tale two tails
The funny thing going into this story is that I was scared to death of dogs as a kid. I was never bitten or scared away by some beast. I just didn’t really grow up around them. My family had a cat named Amanda who died when I was in kindergarten, so a hands-on-idea of a pet just didn’t exist for me as I grew up. Dogs were wolves, had teeth, and were scary – end of story. That was until I stayed the night at my friend Matt’s place, and their dog would constantly try to lay on top of me as I fell asleep. I fought him off plenty of times, but with the dog’s endless energy and me having spent mine playing NHL 92 on Sega, I was destined to lose. He ended up laying across my lap, creating a perfect plus sign for the rest of the night. I woke up, he was still there, and I was totally cool with him. Matt’s family even tried to shoo him away when we were having breakfast because they knew of my phobia, but I said, “Nah, I’m good.” Suddenly, dogs were cool.
From there, I didn’t have a dog for 15 more years. My family lived in an apartment that made it difficult to own one, and the timing never worked out until Hershey came along. Hershey was a chocolate lab, and his story is interesting but for another time (this is A Tale of Two Tails and not Three Tails). He came to us as my brother was coming back from Iraq, and I was in full-swing ROTC mode. Hershey was great for my daily runs and also to test my sneaking skills in hopes of catching him sleeping on our couch.
After college and ROTC, I ended up having to leave Hershey as a full time guardian; I had some Army work to be done. Like many others, that Army work led to some back and hip issues for me, which lead me down the Medical Review Board process and an early retirement from service. This was a shock to me as I had really set my heart in on serving until a normal retirement, because who wouldn’t want to retire at 46 or so? The biggest pain (aside from the aforementioned back and hip) was losing my platoon from Delta Company of the 223rd MI Battalion.
I missed the brother and sisterhood as well as our combined efforts to accomplish a mission. I missed my battle buddies who kept an eye on me when I would get hit by the Good Idea Fairy or ignored our sage Platoon Sergeant’s advice. I had none of that but was instead ejected out into the corporate world of my “day job” where “cover your ass” was a daily phrase and not personal ownership or staying on mission. I was hurt physically and emotionally; a giant void ripped open and filled only by a depression that manifested mostly in an incredible skill to sleep forever.
However, then I met a woman, and with her, entered our first tail, Laine. Laine was also a chocolate lab, about 3 years old, and a walking ball of fur, energy, and licks. Probably to a fault. She also possessed the most intense tail ever. Seriously, the muscles around her tail were the strongest I’ve seen on any dog. We lost a vertical blind to her tail at least once a month when she would wake us up at the crack of dawn to let us know it was, in fact, the crack of dawn and she needed to pee. Peeing was easy. Getting her to poop was an adventure, almost literally, as she would occasionally jump up on our plant ledge to engage in “sky poops.”
After a couple of years, I “enlisted” her into the Army, got a nice ACU collar for her, and made her the mascot for our charity team. SPC Laine was an immediate hit, and boy did she embrace her sham shield. Need her to poop quickly? Nope, she’d need to find the perfect spot. Try to get her exercise vest on to wear her out? Not a chance as she’d wiggle out of that work detail like no one I’ve ever seen.
Most importantly, aside from comic relief, was her companionship. She always wanted to know what was going on with me. If I spent too much time doing research on my laptop, she’d jump up on the bed and low crawl towards me. If I wanted to step outside alone, she’d paw the door. And key here”¦ when I was feeling down, aching for the days of when I was in the Army and helping out my unit, she would get especially cuddly. More than once when I wanted to grab a handful of pills to numb myself out, she would walk up, put her paw at my knee, and pull me back from a bad place.
— Laine, 2014
Did she probably just need to pee, sure, but it still stopped me from some destructive behaviors. She kept me in line and honest with her and myself.
Then we found the bulge.
It was mid-2015. It appeared on her hip without warning and would never go away. Cancer, because of course. Not just any cancer, this was the ”˜invade Iraq and be in Baghdad in 48 hours’ of cancers. It quickly hit her lungs, and there was nothing we could do. This was a quality of life situation; there wasn’t much quantity even if we tried everything under the sun.
I had never lost a Soldier under my command, but this felt like my first. How did I fail her? What extreme measures could I take to pull this one out? There was nothing. I had to look her in the face, a face of excitement every day, a face of joy and energy. A face of love. A face of never knowing how sick she was.
My escape was the bathroom. I promised myself I’d always be strong in front of her so she’d never know anything was off. However, days would end, she would fall asleep (mostly on her bed, Whenever I left my spot on the people bed, she would find her way into my spot, (usually nipples up), and I’d go cower in the smallest of bathrooms in our apartment and cry. I don’t know for how long but enough to snot up my beard a good amount. She didn’t deserve this fate. She had rescued me from dangerous, if not deadly, actions. She should be getting medals pinned on her, not softball size tumors.
Eventually the tumor on her hip grew to a point where it was cutting off circulation in her leg and fluid would build up in the limb. My girlfriend (now fiancÃ©e) and I would spend time two or three times a day helping to push it through the blockages, but it was a fruitless exercise. The tumor was stretching the skin, preventing full mobility, and causing pain. I hear that dogs have a very high tolerance of pain, so I can’t imagine what levels the pain was when she finally started voicing her suffering. It was just after midnight on August 12th when my girlfriend and I looked at each other and just knew it was time.
Laine was her dog, so I went to work that day to let them spend time alone. They got the freshest of treats and some glorious walks. I came home, and we all went to dinner where she feasted on sweet potato fires and rolled around in the sun with us and a life long friend. Then, we took her in to our vet where we hugged, we teared up, she licked us, and said goodbye at 6:50 PM. I looked to support my girlfriend as best I could, not crying myself, but lost in shock. 30 minutes later we made it home. My fiancÃ©e felt a little bit better from the moment, but I spent half the night in the bathroom. I wasn’t working, so I mostly reverted back to laying in bed and trying to sleep as much as I could. Sometimes I’d step outside to where she’d play, sit, and just cry some more. We donated her food to the Los Angeles Fire Department, her treats to a neighbor, and tossed her bed and toys.
Her ashes came to us along with a paw print a few weeks later, and we just let them sit on our bookshelf. We didn’t want to say any more goodbyes to her, so they both just hung out there for a while while we tried to ignore the guilt of just having her sit there for months.
Come February, my fiancÃ©e and I started looking for a new pup. I quietly insisted a Labrador because that is all I had experience with”¦ but mostly because I love their heads and ears. We hit up all sorts of shelters and rescue shops throughout Los Angeles and stalked websites, but no pup ever felt like ”˜the one.’ In fact, I started to get so bummed out that we couldn’t find a dog who latched onto us immediately. I was being told that it doesn’t really ever happen because they’re in cages and, when let out, just want to smell everything else.
Until one did.
We walked into this one rescue store called Bark n’ Bitches. I really wanted to see this Lab/Corgi mix that was listed online just to play with it but unlikely to adopt. I just wasn’t in the mood to going in there. As we walked in, I made a slight note of a group of three dogs playing a little tug of war. One had what looked like a bit of a black Labrador body shape, but it’s back was towards me so I couldn’t see the face to confirm. Still, I was pretty laissez faire about the whole thing, so I didn’t really force my way into the battle.
Then, a little terrier jumped up onto two legs and human-walked up to me. Now, I’m not a little dog guy, but that was cute. I crouched down to play with him for a bit because you need to reward effort sometimes, right? A second surprise came when I felt something brush up against my right side. I looked over and staring right at me was a little Labrador face with caring but tired eyes, and she stayed there bringing in our second tail.
She was underweight, her fur patchy, and she carried a tired look. She stuck with me as I rubbed her head and scratched her back. I was waiting for her to run off and play with the other dogs, but she never did. She stayed, staring at me like she had been through hell but knew I had too. I looked up to my fiancÃ©e, and she knew what I was thinking right away”¦ if this wasn’t the one, who was?
We started to get her backstory: a year and a half old, used for breeding, neglected, bouncing around from kennel to Bark n’ Bitches. That explained her weight, her patchy fur, and her recovering nipples since she had just given birth to a litter in February. An hour later, after an extensive interview and some supply shopping, this pup was coming home with us.
She was so perfect that we didn’t even want to change her given name Bark n’ Bitches gave her. Autumn was going to join our little family. 2 minutes after walking out of the store, she was getting compliments from strangers. If things weren’t everything I wanted while at the store, when we got home and I sat down on the couch, the first thing she did was crawl up onto the couch, scooch up to my lap, and plop down for a little bonding time. She then got to meet the neighbor’s and her newest puppy friend, Bella.
I always want to do a bit of comparison on how Autumn could help me with the things Laine did, but I keep reminding myself that isn’t how this works. Laine was Laine, and there will never be another one. Autumn is Autumn, and no one before has been like her. So will Autumn ”˜enlist’ and serve as the The Stacks: Pacific South mascot? We’ll see; that will be her call as time goes on. Will she paw at my knee when I’m feeling down? Again, I don’t know, but so far she keeps wanting to snuggle (as I type this) and even when she goes out to play, she comes back to sit on my feet to pull guard duty. I’m learning to realize she’ll help me in all new ways.
Her tail is just beginning and when I look at her, I get a little teary-eyed thinking of how adorable she is, the struggles she has had, and all we’ll get to do together as a family. I’m also glad we kept Laine’s ashes and paw print around. They’ll get to meet each other, sisters-in-dog, paw to paw.
Then Laine will pass on some wisdom on how to look after my fiancÃ©e and I as we adventure forward into marriage.
And Autumn”¦ Autumn will tell Laine, “I have the watch now. Go swim in the ocean and rest easy, my sister.”