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A Final Epitaph For Our Dear Rock

by Lucky Garvin

Our nine-year-old Dobermann, Rock, lay on the screen porch one afternoon two weeks ago. A car came up the driveway, and he, as always, barked warning. Had he known  who was in the car and why, he might have barked more menacingly. It was our vet, come to free Rock from his disease.

Dobermann’s were a breed developed by German tax-collector Herman Dobermann. He walked some pretty mean streets, but after he developed his breed, and had four of them accompany him on his rounds, he was never again robbed.

Six years ago, we got a call from the SPCA about an abused three-year old male Dobie. He was seventy pounds; twenty pounds off-weight for his size. His hind-quarter atrophy and peculiar callouses spoke of his life caged on a concrete slab. You could put a bone or toy in front of him, he would sniff it, then look up at us as if to ask, “What’s this?” When our other dogs tried to engage him in play, he thought they were attacking him. He was too weak to hoist his leg to do his business, and would only do that business on concrete.  And… he was terrified of me. It took me over a week to plant the suggestion that maybe ol’ Garvin ain’t such a bad guy.

Finally, given a healthy diet and lots of exercise, our boy began to flesh out into a deep-chested, muscular guardian. He gave us affection and protection; we returned the gift. Now afraid of no man, he nevertheless feared thunder and would come to us for reassurance.

All in all, it proved a very satisfactory arrangement. Yet, he remained a somber dog  until his end. He often lay with his paws crossed looking professorial and grave. He rarely barked, except at cars in the driveway. At night, he and the pack would put my Sabrina to bed, and after she was asleep, they remained in the bedroom; he padded back out to the kitchen to sleep by my chair and wait for me. Arriving home, I would hear click, click, click as he came across hardwood floors, and feel his head against my leg. My hand on his ear in a gentle caress was all the reward he needed. All his life, my boy asked little, but gave much. The kitchen is mighty empty these days.  But, there were funny times too. The pack would bark at something; even those who don’t know why would join in, and tear around the house trying to figure out just what all the excitement’s about.

To provide exercise, Sabrina would run the dogs up and down our 2/10ths mile hill; six times. Rock was at least as good as the best in speed and stamina. But then we began to notice he was beginning to lag. But okay, he was nine-years old. A bit of arthritis.  Dobie’s live twelve years or so; that put Rock in upper middle age. Slowing down? Don’t we all?

Then he began to stumble; his back legs no longer reliable. He began to fall and scissor-step. This was something more than joint problems. Sabrina drove hundreds of miles for the diagnosis.  MRI. Three ruptured discs gradually crowding his spinal cord, and robbing him the use of his hind legs.  We tried steroids; he developed pancreatitis. Surgery? The risk of permanent paralysis was twenty percent per disc.

We knew what the outcome would be, but maybe the disease would stabilize. Rock could still get around, although he began to avoid the hardwood floors for the same reason I avoid walking downhill on ice. He still enjoyed his meals, Sabrina’s fingernails rubbing deliciously into his neck would leave him in heavy-lidded contentment; his sleep and long afternoons on the screen porch, sun-drenched and warmed by the long beams of late spring sunshine. We bought him a harness to help him rise if he was too weak. If unable, he would lie there and just look at us. Strange to say, this was a very compelling means of communication; no self-pity, no barking; just help me if you would. As best we could tell, there was little, if any, pain.

So our Rock was laid ever so gently to rest, and we remained behind grieving, and it is of grieving I wish to speak.  Perhaps God needed a guard-dog at the gates of the Hereafter. If so, HE chose well. I count it a blessing that Rock did not die suddenly, for it gave us several weeks to prepare to say good-bye.

Unless you have lost a dearly loved one, there are no words to describe the suffering; I little suspected how deep pain could run in me, but I have learned.  Our feelings of loss are, I think, a reflection of our ability to love, they lie opposite each other on the same continuum; you can only hurt as much as you can love.  As I moved  through my own grief, I never lost sight that my Sabrina was grieving, too.  I am not afraid of pain, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay the tax: distraction, tears, and the ever-present missing of our boy. Of my tears, I am neither afraid nor ashamed; far better to cry than to postpone the process which, sooner or later, must be done.

The best way to end this kind of suffering, paradoxically, is to suffer, to grab the electric fence and hold on, to endure this necessity of grieving which, finally, is the process by which remembrance turns from tears to smiles, from the pain of having lost him, to the joy of having loved him.


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  1. How very sad yet what a great friend he must have been. I cannot stand the pain of this experience. Had it once when I was around 15 years old. I have crawled into my little hole and 50 years later have yet to come out and have another pet. I do however have really great neighbor dogs!

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