We Said Goodbye after 16,000 Miles of Friendship & I'm Still George's Dad
Yesterday was one of the hardest days of my life. Sitting next to him on our living room floor, George's last breath came as his head lay on my arm. His last smile was a bit earlier, when Alizah sat next to him and caressed his head. His smile had been losing ground to the pain for a while… I just wish yesterday would’ve come six months to a year from now.
Two days earlier, he was happily ambling, as well as his old legs could take him through the upland forest, looking for grouse. This was one of two things he loved to do. The other was saying hello to his peeps in the West Seattle Junction or many other businesses. Now back to the forest.
I knew this was going to be our last hunting season together. With the exception of last year's season, George and I would walk 10 miles a day on trips. That probably translated 20 miles a day for him. Last year he could do 5 miles a day. This year 1. Five years a cancer survivor, three years of liver disease, arthritis and stenosis, had taken it’s toll on his old body. But that didn't stop him from this last trip. While I packed the truck up, he waited steadfastly by the backseat door. Any attempt to get him to move was met with, ”Uh, No! I'm either getting in the truck or I'm staying right here.”
Well, it's time to head out, and for George and I to go pick up my dad. I opened the truck’s rear door, he puts his front paws up into the truck and he looks back up at me as I cradle his hind-end with my right arm and lift him up with my left arm under his chest into the truck. We head out. He rests his head on the center console armrest, looking up at me. Out of habit, I grab a treat to give him, he gives it a sniff and that's it. He rarely wants to eat any more. I put the treat back. (pause - I have to dry my tears)
We pick up my dad. George is so happy. He knows where we’re going. On the ride up, dad breaks out some teriyaki beef jerky, and wha-a-a-a-at! (That's the expression on George's face) “That smells magical- are you going to share that with me?” beams from George's eyes. So, the three of us drive up into the mountains eating beef jerky and crackers. My heart was filled with relief and joy as George ate something and we were going hunting.
We get to one of our favorite hunting areas. I cradle George out of the truck. He walks into my arms, my right arm cradling his chest, with my left arm wrapped around and supporting his underbelly. I set him down and wait for him to get his legs under himself. With a little tail wag he's ready to meander around the camp and smell what's up. It's about dusk now, we’ve set up camp and its time for dinner. My heart sinks as George refuses to eat freshly cooked top sirloin steak strips. (pause - breakdown number six as I write this) I kind of force-feed him. He has to have some food in his stomach to take his medicines. I do this by tipping his head back and dropping small bite-size pieces in his mouth, over and over (he's gotten really good at spitting food out) until he swallows them. After he got the fifth one down he decided he’d just eat the rest out of my hand. (The next morning brought the same routine) By the way, we, George and I, both hate this. With that struggle behind us, we all sat around the table and camper to drink beer, eat chips and play cribbage. (Congratulations dad, you're the champ this time.) George loves to sit at table with us in the camper. Oh, George drank water, not beer.
It's perfect out the next morning, well, with the exception of the most Hornets we've ever encountered. I told dad where George and I were going so he could catch up with us when he was ready. I get George out of the camper in the same manner as the truck. He's steady on his legs, “phew…” It seems he doesn't feel much like going about though, but I coax him along and we head out. The natural rhythm and timing of his gait in his prime is long gone. The stenosis makes his back legs react with intermittent slowness and misstep, while the arthritis in his left front shoulder causes hesitation that screws up the timing of his walking. You might think he drank way too much beer last night. As we’re walking, I said to myself, “I don't care if we see birds, he’s smiling, he's walking- that's good enough.” I'm not expecting that of George, to rustle up birds at this stage. I'm just happy to be a boy and his dog for the weekend.
We come across a couple of other hunters and George's quite happy to make two new friends (his other favorite thing to do). George has a bit more giddy up in his step after meeting them. Of course, he just made two new friends. We’re off again. Moving up a ridge that ends at a panoramic view of Mount Rainier, St. Helens and Bald Mountain.
We move and rest, move and rest, and, move and rest. About 1/3 of the way up he wants to go left but I coax him to keep moving up the ridge with me. We go about another hundred yards and he stops. “Come on buddy!” He looks left. “Come on buddy!“ He sits down and looks left down the gradual slope. I laugh to myself. “Paul, you moron, he doesn't give a fark (fu%k in “bark language”) about a great view of the mountains.” “Okay buddy, I'll follow you.“ He stood up surprisingly quickly, sniffed the air and ambled down the slope. Away we went. “Holy shit! He's on scent.” I had to work to keep up with him on his wobbly legs. Hey, my bones feel old too. He was on a mission. He’d check-in to make sure I was following. Another hundred yards, and he reached right where birds were. The hunt was on!. I can tell you right now, I had zero expectations for this. I tracked with him for another 200 feet as we moved down the road. I thought to myself, maybe this hunting season will get him the pick me up to keep him going?
Backtrack to Mile Zero
It's mid October 2006, George's former owner comes up and asks, if we could take George. He knew George really liked us and that I grew up with a yellow lab. (George would regularly run across the street and up our driveway to come see us. At this point George was a 75 pound 10-month-old spaz.) I tell him I'd love to, but I need to make sure Alizah is okay with it. We adopt George late October.
Mile zero and the beginning of George's Dad.
What a beautiful guy. Instant connection with your soul. George loved people. It wasn't even three weeks in and I knew he was going to be the best lab ever. (pause - another breakdown) Our earliest walks were excruciatingly painful. There was a reason our neighbor gave him up, George was kind of a Marley and Me. However, he quickly transformed out of that with us. It was during those walks where George and I connected and learned to work together. George quickly discovered, that if he was chill and all smiley, that everybody would love him as much as he loved them. And that's how it worked.
It wasn't too long before George could walk all over the place, on and off leash, in businesses, all over the West Seattle Junction. I went from Paul, to, “hey, aren't you George's dad?” I'm even in a couple of businesses computers as, first name, George's, and last name, Dad. We walked an average of 3.5 miles per day (conservative estimate) since November 2006. He loved to go to the Junction and just meet people, say hi. And I obliged, up until two days ago.
Turns out, he was my four-legged harbor. He took me out for walks. My back pretty much quit hurting, even while remodeling our house. Difficult days at work melted away as we played games and hung out. As a matter fact my work life balance changed when we got him. I no longer worked through lunches, instead, I’d go and we’d walk. George was my neurochemical reset. I could endure jerks at work with much more grace after a giant boost of oxytocin from George. The beautiful thing about a dog, he doesn't rationalize what you're doing that takes time away from him. He comes up to you and says, hey I'm here, I love you, let's go walk! We should all do that.
George was so tuned in to how a person was feeling. If a person showed anxiety, he would approach slowly with a smile, sometimes even backing in and sitting down. If you were comfortable he'd come nudging up against your legs for an ear or side rub with a giant unmistakable smile and happy ears. Can't tell you many times I've heard, I'm afraid of dogs, can I pet yours? George could warm anyone’s soul.
For several months we walked past an old Vietnam Vet sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of the Junction, who regularly expressed through body language and grunts that he should be left alone. George would smile at him every time. One day, after passing him he called out, “hey, can I pet your dog?” I replied, “Sure man. Hey George, go say hi buddy.” George walked over to him, backed in and sat down next to him. I stood there while George hung out with him. After about 5 to 10 minutes, the old vet grunted, “you can go now.” This repeated itself once or twice a week for a couple months until he moved on. George knew he needed someone.
Everywhere we’d walk, George made friends. Home Depot was one of his favorite places on earth. We were remodeling our house so we went there a lot. (For those who know me well, yes, we are still remodeling.) If I even said Home Depot, George would get so excited. It meant that he could see Scotty, Anne, Kathy, etc… I wonder how many miles are in Home Depot stores? Hmmm… I didn't put that in my calculation. Anyway, then I would say HD instead of Home Depot. But George soon figured out what HD meant also.
The phrase that perked up his world, “hey, want to go get coffee?” Starbucks and Realfine Coffee really owe George a lot of thanks. Well, I drink coffee anyway and would walk up there. But, George figured out that when he walked up to me the with a big smile and motioned for me to come with him, we'd head out to walk and go get a coffee. Seriously, so many coffee walks were initiated by George.
I could write so many stories about our walks. I've met so many wonderful people because of him. (pause - sorry another breakdown) But, I gotta stop for now.
Back to Mile 16,200+
Sadly, the joy of the hunting trip was short-lived. George still wouldn’t eat. No food meant no pain management. He was telling us that it's time for him to go.
I'm going to miss his smile.
I don't know how to go into the West Seattle Junction without him. I'm still George’s Dad. And, always will be. I love you George.
Thank you (I will regularly add to this list him as stories and moments pop into my mind):
West Seattle Junction
Seattle Fish Company
US Bank West Seattle
Luna Park Cafe
West Seattle Animal Hospital
Northwest Art & Frame
Petco West Seattle
Next to Nature
Seattle Canine Club