Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Heidi the Princess

I’m not sure when she became MY dog but the breeder had said that dogs know who is mom in the house, and when the kids left to go to college, Heidi and I were left here alone. I like to think that she thought of me as mom. A vet once said, “She looks at you with such trust”. You never think that a little animal can weave its way into your heart and family, and that when they are gone, a hole remains. It feels silly to mourn so strongly for a dog and I realize I never until today really felt empathy for those who told me their dog had passed. To live it is to understand what it feels like.
            Jen had begged for a dog since she was 6.  My little animal lover cared for nature’s living creatures with all her heart and soul.  She was the one who buried a dead bluejay in the yard and convinced us to deliver a dying squirrel to the animal shelter. I was a reluctant dog owner mainly because my childhood dogs were unruly and problematic.  My mom had many talents but training dogs was not one of them. Besides, my husband was not a dog lover.  His requirement for owning a dog was one that would not bark, shed, yap, jump or destroy the house. By the time Jen was 12, we had gone through the “pet” ownership of goldfish, lizard, and parakeets, starting with the least needy and working our way up.  The last and final test was caring for a friend’s Springer Spaniel for an entire month. Molly was gentle, kind and obedient, content to lay on the front lawn and watch the world go by. “This isn’t too bad”, we thought, “We can do this!” Thus began my search for the perfect dog.
            One had to know me to understand the amount of research that goes into making a purchase, and this acquisition that would remain with us for years and years required careful study. Remember now, no yapping, no barking, no jumping, no shedding, and even more importantly, no aggravating existing allergies. However no amount of research prepares you for spontaneity and the undeniably irresistibleness of a puppy. Word of warning – don’t go look unless you plan to buy. A neighbor told me about a friend whose brown lab had just had a litter of puppies.  I grew up with a lab; they are smart, lovable, and great family pets. I went to visit, and came home having left a deposit and taken pictures.  The kids were overjoyed and we named the puppy I had bought – we were going to call her Sienna.  Then buyers remorse set in.   This was not a nonshedding lap dog – this was a dog that would bark, dig holes, jump, shed and bring dust and pollen into the house.  It would grow to be my weight, capable of dragging me down the street.  It would eat enormous amounts of food and would poop all over the yard. My instincts told me it would not work but my mommy heart couldn’t bear to tell my kids that the puppy they had named was not coming home with us.  I felt terrible but promised that the search would continue and it would be for the best….terrible mommy.
            I narrowed my list to small dogs – there was a litter of Boston Terriers up near the Russian River-too far for me to drive alone.  I met King Charles Spaniels and I visited several bichons. One Chinese family had a litter born by “mistake” when the dogs of their two daughters ended up at home together and had a little too much togetherness. The parent dogs were hyper and yappy. I drove to Sacramento and saw puppy mill-like homes, homes that smelled of dog and parent dogs that were nutty. I saw bichons that didn’t look like bichons.  Then we met Penney. 
            Penney was a mom in Cupertino who had several bichons of her own. She bred her dogs very selectively and not often. The females, she sold to homes with contracts allowing her to show them; the males went to homes and were sometimes used as studs.  Penney’s house was a normal home and was immaculate; her dogs were calm and well behaved, and they were beautiful. Jen and I visited and the puppies crawled all over us but one settled in Jen’s arms and lay there sleeping and unmoving for over a half an hour.  This was our dog. But – the dog, a female, came with a contract. I signed my rights away - she had the right to show the dog on any weekend  and take it for the entire weekend(that could be ok, we could go away and not need to find a dog sitter and when we wanted to go away, she would sit for the dog), we had to keep her groomed at all times (that could be ok, Penny would show me how to groom and the dog would be beautiful), we had to have a litter of puppies of which she would keep all except one (that could be ok, it would be a great experience for the kids), we could not have the dog spayed (I was naïve and thought that could be ok too).  After all, this was the perfect dog- calm, loving, nonshedding, hypoallergenic and non yappy.  We were in heaven.  We named her Heidi.
            Heidi came to us at 6 weeks, stayed in a metal pen in our kitchen, the floor covered with newspaper. We read many books. I was determined to have the perfectly trained dog; I was not going to have an unruly, ill mannered one.  Since I was home during the day, I tethered her to my waist with a leash and she trotted alongside me obediently. We had a crate which she loved.  At night she slept with Jen. It was blissful or maybe I have only memories for the good times.  Heidi loved plastic soda jugs and would run around the front yard chasing jugs that we would kick around for her.  At times during the day, she would get this charge of energy and would dash in a circle, around and around and around until she flopped down in exhaustion. The neighbors loved her, loved her so much that two neighbors bought bichons of their own.  At one point, an elderly neighbor asked me how many daughters I had because he would see the bichon being walked by 3 different girls during the day-one blonde, one brunette and one with black hair.  “No”, I replied, “There are three in our neighborhood”.
            We took her to Saratoga School for dogs and she was a star.  We taught her tricks and she learned readily – beg, jump, dance, crawl, high 5.  She even learned to wag her tail on command, something the instructor’s dog would demonstrate and a trick I was determined she would learn.  It was a big hit with guests.  She went with us to places that dogs were allowed and when not, she stayed happily at the kennel.
Heidi visited the snowy Sierras, rode in our tandem kayak sitting happily up front and getting smiles and waves from boaters. Heidi camped, burrowing herself deep in our sleeping bags to stay warm. She layed on a blanket while I read and Ray fished, spending many a weekend up at Baum Lake and Hat Creek. She jogged with me every morning for more than a decade, 3 miles up and down Los Altos Avenue.  We became such an icon that if I was running alone, people would roll down their windows and ask where she was. One shopkeeper came out of her store one day, the Fish and Chip place, to ask why Heidi wasn’t running with me. Some mornings, I could almost hear her groan when I told her it was time to go run, and she lay stubbornly on her pillow, wanting to stay and sleep.  One day, a few years ago, she stopped in the middle of the road and I knew it was time for her to retire from running.
            Heidi, to Penney’s disappointment, never became a show dog. It was partly my fault for refusing to put braces on her teeth.  Braces on my kids teeth was ok, but on a dog, no way. Heidi also was slightly bow legged and her paws angled outward. When she went into heat, she would throw up, and so Penney reluctantly agreed that Heidi should be spayed and so she never achieved stardom as a “best in class”.
            Though we like to think of her as such, Heidi was not always angelic. In her early months, after an evening with dinner guests, I found her in her crate chewing on what I believed to be her bone and come to realize in horror that it was the cell phone of one of our guests.  The antenna was beyond repair!  I was convinced that manufacturers of toilet paper and tissues must use some ingredient that lures dogs.  Otherwise, why would she go to such lengths to get a mouthful of toilet paper to chew on.  Wastebaskets were constantly overturned.  Even in the last days of her life, I found strips of Kleenex shredded on the floor.  Often, we would hear the noise of the toilet paper holder being spun round and round as Heidi went after her delicacy.  One time, she did a take and ran, leaving a long ribbon of paper that wound out the bathroom door, and down the hall, leaving us laughing uncontrollably.  I even made a baffle out of a plastic container to keep her from getting to the toilet paper. Heidi would often be caught, head in purses, digging for that wad of Kleenex that she was sure was in there, albeit at the very bottom.  She would jump onto the kitchen chairs to reach for dinner napkins.  At one point, when I met bichon owners on the street, I would inquire about their dogs’ habits and came to learn that this fetish was not unique to our dog.  She was also attracted to bird seed and the bag I kept for cleaning the birdcage.   Having eaten mouthfuls of birdseed presented for some unusual looking poop the next day.
            Then there was the chocolate.  Jen was scolded many a time for harboring this poison in her room.  Upon returning home and finding chewed up wrappers on the floor, I would proceed to call the vet with the amount I thought Heidi had ingested.  After several $75 stomach pumpings, they told me I should just do it myself with hydrogen peroxide in a bulb baster, squeeze it down her throat.  She never learned that cause and effect, but had many stomach pumpings in her life.

           Penny told me her dogs like to use their paws for functional purposes.  Heidi’s was being able to maneuver her pillow or a towel to a place that she wanted it to be.  Every day, she would use 2 paws and scoot herself backward until the pillow was strategically placed right in front of the door, or down the hall near one of us.  We would often laugh as she pawed and pawed at a towel so it was a perfectly comfortable lump that she could rest her head on.
Tom, our neighborhood dog walker, called Heidi a princess.  She lived the good life, laying on her throne – an armchair in the family room that had a direct view of the hallway.  From this spot, she could see 180 degrees and keep an eye on everyone’s comings and goings.  She would follow you from room to room but when you returned to the family room, she would take her place on her throne once more.
She knew when it was time to “go to work” and would spend her days at Abilities United, laying on a chair by my desk, waiting patiently for me, getting hugs and kisses from colleagues and our clients, many of whom were disabled. People often said that the mood in the office was calmer when Heidi was there and they called her a de-stresser. 
Heidi helped the kids, especially Jen, through their teen years. Many a tear were shed into her fluffy back and licked by her warm tongue; she was there for all of us when we had a bad day or needed a shoulder to cry on.  She seemed to understand her role – it was to comfort, to love, and to share in our joys and sorrows. 
            Bichons can be picky and Heidi was no exception.  A lab that eats everything, she was not. If the fixins were not to her liking, she preferred not to eat it. Good and tasty food was a simple requirement and in her last days, we tried a myriad of foods including fresh turkey, roast pork, baked chicken, all to no avail. She would be interested one day, reject it the next.  The refusal to eat was part of the kidney ailment but was also her demise.  Feeding my family was something I took seriously and did well, and her not eating was distressing but there was nothing I could do about it.
            As she aged, I began to realize that the process very much resembled how my father was aging.  There were good days and bad, and as time went on, more bad and good. Gradually I watched her decline and lose interest in those things that used to excite and please her.  Suddenly, she stopped coming to us when we called her.  She stopped barking when the doorbell rang and I realized she was losing her hearing. Her eyes still looked at me with trust and love but I could see them clouding; she could no longer see in the dark.  Heidi began to sleep very deeply and would startle when I touched her.  One day, she had an accident and was sleeping on a soaked towel.  That was when the vet diagnosed her with kidney failure.  Drinking copious amounts of water, peeing a lot and refusing to eat were the primary symptoms.  We did an iv fluid treatment to filter the toxins from her body.   It made her cold and she trembled that night, but it kept her going through the holidays, and she was able to enjoy the company of her family.  A month later, her symptoms returned and I knew I had two options – prolong her for a few more weeks only to have her be miserable once again, or set her free and say good bye.  It is an agonizing decision, one that you are never sure is the right time.  My decision made, I came home to find her perky and following me from room to room. It just about broke me, but the vet reassured me it was the right time. She had lost so much weight, she was all bones.  Not being able to eat, she threw up sometimes several times a day.  She walked slowly and with great effort. It was time and it was the kindest way to give back to her all that she had given to us.
            The years pass way too quickly and though she lived an extraordinarily long life, it was not long enough. How did a decade and a half go by so fast? How could this young feisty puppy become a senior in what seemed like a flash of time? Heidi lived for us, did what we asked and gave so much in return.  She made a place in each of our hearts and even the dad who couldn’t understand how dog owners could be so crazy about their pets, couldn’t bear to let her go. Dog owners have a special bond and I am grateful for the many people in my neighborhood that Heidi has led me to meet. She brought a smile to everyone she ran into and even on her final day, a postman who was rushed and bustling, saw her and a smile lit up his face.  Heidi, you will be missed but you will remain a part of us forever.  Your throne will remain and you will be there in spirit, and I will always hear your little claws pattering down the hall, and see your face in the front window when I drive away.  Your spot next to my bed is empty but the memories of you laying next to me will never go away.  I will see you on Jen’s bed, snuggled up next to her in the morning.  This is your home you will live on in spirit, under a tree in this yard that you once roamed.