Years pass more quickly than they used to. I still talk about the ’90s as though they comprise the decade nearest the one we’re presently whizzing through, and then I realize, ooops…. The 2000s came. And went. A busy time, the 2000s. Even though happily married, I gave a little bit of my heart to someone else during that decade. His name was Ike.
A butterball of downy fur, tender paws and a shiny black nose, Ike, our beloved Labrador Retriever, made our house his home in July, 2000. He scratched all the woodwork, ruined bits of drywall, and destroyed the laundry room floor. He never did learn to heel, obeyed a command only occasionally, and refused to let us sleep in on the weekends. His favorite taste in the whole wide world? You’d be tempted to say bacon, I know. You’d be wrong. The taste surpassing all others was the creamy goodness of butter. Legend has it that our four-legged family member one time consumed a full half-pound of butter still wrapped in its convenient quarter cup sized sticks. Reality surpasses legend. ‘Tis true, Ike was a master food thief. As time passed and the pup grew taller, at various times he consumed a full pan of chicken enchiladas, half-empty bakery boxes of not yet stale donuts, whole loaves of bread, birthday cake frosting and a bit of the cake, a whole bag of chocolate candy, wrappers included, and the occasional dropped chip, cracker, or egg. Most of those delectables he nabbed when one of us foolishly left our human food on our kitchen countertops, thinking that the dog would mind his manners and stick to his kibble. We learned otherwise. Sort of. He was also a champion beggar and a miserable slobberhound. Sometimes we’d give him a bite of whatever we were enjoying, just to slow down the waterworks. Okay, it was simply because his head, tilted adorably to one side, and his eyes, a warm and wonderful topaz shade, were utterly irresistible.
He loved popcorn, and leaped for a tossed kernel. He seemed to like oatmeal, and waited to lick out the remains from Jeff’s morning bowl. (I’m betting it was the brown sugar he was waiting for.) He loved ice cream, and grapes, and the uneaten bits we might leave on our plates. He regularly licked the dishes as I loaded them in the washer; and though I made a show of shooing him away, he never wandered too far, and returned to finish the task when I turned my back. Of course I obliged him.
He loved walks, and chasing rabbits. He loved sniffing the morning air and other dogs’ privates. He was a mad humper. I always thought neutering would take the edge off, but apparently not. He counted people, and knew when we were all home. He only barked at the doorbell, and only looked little people in the eye while checking them out for possible treats. He actually resorted to taking Halloween candy out of the treat bags the Trick-or-Treaters clutched as they stood at the door each year. Ike didn’t seem to mind sharing. But that dog refused to give our dear friends’ Maltese the time of day. She would have loved nothing more than for Ike to play with her, but he adamantly ignored her existence, even when she resorted to pawing at his head. We laughed uproariously at his encounters with Abby and at his petty thievery, and while I was only embarrassed by the humping, the men in the family snickered.
For years, the dog traveled with us when we’d make weekend visits to our nearest family, just 7 hours away. Longer journeys for us meant that Ike would stay home, with a neighbor or family friend taking on the dog sitting duty. Suitcases toted from the basement invariably prompted Ike to put on his ‘sad ears,’ and I invariably got teary-eyed saying ‘goodbye’ to him. I always wanted him to know we’d be back, but realized he couldn’t understand everything I said, even when I used the most reassuring tone I could muster. Sadness in my own heart drew Ike to my side. When my dad died, Ike sat close by, comforting me through the aching loss. Eight years later, Ike repeated the process when Mom died. When our boys flew the nest for the wonders of university life, Ike stayed behind, and filled in the quiet with the happy thump of his tail, the click of his nails on the floor, and the ever-shedding hair, giving me something, always, to clean; someone, always, to take care of.
For years, we had a steady, faithful companion who taught us much about stubborn will, idiosyncratic habits (obviously picked up from his owners), neuroses, loyalty and love. He was a nagger, a beggar, a drooler, a shedder, a friend. He had a facebook page. He had a following of friends who grew up with our kids, and therefore, grew up with Ike. He was just a dog, but he was ours. And oh, how we loved him.
Over the past many months, the old guy started showing his age. His muzzle had already turned white; though, as a yellow Lab, we didn’t notice it as soon as we might have. And the hip dysplasia that plagues the breed caused him quite a bit of trouble during the long winter that has just now perhaps departed. Still, the suggestion that we ‘go for a walk’ perked his ears right up, and so, when the weather made it easy, out we went. Lots of sniffs for Ike, and a slow pace for his poor old hips, which slipped a bit, causing his back right leg to drag. I worried, but we made it home. Sometimes, an ibuprofen wrapped in peanut butter eased the stress on his old bones. He was aging, like his owners. We decided that all of us are simply aging gracefully. “Miles to go before we sleep.” Plenty of time.
And then, the morning of March 23 dawned — a Saturday bright and beautiful, with the added bonus of a late sleep. The usual yip from the laundry room failed to sound — apparently Ike wanted to sleep in too. He did greet me at the laundry room door, but his usual pep was strangely missing. And he went outside, but labored to navigate the yard he had alertly paroled for almost 13 years. Clearly, something was wrong. He showed no interest in his breakfast, opting instead to throw up on the kitchen floor. After another trip outside, he laid down in the yard, and wouldn’t get up.
The hours of that Saturday dragged interminably. Jeff and I managed to get Ike back inside, and as the day wore on, we took turns sitting with him as he labored for each breath. Though neither of us it would say it, we both knew Ike’s last day with us had arrived.
One of my favorite things about Ike was his paws. He offered both the left and right easily to ‘shake’ if a treat were being offered, but he absolutely detested any handling of his feet. I liked to rub them, hold them — but he would have none of that. During the winter months, I’d worry that tromping through snow would make his paws cold and miserable, but even on the coldest days his paws were always warm. Like the ducks his breed can retrieve, Ike’s webbed paws were always warm and sure — just like his heart. Jeff knew that our poor old dog’s labored breathing was a sign that his systems were shutting down. I knew, because his paws had turned cold. Late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 23, 2013, Ike died. I watched the light go out of his beautiful old eyes, and for a time, the light has seemed to dim in my own.
I stood by Jeff as he dug Ike’s grave, and together we carried him to it. How fitting, I thought, that we put him down as the sun sank low in the western sky. For the remainder of our days here, Ike will rest in the yard he watched over, and too often escaped from. Ike made our lives richer, having graced our days and nights and years with loyal companionship and trusted love.
I miss his silky ears, the sound of his happy tail, and his insistent demand for a treat each night at 9:00. I will miss him for a good long time, I expect. As C.S. Lewis so poignantly reminds me, “we treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human’: that is why they really become ‘almost human’in the end.” (Mere Christianity Book IV Ch 7 “Let’s Pretend”) A cherished member of our family, he really did light up our lives. 🙂