December 18, 2010 was Isaac’s tenth birthday.
Isaac, our chocolate lab, is not a replacement dog. He is the ‘baby’ Leigh had to have long after she suggested I get fixed. I wanted to call him Buddha because of his belly rolls when he sat, but the family shut me down on that.
The dog that Isaac did not replace was Shamrock. For 8 years Shamrock, a yellow lab, was the constant canine companion that grew up with our family. We bought him from a breeder located on Irish Lane in Perry County, thus prompting Chris’s suggestion of the name we all agreed upon.
Shamrock loved to run circles around the house, repeatedly taking corners so fast and furious, he had to have reconstructive surgery on both his knees. He loved to greet the kids and their friends by ‘playfully’ jumping up to steal their winter hats with his teeth. A weapon of mass destruction, his wagging tail was strong enough to clear coffee tables and bruise shin bones. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Coffee tables became a thing of the past in the McBride household.
Shamrock was perceptive and loyal. Every day during the 8 months of my chemotherapy, he stood vigil. Whether laying at the bottom of the stairs when I was in bed, or resting at my feet when I sat downstairs, he never let me alone. Reminiscing the feel of his mane between my fingers and his brown-eyes gazing into mine, still brings back the tears and lessons of an unconditional love that most dog-lovers understand. Shamrock taught me to love myself in those quiet moments when I thought I was dying.
When Leigh brought Isaac home on Valentines Day, 2001, Shamrock was mildly annoyed. He was not terribly keen on having a snack-sized shadow that trailed and mimicked him 24 hours a day. Isaac would follow Shamrock out, and follow Shamrock in. Isaac would only bark when Shamrock would bark. We had all forgotten puppies have much. much more energy than 8 year olds – coffee tables or not.
In late August that year, I set out to take the dogs for a hike on a familiar section of the Appalachian Trail. This would be the first trip on the Trail for Shamrock since his latest surgery in the Spring. Although he had gained some weight, the planned 3 1/2 mile hike up to Centerpoint Knob just outside of Boiling Springs was one he had trekked easily many times before. The dogs were always excited when they were encouraged to jump into the Chrysler minivan through the sliding side door . This day would be no exception, and they leapt in excitedly. I went to the rear hatch door and tossed in my hiking boots, trekking stick, and water-filled day pack. We set out, both dogs scurrying about the minivan, looking for the best view to enjoy the ride. Wherever Shamrock would go, Isaac would go. The 15 minute ride from our driveway to the trail head went quickly.
Kneeling, I just stayed there with Shamrock. Isaac had remarkably changed from high-energy puppy to gentle and attentive companion. He kept his distance, sitting pretty, as labs do. He cautiously walked up to lick Shamrock’s snout very gently, as if he knew his mentor was not right. We stayed there for about 15 minutes, maybe 20. Shamrock was not responding. I tried to call home with my cell phone, but the signal was too low.
I decided I needed to go to the van, drive it up the trail as far as I could, and carry Shamrock down. I started down the trail to the clearing – I thought I was close, but wasn’t quite sure how close the end of the woods and the beginning of the corn field was. I counted my paces, about 200 yards of twisting, meandering trail. As soon as I got to the clearing I started running with my boots and Camelback back pack, holding my trekking stick. Isaac followed me, behaving like a trusty sidekick, not a 9 month old puppy. We ran the 3/4 mile to van, realizing along the way I could at least drive the van back along the trail to the point where the woods started.
My chest was heaving. I put Isaac in the van and drove up the trail. I called Leigh to tell her what happened; she would call the veterinarian. Having travelled as far as I could, to the tree line, we then ran the 200 yards up the trail.
Shamrock was still lying down – I held my breath until I could see movement….finally!!!
When I got to him, I poured more water on his tongue, which was hanging out on the ground with dirt and leaves stuck to it. I was struck with how easy and instinctual it was to do that – to clean him off. There was no way to pull him up by his collar, or the mane that had given me so much comfort in my time of need. He wasn’t going anywhere. He had nothing left to give. I went to pick him up, ready for him to twist and turn out of my hold. It was like a 90 pound bag of limp, lifeless rice. That is when I really lost it. I cradled his torso in my arms, and once feeling balanced, I walked quickly down the path. I began talking to Shamrock through my tears. I was really talking to myself for me to stay calm.
“Hey Shammy, it’s OK, Daddy’s taking care of you. Just hang in there buddy! We’ll get you home”.
It was the suckiest-ass thing I had ever done in my life.
I made it to about 50 yards from the edge of the woods. I had to stop before I collapsed. My legs and arms and lower back were searing with pain. I tried dripping more water on Shamrocks tongue; no real response – just the glassy eyes and the heavy breathing. I picked him up again – hoping for some life or resistance. Still nothing. I moved as quickly as I could, Isaac followed silently, dutifully.
I made it to the car, laid him down in the grass and opened the rear hatch and the left sliding door. My lungs, arms, legs and lower back were fucking screaming. I needed rest time – but I had to get him in and go. I got Isaac in the sliding door and shut it. Once again I tried feeding Shamrock water. This time he started to flail his front paws, acting as if he was in the lake, trying to swim. There was no movement in the rear legs at all. I picked him up and put him in the van. Then I sped back along the trail to the road, and headed on the 15 minute ride home. I don’t know what hurt more, my legs and arms from carrying Shamrock down the trail, or my heart from the looming disappointment of my children for harming our 8-year-old companion.
Seeing the look in Leigh’s eyes when I opened the rear hatch door, I crumbled. I could not look at Chris and Caity.
I took him to the vet fo a 5:30 appointment; I was there before 5:00. There was a couple with their dog in the waiting area. When I carried Shamrock in, the receptionist immediately shot us to the head of the line. “I’m sorry,” the nurse said to the couple, “this is a life or death situation.” My knees buckled, my heart sank, tears flowed.
He had a fever of 108 degrees, probably for at least 2 hours, before I got to the vet. Normal is 102. After awhile, I left. Shamrock would stay at least the night. I left knowing that the prognosis was guarded, and that both brain damage and internal organ damage were possible. His temp had begun to come down, but had still not moved his rear legs.
The drive home, and that evening, was very lonely. In an email to my friends that evening, I ended with
“… but I feel like shit. There is nothing I could have done to prevent this – I know the trail, the pace and the ample portions of water were appropriate. I don’t feel guilty – but I do feel like shit. I’m afraid I am bout to lose a very dear friend…the friend who helped me to learn to love myself. The friend who was there by my side every day during cancer. This really sucks.”
Close to midnight, the phone rang. Shamrock had died. I wept.
The guilt that crept in that night has never really left.