As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Goodbye, My Good Friend

2004 was a big year for us.  In May we moved into our house, in June our first son was born, and in July we got a puppy.  And while all of those things made me feel like a grownup, in a lot of ways getting my own dog was really what made me feel truly like an adult.  Like a lot of families we had dogs only up to a certain point, and after that began the years of begging our parents, "pleeeeeeease can we get a dog????" (which maybe we've just entered?  Jury's out on that, haha!) And so high on my list of grownup things to do, right after buying a house in the country and having a baby, was to get a dog.

We did a lot of research before choosing the perfect dog. We knew we wanted a purebred, because as a young family we wanted a dog whose personality traits we could depend on to jive with a houseful of children - little did we know when we brought that sweet puppy home that she would help us welcome six more little ones into our family!  So we settled on a Labrador Retriever because of its proven compatibility with family life and short hair.  We found a breeder about two hours from where we live, and made the road trip in the summer of 2004, infant in tow, to pick her up.  We bounced names off of each other the entire way up.  She's a chocolate lab, so we wanted something clever that worked with her coloring.  Names like, "Cocoa" and "Mocha" came up, along with a wide array of suggestions drawn from things we saw on our drive, or movies we'd seen, or stories we liked.  When a Coca-Cola truck drove by one of us (I can't remember if it was me or Jeff) said, "Cola's brown..."  And not being particularly fond of Cola as a name, we played around with it bit until it morphed into Koda, which we agreed was a perfect name for our new little puppy.

I remember arriving at the breeder's with much excitement.  We toured the lot and saw her Mom and Dad and the other dogs that lived there, and then the big moment when we finally got to see the puppies!  There were only two left, one very active and playful, and the other gentler and subdued.  One of the biggest things we read about picking a puppy was not to do it the way they do on TV - you know, where one puppy plows you over and you say, "that's the one!"  That puppy, while sweet, is likely to be dominant and excitable, traits which can be challenging (especially in a house with children).  So we knew that quiet, sweet little Koda was the dog for us.  You have no idea how terrible I felt separating those last two puppies though!  I remember calling friends trying to encourage them to buy that last little girl we were leaving behind.  I felt like we were taking her whole world!

The drive home was hillarious.  Jeff had gotten puppies before so he knew what to expect, but I had no idea how much they howled on that first night away from their family.  Being a new mom it just about tore my heart out.  We stopped at a gas station to fill up, and even though our car was at the furthest bay from the store, I could still hear that howling puppy from inside the store - she was loud!  We crate trained her and left her kennel in the basement, and after the first night she settled in just fine.

Koda's first year with us was filled with excitement.  Jeff was in school at the time, and had the summer off so he could do all the training with her.  He looked after house training and obedience training, and the long hours they both put into that carried with her right to the end.  We vacationed on PEI when Joseph was two months old, and I remember not being able to walk more than two feet without being stopped by someone who wanted to see the puppy, or the baby, or both.  It was really fun.

From the very beginning of our family life she has been there.  We feel so blessed to have had her nearly as long as Labs are expected to live, and she's been so good to us in those years.  We took her through three levels of obedience training (and even entered her into a dog show, which she didn't do well in because she totally didn't sit-stay for the first time ever!). In summer months whenever I needed to get out for a bit by myself, Jeff would watch the kids while Koda and I (and sometimes a baby) would go for a walk. When I was running she was my running mate, and I always laugh when I think about how in the first half of her life our walks always started with her pulling me, while in the latter half due to old age they always ended with me pulling her because she couldn't keep up (especially up our road, which is quite an incline).  Whenever I needed to go outside for anything at night I always took her, and it made me feel safer. And when Jeff worked nights having her in the house always made me feel more at ease - not because I thought she'd protect me (she once ran away from a duck, even though she's supposed to be a duck hunting dog!) But the only time she ever barked was when someone was in the yard.  And so when I was in the house alone on those nights, and hearing and second guessing every noise I heard, knowing that Koda was not barking always helped me ease my mind.

She was also the perfect temperament.  Submissive to a fault, she went through a period where she peed whenever anyone even looked at her (we had to tell friends not to talk to her until they had been in the house for a bit, so she wouldn't pee!) We had a cat when we got married who was very dominant, and the dog never challenged him on that.  When we got a second cat in 2008 it was the same, and Koda happily receded to her preferred place, which was the bottom of the pecking order.  Child after child came into our family with never any kind of jealousy or animosity from the dog, she was always just happy to be with us.

I'm not going to lie, there were some challenges.  While most breeds exhibit puppy behavior for about the first year, Labs tend to take three or four years to outgrow their puppy ways.  And they're big dogs, which means you have a 75 lbs tank hopping all over furniture thinking their still a puppy.  It's not Koda's fault that this period also coincided with my most hectic and difficult time as a mother, when all my children were still so young and I was working.  I snapped at her on many occasions, I think largely because you can't really snap at your kids because they'll hold you accountable, but a dog won't.  These are the moments that lingered most on my heart in these last weeks when we've said goodbye.  I know we've had more good years than bad, but I still feel so sorry that I was so impatient with her during those years.  

Her health has been declining for a while now.  She's had persistent allergies requiring steroids for the last half of her life, and I think that takes a toll on a body.  If I had a dime for every time in the last two years that Jeff has said to me, "I think Koda's in her last days," I'd be a rich woman.  She would get so sick and we'd start preparing for the worst, and then she'd bounce back. I think part of is because while we have a big family, she carved out her own space right on the landing of our split-entry home (as anyone who has ever visited can attest to!)  Here she found the one place in the house that is mostly free from activity where she could rest, and I think it was her safe haven.

About six weeks ago she became very ill, and we were certain she would not last the weekend.  She stopped eating and had great difficulty walking.  She also had a massive lump on her throat.  We suspected cancer, and prepared to make a difficult call to the vet that Monday morning.  She was so bad that before we left the house that Saturday I spent a long time on the landing with her, crying and saying my goodbyes.  She had a fever and was trembling and in obvious pain, and I prayed she would not die alone while we were out.  That evening however the lump on her neck began to drain, and much to our surprise she bounced back, though not as mobile as she had been before.  You have no idea how often I have thanked God that she was sick on the weekend, because if that had happened when the vet was open we surely would have taken her in, and she would have been put down.

From then on she never really left the immediate vicinity of the front door.  Jeff tried to get her to go for a walk with him one night, but she wouldn't.  If we left her outside, she just stayed on the deck.  She was visibly stiff, but still able to move and eat and drink.  But she still somehow was getting thinner.  My mother came to help me with the kids last weekend and called me the next day to find out how the dog was doing - she said she noticed she hadn't seemed herself, and had spent some time with her before she left.  She continued to decline through the weekend, and we prepared ourselves to say goodbye to our dear friend.

For the last two days we have kept vigil with our puppy, and it has been a blessing.  She has been so good to us in the years we shared, and it was good to be able to show some tenderness to her when she needed it most. She mostly rested, occasionally whining or whimpering if she needed out, and we would need to coax her and help her out and back in again. Today though she seemed to want to get up she was unable, and since we were home all day we simply sat with her.  The kids and I all went about our day and whenever we heard the dog crying, one of us would take a turn sitting with her until she stopped.  The company seemed to soothe her, but it was still obvious to us that was the end for our puppy.

Jeff managed to get off work a little early, and within a few minutes of sitting with Koda she passed away.  I was so grateful that he was able to be with her in her last moment.  It was almost like she waited for him - that somehow having him beside her helped her settled down and feel free to go.  He was grateful too, and we all took turns saying our goodbyes.  Telling the kids was hard and some of them took it harder than others, but I'm glad it happened this way.  To know that she spent her last days surrounded with love (and honestly, more attention than she's gotten in a long time) makes me happy.  Koda lived for attention and affection, her greatest desire was to make people happy, and she has done that in abundance for all of us. 

We drove together to the crematorium to deliver her body to its final resting place, and then we came home and had a big meal, and celebrated our beloved pet.  While I know we will continue to feel the ache of her absence for some time, I can't help but be grateful for the gift she has been to our family.  We could not have asked for a better dog, and we will miss her terribly.  Here's to you Koda.  Wherever you are I hope there is much water for swimming and sticks for fetching!

"And God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.' " (Genesis 1:28)

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