday.

My heart goes out to you as you face this distressing decision. I appreciate how hard it is because while he is very, very tired, in some respects he seems much as he ever was, though in truth, as I've gone back through all my photos of him in recents weeks, I'm reminded that he really has lost tremendous ground and no longer is doing many of the things he enjoyed. I've been thinking a lot of my other clients who passed away and will mention Sweetheart's story since it may help you come to terms with your decision. Sweetheart's family moved six months before she died, but I knew, that last time I saw her, that she would not live much longer. Her spirit was still so very bright, her personality still so very strong, but her body was exhausted. In the end, she got a terrible respiratory infection that she couldn't fight off. Her last days were spent in the hospital and they ended up having to put her down on Christmas Day. Most of us will die that way--sick and in the hospital. But you have a chance to let Mr. Gorgeous go when he isn't sick and suffering. (Though I suspect, given how much weight he's lost, he is, somewhere in his core, already sick, or, at the very least, failing.) A beloved pet's agony can make it easy for us to make the decision to end their suffering, but with Mr. Gorgeous, you have the chance to spare him that. You can give him the best day ever: all the grilled cheese and baloney sandwiches he wants, a trip to his favorite park, and then you help him shuffle off this mortal coil so that he may slumber that eternal sleep, as Shakespeare put it. Make no mistake, it chokes me up to write about it. And there is no way out of the grief that will follow. I lay down on the floor with him before I left the other night and told him everything I wanted him to know and sang him my favorite lullaby. Being Mr. Gorgeous, he wasn't all that interested, so I also gave him some extra cheese. He was pretty stoked about the cheese. And then I came home and cried. I do not envy what you have ahead of you and you are very much in my thoughts.  
My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "After Apple-Picking." It is not really about the end of the harvest, but about death. I thought of it during my recent days with Mr. Gorgeous (the apples on your trees helped jog my memory). I'm sharing it in particular because of the lines "...there may be two or three/ Apples I didn't pick upon some bough./ But I am done with apple-picking now." We don't always have to pick every single apple for the harvest to be over. The frost has come, winter is nigh.

You could see, when he slept, how little of him
 remained and how close he was to death.
I took care of him one last time, nearly six years after he became my first dog client, a week before he died. We ambled around together and he went so far as to follow me all the way up to the top of his long yard each day as I photographed things. In the evenings, after making sure he'd pooped, we'd spend some time down in the TV room, just as we always had, though now I left the door open for him for a steady flow of cool air to keep him comfortable and a ready exit in case he had to hustle out in a hurry to answer nature's call. I also got some dry shampoo for dogs and spent a couple of days working it through his coat so he would look and smell his best at the end. He was far too frail to bathe and he'd become less and less tolerant of brushing as his skin grew more sensitive. The last thing I did for the Ancient Kitty was to give him a cornstarch bath after he'd lost the ability to clean himself and I remembered how good it made him feel to be clean and for me to be able to preform that service for him. Mr. Gorgeous' coat was one of his defining features, so I liked the idea that I could help him be at his most beautiful. I believe in death and dying well, so I felt it was an honor to care for him during his final days. I made sure I knew what his family wanted for him in the event that his death came before it was scheduled and was glad, not horrified, that they prepared his grave before they went, just in case. (Lest you judge them unfeeling for leaving, I will mention that it was a parent's death that forced them to go out of town.) I must admit, there were moments went it felt a little awkward because knowing that his passing was imminent forced me to confront how alive he was. "I hope you don't mind, buddy," I said to him as we sat together in the grass, "that I've been going around telling people it's time for you die." Honestly, though, I was truly glad to do it, and it gave me a chance to do what I needed to do for my goodbyes. I took some selfies with him, rather to his disgruntlement, and as I mentioned in the email above, that final evening, I got down on the floor with him and told him everything I wanted him to know, including that if the saying, "Heaven is the place where every dog you've ever loved comes to greet you," is true, I expected him to be in that number. My heart full, I fed Mr. Gorgeous some final pieces of cheese. His back legs slid out from under him while he was eating his cheese and he ended up on his rump, looking pathetic and confused, and after I walked out, I realized I couldn't stand for that to be my final view of him, so I went back and peeked through the window and saw him up and walking around and felt better. Then I went home and cried.

He was still so gorgeous. It seemed impossible that such a perfect thing might die.

His family informed me that he was eagerly eating cheese--his favorite thing--when the end came. He looked beautiful even in death and is buried beneath the huge old cedar tree next to house, the place where, in life, he surveyed his kingdom and whose branches he was perpetually collecting in his fur. I like knowing where he is and knowing, too, that as long as the tree stands, as it has for hundreds of years and may for many hundreds more, his bones shall mingle with its roots and he will be sheltered there long after everyone who knew him is gone.

Mr. Gorgeous lies for eternity in this very spot where he so often watched over his world.

He spent many hours under the cedar collecting its fallen branches in his fur.

From the base of the tree, he had a clear view of the upper reaches of his kingdom.

He's there now, beside the rock below the huge cedar at the bottom of the drive.

Mr. Gorgeous at 3 months.
But enough about Mr. Gorgeous' death! It's time to talk about the life of this singular and magnificent beast. I would sometimes get asked, while walking him, "Is he a show dog?" and despite his great beauty, Mr. Gorgeous had very humble beginnings. He was part of a puppy mill bust involving a couple who were breeding collies in terrible conditions, too many dogs packed in filthy pens. Mr. Gorgeous was lucky: he was just a pup, roughly four weeks old and still nursing, when the kennel was disbanded and the dogs seized. He and his mother and litter went to a foster home while the sentence for puppy mill owners was worked out; no dogs could be adopted out until the final terms were in place. Thus, Mr. Gorgeous was approximately three months old when his forever family came to look at the pup that his foster family called "Tank." Mr. Gorgeous was larger than your average collie and I thought perhaps the puppy mill was breeding them to unusually big and attractive (with perhaps smaller-than-average smarts), but apparently he was the big one in his litter--and perhaps a bit of a bruiser, too! So in July of 2002, little Mr. Gorgeous, sporting a baby-sized ruff and the out-of-proportion body parts common to all adolescents, was adopted by his forever family.

The newly-adopted Mr. Gorgeous with "his" kids.

I didn't come into Mr. Gorgeous' life until December of 2009. I understand that he had a fair amount of pep and was even known to jump around a bit when he was younger, but by the time I knew him, the wild days of his youth were over and he had entered a more sedate stage of middle age that tended to involve all four paws on the ground--even his counter-surfing days were largely behind him. He still got up on the furniture now and then in those first years, though!

This is the first photo I took of
Mr. Gorgeous--the first of thousands!

A naughty Mr. Gorgeous, interrupted while napping on the couch.

One time in the first days of our acquaintance, I couldn't find Mr. G. anywhere. At long last I discovered him in this chair in the music room. I suppose he liked being part of a symphony of browns.

So pretty.
Mr. Gorgeous is a pseudonym I picked for this blog, but it was a name that fitted him perfectly. He was quite simply one of the handsomest dogs I've ever seen. Properly bred collies are usually 22"-26" inches at the shoulder and 50-75 pounds, so at roughly 27" and 80 pounds in his prime, Mr. Gorgeous was bigger than most members of his breed and his magnificent coat was second to none. His fully pricked ears and swinging gait made him look graceful and alert and his somewhat distant gaze gave him a regal air. Alas! Few and far between were the thoughts that passed through Mr. G.'s elegant noggin and I'm afraid most of those thoughts were directed toward trifling concerns such as rabbits and baloney and wanting to pee on things. Rough collies are supposed to be extremely intelligent and deeply sensitive; Mr. Gorgeous was...not. His range of expressions and emotions were rather on the narrow end--he was the sort of dog who looks out upon the world and says, "Huh." To be fair, he may have been smarter and more emotional than he let on, but if so, he was quite unconcerned about letting those thoughts and feelings be known. His main mode of expressing affectionate was to plod around after whoever he liked and while I pride myself on being able to read dogs well, most of Mr. Gorgeous' opinions not related to food (all of them expressed by looking at me fixedly with his mouth open) remained inscrutable to me. He was not the sort of dog who wagged his tail (Mr. Gorgeous' typical greeting when you came in the house was to lift his head as if to say, "Oh, hey. It's you," and then return to his nap) and if you wanted him to save you if you fell in a well, you'd better hope there were bunch of squirrels and cats and rabbits down there with you!

Mr. Gorgeous looks out over the world and thinks, "Huh."

He was rather detached about matters.

Was he indifferent? Or merely inexpressive?

Or perhaps he was simply content.

There's no need, of course, for every dog to be a genius. 

Whatever his IQ might have been, he had the brainpower to oversee his territory...

....take advantage of opportunities when he felt so inclined...

...and follow the humans to and fro should he be interested in doing so.

He was so beautiful that all he had to do was exist and that was enough.

Who is the fairest of them all?
So maybe Mr. Gorgeous was more fluff than brains, but what magnificent fluff it was! (A little girl once asked in an awestruck voice, "Is that a lion?") Wherever he went, Mr. Gorgeous turned heads. I liked taking him for walks along the busy waterfront parks near his home and I loved hearing the whispers of amazement that preceded his progress and followed in his wake. I would often stop and ask people (who would invariably query, "Is that a Lassie-dog?") if they wished to pet him, which they always did, and Mr. Gorgeous, while not especially gregarious, had an amiable nature and was not above being admired. He greeted his fans politely, would deign to be petted for a few minutes, and then he'd move on. While he was not nearly as excited about people as most dogs are, he did like children. He would patiently submit to being petted by toddlers and I remember fondly the time when we encountered a family at a park with two kids who were very nearly the same age as his kids--both off at college by that point--were when they adopted him. He put his ears in happy position and simply could not get enough of their attention. It was probably the most animated I ever saw him while interacting with people!







In addition to being so good-looking, Mr. Gorgeous also had this marvelous floating trot. If you could persuaded him to stop marking things while on a walk (no small task), he would shift into a different gear and this trot would emerge, loose and swinging, a majestic gait for a majestic dog! He had a variety of speeds, including the slow plod he used when meandering around the grounds and the sudden dive he'd make toward an entrancing scent while on a walk. Up until arthritis and then the degenerative myelopathy slowed him down, he could run, too. There was the bounding "get back here, you rabbit!" sprint that he used when chasing wildlife, but the best run was the one he'd do alongside your car when you drove in. I loved when I came to the house and he was waiting at the gate at the top of the long drive. He would run down the length of it beside your car, an activity suffused with joy. I always intended to get a video of him doing this and I always forgot, or it was inconvenient, and then it was too late.

An example of Mr. Gorgeous' lovely trot.

Waiting at the gate at the top of the drive, ready to run the length of it with whoever will be driving in. I wish I had a video to go with this photo.

Happy to see me!
Mr. G. and I were good friends. He was always at least moderately pleased to see me when I showed up and definitely liked that I allowed him to push his way through my legs first in one direction and then another, a habit that his owners tried to discourage but that I must confess I enjoyed. We played together, too; indeed, I'd forgotten how playful he was in those early years until I went back through my photos to choose ones for this post. His favorite game was a sort of slow-motion keep-away: I'd throw a toy for him to fetch, he'd retrieve it, but before it could be thrown again, I'd first have to chase him as he jogged leisurely away from me, head held high. He thought it was particularly fun when I switched directions on him! I was always happy to pet him, too. He liked being scratched under the chin, which would make him stretch his neck out and groan, and he especially loved having the inside of his ear rubbed with a knuckle, prompting deep sighs and contented moaning. He would express his affection by loyally loitering in my vicinity, trailing after me as I roamed around his massive yard with my camera, waiting at the bottom of the stairs when I went up or outside the guesthouse when I went in, and settling with a thump by my chair when I was at the kitchen table or using the computer at the desk.

Mr. Gorgeous pushes himself forward though my legs and says hi...

...and then pauses on the way back to get a good rump scratching.

A clip of Mr. Gorgeous at play.

Playing keep-away with his kitty.

While he was not obsessed with it in the way many dogs are, Mr. Gorgeous occasionally would like to play a game of fetch.

Fluff in motion!

Mr. Gorgeous and a toy against a green backdrop.

He loved a good ear rubbing.

I was very fond of his ears.

While he wasn't very animated in expressing his affections, he did like to stay nearby.
Here he is waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs...

...outside the guest house...

....beside the kitchen table...

...and just behind the computer chair.

When I spoke to him, I seldom called Mr. Gorgeous by his real name; to me, he was Buddy. Occasionally that was shortened to "Bud," especially if I was trying to get him to stand still while I was brushing him, and he was also "Funny Buddy," "Fluffy Buddy," or "Big Fluffy."

"Watcha doin', Buddy?"

"Who's my Fluffy Buddy?!"

"Hey, Bud, get back here, you still have cedar branches in your fur!"

"How's it going, Big Fluffy?"

We were good friends, he and I.

Mr. G. was polite but reserved with most dogs.
Mr. Gorgeous was not especially interested in other dogs, but got along with them well enough. More often than not, other dogs were scared of him because of his size. Little did they know that he was a total pushover! One time we encountered a tiny longhaired chihuahua whose coloring, incidentally, was very similar to Mr. G.'s. This little scrap of fluff took one look at the giant mountain of fluff and let out a shrill series of "Don't even think about it!" barks, startling and scaring poor Mr. Gorgeous, who shied away fearfully. That little dog, smaller than Mr. Gorgeous' head, was more than a match for him! Because he was largely indifferent and rather submissive to other dogs, Mr. Gorgeous was a good match for my Abbey, who does better with large, mellow, male dogs. I took them on a few walks together over the years. His dispassionate response also made it possible to host another dog in his house, like the time when a family emergency meant that I needed to double up with him and Goldie. Every now and then, though, a dog would come along that matched whatever it was that he required in a play partner (if he saw other dogs playing, Mr. Gorgeous would often let out a series of excited, high-pitched barks, but if you let him loose, often as not he would just try to hump them) and they would run and run and it was a beautiful thing.

"Beauty and the Beast" is what my mother calls this photo of Abbey and Mr. Gorgeous!

Mr. Gorgeous was highly tolerant of, if not overly interested in, other dogs, including guests in his house like Goldie.

He seldom played, but when he did, it was a beautiful thing!

Looking rather silly while
chomping on a rawhide stick.
It may be hard to believe, but Mr. Gorgeous was capable of looking ridiculous. This was especially true when he'd had his annual shaving. Underneath all that fur was a surprisingly narrow dog! When the fur was long, it was a magnet for debris of all kinds. In addition to picking things up laying on them, he also loved to scratch his face in the bushes and get sticks and leaves in his coat that way. I did not witness it myself, but the photo his owners sent me of Mr. Gorgeous sporting a huge branch in his fur made me laugh! It also cracked me up that after living with wood floors all his life, Mr. Gorgeous still worked hard every day to fluff them up. In fact, he would ignore a perfectly good dog bed in favor of the wood floor that remained so stubbornly flat and hard despite his best efforts!

A very narrow dog dwelled beneath the voluminous coat.

When long, it picked up all kinds of debris...

...including, on one occasion, this large branch!

His habit of rubbing his face in all the bushes didn't help.

Mr. Gorgeous' thick coat wasn't quite as elegant-looking from rear.

I like how he appeared to float in the grass on the raft of his fur.

Sound asleep on his very favorite piece of hard, flat floor. In all those years, it never fluffed once.

He did love this bed, at least!

Mr. Gorgeous attempts to fluff the floor. 
This clip was shot toward the very end, when he didn't have much feeling in his hind legs, so he's rather tottery.

Mr. G. looks really happy
in a lot of these photos,
but the truth be told, he's
just wandering around
with his mouth open.
Other idiosyncrasies included his habit of laying down to drink his water; his tendency, when you opened a door that he was staring through to let him in or out, to suddenly decide that he needed to think it over; the way he would bark wildly if outside after dark, making in necessary to keep him in the house, unless he was on leash, after the sun went down; and the way he would stare accusingly at you if his meal did not meet his standards (he liked a little extra something, be it cheese or meat or broth, on it, though what he accepted as a proper offering would change). For a dog so focused on food, he was actually quite picky and refused many dog treats. If he did eat them, it was usually after dropping them on the floor and thinking over whether or not he was interested. For some reason, he found me irresistible when I used a broom, so whenever I swept, Mr. Gorgeous inevitably tried to hump me, which was not something he did at any other time. One of his more lamentable talents was his uncanny ability, despite my best efforts, to drop the mushiest possible poop in the hardest possible place to clean it up. This often meant rough concrete or, his speciality, someone's ornamental grasses. He was also given to wandering and while it never happened when I was taking care of him, if he could escape his yard, he would. Don't worry, his owners told me, if he gets out, he'll go to the park.

He preferred to drink his water, no matter what kind of bowl it was in, while laying down.

"I wanted out until you opened the door, but now I have to rethink it."

Barking his fool head off.

Mr. Gorgeous liked these green-and-white dental chews (seen by his front paw), but only after they'd been left sitting on the floor for a while. One time, I found one stuck in his fur!

He liked to face backward while riding in the car.

Because he might wander--or swim!--off, I usually left him behind when I went down to photograph things in the unfenced lower reaches of the yard.

It's where he wanted to be most of all.
Oh, the park! It was his favorite place. While it was a little more than a quarter mile away if you walked there via the streets, it was less 500 feet away as the collie swims, should Mr. Gorgeous find himself unsupervised in the lower yard by the lake. However he could get there, Mr. Gorgeous wanted to go and quite a few times when I went there with him on a sanctioned visit, he was recognized by other regular park goers who had brought him home at one time or another when he'd wandered off! It's a very nice park, with docks surrounding a swimming area and a separate little bit of beach where a dog might sniff and pee on things and some stretches of grass, including a space where the locals often let their dogs off leash. There were always people to visit (the highlight of those many interactions that he and I had there has to be the time when three tipsy Russians made a great fuss over him, taking his photo and offering him booze and regaling me with the tale of how they'd recently met a couple who were traveling with a miniature donkey that rode with them in the cab of their truck--Mr. Gorgeous was second only to that donkey in their minds as far as amazing animals they had seen and the only time I saw Mr. Gorgeous happier among strangers was when he was petted by that particular young family I mentioned earlier in this post) and dogs to greet and plants to sniff and waters to test and things to pee on (he was an inveterate marker). We often went there at sundown and after we'd made a circuit or two of the park, I'd sit on one of the benches on the dock and detangle his fur with my fingers.

Mr. Gorgeous' beloved park.

We often went there at sunset.

There was sand and grass and water, with so many things to sniff and dogs and people to meet!

One of my other favorite places to take him, on days when I wasn't feeling up to the steep hike up from the house on the way out and then again up from his preferred park on the way home, was a very flat park not too far down the road that was also popular with local dog owners. It was at that park that I met Lady and her owner and it was through Lady that I got to know Sweetheart and through Sweetheart I got to know Cutie! (I will add that Mr. Gorgeous' family recommended me to Goldie, who passed my name on to Pipsqueak, Little Buddy, and Sable & Co. In other words, Mr. G. is directly responsible for my entire dog-sitting business.) From Mr. Gorgeous' point of view, the best thing about that park were the light posts set every few yards along the path, a most excellent place for reading and sending pee-mail! I also liked that park because of the bald eagles that lived and nested in the trees and, more practically, because it was conveniently located adjacent to the lively waterfront downtown parks but the parking was free and always available. There was another nearby lakefront park with boardwalks over wetlands that I was very fond of and which Mr. Gorgeous enjoyed. Because he was good in the car and his equanimity could be relied upon, it was fun to take him to different parks all over the city to add variety to our walks.

A rainbow rises over our second-favorite park on a damp day.

A wintry sunset at the park. You can see the short light posts along the path that Mr. Gorgeous so enjoyed marking.

A collie in the grass at another one of our favorite parks near his home.

Mr. Gorgeous waits for me to finish photographing things from one of the viewing platforms. He always got lots of attention from passersby while waiting!

Up until Mr. Gorgeous could no longer get in the car, we drove all over the area to add variety to our walks.

I dipped these mosquito larvae out
of one of the ponds to photograph.
It must be said, I owe a tremendous artistic debt to Mr. Gorgeous. During our walks, I took thousands of photographs of flowers and trees and leaves and shrubs and sunsets. I took many thousands more in his yard. I photographed objects in his beautiful house. I photographed the weather in all seasons as it rolled across the lake. I photographed the dozens of bird species that visited his yard and documented all kinds of insects. And I took thousands of photographs of Mr. Gorgeous. I started with a point-and-shoot camera, upgraded to a DSLR with a macro lens, and then added a telephoto lens. I spent hours roaming his property with my camera in hand and Mr. Gorgeous in tow. I kept my camera handy at all times when I was in his house because you never knew when you might spot a flock of swans flying by or eagles circling overhead or a sunset that evolved into something ever more spectacular as each minute passed. It was not unusual for me to take several hundred photographs every day while I took care of him. My photo catalogue would be so much poorer had I never known him!

Photographs taken on May 6, 2013 at Mr. Gorgeous' house include tulips, leaves, chess pieces, flowers, water bubbles, and flowering tree branches. 

Photographs taken on September 27, 2015 include koi in one of the ponds, apples, grasses, zinnias, a dried artichoke flower, two kinds of hover flies, roses, a backlit leaf, a spider, berries, Mr. Gorgeous, and bees from his beehive.

Thank you, Mr. Gorgeous, for being so photogenic and living in such photogenic surroundings!

I also took some photos of the two of us together over the years.

On the dock at sunset in February of 2010.

In April of 2010.
He didn't actually like having his head so close to mine, but sometimes I made him so we could get a photo together.

February 2011.

February 2012.

August 2012. We'd just been swimming together in the lake!

In January of 2013 I captured our reflections.

May of 2013.
(There's a big gap in selfies after I replaced my point-and-shoot with a heavy DSLR that usually had a large lens on it.)

I took this one in May of 2015.
He was clearly in decline at that point and I was worried I might not see him again.

September 30th, 2015.
I knew this was our last day together, so I made him take selfies with me. It wasn't easy to do with my heavy DSLR in one hand and trying to wrangle an unenthusiastic Mr. Gorgeous with the other, but I got what I needed.

It's rather hard to bring this post to a close because it means bringing Mr. Gorgeous to a close. Nevertheless, we've come to the end.

This is the final photograph I took of Mr. Gorgeous.

I believe that death is an important part of life. I believe that it is okay for Mr. Gorgeous to have died. He'd had a long and absolutely wonderful life. Talk about a lucky dog: he didn't just have a yard, he had property! It was full of things to sniff and rabbits to chase and bushes to scratch his face in and trees to shelter under. He also got taken on daily walks, he could rely on getting tasty tidbits in his food, and he had comfortable dog beds even if he often preferred the floor. Despite being poorly bred, he was in robust good health until he reached old age and even his degenerative myelopathy progressed far more slowly than most cases do. We should all be so lucky to have a life such as Mr. Gorgeous lived! It's also okay to miss him, to be heartbroken, to find difficulty grasping that there is no more Mr. Gorgeous. It's easy to pretend that he's still at his house, leaving his regular trail of drool droplets, trying to drink out of toilets, barking at the geese to get off his lawn, dragging in more cedar branches, and attempting yet again to get the hardwood floor down in the TV room shaped to his liking.

But Mr. Gorgeous' sun has set. The harvest is over, winter is here. And yet, the spring will come. It will not be as beautiful without Mr. Gorgeous to ornament the season, but it will be spring nonetheless.

Me and my buddy.

And in that spring, and in the seasons and years that follow, I will continue to think of and miss my dear collie friend, the one and only Mr. Gorgeous.