Last night, just before midnight, just one month and two days shy of his 14th birthday, Paul and I said good-bye to Angus. The night before, a tumor somewhere in his abdomen ruptured. He bled internally. X-rays revealed two large tumors in his chest. It would be easy for me to linger on his last moments because they are so fresh. I will only say I held his paws and wished him a safe journey to heaven, where, with vision and hearing restored, I know he will chase squirrels (possibly on loan from hell, serving out their particular sentences) with tremendous joy in his heart.
There are very few things in life that can make one absolutely certain of the presence of God. For me, Angus was one. The day we met, my then-partner Patrick and I had gone to the Humane Society, "just to look." Patrick's dog Cashia is a black lab mix. All I really knew about dogs was black labs. I went in and asked to meet with several of the ones available. One was plain crazy - unfocused, random energy in the shape of a dog. Another could jump six feet from a standstill. I saw him hurdling my 4-foot fence and/or breaking every last piece of midcentury pottery in my home. As I went from black lab to black lab, I kept noticing this fat little red dog. He made better eye contact than the sexiest man in a singles bar. I knew he wanted me.
After the third time by his kennel, I looked at his description. "Australian Cattle Dog." Never heard of such a thing. And he was six years old. Abandoned twice. I looked again at the fat red dog, whose eyes never strayed from me. Ambivalent, but definitely curious, I asked to take him into a visiting room. I sat on the bench and he promptly climbed up into my lap. Patrick would say I fell in love with him at that moment, but I really wasn't sure. I was cautious. I knew nothing about the breed. Yet, this dog. This goofy looking, affectionate little dog, had touched me. I decided to put him on a 24-hour hold and do some research. If I didn't take him, my $25 reservation fee would become a tax-deductible donation. Nothing to lose.
Back home, I went on line and read about cattle dogs. They were smart and hardy. They liked to herd things by nipping at their heels. Bred to endure the extreme temperatures of the Outback, they were a hybrid of five breeds: bull terriers, Dalmatians, collies, kelpies, and dingos. Yes, dingos. As in, "dingo ate my baby." I was back to being unsure about Angus.
Surfing the Web further, I discovered a quiz on the Purina web site: match the breed to your lifestyle. "Oh," I thought. "This would be a good thing to do in any case." I answered some 20 questions about my life and my interests in having a dog. I clicked on "submit," and a few seconds later, the result appeared. Tied for first place as most appropriate breed for me were Brittany Spaniels and Australian Cattle Dogs. I gasped. All reservations about Angus vanished into vapor. It was as if God Himself were shouting in my ear, "Go adopt him already." (Years later, when I was single again, I lamented that there was not a similar quiz for dating: match the man to your lifestyle. Things really would have been so much easier.)
Thus began the second-longest relationship in my life (so far). Driving Angus home the next day, I learned that not all dogs sit quietly in the car. Angus went lunatic whenever the car was in motion. I also learned that a cattle dog's bark, less than two feet away in an enclosed space, rivals rock concert decibel levels. He never got over barking in the car. (I eventually resorted to a bark-deterrent collar, and rawhides. Lots and lots of rawhides.)
I believe that we were brought together to teach each other key lessons. I was there to teach Angus, whose foolish previous owners had given up the most wonderful dog imaginable, that he was indeed worthy of boundless and unconditional love. And he was sent to teach me about patience, which I generally lack. In later years, after he lost his hearing and his eyesight, I think I was also meant to learn about letting go, and conceding control. As Angus slowed down in his old age, I kept expecting him to be the dog he once was. It was only in recent weeks, honestly, that I started to get over that. I stopped forcing the pace of our walks and just allowed him to sniff and wander and stroll. There's what we want or expect of life, and then there's what is. I was just learning to find the beauty in what is. Thanks, Buddy, for that. I'll keep trying.
Three things (out of countless hundreds) I remember with great joy about Angus:
1) Cattle dogs in general, and Angus in particular, are not water dogs. But with patience on my part, and trust on Angus', I taught him to swim by wading further and further out into the water to fetch a stick. Eventually, he found himself in deep water, where his desire to fetch canceled out his fear of water, and he swam. And when I say "swim," I don't mean the graceful, athletic natatory motion of a lab. I mean a frantic, sloppy, enthusastic sloshing that helps you understand the phrase "dog paddle." Once he learned he could swim, though, he could play fetch endlessly. Really, it's one of the things I'm proudest of in my life.
2) When I still lived in my house on 13th Avenue, my kitchen window was tall and low to the ground. I kept Angus in the kitchen when I went to work, and when I returned home, he'd hear me and pop up onto the window sill, his pointy ears leading the way, and bark. He always reminded me of a Muppet making an entrance.
3) Once I started dating Paul, we would spend alternate weekends in "the country" -- Paul's house in Burnsville. By this time, Angus had lost his sight and hearing. Where my loft is basically a donut-shaped open floor plan, Paul's house is a relative labyrinth of corners and obstacles with two stories and a basement. Somehow, Angus figured out how to navigate the space (though many a nose print on the wall shows it wasn't easy). He could find me upstairs. Once last winter, even though I had never taken him to the basement, he found us down there as we were trying to light a fire. When we let him out in the backyard (on an extending leash), I marveled at how he knew that he was approaching the steps back into the house. He'd start raising his feet a little higher, looking like a prancing horse, as he anticipated the first step.
Thinking about these things, I feel such warmth and happiness amidst my loss. Angus was my canine soul-mate. He became an extension of me. I was lucky -- deeply lucky and truly blessed -- to have found him.
Rest in peace, little Gus. Like I told you last night, I'll have to be good from now on, so we can play together again in that off-leash park in the sky. Until then, chase a squirrel for me.