Monday, July 28, 2014

John: My Dog & Me (John Hiatt)

John Hiatt & The Goners: My Dog & Me

That handsome guy pictured above was named Strummer, after the great Joe, who died in December, 2002, about a year before his canine namesake was born. And, on Sunday, our Strummer passed away quietly, in his home, with people he loved.

I didn’t want to get him, and I didn’t want to have him, and certainly more than my wife and children, I resisted his considerable charms. For years, I took a predictably passive aggressive position about getting a dog. They talked about getting one, and I nodded and did nothing to advance the project. This strategy was remarkably successful for years, but one day, to my surprise, on a February day in 2004, I found myself in a minivan on the way to the North Shore Animal League. We looked at a bunch of dogs, none of which satisfied the selection committee (while I stood in the back, trying to remain detached). But when Adam found this little black Lab mix, with white markings, he was smitten, and his enthusiasm swayed his sister and mother. I was pretty much indifferent, although I had to admit that he was a nice looking puppy.

On the ride home, the little guy was scared, he sat on Adam’s lap, and even baptized him with piss. We got home, and were dog owners. Of course, in the traditional manner of all kids who promise to do all of the work relating to a dog, in reality, most of it fell on my wife, and to a lesser extent on me. At the time, I was working full time in New York, and my wife was home more, and cared more, so she did most of the heavy lifting.

Strummer was a good dog. He was, as could be expected from what we believe was a Lab/Pit Bull mix, very territorial. As I said on Sunday, he retired undefeated in preventing the mailman, the UPS guy and the FedEx guy from getting in the house, because he barked like crazy when they approached. In fact, he barked at pretty much anyone, or any dog who walked by the house. He especially seemed to hate these two greyhounds that lived in the neighborhood, and I used to joke that they had, as Woody Allen once said, “passed a remark” about him. But once we let you into the house, he was an affectionate and friendly guy, even though he grew to be about 100 pounds and could look pretty imposing. He loved my family unconditionally, and when my kids came home from college, he gave them an excited greeting that was something to see.

I have to admit that I kind of resented having to deal with him at times, like when it was freezing and he needed to go out, or when we needed to pay to have him taken care of so that we could go away for a day or longer. And as my kids got older and became more independent, I was not pleased about still having to worry about him. To be clear—it wasn’t the dog that bothered me, it was having a dog at all, which is a different thing, at least to me.

In March, 2013 I left my job in the city and started working from home. All of a sudden, I was Strummer’s main caretaker, which was quite a change for me. And we bonded a bit. I found myself talking to him in the quiet house, which for some reason seems somewhat less crazy than talking to no one. And at times, it wasn’t bad to come downstairs from my office to his wagging tail and hopeful eyes. Of course, sometimes he insisted on barking while I was on the phone with clients, or demanded to go outside when I wanted to do something else. And it was still a pain in the butt having to deal with taking him out during the winter, or when I was working. But we also started taking regular walks, and having Strummer gave me an excuse to explore local trails that I would never have chosen to walk alone.

Unfortunately, a few months back, Strummer hurt his leg, and the vet diagnosed him with a torn or strained ACL in his back right leg. Considering the cost of operating, the difficult rehab and his age, she advised only to give him pain meds and have him take it easy. So, the long walks stopped, and he became a bit more sedentary. He was still alert and seemed happy, if a bit hobbled, which I could sympathize with.

Suddenly, last Tuesday morning, he had trouble walking, and his “good” back leg was swollen. The vet hoped that it was just an infection, but suspected something worse. On Thursday, we got the diagnosis of lymphoma, and a bad prognosis. His condition deteriorated quickly, and a few family friends and relatives came to say goodbye. By Sunday, he couldn’t walk at all. We knew it was time to let him go, and had the vet scheduled to come to the house that afternoon to put him down. But, before that, and sitting with Adam as he did that day he joined the family, Strummer completed the circuit of life and died on his own terms. We buried him on the perimeter of the territory he guarded so jealously, with Adam, his girlfriend Robin, my wife and my parents standing by, and with my daughter watching on Skype, sadly only 6 days before she would be returning from a year abroad.

We aren’t religious people, so we don’t think that Strummer is off in some big dog park in heaven running with Max and Maggie, or his friends from day care, but I’m glad that he is no longer in pain. I know that all of us—even me—were enriched by his life and his years as part of our family. You’ll be missed, big fella.

Clearly, John Hiatt had a dog that he loved, because the lyrics to “My Dog & Me” could only have been written by someone who did. I mean, Hiatt is a great songwriter, and all, but this song has the ring of truth.

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