I spent the summer of l998 looking for a puppy. As a teacher, I had weeks to find one before school started. I wanted to have some time to train him before I had to leave him alone part of the day.
A few years before this, my small, adorable, black Llasa-Poo named Mandy had died of a heart condition. She wasn’t very old, but we were somewhat prepared having treated her for problems with a heart murmur and then seizures. After she died, I missed many things about her. She always greeted me with barking and ecstatic jumping. She curled up on my lap and slept on my feet. She was cuddly and sweet and well-behaved and I loved her.
After she was gone, I couldn’t stand coming home to silence. I waited a few years and then began my hunt for a puppy. I wanted a “dog dog” this time, a bigger dog, female. Weeks went by and no dog was right. I didn’t feel a connection. I looked for a rescue dog, but there weren’t as many options then as there are now. In August, I was getting a little panicky when one day I found an ad in the paper for Australian Shepherd puppies. They were on a farm about an hour away. I did some research and talked to my vet about getting one. She discouraged me, saying Aussies are working dogs and unless we had some sheep in our backyard, we would be asking for trouble. The dog would try to round up children and boss us around all day. I decided to go have a look anyway.
From the first moment I saw them, I was hooked. Six puppies running around the barn, fluffy, soft, energetic, adorable. I chose a female and the owner told me to come back in two weeks to get her. I couldn’t wait. The day arrived and I headed north to the farm. Just as I was about to reach for the little female I had chosen, the woman who ran the farm accidentally stepped on the foot of one of the puppies. A loud yelp filled the barn, and the puppy ran back into the corner, whimpering and shaking. The owner laughed.
“Well, she said, “these puppies need to grow up to be herding dogs. We have horses and cows and sheep so they need to work. I know you don’t have a farm, and I think that little one I just stepped on might be perfect for you. He will not be a good working dog because he’s too shy.”
He? Oh, no, I thought. What about my little girl? Then I looked into the eyes of the one in the corner. They melted my heart. I went over and picked him up. He snuggled against me and that did it. The owner gave me a discount on him because she didn’t think anyone needing a herding dog would take him. I didn’t need a discount. I carried him to the car and he became my loyal friend for fifteen years.
We signed him up for puppy training classes. The first few times he cowered under a chair, but he soon moved out into the room with the other puppies. He was super smart and picked up all the signals right away. Soon he could sit, stay, come, and heel with no problem at all. Then we enrolled him in agility training classes and he made even more progress. He was a little leery of climbing up the ramp and across the board, but soon he was one of the fastest dogs there. He loved the hurdles most of all.
At home he became a whiz with a Frisbee and a tennis ball, spending hours with us in the back yard running and playing. When he was tired, he quit and ran to the door to be let in the house. He followed me everywhere, herded me to bed at night, and made sure as a family we were always together in the same room. He seldom barked unless the doorbell rang. He was gentle and friendly and loving and loyal and occupied a large piece of my heart every day.
He began to fail a few years ago. His walks in the park got shorter. He tired easily. He played only a little with the Frisbee before he quit. He had his favorite toys, especially a huge stuffed bone, his “big boney” that he carried around to greet us when we arrived home and then struggled with to climb the stairs at night. At first he slept on the bed, but as the years passed, he couldn’t climb as well and settled for the floor next to me. He was afraid of storms and used to hide under the bed. When he began to have trouble getting under it, we put the bed on blocks for him. Recently, he climbed partially under every night, seeming to need the security of it. His eating became less. While he had been on a special allergy diet for years, now we had to make him food. We cooked turkey and added in rice and vegetables. Sometimes he ate it. Sometimes he didn’t. His favorite snack used to be cheese, but it began to make him sick. He vomited more often. The vet said he was in good shape for his age. She ran tests periodically, but nothing seemed wrong.
A few days ago he stopped eating, although he still seemed to want a little of what we ate or some cheese. He often threw it up, but we were desperate to get him to eat. He no longer wanted long walks, and the Sunday walks in the park ended. His breathing changed a little, more labored, but still the vet couldn’t find anything wrong except his age. Yesterday afternoon he followed me as usual to my computer, lying down on the entry way rug like he always did. Suddenly, he got up, seemed disoriented, staggered, couldn’t stand up anymore and flopped onto the floor. He was hardly breathing. We rushed him to the animal hospital where the vet told us he had fluid around his heart, blood, most likely from a tumor. He probably had cancer somewhere else that had metastasized to his heart. There was nothing they could do to help him survive. He could not lift himself up off the gurney. The vet said he would not be able to stand up again. His blood pressure was very low and his heartbeat was slow. We made the difficult decision we always feared we might have to make someday.
What haunts me is the way he looked at me at the end. His eyes were still clear and loving. He needed me and trusted me. But I knew his life was over. His breathing became more labored. I kissed him good-by and left the room, leaving my husband to be with him at the end.
Anyone who gets a pet knows the risks of that final moment, the way our hearts will break when we lose a loyal and loving companion. Murphy was a part of me, always with me in the house wherever I went. He herded me up to bed earlier and earlier lately but I didn’t mind. We settled in together to go to sleep.
This morning the remnants of his life linger in the house. We are gradually removing them. I threw away the old pair of slippers I kept around just for him. Every morning before we went downstairs, he would get one, throw it up in air, and chase it, even this past week when the end was near. I took down the sign on the front of the house, the one that said “A spoiled Australian Shepherd lives here.” We threw out his bedding and his toys, everything except his “big boney.” We kept his collar and leash. I don’t really know why.
I wish I could hold him once more, feel the softness of his fur, and look into those loving eyes. I don’t know where he is. I have the same questions I had when my father and my sister died. Where are they all? How can I go on without them? I’ve heard that broken hearts are supposed to mend. I don’t think that is true. Right now my heart is full of loss and a grief too great to bear.
To my sweet Murphy wherever you are: I hope you are chasing a Frisbee in a backyard somewhere, running free and strong and loving your new home. I miss you and will love you forever.