Memorium for a Gentle Soul
I’ve been dreading this post for a long time. However, because I’m scared of it, because I dread it, it is something that needs done. It’s been sitting on my chest for several months and it’s time I take care of it.
I will warn you going in – this post is long and it is emotional. You see, it has to be. It’s the only way to get it all out. As I am fond of saying to friends and family, “the only way out is through.”
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In late July of this year my best friend, an eleven year old lab/husky mix by the name of Pooka Grasskiller, passed away. I knew he was getting older and I was sadly anticipating emotional vet visits and watching him begin to slide downwards. In regards to his age and health, I said numerous times to friends as well as to Pooka himself, “The next few years are gonna be rough.” I hated the concept of having to watch his body give out on him, on watching him disintegrate to his age.
Last year, it was obvious his back hips were hurting him. He was moving slower and slower. We took him to a vet visit and, except for the obvious failing back hips, they gave him a clear and clean bill of health. Even then, I tried to walk him a bit more, make sure to sit with him and just to soak up what time was left with him.
It all started in a northern Indiana town. I’d found him, as a puppy, on the side of a residential road. I’d been going about my normal business as an all-purpose handyman for my girlfriend’s father after a recent move. I’d questioned the move but as it were things looked good. It was temporary but the end promised to be worth it. It ended up to be a move filled with depression and confusion since nothing had gone the way it was supposed to go. I was fighting the good fight though and had stopped at a coffee shop to fill my travel mug. It was a sunny October day but there was still a chill present. I thought another cup of warm coffee would do me some good. With coffee mug warming my hand, I was going to my car when I saw two men down a side street walking away from a small, black, fuzzy creature that was following them. They were yelling at it and waving their arms, obviously not wanting to be followed.
The creature left the sidewalk and wandered, unknowingly, under a parked car and into the street. I flew out of my car and jogged towards it. Getting closer, I could see it was a small oblivious lab puppy. I waved at a oncoming car to stop and I got down on one knee, calling to it. Without hesitation, the puppy ran up to me, tongue out and happy. I scooped it up and while it licked my face I spoke to the men. They said it had been following them about a block. Otherwise, they didn’t know anything about it. I asked around. No one knew the dog. I took him home, fed him, played with him and tried over the next two weeks through the local shelter, the vets and the paper to find the owner.
No one wanted him.
By the time the two weeks were up it was, of course, too late. He and I had become inseparable. My partner at the time and I had two other dogs. One she had bought for me as a Holiday present, a german sheperd/chow mix and the stray she herself had fallen in love with, a redbone coon hound. The puppy took to them as if they had been litter mates and there were never any issues, no challenges from the older dogs. It was like everyone knew he and I were soul-mates and everyone was just waiting on me to “get it.”
I eventually got it. I gave him the name Pooka. Not only because he was a trickster but because he had the oddest ability to disappear and, well, teleport. When I tell people this they laugh. When I stress I’m serious, they give me an odd look. It’s ok, I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t experienced it.
One minute Pooka would be underfoot and the next he would be gone. When I would look for him, thinking he had hidden under the couch or scrambled under a coffee table, I could not find him. After calling his name a few times, he would come bounding out of the back bedroom as if he had been there the whole time and was playing the best dog game in the entire world. We were never sure how he did it but I and others experienced it over the first year or so of his puppyhood. Once, after looking for him, we found him outside under a bush when there was no way he could have gotten out. As he passed his one year mark, the teleportation seemed to stop but his drive to do things just to make us laugh never did, not until much later anyway. Regardless, giving him the name of a mischievous celtic spirit that enjoys playing pranks seemed to be perfect.
His last name, Grasskiller, came from an odd berserker streak he would fall into when over-excited. After playing a few rounds of ball or stick or just roughhousing outside, he would get a wild look in his eye and descend on a thick tuft of grass. He would proceed to rip it up with his mouth and throw it into the air over and over again. By the time he was done, there would occasionally be small bare spots in our lawn or the unlucky turf of the park grounds. It came from when he was a puppy. One of our first times playing, I ripped up a spot of grass and threw it in his direction, the grass falling in his fur and on his head. He had such fun when I did it to him it became a game we played for the rest of his life.
He was one of the most gentle dogs I’ve ever met. He never bit and rarely showed aggression. If he could bring himself to growl at someone I watched them VERY closely. He did not growl lightly. The only time things went too far had been a mistake. We were roughhousing, again during puppyhood and we both lounged forward at the same time. I got a very close Jurassic Park-style shot of his mouth and his teeth accidentally scraped my cheek.
I fell back holding my face and he was scared to approach me. When I encouraged him to come to me, he was obviously troubled and at his first opportunity he began to lick the small cut on my cheek caused by his teeth. I hugged him when I realized what he was doing. That was the only time, ever, anything like it ever happened.
For a period of time, things were rough for me. I moved from the northern town and back to the Bloomington area. I was living out of my car or thanks to the generosity of friends, couch-surfing as I commuted back and forth to my job running a small retail store downtown. Pooka lived in the car with me, a hatchback, station wagon van thing. When no couch was available, I’d fold down the back seats and Pooka and I would crash out for the night. Since I was working 8 to 10 hours a day and knowing how gentle Pooka was with people, the owner of the store gave me the ok to bring him in for my shift.
Slowly, as customers got to know him, Pooka acquired a following. People would come into the store not to shop but just to say “hello” to Pooka. Individuals who only came to town once or twice a year would make a special stop just to see him. For many years, he greeted them all, lying on his side and thumping the floor with his tail. All were welcome to rub his belly, of course. When up and about he would hug you by pressing the top of his head into your legs or your chest if you were kneeling. I got this treatment pretty much daily.
As what happens when entities share a life, we started to share thoughts as well. It first happened when he was a puppy and had shocked me. Once, without moving or showing any physical indicator of my intention, I pictured in my head taking him out for a walk. In the next room, a young Pooka sprang to his feet and trotted up next to me, mouth open and smiling. Over time, I just got used to it. So did he.
Occasionally, someone would walk into the store with a bit of food from a nearby restaurant. He would get up on his feet in excitement and then, he would just look at me and then back to the visitor. I knew what he was thinking, he knew what I was thinking. If I said, “No,” he would sit quietly or maybe come over to be by me. If I knew the person and knew they were bringing him a treat, I would say, “Go ahead” or anything similar, and he would wander over happily. I could walk him without a leash because he responded so well to simple hand motions or a whispered word.
He knew me. I knew him.
He loved cheeseburgers. It came about when we were on the road. I once stopped for lunch at a burger place when he was in the car with me and he went nuts when I opened the bag. Being a buddy, I ripped off a piece and gave it to him. It sealed the deal for him and from then forward he’d get excited about the promise of another “snack.”
I once found out that a friend of mine had stopped at a fast food place and picked up a cheeseburger just for Pooka. They knew I was, at this point, cutting Pooka back from “people food.” As he aged enough was, after all, enough. However, Pooka’s subliminal mastery of the human mind was too much for some people.
Knowing my stance, my friend called me over to a shelf of product and distracted me. While I was talking to him and not looking he motioned to Pooka with the cheeseburger. I’m told Pooka hesitated at first but then seemed to realize what was going on. Pooka came up behind us and snagged half the offered burger from behind the friend’s back. My friend thought it was hilarious. Later, I found out this had happened more than once and Pooka was “in the know” quite a bit. Like I said, a trickster.
I could go on for pages and pages of stories with him. He shared my life, daily for over ten years. Walks, hikes, camping trips, cheeseburger, and long drives. At my marriage to my wife, he was my ring bearer. He took the changes of our life in stride and he loved the new children in his life immensely. Shortly after moving in with my wife and her three children, I noticed that when he was not sleeping in front of our bedroom, he would sleep in front of their bedroom doors. Once he realized we were all family, he barked to defend the house or alert us to someone pulling up.
The only time I ever saw him enter into full blown attack mode was when he didn’t realize my brother was entering our country house from a side door. As the door opened, he awoke from his nap and blazed past the two shocked children. He was all teeth, bark and spit as he put himself between them and whomever dared to come into our house unannounced. He just as quickly relaxed when he realized it was just my brother and began to look around for a cheeseburger or a bit of french fry from my brother’s hands. While looking for apartments, my wife would joke with the landlord that “I hope you take dogs because I guarantee that I will have to go before Pooka will…”
I think something happened when my jobs changed and I went from the retail store to working at home for a year and then to an 8 – 5 office job. He suddenly was not going with me to work everyday. He was left at home for long hours, regulated back to morning and evening walks. Something happened to me during this time. We were no longer a team. It hurt but we adapted. We took longer walks. We had longer sits watching a sunset or just birds flitting past. The family moved into town and, by law, he had to be on a leash for walks outside. I could tell he didn’t like it but never complained, never threw a fit about the leash. He took it in stride. When I could I walked him without the leash knowing he would listen to voice commands.
The last year of his life, I could tell he was hurting. He wasn’t playing as much. Steps up to our apartment started to become an issue. He slipped once on ice the previous winter and yelped. He was sleeping more and more. Our vet gave us some pain pills for him and some glucosamine tablets for his joints. I remember a Spring weekend of this year, bout 10 days after we started with the pills. He was like a young pup again. He ran, he tried to jump on me like he used to. He played with a stick and I felt so blessed and bittersweet. I hope to remember that afternoon for the rest of my life.
Then, the fateful night in July. It was around 11:30 PM and my wife called me upstairs. I heard it in her voice. I sprang up the stairs and she was standing in front of him. From the way he was lying, on his belly, legs splayed out to either side and breathing so heavy. His eyes went from hers to mine and I just knew. I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew. I dropped to my knees and pressed my forehead to his.
Phone calls. Frantic plans being made. The 24 hour emergency clinic was almost an hour away. My oldest son and I carried him to the back of our car with a blanket. My wife drove and I sat with him, whispering to him, petting him, and, at the same time, filled with knowing. He vomited once on the trip. He was always good enough to try and get outside or onto tile before doing it. He looked sad and I encouraged him it was ok.
My thoughts raced. Even if the vet could fix whatever was wrong I knew we were looking at a financial bill that was far beyond anything we could afford. That week alone we had just managed to scrape up gas money for the week. Gas money that was now going into an unplanned two hour roundtrip to the vet. Of course, none of it mattered. My friend was in pain. However, I cannot say I was immune to it as it whirred around in my head. Once there, I called my mother and, bless her soul, she promised whatever financial help she could give.
A horrible time passed. They stabilized him as best they could, X-Rays and a consultation. In the end, some would say Pooka and my family were fortunate. A growth had burst in his abdomen and he was internally bleeding. Given his age and amount of blood loss, the chance of him surviving the surgery was not good. Even if he survived the vet would not give him more than 6 months to live and those 6 months would be filled with misery for him. In the end, the decision was “easy.”
Just before we entered the room I stopped my wife. I was an emotional mess and so was she. I also knew that Pooka had always been empathetic. I would not have him further confused or distraught by emotions. We took a minute to compose ourselves, even looking in briefly to steel ourselves to what we would see. When we entered the room, I kept my voice at “happy.”
To my call of, “How’s that big Pooka-doo?” I was given two solid thumps of his tail on the metal table and he tried to raise his head to look at me. When I came to the table he pressed his forehead into my arm, lifted his paw to try and touch me as he would do when he wanted his belly rubbed a bit longer. I leaned down and looked into his brown eyes and he looked back.
I rubbed the top of his head and kissed him.
It was over soon enough. I stood watch and whispered to him as he slipped away. Some interesting things happened when he passed over. It even caught the eye of the veterinarian when it happened. A pop of energy. A sense of static and a wave of relief, happiness. It all happened so fast. I looked at my wife and smiled, she smiled and then I saw the vet looking at us and smiling as well. Later, I thought I was just too wracked with grief when I felt him in the room and wanting to follow me out of the clinic. I patted my leg absently as I used to do when it was time for us to leave a place. A non-verbal, “Alright, lets go.”
The vet saw it and I started to apologize. She stressed that I not and told me a story about her own spirit dog experience. I knew she understood what I was feeling. “So, ” I asked her, “you’re not gonna think I’m a nut when I open the back of my car and motion for an invisible dog to jump in?”
She looked me straight in the eye, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Not at all. Though, you know, you don’t even have to open the door for him now.”
I’ll not forget the kindness showed to us and Pooka at that clinic in the wee dark hours of the morning.
My wife drove me home as the first light of dawn tinged the sky. The clinic offered to hold the body while we went home and got affairs in order. I felt hollow. Oddly enough, it seemed that I could feel him in the back of our car. My wife admitted to the same feeling. I tried but didn’t sleep that morning and called into work. Later, we drove back up to get him, brought him back south and took him to be cremated.
A few days later his ashes were brought back home. I mentioned the news on Facebook and over the days that followed I watched comments to that single post climb close to a hundred. Messages, phone calls and emails began to pour in. A friend and her boyfriend composed a song. I started to see the sheer length and breadth of how many souls my best friend had touched and I was stunned and humbled. He had not just been a good dog. He’d been a good soul and had made better the lives of all that he came in contact. Would that I, or anyone, be so lucky or blessed.
The weeks turned into months. The pain eased eventually but never fully disappeared. The tears stopped coming out of nowhere. Three weeks after his passing, our family went on our first family vacation that was to last 12 days. Pooka had been scheduled to stay with my mother during that time because of lack of room in the car and his age. Again, I realized how fortunate we were because what would have happened if he had become just before the trip or, worse, while we were gone? I started to see the timing of his passing as being as poignant and perfect as it had been the day I found him.
Yet, even to this day, five months to the day of his passing, the sensation of missing him is almost impossible to describe. It seems as if it must be close to that feeling mentioned by amputees of a ghost limb when it feels as if it’s still there yet when you look down, it is not. This is what I feel daily with Pooka. There have been several “odd” moments as well.
I’ve had numerous dreams with him. One, in particular, featured him and his adopted sister, the shepherd/chow mix who had passed away the year prior. The two of them and myself were playing in a green field and bounding around with a stick. I awoke feeling refreshed and as happy as I’d felt since before his death. I suppose, in my grief, this is to be expected. However, a friend emailed me three months after his passing. She’d had a dream with Pooka in it. She had awoken and felt a strong urge to contact me, to tell me he was ok. Once, coming home from dinner with my wife, we entered our apartment and I could have sworn I heard Pooka’s tail thumping in the living room. I shook it off, again to grief, until a few seconds later my wife laughed and said, “Walking in the door I got this weird feeling I could hear Pooka’s tail thumping and it’s not going away.” My wife and I are no strangers to ghosts and spirits. I have a long history with the subject and it does not disturb me nor surprise me. All I know, is that it is comforting to feel him “about the place.” Lately though, I’ve noticed he is going more than he is staying.
I know this post is about that as well. As if my pouring out his story will help cement him firmly in place while at the same time giving him the freedom to go on. At the same time in which it makes no sense at all, it makes all the sense it needs to make. It’s alright. It’s ok. I know now the main reason I had to move to that northern Indiana town was to not only learn some very hard lessons but also to find Pooka. If I’d not agreed to go, we never would have found each other. I never would have been so fortunate as to walk daily with such a gentle soul.
I also know he will never be completely gone and, deep down, somewhere close to where that ghost limb sensation sits there is a knowing I will see him again.
But, until then, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt like hell.
Walk in peace, Pooka Grasskiller.