Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Memory of Winston

Sorry to interrupt the Weird Crime/Halloween festivities for a bit, but our family suffered a terrible loss last night. This post is mostly for me to work through my feelings about it, but I hope you are also able to enjoy it or find some comfort for your own pet losses, as well.

A little over four years ago, my wife, Karen, decided that she had to have a chocolate lab of her own. After a lot of back and forth (and securing an agreement from her not to rename him 'Choco Taco'), she adopted one from a rescue group named Winston.

From the start, things did not go smoothly. Karen and I weren't married (or even engaged) at the time, so I was sitting at home in my apartment when I got a frantic call from her stating "Nicky, please come over here. We just brought Winston home and Skylar's being a butthole."

Apparently, our two female labs, Skylar and Lucy, did not appreciate this male interloper that had been brought into the house. They glared, snarled, and refused to get within 10 feet of him. 

"What part of 'No Boys Allowed' did Mommy not understand?"

When I arrived, however, I found a very friendly dog that wasn't quite sure where he was...or why his presence was causing such a commotion. I petted his giant chocolate lab head and told him that he was a good boy. Winston smiled and firmly placed his paw on my leg. From that point on I knew we'd be best friends.

Karen, on the other hand, wasn't sure what to think. She had been told that she was getting a 3-year-old lab, but Winston was clearly older than that. He was also incredibly well behaved and friendly...and seemed very homesick. The first few nights in the house, he just laid by the door and waited for his last family to come and get him. 

After a little while, Winston began to grow more and more accustomed to his new surroundings. After a couple of days, Skylar had decided that instead of hating him, she loved Winston dearly. She would even cuddle next to him and lick his face whenever they passed each other. Lucy, on the other hand, was still not at all happy about having a new brother.

For starters, it meant that attention from her beloved mommy, daddy, and Skylar were being diverted to someone other than her. Add in the fact that Winston seemed to enjoy tennis balls, squeak toys, and bones, and you had all the ingredients for some pretty intense conflict.

"These....These are mine!"

Fortunately for the girls (and for me and Karen), Winston had absolutely no alpha instincts in him whatsoever. Lucy and Skylar set down some pretty basic ground rules:

1. Winston does not play with tennis balls (squeak toys are fine).
2. Winston does not drink out of the toilet.
3. Winston is not allowed in the kitchen.

Winston gladly followed these guidelines in exchange for love and affection from the other dogs. Lucy finally broke, constantly shoving her face into his with the full knowledge that he would kiss her for as long as she desired.

One rule he could not follow, however, was the one about bones. All three of the dogs loved to chew them (and bury them, dig them up, and bring them into the house), but Winston felt that he deserved to have all of the bones he found for himself.

One day I noticed that the big boy was surrounded by every bone that was in the house (or had previously been under the back yard). When I tried to approach him and take back a couple for the other dogs, Winston snapped at me for the first (and one of the only times) ever.

I instantly went Cesar Milan on his ass, flipping him over, looking him straight in the eye, and calmly but firmly saying "No." Winston got up, put his head down, and slunk away into the bedroom. 

About half an hour later, he came back out with a bone, walked up to me, dropped it at my feet, and gave me the most pitiful/adorable look that I have ever seen.

"Sorry about that, Daddy..."

Karen and I were once again amazed at how sweet this dog was...which made us also wonder why someone had given him up to a shelter where he eventually would have been euthanized.

At least he didn't seem homesick anymore; he had moved from the front door to the garage door, then to the bedroom door, and eventually in the bedroom cuddled up next to Skylar every night. Still, we wondered what caused his other family to give up him.

A few weeks later, we had our answer: A lump on Winston's foot turned out to be cancerous. Right before giving him up, his former family had it biopsied at the same time they found out that they were moving. While I don't fault anyone for making an incredibly hard financial decision for the good of their family, I won't deny also feeling very angry that they were fine with him potentially spending his last few months alive alone and in a cage.

We had the surgery to remove the lump (and one of his toes), which was successful. Unfortunately, the veterinary care service we used (and do not use anymore) did not give us pain medication that would work for a dog his size...and refused to change the order.

For the next few weeks, Karen sat at home and fed Winston by hand while he cried and whimpered as he recovered from losing one of his toes. Two things resulted from this painful recuperation period:

1. Winston got really fat.
2. Winston also became a complete and total momma's boy.

Meanwhile, Lucy lurked in the background, plotting his demise.

He constantly followed Karen around the house and even cried when she wasn't paying him what he felt was an adequate level of attention. As we began walking him to get his weight back to normal levels, however, we discovered that Winston's strong feelings for his mommy wasn't just a result of his love for one particular person. It turned out that our chunky chocolate lab was also quite the ladies man.

While Winston was friendly to everyone, his reactions to men and women were totally different. While guys would simply get a tail wag and a lean against the leg, women would get a full on crotch sniffing. If they were wearing a dress, Winston had absolutely no qualms about stick his entire head underneath for a good whiff.

Unlike the reaction a human doing this would elicit, Winston's very forward advances somehow endeared himself to every female that he met. They would gush about how sweet and cute he was, never once mentioning his creepy obsession with their reproductive organs.

Winston and Marilyn Monroe
would have gotten along famously.

He also loved kids (but not in a creepy way). When our friends Mark and Mel brought their baby to our house once, Winston had to be kept away from him because his constant licking was causing their son to develop a rash on his head.

This love of women (especially in dresses or short shorts) and little children made Halloween Winston's favorite holiday. Every time the doorbell rang he ran to the door, knowing that adorable costumed kids or girls in skanky outfits awaited him.

Winston is the only one who would
ever consider this outfit to be appropriate. 

For the next few years, Winston's presence in our home was a source of love, companionship, and unintentional comedy.

-Skylar had a best friend that treated her like the queen she already knew she was.

-Lucy had a little brother she could pick on (she liked to hide his toys all over the house), but that still thought of her as a rock star...and would kiss her at any time on demand.

-Karen had a chocolate lab that also thought she was the greatest thing in the world.

-And I had another guy in the house to help even the odds against the three girls....and that I could blame farts on...and that I could talk to. 

No, this isn't a Son of Sam situation; Winston was about the most talkative dog you will ever meet. Whenever someone would pet him, he would begin growling and wagging his tail. His large size made it sound a bit menacing at first, but Karen and I soon realized that he just enjoyed being vocal.

Most of it probably just
translated to "GIVE ME MORE KIBBLE!"

He was a little a bit "special" (it took us a while to convince him that the dog living in our fireplace was just his reflection), but what he lacked in brains, Winston more than made up for with love and affection for everyone in the house.

That's why about a month ago when we noticed part of his skull going flat, we jokingly said that what little brain matter he had was caving in. Still, we knew it was something that we needed to have checked out.

Unfortunately, the news from the vet was not good; Winston had a very aggressive tumor that was eating away at his skull. We had three options:

1. Have him put to sleep in the next few days (No).
2. Blast him with chemo therapy, which would make him feel terrible (Hell No).
3. Have the tumor surgically removed...which was a 50/50 shot and would have him lose the part of his face that was on the verge of being gone anyway.

Grudgingly (and with a lot of heartache and tears), we decided to try the surgery in the hopes that the cancer had not spread to other parts of his body.

When I came to see him after the surgery, I was shocked to see part of his face gone...and even more shocked that even with this new physical deformity, Winston was still spitting mad game like you wouldn't believe. All the female vet techs (and a few of the female dogs) had completely fallen in love with the big boy by the time we took him home.

Real studs don't need to wear masks

Over the next couple of weeks, Winston's fur grew back in and he started to look and act like he was getting back to normal. He was starting to chew his bones and play with his squeak toys again...and he was getting angry that we weren't letting him go outside as much while his stitches were still in.

Winston was having some trouble keeping his balance, but he was also on pain killers, missing an eye, and had always been a bit of a spaz. We figured that this was just part of the recovery process. Then one day, he wasn't able to stand up on his own. I left school and rushed him over to the emergency care center.

Thankfully, the vet was able to get him to stand and walk again using a sling (the first thing he did, of course, was try to sniff the crotches of the female vet techs).

Meanwhile, X-rays showed that his hips were in really bad shape. Apparently it had never been an issue before because he was in really good shape (from his massive weight loss program that started a few years ago). This allowed him to to compensate and easily overcome it.

Now, however, the invasive surgery had taken enough out of him that he was finally reacting to some long existing arthritis...or more tumors were forming in his body and pushing down on his hips and spine.

The vet gave us some anti-inflammatory medicine and told us to wait a few days. If things got better, than we could easily treat this and Winston would be back to chasing after squirrels and running up to kids playing in the street so that he could kiss them. If not, then it probably meant something much worse...and that our only options for treatment would make his last days alive completely miserable.

Our greatest fears were realized when Winston's condition began to take a real turn for the worse late last week. By Monday, he couldn't even stand up in one place on his own, even when we helped him.

Winston would cry and yelp with frustration over the fact that he couldn't stand up to greet us or go drink water whenever he wanted. He constantly looked miserable and embarrassed that he had to be propped up and assisted everywhere he went. 

He wasn't in pain yet (we could move his legs and press on him anywhere without any trouble), but we knew it wouldn't be long until he began feeling that, too. On October 16, 2012, Karen and I made one of the toughest, most gut wrenching decisions possible and said goodbye to our little man.

I'm so sorry, Winston. I did everything I could to try and help you, but it just wasn't enough. Everyone keeps telling me we did the right thing by ending your suffering, but I still hate myself right now and can't stop crying or feeling like I'm going to throw up.

I'm sorry I had that surgery done and put you through so much during the last month of your life. I'm not sure your mommy and I could have gone through with putting you to sleep while you looked and acted almost completely normal/healthy, but I still hate what you had to go through during these last few weeks. It was a 50/50 shot at a full recovery and we came out on the wrong side of it. I hope you understand and forgive me (and I know you would, probably with a nose to the face, a big sloppy kiss, and a content sounding grumble).

We're going to miss you so much, Winston. Lucy is trying to pretend like everything is fine, but she's been moping around the house all day and sleeping on your bed. Last time you came home from the vet was one of the happiest states I've seen her in. Now both her and Skylar don't understand why we came back from the vet this time without you; to be honest, I'm still having trouble with that one myself.

I usually love Halloween, but I'm not sure I can do it this year. There are going to be so many times and things that remind me of you and that will make your absence that much harder to bear. I'm still finding toys and bones of yours that Lucy had hid and it breaks my heart all over again.

Thank you for being so wonderful to your mommy. She had really wanted a happy-go-lucky chocolate lab boy that would love her dearly and that's exactly what you were for her.

Thank you for letting us become your new family. I know that had to be hard, but from Day 1 you showed all of us (even Lucy) nothing but love and affection. You always made everyone you met happy, but we got to have you every day. That's a lot of joy we're going to miss, but also yearsworth of happiness that you blessed our lives with.

Rest In Peace, big boy.

...and try to pace yourself on sniffing 
angel crotches up there in Heaven.

Please feel free to leave a comment below. If you'd like to sing my praises or tell me how terrible I am more personally, I can also be found on Twitter.