It's been a tough weekend at Annie and Maggie's. We had to say goodbye to our 16 year old beagle, Darwin -- Uncle Darwin to Baxter and Bella. While BnB seem rather un-fazed by the change, it has rocked Maggie and me to the core. So this post is not about Baxter and Bella, but the story of Darwin. It's not sad, really, it's more of a tribute to his life and all the things he did that made us laugh over the years. He will be forever missed.
The Evolution of Darwin
After we bought our first house, the next item on the agenda was to get a dog. We both liked small to medium-sized dogs, Margaret, as always, preferring a Corgi while I had no real preference other than it had to be a girl dog --- no boy dogs for me. That whole leg-lifting, peeing on everything business was nothing I wished for in a companion! So, with those criteria in mind, off to the Oregon Humane Society we went.
We searched the rows finding nothing but large dogs, so we directed our attention to the Multnomah County Animal Shelter in Troutdale. There, just shortly after our search began, 4 stalls in, I saw this skinny beagle with the most adorable face (as if all beagles don’t have adorable faces). I looked at Margaret and said, “Oh, it’s a beagle! I think I want this one!”
She looked at me and said, “But Anne, this is a boy. You said you didn’t want a boy.”
“I know but he’s so cute! I really, really want him!”
“But Anne, this is a boy!”
Just to make sure I wasn’t making a rash decision (and slightly to placate Margaret), I made a quick run through the rest of the stalls to see if there were other dogs I might be interested in. How sad are the affects of not spaying or neutering. We saw several small dogs with gargantuan heads – a basset hound that looked like it had been mixed with a rottweiler. The feet on that poor dog made me hurt just looking at it. I even saw a dachshund mixed with a rottweiler. If our house hadn’t been the size of a bread box, I’m sure I would have waltzed out of there with 3 or 4 of these sad-eyed dogs. Instead, after assuring Margaret I hadn’t lapsed into temporary insanity, we said we’d take the boy beagle. He had to be neutered first so we had to wait before he would be ours.
A few days later, we picked him up from the Vet’s office and brought him home. He was ever so thin and his bark sounded like Harvey Fierstein. We didn’t know what to name him and because of his bark, we considered Harvey; although, you know, it just didn’t fit. Then Margaret, inspired by a television travel program on Australia hosted by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, exclaimed, “Darwin!” Charles Darwin went on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle eventually landing in the Galápagos Islands. This made sense as our beagle boy had been retrieved by the county for traveling (aka running away). (After knowing Darwin and his propensity for running, I suspect his original owners were sick of bailing him out of jail.) So Darwin he became.
Note: Just as Charles Darwin was considered a bit crazy because of his theory of evolution, our Darwin, we would discover, was a bit on the crazy side, too.
Darwin’s gravelly voice persisted and we were a little sick at the thought that someone might have taken out his barker. When we took him to the Vet and asked about his voice, the Vet said very matter-of-factly, “Nah, no one took out his barker. He’s just hoarse from barking and baying while he was at the shelter!”
While it was quite a relief to us that his barker hadn’t been removed, we found it quite funny that the reason his voice sounded like Harvey Fierstein was simply because he was so vocal …in a very loud sort of way. I might add he played the role of a quiet dog quite nicely while we were at the shelter; little did we know the truth. His bay was so loud it bothered even him! He’d bay and then shake his head from side-to-side, flapping his long ears, and then look at us as if he couldn’t figure out where that loud noise came from.
The longer Darwin stayed with us, the more he became a part of our family. When we would come home from work, he’d stand at the back door and jump twice his own height with his long, floppy ears flying up above his head (we had a French door so we could see him in all his leaping glory). He loved us and we loved him. It wasn’t hard.
It didn’t take long for us to figure out that nothing was safe around him. I think Beagles have a puppy-ness that lasts far into their mid-life, because although he was 4 years old when we got him (estimated), he was famous for unquenchable curiosity and an urge to search and destroy.
We had an old feather pillow he loved to sleep on so we let him have it as his regular dog bed. He slept on that pillow for week after week without incident until this one afternoon … Margaret walked into the house in front of me, backed out and said, “Don’t be mad.” With a signal like that, one knows it can’t be good. As I walked into the house, there was Darwin sitting in the middle of the room, proudly wagging at his accomplishment of the day, his swinging tail sending feathers floating all about; he’d thoroughly and completely destroyed the king-sized feather pillow. I wasn’t so concerned that he’d destroyed the pillow, but there were feathers, at least 4 inches deep, spread over the entire living room floor. And there he sat, wagging his tail. “Look what I did, Mom!” All we could do was laugh and clean it up.
At one point, he stole my child support check and tore it to shreds. We can only imagine how he was trying to “kill it” when he snatched it. I got home and saw what he had done and all I could picture was how long it would take for me to get another check re-issued; so I spent a good portion of the evening gathering those shards of paper, carefully piecing them together, and finally taping the whole check together, sans a few holes here and there. These were not large chunks of paper either – they were probably no more than ¼ of an inch in diameter each. The next day I took it to the bank and told them the story of how my dog ate my child support check, and believe it or not, they took it.
Darwin also used to steal clothes. No shock there, right? His dog door was in the bathroom where Lisa took her showers. She would often leave her clothes on the floor after showering, and without hesitation, Darwin would drag them into the back yard.
He really only had one brain cell. We figured it probably just pinged back and forth in his head like a pinball, every now and then getting stuck on a thought. You could almost watch it happen. He’d be running around, walking through the house, or just snooping in the back yard and all of a sudden he’d stop and look at one spot with a serious furrowed brow, holding that position until that one little brain cell shook itself loose and moved on to find a home for the next thought. On sunny days, he would sit in the yard in his regal sphinx position, staring at the sun, squinting his eyes, thinking. Just thinking. However, he did most of his serious thinking with his nose.
Beagles are hounds; this we know. A breed bred to hunt with its nose. Domesticated hounds are no different; they think with their nose…and with wild abandon. No premeditation, no reason. They just go. So it was no surprise that whenever Darwin escaped the house or yard, he’d go on tour. One day at work, I got a call from the Oregon Humane Society saying that someone (who miraculously volunteered at OHS and knew what to do) called to say they had Darwin. He had gotten out of the house, traveled up our street, across very busy Halsey Street, and up the next two blocks.
And then there was the time when the only way I found him was by his bay. He was behind the neighbor’s house across the street, chasing down a virtual squirrel, or was it a cat? It doesn’t matter – he probably just got his one brain cell mixed up with his nose brain.
We were quite diligent about making sure the gate was securely latched, the fence was escape-proof and that he remained behind the door whenever we opened it. On more than one occasion though, I could be found walking up the street, his leash in hand, shaking a box of dog treats to lure him back to the house. Unfortunately, he was un-fazed by those dog treats; the only way we could get him was to trap him in a corner. Sometimes he could be fooled into thinking we were going for a walk (the “W” word) if we had his leash; that would get him back. One time, he got so far away, I actually had to get in the car and drive around the block to go find him. You’d think as he got older he wouldn’t be able to run so fast, but he could run like an Olympic sprinter if he got out of the house…when he was 16 years old!
With his ability to run, you’d think he’d be better at going on walks; not so. He loved to go for walks but the entire time he would strain at that leash, choking and gagging, and then marking every tree, shrub, and leaf he saw – even if nothing came out, he’d at least lift his leg to, I don’t know, prove he was a man? With Darwin, it really didn’t need to make sense.
Not long after we brought him home, we took him on a walk; a long walk. I remember how excited he was to go, dragging us down the sidewalk in a fury of tail wagging glory. We were determined to teach him how to walk on the leash the right way, so we figured a good long walk would give us some much needed classroom time. By the time we got home, he was so tired he was walking behind us. As we walked up to the porch steps, he dragged one foot up on each step slowly, acting as if he’d just run a marathon. We knew he was thinking, “These bitches did this to me on purpose!”
Darwin also had a voice. Not just his baying voice or his barking voice. He had a voice we channeled because it just seemed to fit. Darwin had the voice of Homer Simpson. Imagine if you will, the thought he had about us after that long walk, as spoken by Homer Simpson. It fit. It just fit.
He also had an innate fear of fireworks, lightening, and having his picture taken even if the flash was off. Whenever fireworks or lightening would strike, Darwin would come completely unhinged. He’d pant and pant himself into hyperventilation with his long ol’ bright red tongue hanging out his mouth, he’d shiver, pace, and whine. He was scared to death. I can’t do anything about lightening, but I sure wish fireworks were outlawed. While they’re pretty and all, they cause fires and scare innocent animals. We wouldn’t set out to scare children; we shouldn’t set out to scare animals either. There, I’ve said it. Save the fireworks for the professionals.
We’re not quite sure how this happened, but Darwin was never a beggar at the dinner table. It wasn’t like we didn’t feed him scraps on occasion, in fact, we probably did everything wrong in that respect. He would sit patiently and wait for us to finish dinner because the prize was at the end when we’d often let him lick our plates (he was always sticking his head in the dishwasher trying to get just one more lick). He did have a little obnoxious heavy sigh, sometimes followed with a horse-like whinny through his nose as he waited, but he wasn’t one to jump up; unless, of course, you weren’t in the room.
His last act of indiscretion was while our backs were turned; he jumped up to the table’s edge and grabbed a complete tray of freshly decorated cookies for his joyful consumption. Even as I picked him up, he was scarfing down what was left of the cookies he had in his mouth. What was I going to do? I could only laugh. It was my fault. He was just doing what naughty dogs do.
Even though he wasn’t a beggar, that boy could drool (we called it “woober”). I think it had something to do with his big ol’ loose lips. He’d be walking around and suddenly there’d be this big long blob of goo dripping down off his mouth. About the time we’d all say, “EW! Darwin has a woober!” he’d decide to shake his head like a wet dog and that woober would fly through the air and wrap around his nose. We called this his “Martha Stewart Effect” because it reminded me of how Martha would spin sugar to make some edible delight. It was quite gross but that was our boy; a little on the gross side.
And speaking of gross, Darwin had the nasty habit of eating poo; and he wasn’t discriminating at all. Cat poo, Emma poo, Stella poo, and even 5-way compost cow poo. It’s a good thing he wasn’t the kissing type. The interesting thing is that he stopped that disgusting, vile, habit after Emma died. Maybe he did have discerning taste and we just didn’t know it. GAH! At least he didn’t teach Bella and Baxter the awful habit.
Darwin was the only dog I have ever known who would root around in the grass looking for worms. That’s right: worms. He’d sniff all around with his rubber nose and then gently, his lips pulled back and with the tips of his teeth, pull out a long night crawler. He wouldn’t eat it; he’d roll in it. No one can say that dog didn’t have personality; a weird personality, but a personality nonetheless.
He loved his neighbors (his cousins) Wednesday and Pugsley, and they shared many a good and loud conversation through the fence. If he couldn’t see them, he would walk up to the fence and put one eye up to a knot hole and look through.
Stinky, Dar-Dar Binks (for his long ears like Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars), Son, and Uncle Dar; those were his nicknames. More than any name, he was my buddy. Whenever I’d be working on a project in the back yard, or whenever I’d take a break and sit on the deck steps, he’d come up right next to me and lean into me waiting for me to put my arm around him. He wasn’t a lap dog, or a dog that liked to lay on you, he just like to be with you.
After Emma died, he was so lonely it hurt. He’d be in the kitchen at night and bay and bay. It took us a couple of weeks to discover what he really wanted was to just be with us. He didn’t care where it was, he just wanted to be in the same room.
Prior to this, Darwin, Emma, and Stella all had to stay in the kitchen because they would rub up against the furniture, climb on it, and ruin it with dog hair. Once the other two were gone and we started letting Darwin in the house, he didn’t do any of those things. We never saw him get on the furniture. We never saw him rub up against it. He simply wanted to be with us. I will never regret giving him the run of the house those last months.
When we decided to adopt Bella and Baxter, we figured it would pick up Darwin’s spirits just having new companions around. We bought several small dog beds to post throughout the house so the puppies would have places to sleep no matter which room they were in. It should have been no surprise to us that before long, big ol’ Darwin figured out how to curl up and cram himself into those small beds. He was too big for them but that didn’t matter to him – and we let him because he deserved to enjoy any little comfort he wanted. Darwin was an excellent “Uncle” to Bella and Baxter, gently playing with them, pawing them, and allowing them to bark, bite, and chase after him. As always, he was an all-around good-natured dog, wagging his tail to the very end.
As he got older, he started growing fatty tumors. These tumors didn’t hurt him, they just looked weird. He had one specific tumor on this belly button (apparently, this isn’t uncommon) that started out about the size of a pea. We always said it was a nut that escaped during his neutering and migrated to his belly button, but when it got to be the size of a tennis ball, it was a little more difficult to explain. He had little tumors all over his body; warts, really, that positioned themselves in strange places like the one on his forehead. Whenever asked, I always said he was our little Hindu boy. He didn’t care about them and neither did we.
His teeth were not very good from early on. When he was 14, several of them looked loose and decaying and since he wasn’t eating we took him into the Vet convinced that we would have to say goodbye to him then. As it turns out, dogs don’t really need teeth to survive because they have such strong jaws. The Vet looked at us and said, “Nah! It’s not his time. His heart is good. And look at him – his tail is wagging! He’s a happy dog!” So, they extracted all but about 9 of his teeth. As a result, when he would pant, his tongue would get real long and fall out the side of his mouth. He could never get it fully curled back up and into his mouth until he cooled off a bit, so it always looked like he was chewing his cud.
Eating without teeth was another adventure for Darwin. On several occasions, he’d have his head in his bowl, eating away, and if he got distracted and looked away, because of that big ol’ gap in his teeth, his dog food would spray out across the floor like a sprinkler. But he just kept on going, not a thought in his head, happy-go-lucky.
When he drank water, he had to drink from the side of his mouth. Unfortunately for us, the entire area surrounding his bowl would be wet with water, slobber, and woober. It was a daily mess to clean up, but at least he was healthy and content.
Throughout his life, Darwin would go through spells where he’d stop eating for a day or two, usually having gurgling guts (quite audible). He’d still drink water and it never got to a point of worry, but this last time got us very concerned. He was 16 after all.
On about day two of not eating, we fixed him some chicken that he ate and didn’t seem to have any problems with (that we knew of). The next day, I gave him some white rice that didn’t stay down for long. But we watched him with guarded optimism hoping he would turn the corner and get his appetite back. On day four we went to the store and bought some dog food for older dogs with sensitive stomachs thinking it might be something new and appealing that he would take to. The next day we gave him about 2 tablespoons of it and he gobbled it down. But, even after he ate, we could tell that he’d gotten physically weaker and had visibly lost weight so I made an appointment. And then, while the vet examined him, he got sick from the 2 tablespoons of food. It all came back up. Every bite he’d taken all day.
We left him at the hospital for the Vet to perform some tests and awaited her call with the results. I left there fearing it wasn’t going to turn out like I’d hoped: maybe a virus that could be handled with some antibiotics and he’d be fine later or just a change in diet that would give his stomach a rest. I wanted to think that, but my mind was telling me otherwise. I kept trying to shake those thoughts but with limited success.
At home, the puppies slept while we sat at our computers playing mindless Facebook games while we waited. Then the phone rang and we got the news; his kidneys were failing, his liver function was down, he was anemic, cancer was a high probability, and the x-rays showed cloudiness that indicated pancreatitis. The best we could do was to make him comfortable with medication, but that would be for our benefit, not his. It was time to let him go.
How could we do this again? Emma had just died 3 ½ months earlier; Stella 7 months before that. We knew it was inevitable, but we didn’t want it. It all seemed so unfair. Why do people outlive their pets? It hurts. It just hurts. Deep.
We were walked to Room 6, a room we knew too well from the last two heartbreaking goodbyes. It’s physically comfortable in there, but it’s not comfortable in there. The Vet Tech brought Darwin in, wrapped in a blanket and he looked tired and old, and like he was ready. For the next ten minutes we petted him and told him we loved him so very, very much. He did what he’d always done, he leaned into me. I put my arms around him and told him what a wonderful dog he had been and that I loved him very much. I told him that he’d see Stella and Emma and Pugsley, and they’d all get to play together.
The Tech returned and asked if we were ready. She brought back the Vet who kindly and gently brought Darwin’s discomfort to an end. I held him as he became quiet and still. In a few moments it was over and he was gone.
As we walked to the car, I felt the same feeling I had when we went through this with Stella and then again with Emma: Wait. I’m not ready. It flashes before me and right away I realize there is no waiting, there is no going back. It’s only a brief few moments when I have this feeling and then I’m there, in a sad, hazy, what-do-I-do-now funk that’s hard to shake. It’s almost like I can’t fully feel the pain, or maybe I don’t want to so I block it all out and replace it with a feeling of having stopped time – can’t go forward, can’t go back. Ug. Please, I don’t want to go back to Room 6 for a very long time.
A sad drive home to brought us back to our two sleeping puppies who would awaken soon enough with their boundless energy; more energy than I had left in me for sure.
Later, they woke up and sure enough, they were ready to play. Then I remembered how much joy these two bring to me, to us. It doesn’t replace the sadness, but it does remind me that I need to be more mindful of the things I do have. I need to remember what Darwin brought to my life, how he made me laugh, how he made me mad, how he made me love him, and how he made my life complete.
I believe more and more that we don’t truly think about our pets and how much they mean to us, and conversely, how much we mean to them! Darwin needed us 12 years ago as he stood in stall 4, and even though he was a boy dog with habits that drove us crazy sometimes, it turned out we needed him more than we would have ever imagined. We’ll never stop missing him – just like thoughts of Stella and Emma are always vivid memories nearly every day.