We found him at a golden retriever rescue organization. They called him "Townsend." Their naming process was much like how hurricanes are titled. They simply run through the alphabet coming up with an original name from whatever letter is next. We liked the name. It was unique but not silly or odd. So Townsend it was.
They told us he was approximately 5-years-old. A visit to the vet confirmed that. All that was known about him was he was a stray wandering the streets in a nearby town. He seemed happy and energetic. Good with kids and loved attention. As we loaded him in the SUV he began barking continuously. The lady at the rescue place said he always did that but had no clue why. He continued to do that for years. It was as if he was yelling, "C'mon! Let's go! Hurry! C'mon!" It became annoying after a while but he would calm down once we'd start moving.
He had other strange little quirks, much of them involved barking. Every time he saw someone riding a bicycle he'd bark and sometimes lunge at them. Same was true for motorcycles. Just hearing one set him off. He also barked incessantly when taken to dog parks or dog beaches. One morning we were asked to leave our local "pooch park" because a resident had complained about the noise. That was a first.
Though he was a golden retriever he was actually neither one. He was more red than gold and he was a crappy retriever. Most goldens love the water but he wanted nothing to do with our swimming pool. He wasn't fond of baths either.
Like most dogs he wanted only attention and food. His cold nose would always butt into most situations. I'd walk him to the school with my kids and wait around for the bell to ring. Children would gather round him just to touch or stroke his fur. They always asked many questions and told me about their doggies. He ate it up. His tail wagged. He couldn't get enough. He loved people.
As time progressed he began to gradually slow down. One day I looked at him and was struck by how old and small he appeared. It was like overnight. He must have been 10 or 11 by then. This slowing down process accelerated with each month and each year. His face became white. He would occasionally stumble. The stumbling morphed into tumbling. Frequently his legs would just give out under him and he would be sprawled with his chin on the ground. A visit to the vet revealed muscle atrophy in his hind quarters and most likely arthritis. We gave him pain meds but it didn't seem to make a difference.
By the age of approximately 12 and a half he had become a bag of bones. His red coat became a washed out brown. His face and head entirely white. He was shedding like mad. His eyes were sunken in. His head took on the look of a skull. Like death. His legs became weaker and weaker. He struggled to get up, limped around when he walked, and struggled to lay back down again. His vision and hearing were becoming a thing of the past. At times he would not eat and that worried us greatly. We thought that meant the end but somehow he rallied and began clearing his bowl every day again. As the months flew by his legs were barely functioning. He would slide on the tile floor as if ice skating. He'd fall but couldn't muster the strength to get back up. I tried getting him doggie boots with traction pads on the bottom but they just got filthy and fell off. He then began growling and barking when he was stranded. Sometimes at 4 in the morning. All he wanted to do was go from here to there but had no choice but to call for help.
Yesterday, March 3, 2011, he seemed the same at first. My wife gave him his meds with a spoonful of peanut butter (his favorite). He clumsily went outside to do his business, then came back in. My wife has to leave earlier than me so when I'm done getting myself ready it's my turn to feed him. He was extremely lethargic. As I've been doing for several months, I tried to pick him up to put him out again because he had taken to making messes in the house. I dinked around some more in my daily routine. I looked out back but didn't see him. My fear was the pool. One slip and that'd be it. I went out to look for him and found him around the corner lying on the cold wet cement. I picked him up and brought him back in and set him on a dry rug. He was very unresponsive. I picked him up again so he could eat but, like a baby fawn, the strength in his legs were non-existant. I put him back down and brought the food bowl to him. No reaction. I even tried to place his snout in the bowl but his head just sort of flopped in it like an unconscious drunk. I knew this was a large turn for the worse.
I had to go to work so I let him be. My oldest daughter was home that day so I left a note for her to try to get him to eat. She called me in the afternoon and told me he was still unresponsive. I suggested she try and move him off the rug in case of any accidents. Sure enough, later another phone call. He had in fact done his business on the floor and was just lying in it. She somehow managed to move him out to the back porch on a blanket. She called yet again to tell me he was whimpering and sometimes shaking. I thought maybe he was cold or hungry because he had no breakfast. She put the phone to his mouth so I could hear the noises he was making but I couldn't hear anything but a very faint breathing sound. I told her to just make him comfortable until I get home and evaluate the situation.
When I arrived home, she had brought him back in the house on a blanket in the corner. He was sound asleep. She said this was the calmest he'd been in a while. I knelt down and stroked his face—but barely a reaction. About 20 minutes later I heard whimpering. I went to him to find him shaking and crying out in pain. He was having a huge seizure. The shaking became convulsions. His head turned to me with his mouth wide open. I feared he might bite his tongue so I closed his snout. The convulsions were so violent I had to practically lay on top of him in an effort to calm him. My daughter ran over to help. Minutes seemed like hours. The seizures lasted a good 3-5 minutes. When it stopped he lied still, then began to howl. He was enduring agonizing pain. We didn't know what to do aside from trying to calm him. I tried giving him some water with a turkey baster. He actually swallowed a couple of times. He continued to whine and howl with pain. Then another seizure. I knew this was the end. There was already brain damage. My daughter and I began to cry as we, in futility, tried to stop his agony.
Again he was calm but disoriented. I gave him more water but he wouldn't take it this time. By now my wife and younger daughter had come home to discover this awful scene and had no choice but to become a part of it. They kneeled and stroked him as he wailed. It was the dinner hour and I had no idea what to do or where to get help. There was a vet clinic near my work. I called and they would be open for another 45 minutes. We all lifted him with blankets underneath to take him to my SUV. My oldest daughter had to go to work so she couldn't come with us. My wife told her to give him a kiss goodbye. At this point I was ready to explode with sorrow. I used what strength I had left to suppress it. I couldn't stop the tears but I was not about to ball like a baby now.
The drive was not too far but it seemed an eternity as we hit every red light. My youngest was riding in the back with him, sobbing and talking to him. He was shaking, howling, panting, etc. We could hear her repeatedly say, "I love you, I love you, it's OK." I prayed that he wouldn't die in her arms. When we finally arrived, two assistants came out with an animal stretcher with strap constraints and a blanket. We slowly moved him onto it as he panted and hissed with exhaustion. We carried him into an exam room and placed him on a table. The doctor came in a few minutes later to look him over. I knew what he would say. I asked if he could give him something to calm him. He obliged with an injection of Valium. Townsend's breathing slowed down almost immediately. The doctor told us the only options were to take him to a 24-hour pet hospital, pump him up with drugs, run tests and lab work to buy some time to see if he could be diagnosed and possibly saved. The other option, of course, euthanasia.
We knew if we were to follow option 1, it would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars with no guarantee of anything. I knew his brain was damaged and he'd never be the same again. His quality of life had been bad enough for the last couple of years. There was no point. The doctor told us without running tests, they couldn't know the source of the seizing which could be caused from liver failure or kidney failure to a tumor or cancer among other things. My wife and I looked at each other both knowing there really was no option at all.
The veterinary assistant asked me to step outside and sign some papers. She informed me that if we were to euthanize him there might be muscle spasms, he might evacuate, or even give one last painful cry.
I literally signed his life away and went back to join them. I just wanted to end his suffering.
Townsend didn't spasm or yelp the moment his heart stopped. He went peacefully and quietly with what dignity he had left.
We decided to donate his body to the clinic so he might help someone else's pet in some indirect way.
When it was all over the three of us huddled outside the clinic door and cried our eyes out. I needed that release. I wanted to go off somewhere and sob by myself but that never happened.
It's the next day. March 4. Of course as I type this it's all very fresh in my mind. I feel a lump in my throat and my eyes welling up. We all thought he would just die peacefully in his sleep one night. I was so angry and shaken that he had to go through such agony. It was so unnecessary. He didn't deserve his last moments to be so torturous. I sit here and think how it might have been avoided if we had put him down earlier. Regrets. Empathy.
The worst of it all was witnessing the pain and sadness on my family's faces. Though we all knew this day was imminent, we were blindsided by its sudden cruelty. We never imagined.
Today I had the fleeting thought that the same hatch door of my SUV he climbed up in to enter our lives was the very same one that he exited to leave us.
I don't believe that animals have souls. I hope I'm wrong. My youngest daughter kept uttering that he's in heaven now. I do hope she's right.
Life is such a sad affair.