In the summer of 2004 I was 15 years old and wanted nothing more than a puppy. I took a job doing manual labor work through a friend– literally digging trenches for an irrigation company in a new housing development. I was paid well and my ineptitude was forgiven and, by August, I had found a puppy.
A one-blue-eyed male merle singleton with slightly too-straight shoulders who would go a little oversized. He hid beneath the couch in the breeder’s living room and I dragged him out by his rear to meet me. His nails dug into my shoulder when we drove home, clamoring to get away from the scary car. The first time his soft feet touched the new grass he screamed.
Yet, he was perfect.
Nike became my constant for 14 years, half my life. From the sophomore year summer, to boyfriends, moving to college, graduate school, an engagement, a wedding. Six jobs, five apartments & homes, countless travels in between. He did everything with ease and happiness in his heart and his bright eyes. He wanted nothing more than to please. When we refer to him as the “purest soul” we say it without an ounce of sarcasm or exaggeration. He never once raised a lip in anger or frustration. He never once picked a fight. He was the kindest dog I’ve known and I am so lucky to have raised two other boys alongside him who have learned this gentleness.
On August 14 I witnessed the first seizure I’ve ever seen, though it may not have been Nike’s first. It was a horrible, wrenching thing to watch– to feel helpless beside his thrashing body. In the moments and hours after, he slowly returned to himself. Though more wobbly, a little confused, and exhausted. I carried him to bed, knowing in a deep pit in my stomach, that we were closing in on the end, as much as I wouldn’t actually admit it yet. Instead, over the next weeks I worked hard on returning back to normal– or as normal as things can be when our dogs age.
It’s a funny, sad sort of thing, aging. It’s kind of like leaves dropping from a tree in late fall. One thing disappears, but it’s small, inconsequential, really. So what he can’t go out for walks anymore? He’s arthritic and much happier on the couch, anyway. Stairs are also hard for old bones, so we just carry him now. It makes sense that he can’t jump up on the couch or the bed any longer, so you just pick him up. He sleeps more hours of the day than you see him awake. When friends come by the remark how good he looks “for his age” but they also note how much he’s changed over the last few weeks. Diseases progress differently, but brain tumors, it seems, move at their own pace. When he stops eating for three days you start trying new things, knowing in your heart what the dance around food means. But then, on day four, you get something right and the dish starts emptying again. Sure, it’s gruel, but he’s eating again.
You can’t remember exactly when all of these things stopped, but they did, slowly, one-by-one, as time continued on. Before you know it, though, the tree is close to bare and you hang on to the frail leaves left.
When I was younger joining the World Team was the absolute number one priority in my life. I had high hopes for the young, nervous blue puppy that followed me room to room despite what some trainers (and friends) had said about him. Looking back, I don’t think who I am now would have chosen that puppy for this goal. But I was younger, more naive, and smitten with the most handsome blue merle I’d ever seen. He was my first puppy, and I was reluctant to give up on him. In our foundation agility classes his eyes would glaze over and I’d lose any connection with him. He was afraid of the slamming door, of the barking dogs, of the overhead fans, the see-saw hitting the floor. Oftentimes, he’d run to the corner of the room and hide, unresponsive to my calls or lures with food. Outside on walks, he would run to the end of his leash to get away from parked cars, trash cans, or anything else that definitely-should-not-be-there. We started the “face your fears” game. Which was basically me egging him on to see the scary thing and bark at it. Yes, it mostly taught him to bark at everything. So for months, we barked and barked at all the things.
But fears were slowly faced. Agility, over time, became his safety net. His tail would physically rise as he entered the building, his ears would perk up, and barking, so much barking, would follow. Everything else in the world fell away for him except me and the game.
We weren’t too impressive in our first year competing together. I struggled quite a lot to handle a bigger, more powerful dog. Nike himself was learning how to find new speeds, and our dance together was a little fumbling for quite some time. He was, despite that, a spectacular dog in the ring. Fast, driven, and always, always eager to be right. He fired off the startline in a way the older generation of agility dogs then didn’t. While we never chased down the dream, we grew into a coordinated team– we understood each other perfectly. I trusted him.
Our agility merits accumulated, but all of that was secondary to the heart of what we were doing and what he did for me. Without Nike there would be no Bolt– there would certainly be no Seeker. He taught me patience and persistence. He taught me how to love in a giant way, through anything and everything. He endured the growing pains of my adolescence as well as my handling evolution. I made so many training mistakes with him, but he always forgave me for them– we were just playing, after all. Ever there, always, as a quiet, gracious presence through everything. Happy to sit back and let a new star take the stage as he enjoyed an earlier-than-anticipated retirement. His needs became simpler as he aged, until even the few primary joys he took were slowly dwindling. Our goal in the spring was to get Nike a grass yard so he could roll as often as he wanted.
On Sunday, in the last bit of sun for the day, he rolled in our yard the last time.
A second seizure occurred Tuesday, September 18, though it’s impossible to say for how long. Joe and I were both at work– a hurried morning where I left without so much as a goodbye to any one, a thing I think I’ll regret for some time. At lunch, Joe found him, mostly unresponsive and signs of one, if not two, seizures taking place. He got him calmed and, for the four hours it took me to catch a train back home, Nike lay semi-conscious until I crawled into the pen and curled him up into my lap.
People always say you’ll know when the time is right. Or that our dogs will tell us when they’re ready. I’m not sure how much I believe this, though. A friend once told me, “dogs need our help coming into the world, and they need our help leaving it, too.” I think more often, they won’t tell us they are ready, because we’re not ready for them to go. It’s the purest act of love, this hanging on for our benefit. They live for us.
How could I ask him to continue on like he was? The lesion in his brain did not just threaten, but promised another seizure; if not again that evening, the next, or the days after. It was impossible to say. It was impossible to guard him every hour of the day and it was impossible to stop the inevitable progression of the disease. When I put his head into my lap, his eyes were tired, they were soft– he wasn’t there in the same way. As much as I wanted to wait, I knew it was unfair to do. Our new normal had ended.
He was willing to leave and I needed to listen.
How do you measure a dog’s life?
It’s not in success in agility, or in the letters after their names. Those things are important, because they tell a story about your lives together and the willingness of a dog to work and please. But ultimately, those things are just ribbons, just letters, just pieces of paper.
Measurement, instead, is in the intangibles. The way they shape us and how they make us better because of them. The way Nike taught me to persevere. How he taught me humility and graciousness. How he taught me that the simple things are just as important as the big ones– like soft grass on a cool, late summer afternoon. He taught me to patient with myself, and with dogs who may need a little extra time to find themselves. He taught me to never give up on him, or on myself, or anything else you care about. He taught me how to forgive. In turn, I hope I taught him some things, too. Like maybe not everything needs to be scary, and that you are strong enough to face your fears. That one should keep their glorious tails away from fireplaces (even if he never actually listened to that one). I hope he always felt love and comfort. I hope I taught him that the world was a good place, with good people, and that his little family was always there (even if raising two puppies was quite a big thing to ask of him).
I’m not sure it will ever feel like what I did was enough. Because, truly, it could never be. It is the cruelest part about loving these perfect, simple, happy creatures, this ending.
I hope to carry what he taught me on forward.
If there is another side, I know I’ll meet you there, my beautiful, sweet, blue boy.
Love you, always.