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.

There were already two cars parked near the trail crossing on Leidigh Rd, a popular starting point for local hikers.  I could see a father and two young sons about a quarter-mile up the trail.   I pulled the van off the road, parking behind one of the cars.   The dogs were whining  excitedly, turning in circles inside the van as I laced up my boots in the back of the van.   I let out a loud belly laugh when I opened the sliding door and the dogs leapt out simultaneously and immediately darted up the trail.     As the first 3/4 mile of the trail is a flat stretch through a  field of 3′ high corn stalks,  I could see Isaac keeping pace with Shamrock as they headed toward the hiking  trio ahead.  
As they always do,  after reaching  hikers ahead, Shamrock and Isaac turned around  to head back my way.  I entertained them briefly, and gave each water,  trying to give the party ahead some distance between us.  Isaac  figured this was the game, and he took off toward them again. I was loving it, but  the body language of the hikers ahead suggested they weren’t too keen on the puppy.   Shamrock had slowed after his initial burst of energy, and seemed happy to lag behind with me.
As we started the gentle ascent in the woods, Shamrock’s breathing really picked up. I had already stopped twice to give them water. We caught up with the 3 hikers (who seemed mildly annoyed with the “Isaac and Shamrock” show) and they decided to take a break so we could move forward. About 5 minutes later, Shamrock just laid down on the trail.  I thought he was tired – not yet having regained his “trail legs” after the surgery.   Then he got up and caught up, but his breathing was definitely labored. I stopped and gave both water – but Shammy was not interested.  I decided his old bones couldn’t make it to the top;  we headed back down the trail.
Going down they were much more attentive (I should say Isaac was).  Shamrock continued to struggle.   I watched as he went to sit down,  his back legs started to tremble. I knew this was not good – but with the two knee surgeries, I figured he was just weak, old.  I forced water in his mouth, and on his neck and head. After about 10 minutes I pulled him by the collar and he got up and walked for about 5 minutes, then collapsed. I mean collapsed, first the rear legs and then the front. I went to him and just stroked his head. His eyes were very bloodshot and glassy.  Gone were the brown eyes of unconditional loving he had given me 6 years earlier.  His tongue was gray.
Words cannot describe the terrible, empty, powerless feeling that overcame me at that moment. I was crushed, angry, hurt, scared.   It was only 82 degrees! We had 3 water breaks. 
“What the fuck is going on?” I muttered.   The father and two sons walked quietly by.

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.


5 thoughts on “The Last Hike

  1. Dread slowly filled my chest as I read on, yet hoping for a happy ending… tears came instead.
    Beautiful and poignant – thank you for sharing another moment.

  2. You continue to write with such detail and description that I found myself almost unable to read on, knowing that my heart was about to break right along with yours…. That’s some good stuff, my friend. Don’t EVER stop!
    Love, BJ

  3. Just now read this entry. Somewhat spooky given a very recent discussion I had about friendship and a dog. The security they bring. Their unbridled love. Deepest empathies. Very difficult stuff.

    Very well done.


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