The Hardest Story to Tell


 

It’s been almost 3 months coming.  I have waited that long to tell this story, or least a version of this story.  You see my dog Apollo was the reason we started this blog.  In fact, my initial plan was to tell it through his eyes.  I thought it would be a unique way to think about the world and tell a story, through the honest and loving eyes of my best friend.  What I hoped to accomplish was to see my world from his point of view and share it in a way that found the essence untouched by cynicism, judgement or the frail human ego.  To notice, remark and document our adventures as a family from his vantagepoint.  I have tried to see the world through his eyes, and every time I caught a glimpse it gave me joy and made me realize how much we humans complicate things.  The world is a magical and uncomplicated place when seen from his perspective.  Everyday holds untold possibilities for adventure.  Every walk outside is a menagerie of sights and smells and sounds.  Every new person or dog encountered is a potential friend.  Days are mostly for sleeping, but always be ready for an adventure. In just a few moments he could tell friend from foe, and he was always right.  Life was uncomplicated by bills, or insurance or anxiety.  He loved as hard as he could, consequences be damned.  Every moment of my life he made better just by existing in it.  My grand vision was to see my life through his eyes and try to share that understanding with the world.  In my mind, I thought it might be interesting, compelling and it might even, in the far-flung future, fund some of our travels and adventures.

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Getting a puppy is like making an appointment to have your heart both mended and broken.

I have waited these 3 months, because Apollo hasn’t been with me.  My plan had been to get the boat quickly to Florida before the winter cold set in.  Then head to Australia and New Zealand for 7 weeks with my wife to visit my sister Alex and her husband Peter just before the birth of their first child and then be back on the boat with wife and dog by the end of January 2017.  I planned to take Jessie to see some of the amazing places that meant so much to me when I went there 13 years ago.  I had many second thoughts about being away from Apollo this long.  Other than a few weeks between when I sold my house and before we moved on the boat, I had never been away from him for more than a week or two and I was dreading this separation.  I knew it didn’t make sense to take him on the ocean delivery on the boat as we would be days at a time away from land and I didn’t think it fair to keep him cooped up with me.  My parents live in the country on a farm and have a dog of their own and so it is a place Apollo feels very comfortable and gets to run.  We lovingly refer to it as his dog spa.

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Apollo at the dog spa

As with every cruising adventure the months and weeks leading up to ours were packed with untold preparation, provisioning, planning and the never planned or saved for gear failures.  Ours were on the very expensive and time consuming side and I spent every spare minute rebuilding the generator, the fridge, alternators and something called an exhaust elbow.  But as seems to be the case we just barely managed to depart on our desired date of the 5th of November.  It was a really hard farewell as we knew we would be leaving our fur baby behind for the longest separation to date of two and a half months.

It was strange to me, the time flew by, but I always had a sense that we weren’t complete.  We missed him and as we saw new places and met new people it never felt real.  It was as if we weren’t completely ourselves or we were holding back since our family wasn’t whole.  It was the prologue before our ‘real’ adventure began with Apollo clattering around the decks, his nails clicking as he moved around.  We started the blog during this time, documenting our travels, adventures and difficult moments.  We had planned on doing the whole blog from his point of view, but it felt wrong to force that when he wasn’t with us.  We resolved to tell our own stories from our own point of view and then to include his once he was with us.  I always felt the most important narrator was missing, and although I didn’t publish any of them, I began thinking and writing from his perspective.

My initial title for our blog was Apollo’s Chariot, in fact that was what I wanted to name my boat.  It felt wrong as he was still with me, I then thought that one day, far and long in the future after he had lead a long and full life I would honor him and remember him by naming some future boat after him.

But as many great plans life got in the way.  Just a week after returning from our trip to Australia and New Zealand we returned home to find Apollo was not feeling well.  He had been on antibiotics for what the vet believed was a bacterial cough.  Over the next week his condition worsened, we tried another antibiotic thinking it might be Lymes disease, but to no avail.  We took him to see a specialist in Richmond and left him overnight.  They said they could give him pain medicine and fluids and would run some tests.  I never envisioned that he had spent his last night at home.  It never occurred to me that would be the last time he would sleep at my feet.

Just over a day later we returned to the vet for test results, I had chosen to believe it was a fungal lung infection and that was why he wasn’t responding to the antibiotics.  But that was not the diagnosis.  He had advanced prostate cancer and it was untreatable, having spread to his spine and his lungs.  I spun through the stages of grief, but in the end I did what was hardest for me and best for him.  We spent his last hours with him in the vet’s office, but by this point he was in so much pain he could not even lie down, or get comfortable.  Nothing in life prepares you to have to make that decision, no amount of research, or justifying.  Nothing can help you to make the decision to lose someone you love.  Telling ourselves it was the right thing to do did not ease the pain of loss.  I cannot imagine a worse feeling or harder decision.  In the end, I know we did the right thing, but it doesn’t make it any easier to live with.  That evening as the sun set I buried my best friend under my favorite tree over-looking the river.  It its hard driving past it every time I visit my parents, but it will keep him always in my thoughts.

Below is the story of how he came to touch my life.

The blue-eyed stunner was the product of a Husky Bitch and what we think was a labish lout who stayed long enough on for the good bit.  At the time, I was a semiprofessional 29-year-old living in a mostly fixed up home I owned and rented out three rooms to friends.  My roommate Lisa, then only 20, asked me one day what I thought about having a puppy in the house.  I thought long and hard about this; having had two labs of my own growing up, one of which I lost too young to a wandering lustful desire and a distracted driver.  Burying him the same year as my Grandfather and a friend had left a powerful reminder of how much I had loved him and how hard the loss was.  I had planned a trip overseas to visit my sister and I thought upon my return it might be a good idea to have a dog.  I mentioned this to Lisa, but I told her that although we would all love and care for the puppy, it was important that we establish up front who he belonged to, so that eventually when we moved on it wouldn’t be so hard.  As I owned the house and I felt it was time I settled down a bit, I said that I thought getting a puppy would be a great idea, but it would me MY dog.  I would buy the food and take it to the vet and be responsible for it.

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Apollo at 9 weeks

Little did I know she had already found the dog.  Lisa’s boyfriend Brandon found a want ad at his work on a bulletin board for free puppies.  Brandon knew the mother of the Bitch and they went to look at the dog.  You can imagine my surprise that night when I finished working out at the gym to see Lisa with a puppy, but as anyone who ever met Apollo will attest, all you can do is fall in love with him.  We instantly became a dog family.

His blue eyes against his dark fluffy coat were incredible jarring.  At first glance almost all would remark on them.  Many many…many times people would tell me about my digs blue eyes.  Apollo, as any stunning beauty would, would just ignore them.  On the many occasions that people wanted to take pictures of him, he would refuse to glance their way.  I always found it funny, it was as though he knew he was special, but was determined to stay aloof.

Only a year and a half later I sold the house and moved aboard a 42-sailing catamaran, Ojigwan.  I remember having some last minute anxious thoughts, not about my own comfort or the financial risk in buying a floating depreciating asset, my only concern was if he would adapt.  I was worried he might get sick, or not do well with the sounds and hard fiberglass deck.  I was worried about all manner of things that he never even noticed.  Like any loyal best friend…he just figured it out.

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My work schedule was often erratic, most days I would go in as late as possible and work late.  Often times it would be 12 hours inside for him.  He never complained and only once had an accident.  No, he was always ecstatic to see me.  There is no better feeling in the world than coming home to a loving dog.    Especially one that seemed to love me so much and be so indifferent to almost everyone else.

His loves in descending order were:

  1. Me
  2. Running at full speed anywhere / tied with Chasing after small live animals (mostly groundhogs)
  3. Returning proudly with expired groundhogs
  4. Chocolate tied with Peanut butter
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I hope God isn’t a groundhog.

He was that once in a lifetime dog.  That one that helps you through hard parts of your life, that reminds you that joy can always come from the simplest places, like a hike through the woods, or just rolling in the mud.

He motivated me to be more active, his need to exercise was legendary.  Once when both I and a roommate where training for marathons he was taken on two runs of more than 10 miles in one hot summer day.

He abhorred the leash and for the most part I kept him off it whenever possible.  We had our rituals of leash on when the Marina owner or cats were around.  We kept up the charade as long as we had to and then he could always tell just when I was going to release him and he would race off, never wandering too far from my special whistle that told him where I was.  We would hike the forests like this, him running at his speed and exploring but checking in on me every now and then.  With a certain and specific whistle, he knew is was time to come close.  And on most occasions he would even stay right with me, but I always gave in and told him ok…and he would be off again at high speed.

The first time I felt our deep bond was after he was neutered.  I had never ‘fixed’ a dog before.  I thought long and hard about this decision, I loved him so much I took the risk of the surgery seriously and I also knew he was such a unique dog that I would want one of his puppies someday, but as we lived in a suburban neighborhood and his propensity even as a puppy to go exploring I thought he might wander less.  After the surgery, he came home groggy and numb, he slept on the floor at my feet, but as the pain meds wore off the pain increased, he walked over to me and just plopped in my lap pushing his head against my chest as a child would when they want you to hug them and make them all better.  I held him tight and stroked him and his crying stopped and he just sat there letting me love him.

I hear often about people training their pets, or teaching them tricks.  It was quite the other way with Apollo.  I would try to teach him the basics, sit, heel, stay, come here, roll over etc.  But each was performed mostly on his terms and in a unique way not quite as I had expected.  For sit it became obvious he preferred the hand signal (open hand palm extended toward him) and for lying down just a finger pointing at the ground.  This may have been partly that as a funny joke I trained him on the signals firsts so that you could say anything and he would do what the hand signals dictated.  This cause a fair amount of confusion among guests as to how my dog knew sit in 5 languages.  Stay was the one command he really couldn’t be bothered to learn.  He would stay for just long enough to anticipate you saying ok, or fetch or another command, and pretty soon stay was reserved only for durations of about 15 seconds, beyond that and he would get antsy and want to run.  I tried to teach him rollover, but almost immediately he decided that as too easy so he would jump up high in the air and turn his body all the way around.  Sort of an aerial spin that delighted all children he met.  He would do this on command with just a wave of a finger, like tracing the letter O with you right pointer finger.  That was his favorite.

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Saying was, hurts or using the past tense of anything or the verbs to describe him or his many talents.  It hurts because it reminds me that those memories are now in the past, those activities have been done for the last time.  He won’t flop into my bed and roll his way onto my legs.  He won’t jump into my arms again, or onto my back as he has hundreds of times, he has hunted his last groundhog at my parent’s farm.  It hurts because it feels real.  A dog that has meant so much to me and to most who have known him has had his picture taken for the last time.  Has jumped up and stolen his last food from the counter, has crawled into my lap for the last time and said Dad, I’m hurting, please make it better.  For such an aloof and stubborn creature, he sure did make me feel loved.

I think the hardest part is that he won’t be part of my next adventure.  For the last 6 years I have lived on that sailboat.  I have fixed it up and now my wife and I had planned for the three of us to have an extensive cruising adventure.  From the outset, it was a certainty that he would come.  Having a dog on a boat presents certain logistical challenges, but as he was part of our family going on this adventure without him was not an option.  Making sure he gets ashore twice a day and all the customs forms and vet certs to take him to a foreign country would be a hassle, it would mean there were many places we couldn’t go, but we accepted this and determined he was part of our family and would be part of the trip.  Our plan was to leave today.  Our boat is in Key Largo, ready.  After a trip overseas to see my sister, before the birth of her first child, her husband and some side trips around Australia and New Zealand we planned to be back in Virginia just long enough to get Apollo, do some laundry, pack and drive to Florida.  I think that is what is hardest for me now.  That I had planned to have 6 months to share this adventure and now we have to continue on without him.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

1 comment

  1. Oh Ridge and Jessie so sad to read this story , when you have such a special bond with an animal as you had, saying goodbye is one of the hardest things you ever do, but what amazing times you shared together, big hugs and kisses xx

    Liked by 1 person

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