The man with the full basket gestured for me to step ahead of him in the supermarket checkout line. I glanced at his fresh veggies and artisanal cheeses as I placed my six pack of beer and Klondike bars on the belt. I caught his eye and said “healthy lunch,” nodding towards my purchases. “Looks great,” he replied. I think he meant it.
What I wanted to say was, “I just put my dog to sleep at the vet’s down the road.” And I wanted to start crying again, right there in Freshtown, with a stranger who makes healthy choices. But I didn’t.
I could say that losing Iske is losing a part of myself but that’s a) obvious, b) maudlin, and c) kind of hyperbolic. All the same, I’m thinking it even while I’m not saying it out loud to random strangers in Freshtown. She and I had something that transcended normal pet-owner dynamics. She and I were soul-spliced, and linked in ways that make no sense. You just have to trust me on this. I think every crazy dog person has that one dog – the one that is a deeper bond than any other. Iske was that one.
She was crazy. I guess that appealed to me. She threw herself into everything she did with that malinois intensity that made me laugh and gasp and duck and cover. She wasn’t a nice dog – she was wound way too tightly for that. She was a neurotic, sharp, competitive, airborne nutcase. The first time I saw her she was in an outdoor enclosure losing her mind because I had driven up her driveway. She was jumping up and down – all four feet off the ground, from a standstill, and her head was bashing the roof of her run. Her foster mom, Lyn, got her under control and beckoned me to enter the run to meet her. Lyn released her from her sit stay. Iske hit me full in the chest and her tongue was up my nose instantly. I sat on the ground so that she would stop jumping up. She placed her paws on my shoulders and held me down while she licked the insides of my skull. And that was pretty much that.
She was loving, and incredibly affectionate, but allowing her to cuddle always ended badly. Iske would get overstimulated by closeness and end up escalating the affection until someone got hurt. No hugging, no faces, no running … we all learned how to manage Iske so that she was as sane and safe as possible. Those first few years involved a lot of “oooh, that took a nasty turn.”
She was the patron saint of hiking disasters. She had a run-in with barbed wire that resulted in a 6 mile walk out with her chest torn open. She grunted “it’s only a flesh wound.” She bounced on broken glass and severed a toe. She got kicked in the head by a white-tailed deer and lost consciousness. I had to carry her out that time. She fell backwards off a cliff and tumbled about 30 feet, landing on her back. She got up, shook it off, and assumed we’d continue (we didn’t). She got quilled by porcupines three times and stoically stood still while we plucked those quills out of her gums and the base of her tongue (of course she’d gotten them everywhere. She was thorough.).
She completed more rounds of the Catskill 35 than I can count, and hiked up Bramley Mountain a cool thousand times, the last of which was just a few days before she died. She was as crazy and intense as Hawk when she was young, as stick-obsessed and as enthusiastic about everything. The huge difference was that for Iske, the ultimate goal and joy in life was to obey me. She just wanted to do my bidding… all the fucking time. She was at the ready — “send me in, coach!” — 24/7/365. She was a ball of fire, at 50 lbs, and nothing was too much for her. Back in those days when it was just me, Maya, and Iske we had some crazy fun times – swimming in the Housatonic, hiking the AT in Connecticut, and mountain biking when I fractured my leg and couldn’t hike or run. She got me evicted from the house I rented, so I bought a house… and she adapted to living right in a village. She learned to lie in the front yard and let the world go by.
She never said no. She just did everything I asked, the first time I asked it.
When we adopted Lily, Iske established herself as dominant. She only ever used as much force as it took – no more. When we fostered Red Cloud, Iske taught him the ropes and occasionally even deigned to play with him. But not often and not much. Then we got Cinder who loved and respected Iske immediately. Then Jack, who was just so happy to have a decent meal and a safe place to sleep, he barely noticed we had other dogs. Then Mica. Then Hawkitt. And then Peeka. Through every transition, Iske was increasing serene. Ok, Iske seemed to think, my mom is a crazy dog lady. So be it. Iss just moved over, shared the dog beds and food bowls as if she’d been doing it all her life. She washed a lot of dirty ears, and snarked at a lot of foolish puppies.
All this describing her just doesn’t even come close to touching what she and I shared. She was a hoot, an athletic maniac, but she was also so fucking present to me through whatever I was experiencing. Iske was there, with me, truly with me. She came on almost all my dates. She witnessed a dysfunctional relationship – beginning, middle, and godawful end. She was not a sweet affectionate supportive little face licker, but she demanded I function. She anchored me in reality, and handed me a stick or ball every time I turned inward and shut down. No, she said. Here. Take this and throw it.
She was an equal to me, not a dog or a pet, but a being that shared my home and helped me raise my child. She witnessed my life and held me in her heart and soul. I did the same for her.
Suddenly last week she began to struggle to pee. She spent a day at the vet’s, getting xrays and ultrasounds, blood tests and treatments. We picked her up with no real answers, but her vet taught me how to express her bladder. For a long weekend, we peed for her. She accepted this intervention with grace and dignity. She let us help her and if anything, seemed grateful. Day and night, from Saturday to Tuesday, we peed her every pee with her. She stopped eating. She trembled in pain. She stopped drinking. She was mostly blind, mostly deaf, and now seemingly ready. We made the call.
I take so much comfort in the outpouring of support from the dog friends and malinois people I’ve come to know over the years. But ultimately grief is a solo journey, and what I had with Iske is mine alone. What I’ve lost is mine to figure out – how to be with that loss, how to honor what we had, and how to move forward with the pack members that remain. I couldn’t bring myself to exercise them yesterday – the wind and driving rain was the excuse, but the truth was that I couldn’t share myself with them. I ate a Klondike bar, drank the beer (two of them, the second one powerfully regretted), wallowed in tortilla chips and tipsy tears, and talked Tom’s ear off sharing memories of Iske.