I Remember Rudy (2006)

by Gina Giuliano

I am not sure I am ready to write this, and yet I am compelled. I wanted to be past the memory of Rudy's illness and death before I put my thoughts on paper, or in this case, in digits. I remember losing Howie, my beagle/schnauzer, ten years ago, and Penny, my poodle, six years ago, and recall that I waited until the most intense stage of grief had passed before penning my tributes on Dogstar. I remember mourning Howie deeply for a year, and so I figured it might be better to let some time pass.

It didn't take quite a year for the deepest pain to pass after Penny's death, because she mourned Howie for so long that it changed her. She was more bonded to him than to any human. So when she passed away four years after he did, after a while I found comfort in thinking that they were finally together again, as inseparable as they had been in life, and she was happy again.

That said, it was hard to lose them. On the one hand, they had such long lives - 15 ½ and 16 ½ years, respectively, that it almost seemed like we would have them forever. That life without them was unthinkable. Howie was my first dog - not that I had not had at least one dog ever since I was born, but in the sense of getting my own after leaving my parent's home. I was in college at the time. He seemed lonesome as a young dog, and so we got Penny as a companion. They were with us through our 20s, and into our 30s, through thick and thin, helped us to grow up. On the other hand, those ages are about as long as you can expect dogs to live, each showed gradual signs of advancing age, so I knew for a long time before either died that the end would eventually come, and perhaps was better prepared.

The grief of losing Rudy is the same in some ways, yet different. There is an emptiness that seems like it can never be filled. There are memories that bring many tears, and occasional smiles. That is the same. But he was only a week past his 10th birthday, and until early summer he acted just like a young dog. Even when he was sick, he seemed fairly robust. He had no old age warts, no gray hair, no declining senses. His coat was beautiful, thick and shiny. There was no sign of tartar on his teeth, and he still howled at the mailman, played with toys, and never failed to meet us at the door. But for one thing...never a fat dog, it was eventually apparent that cancer was making him thinner.

I am trying not to focus on his last days, but on his joy, his zest for life, his amazing sparkle. And yet even that is hard, because it saddens me to think how quickly cancer took his life away. I remember January 6, the day I noticed in the snow that there was blood in his urine. I remember the endless tests a month later, and two months later, to determine the cause after antibiotics didn't clear it up. I remember how I hated to leave Rudy at the vet for the day so they could try to make a diagnosis. I remember fearing cancer might be the cause as we waited to get the results from the ultrasound. I remember the relief I felt when they assured us it wasn't cancer, but prostatitis. Unusual in a neutered dog, but not unprecedented.

I remember the veterinary "well" visit in late May, when the blood was diminished, but not gone, and how no one was worried because Rudy was still the same as always, still wagging his tail even when fast asleep if someone said his name, still pulling as hard as he could on his leash, still jumping from the height of several stairs down to the kitchen floor when we opened the door to the yard, still checking the grocery bags for Dentabones.

I remember July, when his energy level seemed slightly lower, and his appetite wasn't what it should be. We thought it was the extreme heat of this summer, and bought additional air conditioners. Rudy always preferred winter, and deep snow to hot weather. But we also scheduled another trip to the vet.

I remember the phone call after that visit that said all appeared well with this x-ray, but that he was slightly anemic. And I remember the shock of the call on July 29 that said on second look at the films, there appeared to be a mass in his abdomen, perhaps on his spleen, and that immediate exploratory surgery was in order. I remember clinging to the hope that it could be removed, that it wasn't malignant, and I also remember the frantic weekend I spent doing research on the Internet. I remember knowing in my heart that if it was cancer, exploratory surgery would be a mistake, that it would be wrong to put him through it, that the vet would recommend euthanasia on the table rather than a painful recovery with such a grim prognosis as the only possible outcome. I remember canceling the surgery and instead taking Rudy to a specialist, who seemed brilliant but not very caring. I remember waiting while he did more tests, and how he informed us afterwards that Rudy had cancer of the right kidney, his lymph nodes were involved, and it was so advanced that he was not a candidate for conventional therapy. He said Rudy would certainly die in August.

I remember a strange feeling of relief after the news, because it seemed we had been given a month, that without my frantic weekend Rudy would have been taken from us on August 1 during the surgery. I remember finding a holistic veterinarian, and the hope we felt after going there. She managed to help us to provide Rudy with a good quality of life for two months; he remained the happy dog he always was, and was able to enjoy his favorite activities - going for walks on his leash, going out in the yard at both of our houses, and riding in the car. I remember the weekly trips to the vet's office, an hour's ride away. I remember the pills, the shots, and the special diet. He didn't have any appetite, and so I blended the ingredients in a food processor and hand fed him. The only thing he still enjoyed were walks, and so we went as much as possible. He was tired, but he always wanted to go.

I remember how happy I was that Rudy was still with us on his birthday, and mine, which was the day after his. On September 17, he turned ten years old and he celebrated the momentous occasion by eating a Dentabone, something he had not wanted to do since earlier in his illness. The Tuesday afterwards he played with his toys. On Thursday and Friday, the blood in his urine got worse. Friday night, for the first time ever, he did not want to go for a walk before going to bed. On Saturday morning, he had a stroke. We took turns sitting a vigil with him, giving him water, stroking him, and on Sunday, September 25, 2005, Rudy had another stroke and died at 5 pm. It wasn't really terrible - but it isn't an image I want to dwell on, either.

We buried Rudy at our weekend house, in a wicker basket he loved that had been my parents' dog Pud's, and after that, Penny's. He is buried next to my parents' dog, a Doberman they got from the shelter whose name was Hobo. Hobo died on July 3, 2004 from bone cancer at age 8 ½. I loved him just like he was my own dog, and to be honest these two deaths in succession from cancer have been devastating for all of us. He was Rudy's best friend, and he also was an exceptionally loving dog. I do get some small comfort from thinking of them together again. They were so much alike. A week later, I placed an obituary for Rudy in our local paper, and ordered a monument for his grave. I didn't choose this one, but an inscription on one of the stones sticks with me: "If love could have saved you, you would still be alive." So true.

Our two other animals, Sophie, a Bassett Hound we got from the shelter as a companion for Rudy after Penny died, and Edna, a maybe Maine coon cat we found on the street 13 years ago, are mourning in their own way. Sophie isn't grieving as deeply as Penny did, when Howie died. She is a special needs dog, terribly allergic and needy, her life before we got her wasn't good, and she has her own issues. But they got along well, and she was especially sweet when Rudy was ill. I think she was in less denial than we were. Edna has mourned the passing of all her canine friends, and Rudy the most. She knew him his whole life, and was so patient with him when he was a puppy, even when he was too rough. They were very close once he grew up, and he always checked to be sure that she was OK. She hasn't wanted to eat as much since he has been gone.

It hurts to do the things Rudy loved without him. Walks. Car rides. Going to the park. It hurts to look at the places he most loved. His chair by the window. His den under the day bed. His plush basket. His favorite lounging spots in the yard. It hurts to look at his things, too. His collar. All of his favorite toys. His food dish. And then there are his pictures! They are everywhere, in albums, on the computer. But I can't stop looking.

I have so many questions, and so many doubts. Rationally I know we did everything we could, and that the way we handled his cancer fits in with our general view of life and death. I am not angry that our regular vet didn't diagnose his illness earlier, because I am not sure I would have wanted to pursue conventional cancer treatment, although I know I would have been tempted. In a way, I am happy we all didn't know back in the spring, because he seemed fine, his life was normal without all the pills and shots, and we always appreciated him, even before we knew he was sick. I am glad we found the holistic vet. I have always fed my animals a high quality homemade diet, and always avoided over vaccinating and other poisons. But still, the questions linger. I didn't want to be sad around him, so I wasn't. I knew he was very sick, but I had such hope, even after the stroke the day before he died. I was in denial, and at the same time, I wasn't. Was it all somehow my fault? Could I have done something differently a week before, a day before, last year, or two years ago? Toward the end, should I have petted him more, and pilled him less?

I have a vivid memory, and when someone says something like, "when did Princess Diana die?" I always remember exactly when, because I measure it against things in my own life. So I know it was two years after Howie died. When did we get vinyl siding? Oh, it was one year before Howie died. My 20 year high school reunion? That was three weeks after Penny died. With Rudy, I know I will recall so many events, Terry Schiavo's and the Pope's deaths, the hurricanes, to name just a few. That was 2005, the year Rudy died. And right now I am measuring time against when he got sick, and how long he has been gone. It seems like only yesterday, and at the same time, like a long time ago. It will be three weeks on Sunday. Friday, three weeks ago today, was his last good day - although he was failing, starting what I now know was his final decline.

That's the story of Rudy's illness, death and the aftermath. Now here are some memories of his life. After Howie died, I wasn't certain that I would get another dog or puppy right away. A few weeks later, sometime in October, I saw a photo in the "Cats and Dogs" column in the Saturday issue of the newspaper, with a story about Sandy the Beagle and her six week old pups, born at the shelter on September 17. I called the shelter every day the following week to see when the pups would be available, and arrived there on Thursday night to claim one. Seeing the crowd of people waiting, I was optimistic and melancholy at the same time. They were going to draw numbers, with each person whose number was called going up and choosing a puppy. I wanted a puppy, but I didn't want to choose. One puppy was left when my number, 29, magically was called. "Is he male or female?" I remember asking. "Male," said the shelter attendant. They handed me the tiny tri-colored puppy, I took him home, and I called him "Rudy," after the mayor of New York City (who has a last name just one letter different from mine).

I remember that he was alternately bright, mischievous and sweet. As a puppy, he chewed up shoes, the edges of furniture, books, and even the diskettes with my husband's thesis (that was the one time I saw Bob really mad...though I think more at me than at Rudy). He destroyed a few window screens by digging at them, too. Although quite a handful as a puppy and young dog (and his youthful exuberance helped to ease the pain of losing Howie and eventually, Penny), as an adult he was more mellow and well-behaved. Once he grew up, we determined that he was probably a beagle/collie. Handsome on the inside and out, with a sunny disposition that won him many admirers, "Mr. Wuj" loved going for walks, car rides, rolling in the snow, electronic plush toys, Dentabones, chicken dinner, and his "den."

I remember that he was the happiest dog I have ever seen, always wagging his tail, never pensive. His good nature won him many admirers. He loved all people, even those who do not care much about dogs. He also loved other dogs, and cats too. Despite his hound ancestors, he had no interest in hunting things, and left the toads, birds, and groundhogs in our yard alone. He loved the village where we live, and spent countless hours sitting in his favorite chair, keeping watch over the street. He was energetic even during his illness, and until recently he could be described as a ball of fire. He was full of mischief, holding "bad" things (underwear, coins, pieces of paper) hostage until he received the ransom - a treat! For some reason, he liked to sniff human ears and hair, and from his perch on the stairs would persist until visitors let him. When he was sick, I would bend down so he could still take a few whiffs.

I remember that he especially loved winter, when his favorite activity was rolling in the snow, and I remember the joy I always felt watching him, as he wiggled on his back after a storm. I called him "arctic dog" when he would come in afterwards, his muzzle and back coated with white stuff. He loved "dens" - any area with a roof where he would curl up - as a puppy he created one under the day bed and that remained a lifelong favorite place to sleep. He had another, under a bush in the yard, and yet another, in the kitchen, under the bar we once had. I never did a lot of training; no crates, no obedience, and yet somehow Rudy taught himself to be well-behaved. He was allowed on the furniture - my animals come before material things, and I am not a believer in all that advice regarding showing who is boss by imposing limits, but as an adult he preferred the

floor to any sofa or bed. He was immaculate in his appearance (he hated when his white fur was dirty). I did teach him tricks; he knew "paw," "speak" and "sit." He also knew many other words, and sentences too.

Ten years was much too short to have had this wonderful dog, and I am heartbroken. That was the luckiest day of my life, when my number was drawn at the shelter and I got to take home the last of the poster pups. I love all animals, and all are special, but in my experience, Rudys don't come along everyday. Simply put, I remember best dog I've ever had. (I should know, I've had quite a few best dogs!)

I know in many of the articles on grief, the author cautions against the old adage about getting another pet right away. I can understand this perspective, but I disagree. I believe how long you should wait, or whether you ever feel ready to get another pet is an individual decision. For me, it doesn't have a lot to do with the grieving process. I could never resent a new pet, as I love all animals. I know from experience that another dog will not replace Rudy, could never replace Rudy. But I also know that I have room in my house, heart and budget for another friend, and I hate the thought of those sad faces sitting in the shelter, perhaps facing euthanasia. Why wait? There is no greater tribute than to find room for another. So after spending countless hours on that resulted in eye strain and a headache, I went to the same place where I got Rudy and Sophie (I didn't live here when I got Howie and Penny, and Edna was a stray), got my application approved and took home a 4 month old puppy, of unknown breed. He may be hound, lab, collie, spaniel, doberman, all of these, or something else entirely. It doesn't matter to me. He needed a home. He was already named Sam. He is mostly black, with a little white and a little brown.

Yes, perhaps it seems too soon, in a way. It really hasn't eased my grief, and I know it won't, but it has made me think of the future in a more positive way. And he even makes me laugh sometimes. I had forgotten what a puppy was like, even though Rudy was puppyish for his whole life. How alternately endearing and aggravating they are. His antics remind me of Rudy's when he was young. (Luckily I now have no floppy diskettes to worry about. But there still are books, and furniture, and shoes...and the other animals...) My mother, who is very wise in these matters, loves animals, and currently has horses, a dog, and a cat, advises "you will feel just as bad when his days are done." Oh, how true.

Even if words could never really capture how I feel or how special Rudy was, it has helped to write this.