Sage, under no circumstances, checked any of the boxes that my brother and I were told to search for. The agreed upon rules in the between us and my parents were simple when we entered the Toronto Humane Society on a cold day in December 2012: a young adult female, not a threat to grow any bigger than medium size, easy to account for.
But then we ended up in the puppy room, figuring we could burn two minutes playing with the litter of eight-week-old Golden Labrador/Boxer/who knows what else mixes that had just shown up. Most of them were pretty indifferent, as newborns would be. Sage wasn’t. Sage mustered up the strength to walk up to my brother, to engage with us, and make us feel like we at least needed to have the sit-down interview with him.
When the interview was done, he refused to go back with the workers and followed us out the door. There was no way he wasn’t coming home with us.
We adopted him. We changed his name: John (my brother) didn’t like the name-them-after-spices theme that the Humane Society had going on, and reached into the NATO phonetic alphabet to get Charlie (probably for the best: Twitter wanted Dogler). He needed to be trained to walk, to run, to go to the bathroom (in many different ways: we live in a high rise, so balcony training him to go on pee pads, then with kitty litter, and finally with a Pet Loo was a unique experience). He chewed on everything he could, be it shoes, cables, or even the support bracket of my brother’s bed frame.
But it was all worth it. So very, very worth it. Charlie proved quickly to be not just a quick learner, but a being who would teach us, motivate us, and challenge us. He was quiet, well mannered, resourceful, and kind; the first to make a new friend. Even other animals were just another opportunity to make buddies for him, whether it was another puppy, or even a moth, a squirrel, or a mouse. He quickly became the lowest-hassle member of the household; impressive given that he also quickly became a 115 lb beast in an apartment.
Most importantly, he was always there to love and to support. Whether it was excitedly greeting my brother after a late night at work, sitting by my mother’s desk as she worked or by her side as she unwinded for her day, hanging out with my dad next to his in-house hospital bed for the final few years of his life, or going out on walks or joining me in hockey practice when the world was bringing me down (born and raised with the orange ball, he became a very tough to face shutdown defenceman; you’d also have to bring three balls with you in case he stuffed two in his mouth), he was on call, every day, every moment, and he was always overjoyed to help out.
He was also a fantastic big brother. A year and a half ago, we adopted Panda, a terrier mix who had spent the bulk of her life being abused as a puppy mill mother. Due to her circumstances, the interview process to adopt her was extremely tedious, but Charlie’s instantaneous ability to get along with her, befriend her, play with her, and make her feel welcome was what sealed the deal. The two weren’t completely inseparable; Panda often needs her own alone space, but Charlie always recognized that and found a way to make her comfortable and be her friend when needed.
Unfortunately, as many of you who know and/or follow me already know, Charlie suffered a few serious blows to his health over the past month. Early in April, we noticed that he was having trouble getting around; we knew that he already had some mobility issues that came with being a big dog in mid-age, but he had developed as sudden limp and he struggled to put weight on his hind legs. Knowing something was up, we brought him to a couple of animal hospitals for guidance, confirming our suspicion that he had torn not one, but both of his hind Cranial Cruciate Ligaments, similar to an ACL surgery in humans.
The original plan was to have him undergo surgery on the one leg, have him go through six months of recovery, and revisit the less severe one in a year or two; something perfectly common with bigger dogs. While being evaluated, however, the doctors noticed a mass on his right-side front leg, that no one had really spotted due to concerns about his hind mobility.
A biopsy done on the mass confirmed a much worse issue. Charlie had a very aggressive form of Osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that, in dogs, was known to be more of a “when” rather than an “if”. Fighting it was going to prove impossible; there were only methods available to extend his life.
When the methods were presented to us, though, none of them made sense to pursue in relation to the issues that he already had. Amputation was an option, but that would put even more weight on his already hurt hind legs, and addressing those on the fly would mean that he’d be recovering from CCL surgery for the rest of his life (up to nine more months). The other involved essentially scraping the tumour and then performing chemo/radiation, but that would also severely hamper his ability to move around and would only buy him an extra month or so.
So we opted for quality of life instead. We decided that we’d ride it out as we could, making sure that he was properly medicated, that he spent as much time as possible with us, and that he got to basically live like a Prince, more so than he already had, until he was showing signs of declining. It required a lot of shifts to get him his pills, a lot of changed bandages, a lot of distraction when people (and Panda) went out without him, but it was the best thing for him. Through all of it, he was amazingly still the happiest being in the household; you would barely know that he was the one suffering on the inside.
Unfortunately, his bad days began to outnumber the good ones in over the past few weeks. His tumour kept getting bigger, his appetite began to get worse, his limp was getting more severe, and he was spending more and more time in bed. He didn’t have the same excitement to bounce from place to place in the house that he did before; the love was there, but the ability to show it was starting to fade. We knew that had we kept him going, he was at a severe risk of fracturing or breaking the leg with his tumour (a very common circumstance with dogs with this form of cancer), and that he’d begin to show greater signs of illness beyond not wanting to eat.
With that in mind, my mother, brother, and I made the tough decision today to put Charlie to rest this afternoon. It’s a feeling I’ve never quite experienced before; I’ve never had a pet until their end-of-life, and even when it comes to family, those I have lost have either been in my very early life, been far disconnected to me, or in the case of my father, a semi-sudden passing that occurred while I was flying home from a trip, unaware of what was ahead of me when I landed.
Charlie was, in effect, the first being, pet or person, that I was close to who I’ve had to watch pass away, knowing that their moment was coming. It was an incredibly emotional process, from the diagnosis to this afternoon, and I’m thankful for everyone, vets to friends to family, who made it as painless as can be every step of the way. I feel especially fortunate that we were able to put him down at home, and that I was able to spend the final ten or so minutes of his time with us hugging him, nose to nose, giving him a buddy to be with as he went to sleep for the last time.
It’s not an easy thing to have to go through. It’s a terrible circumstance forced by a terrible, terrible disease that takes far too many beings on this planet far too soon. It’s no doubt a life cut far too short. But I know it’s also a five and a half years lived well, with next to no decline, and I know that the pawprint that he left on my family, friends, neighbours, and myself is a stronger one than just about anyone could make in their lifetime. He wasn’t the young boy we were looking for when we got him, but he was definitely the one we needed.
And I’m thankful he was able to decide that for us the day we got him and that he proved that to us for the half-decade he spent by our sides.