Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Let Us Sit Upon the Ground and Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

Arthur was Karen’s third, and final, Seeing Eye dog, coming to us in early 1999. He was a German shepherd and was coming in to replace Vinnie, the black lab, who was retiring due to advancing age and chronic silliness.

If Vinnie was more concerned with comfort and culinary misdeeds than his job, Arthur was, to put it mildly, a reminder of what the other end of the guide dog spectrum was like.

Like Karen’s first dog, Lyric, Arthur was a long-haired shepherd. But while Lyric had been the runt of her litter, Arthur apparently came out of the birth canal an alpha dog, and never looked back.

When Karen was training with Arthur at the Seeing Eye, the reports I got were very different than those I’d received about Lyric and Vinnie during their training periods. Lyric hated Karen, Vinnie loved everyone, and Arthur, well, Arthur was essentially perfect. He accepted Karen instantly as his new mistress, and from the first day of training rarely, if ever, made even the slightest mistake.

There were a few problems unrelated to their work.

Arthur didn’t seem to like the other dogs at the school, and this could be seen in his attitude. He would become visibly impatient when he and Karen had to wait for the rest of the class to catch up with them, as if he were thinking, “What is the matter with those guys? I trained with them. They know how to do it. Why won’t they work right?”

At the Seeing Eye the students and trainers all eat at round tables for five or six, to simulate a restaurant, and the students keep their dogs under the table, out of sight. On several occasions, Arthur started a fight with another guide dog under the table, for reasons unknown to Karen, but seemingly quite clear to Arthur. Since he was the biggest dog in the class, as well as the smartest, the fights were very quick, ending with the other dog, unhurt, but as submissive as a puppy. Naturally this behavior was a little worrisome to Karen, and to the Seeing Eye, but in reality, situations where five large dogs are crammed under one small table are pretty rare, and the school felt Karen was a strong enough guide dog user to control any potential problems he might exhibit.

She was, generally, although when she and Arthur first came into our house, where Vinnie and four other dogs already lived, he immediately set the ground rules according to Arthur. Vinnie was so delighted to see Mom after her three week absence that he ran to her to throw himself into her arms and kiss her. Arthur couldn’t have mistaken Vinnie’s approach for aggression, but he nonetheless brought the ten year old lab down in a flash of fur and teeth. We were horrified and tended to Vinnie, who was completely unhurt but terrified and baffled. What had happened? Arthur watched our solicitousness towards Vinnie without a flicker of regret. He nicely met the other dogs and cats, and, a couple hours later, he approached Vinnie and did what he could to make up. It was as if he was saying, “Hey, nothing personal, man, it’s just that there’s a new alpha in town!” Vinnie, who couldn’t hold a grudge, accepted the apology, and his new role in the pack, with cheerful equanimity.

To watch Arthur and Karen work was to see a miracle. There’s always something magical about watching a good human-guide dog team, but Arthur was like nothing I’d ever seen before. He was fast, and precise. None of her dogs would have let her stumble over a curb; Arthur wouldn’t let Karen hit a crack in the sidewalk. He guided her around overhanging branches without breaking stride. When they crossed the street, Arthur made eye contact with the idling cars at the intersection, both, I suspect, to make sure the drivers saw them, and also to communicate to the drivers exactly what would happen to them if they broke their idle and attempted to move before he and Karen had crossed.

At home, Arthur became a pretty nice guy. No more fight or displays of dominance were necessary. He was King, and it was good to be King. He enjoyed playing with balls or Frisbees, and was a pretty normal, if intense, kind of dog, never displaying the kind of neurosis that tortured Lyric through her life. He was a good dog, a world-class Seeing Eye dog, leader of a pack of six, and at peace with the world.

Within nine months of Arthur arriving, Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer. The first component of her treatment was a modified radical mastectomy of her left breast. Because you work a Seeing Eye dog with your left arm, the surgery crippled Karen from being able to work Arthur. Well before she was healed from that she began chemotherapy, and between the chemo sickness and the surgical pain, she found that she could no longer work a dog. On days she felt well enough to try, she’d put Arthur’s harness on him, and he’d stand there, refusing to move. He could sense her lack of confidence and comfort, and if his teammate couldn’t work, well, then, neither could he. The Seeing Eye sent a trainer out to work with them, but, in Karen’s condition, nothing could be done. If and when she recovered, retraining work would begin.

Around this time, Arthur’s life began to focus on his daily trips to the park and his Frisbee game. He became as dedicated a Frisbee dog as he’d been a Seeing Eye dog. He had no interest in other dogs at the park, unless he thought they might want to steal his Frisbee, and then he’d chase them off and bark at them until he was secure his treasure was indeed his.

The Frisbee became Arthur’s life. He slept with it, carried it around, offered it to you, or teased you with it, on a constant basis. He had unbounded enthusiasm for the Frisbee. Playing catch itself became secondary. Holding the Frisbee, guarding the Frisbee, I suppose, in a sense, working for the Frisbee, became Arthur’s life.

In January, 2002, Karen and I were living in New Mexico with Arthur, Levi, who was just a puppy, and Erica. Karen’s pain from the mastectomy never abated, and she never worked Arthur again. She’d take him when she went out, but she’d hold my arm and Arthur had no decisions to make. His work as a guide dog had come to an end, and he was beginning a second career of his own choosing, that of a deranged, obsessed, Keeper of the Frisbee.

On the morning of January 18, 2002, I was in the living room with Levi, while Karen was in bed, sleeping, with Erica. Arthur was outside somewhere with the Frisbee. At sometime around 10:00 AM, Erica came running out of the bedroom terrified, as if she’d seen a ghost. Maybe she had. Karen had died.
I went into the bedroom with Levi to check on her. She wasn’t breathing and had no pulse, but she wasn’t cold. Levi sniffed her, startled. He jumped on the bed and examined her face, carefully, without licking her. He didn’t howl, and I didn’t see tears, but Levi was crying, his puppy-heart broken.

I called Arthur into the house. He was carrying his Frisbee, and wanted me to please covet it. I took him into the bedroom, where his mistress had just died. He looked at her, sniffed her, and then turned to me. At this terrible moment there was only one thing on his mind. He wanted to go outside and play with his Frisbee.

When the paramedics came to take Karen’s body away, Levi and Erica were hiding. Arthur was making friends, seeing if one of these nice men wanted to play with his flying disc, please. Despite my grief, I was acutely embarrassed that my wife’s Seeing Eye dog was acting so indifferently to her death in front of strangers.

Erica, Levi and I all took a while to process Karen’s death. We clung closer to each other. Levi didn’t eat for days. Erica would never come in the bedroom again. Arthur, happily, had his Frisbee, and that was all he needed.

Arthur was a magnificent dog, handsome, strong, and brilliant. He’d been born to be a Seeing Eye dog, and his entire life was a build-up to that important job. Then, less than a year after he began working, he was laid off, permanently. His incredible energy and concentration were no longer focused, and his deterioration was fast and heartbreaking. He had been born a King, with his future assured, living in the world of humans, leading his mistress, and being a universally beloved and admired dog. Now he was a half-crazed German shepherd with but a single thought in his expansive brain: Look at my Frisbee! It wasn’t just Karen who was dead. The King was dead, too.

Arthur lived five more years faithfully serving his Frisbee. At age eight, he developed metastatic bone cancer. Though he was limping, we played a last game of catch, and I made him a steak. Then, full, tired from our game, and long deposed from his throne, we drove to the vet, with the Frisbee. He lay down, and I lay down next to him, my arms around his chest. When I told him how much I loved him, he looked up from his Frisbee and into my eyes. He gave me a single sweet kiss on my lips. I told the vet we were ready, and the needle slid in. Arthur’s eyes opened wide for a second, he inhaled, and then he put his great head down and went off, to find Karen waiting for him at Rainbow Bridge. I'm sure that when they met in heaven, she had the grace to throw his Frisbee for him, first thing.

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands
Please share this blog with others.

Pictures of Arthur not available. Pictures provided for illustrative purposes only.


Jaya said...

Awww jeeez... reading that made me cry.

Jodi said...

Rich, thank you so much for coming by my blog. I have to tell you you that it took me quite a while to read this post between sobbing and being able to see the words. Such a wonderful and sad yet heroic post. I absolutely loved this post. Well I hope Arthur and Chyanne get to meet in their heaven because she is such an awesome dog herself and I know they would become fast friends, she just loves to play so he can teach her to play Frisbee, lol! I can't tell you how much you meant for you to lead me to this post, for me this was suppose to happen that I came to read about Arthur. Thank you so very much Rich and God bless you and your loved ones.


Jodi said...

Oh sorry, by the way I added you to my blogroll as well.

God bless,

Jennifer said...

When my mother's companion was in the final months of his illness, I know she received (well, we all received) a great deal of comfort from their golden retriever Woody. Woody was with us when Kevin died -- I remember that he barked as Kevin stopped breathing and my mother described this vision she had of Kevin walking along a river with his dog Augie by his side. When Woody developed lymphoma a year later and had to be euthanized, it felt as though another connection to Kevin was lost.

This was a wonderful -- though very sad -- piece.

tashabud said...

Oh, Rich. This must be the week allotted for crying for me. Yesterday, I cried so hard because of family and friends' bad news. Again today, I'm crying reading your post, you losing your wife and Arthur, too.

I took notice that today is your wife's death anniversary. Please accept my condolence. Hope you'll be okay.


Post a Comment