This is my dog, Russell. Russell is almost 14 years old, and I’m lucky to be his human.
By any metric, Russell has led a pretty incredible life. He started out as a marginally cute puppy:
When Russell first became my best friend, I was writing a hiking column for the Bellingham Herald. He accompanied me to some of the world’s most beautiful places, to snow-capped peaks higher than anything east of the Mississippi. Since we moved to North Carolina, he’s also been to the top of Mount Mitchell, tallest mountain on the east coast. He used to wade in the shallow, warm waters of Birch Bay, a proud achievement for a basset hound that can’t exactly swim.
He loves flowers. With that powerful nose, it’s no wonder. I’ve always loved this photo of him checking out a dandelion:
And snow: he has always loved snow, from the time we spent plodding through it while trekking to the the times we came in out of it to sleep in front of wood stoves (an amenity he loves so much that I’ve insisted upon it with every house I’ve ever owned). Often, snow or not, he’d sleep with his head fully beneath the stove itself, only pausing for the occasional drink of water. I imagine this is like a person sitting in a sauna and then following it up with a cold plunge.
When I moved to Okinawa, Russell lived with my mom for 9 months. He spent a lot of time in the hammock, which became one of his favorite sleeping places. He’s a loving, friendly hound, and my ex-wife and I had always argued about whether he was actually capable of defending us if anything went bad. While I was in Okinawa, we got the answer. Mom was being stalked by a stray German Shepherd, and Russell — all 65-pound hound of him — stared the other dog down until he backed away. Thanks, Russ. I still owe you one for that.
It wasn’t until we moved to North Carolina that Russell became the bon vivant and hound about town, though.
He’s starred in rap videos. He, his sister Penny and I were walking down Rigsbee street when my man Saleem and Professor Toon drove by. The result of that afternoon was this, something that still makes me smile broadly every time I watch it:
During my various costume parties in Durham, we also discovered that he looks awfully good in hats. This was put to good use when Russell and another dog won a contest to be on the Indy Week cover and on the “Best of the Triangle” plaques that are distributed to local businesses. You can see a bunch of these around town at your favorite places, and I’m always sure to patronize the shops that prominently display Russell.
Russell’s celebrity isn’t just from art and music. He’s also a prominent political activist, having starred in a pro-public investment campaign run by the Budget & Tax Center. My favorite part comes at 1:26, when the bus door opens and startles him. The end is pretty great, too.
When I walk Russell around town, people stop to talk to me. Basset hounds have that effect on people. One time a person stopped her car just so she could run across the street to hug Russ and pet his ears. On another occasion, someone I didn’t know at all looked at us and said: “You have a basset hound. You must smile all day long!” And mostly, that’s true, except when I’m forcing him to do this for a backlit Christmas card.
There’s always good news. I believe that. Some days I need reminding more than others.
This week he’s been listless. He stopped eating, never a normal sign for any dog, let alone an ample fellow like my stately gentleman. I took him to the vet.
Today I found out that Russell has a big cancerous mass in his abdomen. Even if they were to take it out, and he were to make it through the surgery (no guarantee, since he’s old, has a heart murmur, and doesn’t react well to anasthesia), he’d need chemo. And all of that, the doc says, probably wouldn’t buy him much time, certainly not a year. We agree that putting him through the pain isn’t worth it.
Let me give you the rest of the good news, such as it is: he’s in no discernible pain. My new job lets me work from home, so I’m with him constantly. He’s had a great life filled with walks and belly rubs and love. And today I got him to eat a meal for the first time in maybe a week. All of that is good.
But the vet didn’t soft-sell the other news, either. He’s lost a lot of weight. He has a really limited time left, and he could go downhill fast. It started to become real for me when the vet gently informed me that they were closed on Sunday, and so I’d better keep the number for Lap of Love handy. It could be days or a couple of weeks. But the outcome isn’t in doubt. You know the type of cancer you get better from? That’s not this type.
That leaves making him comfortable, making the rest of his days as good as they can be. That’s my top priority. But — if I’m being honest — I’m not ready for him to go.
I’m not a religious man now, but when I was in seminary school 6 or 7 lives ago, I struggled with the church’s teaching that animals don’t have souls. You could much easier convince me that many human beings lack them. If the soul is all that is good and right and just in us, what has that if not a dog?
I never got a satisfying answer from my seminary teacher about this. He did have this, though: “If you get to heaven and you still want your dog, he’ll be there.”
Theologically speaking, I’m a lot more given to the Presbyterian teachings of Fred Rogers: “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is … We make so many connections here on earth.”
That’s the good news. I have a great life. Russell has had a great life. My expectations for the joy that is possible, for me and for him, have been exceeded a thousandfold.
It’s just hard for me to think that it’ll be heaven without him.