Friday, January 05, 2007

I lost my partner today. He was five years old.

Most people know about me and the cocker spaniels. Most know about me and the goats. But not everyone knows about the quiet gentle soul who has stood beside me quietly making sure I don't fall down and do damage to myself. The one who has made it possible for me to live the solitary and ever so independent life that I lead.

I don't like to talk about it much. The world is full of people happy to tell you about their limitations, but I've always exercised something I like to call "healthy denial". By my sheer determination to completely ignore that there is something wrong with me...I feel I can surpass my limitations. Sometimes this works...sometimes it doesn't. Disability advocates would probably say I'm living in a closet. I probably am. I'm my own worst enemy in that respect. I just get tired of the know?

Ten years ago, I was fighting for my life. My lupus morphed into something truly dangerous and added a rare clotting disorder to the mix. I spent two months of 1997 in a coma with my chest cavity open to the heart, packed in gauze. It took a six month hospitalization to bring me back to life. I survived despite having only a 10 percent chance of living. I learned at this time, personally, about the terrible beauty of honorable scars. I bear them. I've known people with even more beautiful and honorable scars than mine.

It was a hard long road to get my mobility back. I was left with some residual neuropathies that impact my balance. As my lupus flares up and down, they get worse...then better. Sometimes, when they are better, I pass quite well as having nothing wrong with me.

In 2000 I began researching getting a service dog to help me. A program dog was out of the question. Aside from the long waiting list, I wasn't willing to give up my work with other dogs and many programs do not want other dogs in the home where they place a service dog. A program dog usually retires and leaves his handler. I knew I wouldn't be able to take that...I form very close attachments to my dogs.

I found a really wonderful group on the internet called OT-ADogs (Owner-trained Assistant Dogs) owned by the wonderful Dana Marshall and her partner, Gillis. I learned as much as I could from them before making the decision to get Aegis. I stayed with this group throughout Aegis' training and they were hugely helpful. I'm not sure why I left them...I think I just sank back into my comfortable state of denial again.

I puppy tested Aegis' litter when they were five weeks old. Aegis blew the other puppies completely out of the water. I was a bit conflicted since I'd always had a strong preference for black labs, but I couldn't deny this puppy's test results.

Any doubts about my choice were blown away when I picked him up three weeks later and turned to look in those amazing topaz eyes. We imprinted...hard.

About Aegis' name. A great deal of research and care went into its selection. It does not refer to any modern warfare guidance system or warship. It was chosen for its classical meaning. Particularly for its significance to the virgin warrior goddess Athena. It was her shield. Her divine protection. Very much as my Aegis was mine. His name was and is hugely significant to me. I feel naked now.

I started training Aegis as soon as I brought him home. We used clicker training, which allows you to train a dog at a much earlier stage. It was always a game to him. There are many horror stories out there about Labrador Retrievers and their terrible twos. By clicker training Aegis, we never experienced this. Aegis never chewed up a single thing. He never destroyed anything. He never failed to come when called. It can be done. Gently, effectively and without one harsh word.

He achieved his Canine Good Citizen's certificate at six months of age. We began to work in public places and I made him a "puppy vest" to work in. By eight months of age, he could walk by the meat department in the grocery store without even a glance at the steaks. He had all of his bracing commands down by the time he was ten months, though I wasn't putting much weight on his growing bones at that time. Aegis attended a voc rehab center with me and was an immediate "star". I can't tell you how proud I have always been of his noble and funny self. And he did have a quirky sense of humor.

We were training "pulling" and we were working on him pulling open the fridge door. I'd placed a "pull" on the door for that purpose. I stepped out of the house one day without him and returned to find that he had opened the fridge and had passed out "snacks" to all the cocker spaniels. He was overly pleased with himself.

We did some WET Dog training just for fun when we were still in South Carolina. Aegis excelled at this as he did everything else. People were always amazed that Aegis knew his left from his right. He picked that up when we were doing that. I'd direct him from the shore as to where objects were. He could pull me out halfway to the middle of the May river and back to shore. He could swim with you without ever letting one paw scratch you. And he was always concerned and worried when I was in the water.

I swim. It's the safest think I can do with myself and I've been a lap swimmer since I was in my twenties. Not so much anymore, since the pool is so far away. But in Bluffton, we had a great pool. Aegis would stay in a very attentive down stay for the entire time I was swimming. He would bring me my flippers and hand mitts. When I was done, he'd meet me at the side of the pool with my towel and offer his harness until I could get my balance again. And I always knew, he was just waiting for the moment he needed to jump in and save me.

How do you replace a friend like that?

All of this, he did before his first birthday.

This dog most certainly knew his job. He never lost sight of me and if I was doing something he thought was beyond my limits, he absolutely let me know about it. He hovered whenever he thought I was endangering myself. He was usually right. I can't tell you how many reproving looks I've gotten from him while I was out on the mountain or cranking up the chainsaw.

"That looks dangerous." His topaz eyes would say, "Stop it right now!"

When we moved to Tennessee, I was wanting to work again, so I stopped taking him out in public so much. Nothing says "disabled" like a great big yellow dog in a harness beside you. And don't think for a minute that the ADA has solved anything in regards to discrimination. It hasn't. No one will hire you if they think something is wrong with you. They just won't and there doesn't seem to be a damn thing you can do about it.

And Tennessee is in the middle ages as far as service dogs are concerned.

"But you ain't blind?!!"

So Aegis stayed on the farm. He helped me hang fencing. He carried tools for me. Mostly he made sure I didn't fall and helped me up when I did. He picked up after the cockers and played nursemaid to baby goats. And he let me know when I was doing something I shouldn't. Like try to shimmy down the mountain to get something that had blown off the porch.

He missed getting his vest and harness on and going out, but I myself became more insulated and didn't get out much either. So he was still with me all of the time. So that was okay.

I've often wondered if I was ever worthy of Aegis. He was that sort of just couldn't believe that he was in your life and not with someone else. Everyone wanted him. Everyone loved him. He made me feel loved by extension. He made me want to be a better person. I don't think I could ever live up to his expectations and image of me.

Aegis was the sort of soul that you are just incredibly blessed to have enter your life. Frankly, I don't think anyone could have been worthy of him. He was a once in a lifetime sort of dog.

If I seem to be nattering on aimlessly, it's because I'm numb. There is a point where grief is so profound that one's entire soul shuts down. That's where I am right now.

Today, Aegis' liver failure took a turn for the worse. He started to have seizures and his temperature spiked in the afternoon. After a consultation with my amazing veterinarian, Sandra O'Connor, we decided that he was only going to get worse and there were no other options available. It was "time".

My friend Scott was here to help take him in. Aegis couldn't walk and was fading fast by the time we arrived at Cedarwood.

I whispered his highest praise words into his ear as he left.

"Good Boy, guboy, guboy, guboy!"

I said them over and over again...way beyond the point where it was necessary.

My vet and I wept. She hugged me.

We tried. God knows we tried.

I don't know what I'm going to do now. The partnering bond between us was so strong. I can't imagine sharing that with another dog.

I think I'd rather fall. I think I'd rather bruise and bleed.


  1. Maridmitch said...
    Dear Rosie,

    I've just recently started reading your posts. I've visited the Old 15th area many times since 2000 due to my friendship with the Myers at the Christy Mission. I'm so sorry to read about Aegis's death. He was one dog in a million, that's evident.
    bonnie said...
    I'm so, so sorry. can't tell you how much I was hoping your next post would be that he'd turned the corner.

    That is a most beautiful tribute you've written for him.
    Leeuna said...
    There are no words..."I'm sorry," is not enough and "I know how you feel," would be a lie... Grief is different for all of us.

    The grieving will be hard, his loss will be felt for a long time. I can only wish you strength and courage in dealing with his passing. I know he will live on forever in your memory.
    Anonymous said...
    How terribly sad. What a truly beautiful soul: good boy, indeed.

    Rosie said...
    Thank you all for your messages of condolence. I buried my boy at sunset yesterday. A good crowd showed up for the funeral...nine goats and my big friend Scott watched me read the Committal service from the Book of Common Prayer over his grave. It will no doubt cause a scandal on the mountain that I gave my dog a Christian burial. But if any dog deserved was Aegis.
    Yvonne said...
    What a wonderful dog, definitely a sad loss. So sorry that he has gone.
    Luna*tic said...
    Oh Rosie, I'm so sorry. You're in my thoughts. Take care of yourself and keep writing, we'll be here to listen. xoxo
    Velociman said...
    Poor Aegis. I'm so very sorry, Rosie. I can only begin to feel your grief. My heart is with you.
    Erica said...
    My heart breaks so much for you...and I cannot tell you how sorry I am.

    What a soul-stirring tribute to a fine life well-lived.

    My condolences.

    (via Velociman)

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