Ted Grimsrud [written 3/28/17, the day after Sophie’s death; revised with more pictures 3/30/17]
We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle. — Irving Townsend, quoted by Kinky Friedman in his eulogy to his cat Cuddles.
Our family’s pets
I think I owe my friendship with Sophie to my friendship with Jim McChesney. I inherited Jim’s cat, Booger—our family’s first house pet. Booger was a great companion, but her life was tragically cut short due to a run in with a car.
Kathleen agreed that we should get another pet, and so she went to the humane society with that intent. While there, she met and immediately fell in love with a dog! She came home with Tiffer, a Cocker Spaniel/Golden Retriever mix. Having always been a cat person, I wasn’t sure about having a dog. However, Kathleen promised to be the main caregiver.
We all stayed madly in love with Tiffer—an affectionate and spirited companion whose life also was tragically cut short by a speeding car. At that point, we decided both that we did want another dog and that we would never, ever let any of our pets go outside on their own again.
We thought we would get a new puppy, and Kathleen learned that the only breeders who lived near us had a very limited variety of breeds available. It was mostly due to the limited options that we decided upon a Shih Tzu, as we didn’t know much about them. Trika was a treasure who won our hearts from day one.
Finding a second dog
As with Tiffer, Trika was mostly Kathleen’s dog, though I spent quite a bit of time with her, too. I read somewhere that dogs prefer other dogs to people and got the idea that Trika would be happier if we had a second canine companion in the house. My idea was that this second dog would also be mainly Kathleen’s. Kathleen wasn’t so sure.
So I thought about whether I would want a second dog badly enough to be willing to be its primary caregiver. I came up with the idea that I could imagine doing so if we could find a dog that was a bit older than a puppy, who was housebroken, sterilized, and came from a good home (likely a home with an elderly caregiver who had treated the dog well but wasn’t able to keep offering care).
We found out about a Shih Tzu rescue place in Virginia. We contacted them and told them what we were looking for. And, lo and behold, they had a young dog that met our criteria. So we agreed to take her—and she came to us with the name Sophie.
We drove about a hundred miles to pick Sophie up in October 2003. She was a few months short of two years old. The second she saw me, it was as if she realized that we would be lifelong companions. She lunged toward me and I happily took her in my arms. I loved that she was blond and her fur was incredibly soft. The bonding was instantaneous and never wavered in the 13 ½ years that followed.
Our initial impression of Sophie was not altogether positive. Despite the assurances of the person from Shih Tzu rescue, it was clear that Sophie was not a purebred. She had some Pug blood, obviously. She also was quite loose jointed (in contrast to Trika, who was a purebred and whose bones were very tight knit) and was very fat. She was built like a plump bratwurst.
However, her sweetness and affection soon quelled any doubts we had about how she would work out. I set out to help her lose weight and she proved to be quite cooperative. We went for several walks a day and she followed a weight loss diet without complaint. She always certainly (aggressively!) loved to eat (and would eat anything she could get into her mouth). But she never complained about the food we gave her—and fairly quickly the pounds melted off.
As it turned out, she inspired me in my own weight loss program. Over the next year or so, her weight dropped from a bit more than 25 to about 13 and my weight dropped from a bit more than 290 to less than 230. She turned out to be much more adept than I was at keeping the weight off!
She proved to be a healthy, hardy, friendly, affectionate, and loyal companion for the rest of what turned out to be a long life. She loved being in people’s laps. Often she would try to get on my lap and I would gently refuse her. Then a few minutes later I would realize that there she was and I would have no memory of how she got there.
Sophie’s miraculous sweetness
In a way, her affection and loyalty were a bit of a miracle. We learned a bit more about her early life and felt saddened at what she had gone through. She was born in some kind of puppy mill, which would explain the lack of genetic purity (in many ways she was a flawed version of the purebred Shih Tzu that Trika was).
Her first family, a young couple with little kids, decided to avoid letting her get in their way by keeping her almost exclusively in a little crate. They finally gave her up for adoption. She then went to an elderly woman who had several other dogs and struggled to keep up with them. We assume that Sophie’s rather aggressive eating habits came at least in part due to her need to eat aggressively in order to survive among those other dogs.
It also turned out that my idea of getting Trika a new buddy to make her happier may not have been that perceptive. Trika and Sophie were never enemies, but they were never really good friends either. They essentially co-existed. There were times, though, that they clearly enjoyed each other’s company and were happy to be together.
Trika was not territorial; she did not fight against Sophie’s presence. It didn’t seem to bother Trika that her Mama loved Sophie, too.
In the six years or so that they were in the same family, maybe once every few months the two would playfully wrestle together. They generally mostly ignored each other. The one really nice moment, though, came most days when I would lay down for a nap and have them both lay on me to sleep with me. Trika had already marked out her spot on my chest so Sophie happily settled for my lap. For all those years they would each automatically take their spots for the nap.
I enjoyed having two dogs, though. I would walk them most days. Trika liked walks and she would forge on ahead, setting the pace. Sophie was never very eager to walk (especially on rainy or cold days, most especially on snowy days) and she would lag behind. So we usually went in single file.
They both traveled well. Even though the car was a small space, they didn’t seem to mind the other’s close proximity. Often they would even lie down together while they waited for our return when we would leave them in the car. Our big trip was out to Seattle for a month when our grandson Elias was born. That was when we noticed that Trika, about 11 years old at the time, was starting her gradual descent. Over the next two and a half years, Trika slowly slipped away. When she passed, I got the sense that Sophie hardly noticed.
Sophie as sole dog
Sophie had about eight years as our sole dog. She was never our sole pet, though. Silver, Zorro, and then Ani, provided us with feline companionship during those years. Trika had been buddies with Silver and Zorro—perhaps due to her gentle nature. Sophie’s entry seemed to traumatize the cats a bit. It didn’t help that she seemed always to think it was her job to chase the cats whenever she could. Every once in a great while, she’d get a cat cornered. Rather than going after them for the kill, though, she would try to head butt them. I never figured out her instincts on that.
At times, though, all the pets could settle down together and be at peace.
Ani, who joined our family at the ends of the boys’ lives, now is the last one standing. I expect she will enjoy her time of relaxed safety once she realizes that Sophie truly is gone.
To her dying moments, Sophie never looked old even as she surpassed the stated expected life span for Shih Tzus. However, she did gradually slow down. She quit jumping on and off our bed. She required more trips outside to relieve herself. Her spells of stiffness grew more common. A bit more than a year ago, she began occasionally to have short seizures and also at times would cry out in pain for a few seconds. And then, sadly, she quit trying to crawl up in my lap and wouldn’t stay on my lap when we would take naps. We would take shorter walks in the morning (something she never loved even in her younger days).
I started carrying her more—something that gave me comfort and that she seemed to like (she would kind of lean into me usually). But still she loved to eat. During the past year, I was around almost all the time after taking an early retirement. She persuaded me gradually to move her meal times earlier during the day—from noon to 11 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m.
It was a nice symmetry that during her first year with us I was on sabbatical, working on a book at home and thus able to spend a lot time with her. Then, I was here again full time during her final year.
The crisis begins
We knew her life was nearing its end, but especially because of her continued healthy appearance and her voracious appetite, we thought she could soldier on for a while. Then, about two weeks ago she started having diarrhea. Coincidentally, we had a vet appointment the next day for her regular check up. Dr. May gave us some meds for the diarrhea and did some blood work.
Dr. May called the next day to tell us that the lab work showed that Sophie was having kidney failure. There were possible steps to take, though at Sophie’s age they may not help much. It could possibly still be some time before the kidneys gave out, and in the meantime we should make sure she drank a lot. Kathleen asked how we would know if we were getting into a crisis and the vet said that Sophie would stop eating.
That night Sophie, totally uncharacteristically, refused one of her meals. I thought it was maybe the food that was different than normal. The next day she did begin to eat again, though not with her normal enthusiasm. She then had a major seizure and her diarrhea returned. So we talked with Dr. May again, and made an appointment for yesterday. We wondered if that might be where we would put her down.
Over the weekend, Sophie stopped eating again for a day. Then on Sunday, she seemed to revive. I gave her some chicken broth that she ate eagerly and when I included some of her dried food, she ate that too. She had more energy. So I thought maybe she would weather this storm. Then came a very difficult night. Sophie became agitated and when I took her out, she had a massive diarrhetic bowel movement. When I took her back in, she had another seizure. When we got back to her little bed, I discovered a large pile of undigested food that she had spit up—seemingly everything she had eaten during the day. There was one more bout of diarrhea and much agitation before she finally settled down. When we got up, she showed no interest in food or chicken broth. She did pee a bit, but mostly simply slept.
When we went to our vet appointment at 2 p.m., we expected that we would decide it was the end. Dr. May was terrific, walking us through the options and emphasizing that it was our decision. Kathleen emphasized that it truly was up to me. I felt very sad, but also ready to say goodbye. There were too many crises (kidney failure, regular intense seizures, no appetite, failure to digest her food, unresolved diarrhea) to imagine her having much of a life ahead of her. I felt grateful that the spiral down had been quick, without an extended period of suffering. So we gave Sophie her final hugs and pets.
Moments to treasure
As I look back now, I think of several moments these past couple of weeks that I treasure. Sophie always loved to travel in the car with us. Perhaps she felt a sense of security there because we were so close to her. We had traveled to the West Coast with her a couple of times, the most recent one being August 2015. On Kathleen and my 40th anniversary, which was Sunday, March 17, we did a one-day road trip through central Virginia. Sophie seemed to enjoy that trip as much as ever. Then last Saturday, the 23rd, even though she was in this phase of not eating, we drove over to West Virginia, and she again seemed happy. Her last road trip.
I have been sad these past several months that Sophie had not wanted to lie on me for long when we take our naps. She still would usually run enthusiastically for the bedroom when I would say, “Let’s take a nap!” But I would have to kind of guide her onto my lap. Then she would stay only for a few minutes before curling up next to me. That was nice, but not the same. On Sunday, when she had her uptick in energy, she seemed extra enthusiastic about naptime. As soon as I lied down, she leapt onto my lap like she used to do. She immediately curled up and we slept with her on me for 45 minutes. Our last nap.
As I mentioned, yesterday she was utterly uninterested in eating. Except for one moment. We always tried to avoid giving her human food. However, early on in her life with us she realized that I was often clumsy with food. So during mealtime she would camp out at my feet awaiting some special surprise. Most meals that did not happen, but it did often enough to reward her patience. At lunchtime yesterday, about an hour before heading to the vet, Kathleen and I sat down for lunch. Sophie was quite lethargic, but she ambled over to be at my feet as I ate. It definitely was an accident, but I dropped a small piece of bread. She quickly covered it and ate it up. That seemed to encourage her, because she then sniffed actively for more. Her last food.
During her crises Sunday night and Monday morning, it was raining heavily. That was appropriate in a way, because Sophie always hated rain. But the sky cleared and the sun came out on Monday. Sophie loved the sun—summer and winter. So Kathleen took her out on the deck. Her last rays.
Then, at the vet’s she received the sedative shots that put her in a deep sleep so the final drug could be administered. She had been relaxed sitting in my lap as we discussed things with the vet. Dr. May and the tech were gentle in giving the sedative, but Sophie was quick to lunge for my arms when they finished. That brought back the vivid memory of how she lunged into my arms when we very first met her at the handoff from the Shih Tzu rescue people 13 ½ years ago. We did have a powerful bond during all those years.
The pain of separation
I expect that it will be hard for me for a long time not to have Sophie as part of my life. A friend mentioned that for months after her dog’s death, she would keep looking around for him. I expect to be doing that for more than a few months—and I dread the pangs of longing over and over as I realize Sophie isn’t there. As I look at pictures of her, especially of her being held by people, I ache to hold her, to feel her softness, smell her warm fur, get a lick on the nose.
[In these few days of her being gone, I have realized that a big part of the pain is the on-going presence of her absence. For all these years, she was always part of my life. Especially in these last months since I retired, I would constantly check to see where she was and how she was doing. Usually, I would find her looking for me too—I’ll never forget the awareness in those big brown eyes. I know that the presence of her absence that I now feel will fade, which will be mostly good. But that will also signal a final loss of any vivid sense of her presence.]
She made me a better person. It was good for me to have the discipline of getting up early every single morning to take her for a walk. I decided early on that I would be friendly to the people I would see while we were out—most of whom were people I did not know. There were countless waves and smiles that resulted over these 13 ½ years.
I also found an outlet for the gentle and affectionate elements of my psyche. She always was happy to see me and that made me happy to see her. I would greet her, pet her, talk a bit with her. She was a typical Shih Tzu in how she would follow me around. When she was younger, she would persistently try to hop on my lap, usually getting her way. In more recent years, she would settle down in the little bed we kept near my workplace. I was especially aware of that during these past months since I retired. She might be somewhere else when I would sit down at my computer, but she’d always eventually end up next to me. It makes me happy to know how much she loved our grandchildren, too—and their Papa.
It’s true that in all our relationships of love, pets no less than family members, spouses, and good friends, we set ourselves up for pain. Each and every relationship of love ends with grief. But they all end as well with many happy memories of the pleasures that love affords. I suppose the grief helps us keep the happy memories alive.
In my entire life, Sophie is the only pet that has been mainly mine. I’m relieved that her suffering was relatively small and short lived. I’m sad beyond words right now that our time together is over. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been privileged to be her companion for a pretty long while.
He spoke in tears of fifteen years
How his dog and him
They traveled about
His dog up and died, he up and died
After twenty years he still grieves
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Mr. Bojangles”