It has been so long since I updated this blog, I don’t know how many people even follow it anymore, but I need to tell you about Emerson. We lost Emerson suddenly on December 15th, 2015. Two months ago, today. I have tried to write about it many times since then, but just couldn’t get through it. The pain was too fresh. I’m finally in a place where I can share some memories without opening the floodgates.
So, here is the story of how Emerson came to join our family, and the story of how he left us.
In December 2009, not long before Christmas, we were visiting my husband’s grandparents in northern Iowa. I was reading the newspaper. They live in a pretty small town so their newspaper was not an extensive read. Being December, it was too cold to go outside for entertainment, so I flipped through the classifieds. I was surprised to see an ad for Bernese Mountain Dog puppies. I wrestled for a while about this because I didn’t really want to purchase a dog based on a newspaper ad. However… our Berner, Xerxes, was 10 years old (this is quite old for a Berner) and was really starting to show his age. We had hoped to find another Berner in rescue before Xerxes passed away, but rescues for this breed are extremely hard to find near where we live in North Dakota. We eventually decided to give them a call. The gentleman was very nice, and reminded me of Ian’s grandfather. There was a winter storm blowing through so we couldn’t drive down to see them, but something about this fellow just put us at ease. We were encouraged by the conversation, and decided to get one of the puppies. We hadn’t even seen a picture. It was a ridiculously inadvisable decision, but my heart was telling me it was the thing to do. The puppies wouldn’t be ready until January and I was just about to start a new job, so we made plans to drive back down to Iowa the first weekend of February to pick him up. When we got to the farm, we found he was the last of his litter to go home – all his brothers and sisters were gone. This big fluff ball came lumbering up to us, little tail wagging like crazy, tongue hanging out of his little mouth. It was love at first sight. We had a few potential names for him, but didn’t want to make a decision until we had met him, so I started calling out the names to him. He ignored me until I said the right one; then, when I said “Emerson”, he suddenly turned and came running to me. And that is how Emerson chose his own name.
It was a long drive, but when we got home we introduced Emerson to Xerxes and our Saint Bernard, Selby. Xerxes taught Emerson the best way to eat snow.
He came to work with me at the groomer’s nearly every day and it soon became his second favorite place in the world to be (apart from home, of course). He learned how to recognize when I was getting dressed for work at the groomer’s. If I put on a grooming shirt, he would be right by the kitchen door when it was time to go. I’m fairly certain that he thought I couldn’t handle working at the groomer’s if he didn’t come with me.
Eventually I got a full-time office job and couldn’t bring Emerson to work with me every day anymore. The look on his face when I left for work without him the first day was brutal. Poor guy.
He always had to be as close to me as possible. I remember one time I was sitting in a chair in the living room, and he was on the floor next to me. At some point, I got up and moved to the couch so I could sit next to Ian. Emerson had to get up and flop down on the floor next to me – about 6 inches from where he had been previously sleeping. Silly boy.
Sadly, Emerson became old before his time. By the time he was three years old, he had slowed down more than Selby, who was four years older. The last year or two, it became clear that it was painful for him to move around at all. Sometimes he needed help to stand up. He couldn’t climb into the car without assistance. He used to be able to walk up to 3 miles with me, but by last year he couldn’t even walk around the block. At the end, he couldn’t even make it halfway down the street and back without obvious pain. We were starting to think about end-of-life decisions, but I just wasn’t ready for it. He was my heart dog; we had a special bond, and I couldn’t bear to think of letting him go.
So he made the decision for me. On December 15th, he became very sick. He had vomited a few times overnight, but didn’t show signs of pain in the morning so I went to work, thinking he must have just eaten something that didn’t agree with him. By lunchtime though, it was clear that something was seriously wrong. My son called me and told me that Emerson didn’t want to come back in the house after he let him out, and seemed to be in a lot of pain. I left work immediately and as soon as I got home and saw Emerson, I knew what it was. I also knew that we didn’t have a lot of time. He was laying on his side, breathing heavily, and his abdomen was completely distended. We took him straight to the vet, but I knew what they would say before we got there. I hoped they would see something I didn’t, and tell me “Don’t worry, it’s just this little thing that’s super easy to fix”, but they didn’t. A quick exam and a couple of x-rays later, and they confirmed my worst fears. He had developed a condition called gastric dilation volvulus, which is commonly known as “bloat”.* Essentially, this means he had a twist in his stomach which was preventing anything from moving through. Make no mistake, this condition is always an emergency. Unfortunately, it strikes quickly and by the time you observe the symptoms it is often too late. We could have tried to do surgery to fix the condition, but we knew the likelihood of survival was not great since it had probably been 12 hours or more since it started. Plus, given the troubles that he was already having before this condition struck, he would not have had much of a quality of life if he even made it through the surgery and the equally precarious post-operative recovery period (when dangerous secondary heart conditions are common).
We made the difficult decision to relieve his suffering through euthanasia. It is never an easy decision – even when you know it is the right thing to do, it still hurts. After it’s over, you second-guess yourself constantly. Did I really do the right thing? Should I have done more? What if I had recognized what was happening earlier and brought him to the vet right away? Would we have been able to save him then? The self-doubt is heavy for a while.
After some time passed, I was able to find clarity. I was looking through old photos and videos of Emerson and I started to really see how much pain he had been in for the last few years. I could see how active he used to be and how much he loved to play in the snow. He never did that anymore. I’m sure it just hurt too much. Emerson’s body was too old for his spirit – setting him free was a gift. I just wish I’d had the strength to give it to him sooner, so he wouldn’t have had to suffer so much in his last hours.
Rest in peace Emerson. Mama loves you, always.
Wordsworth: Mama, can I sit with you on the bed?
Me: Sure. Sit right here so I can scratch your neck for you. Say, your collar has gotten a bit tight; let me fix that for you.
Wordsworth: MAMA WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU CAN’T TAKE MY COLLAR OFF, IT’S PART OF ME!!! GIVE IT BACK. GIVE IT BACK RIGHT NOW.
Me: Whoa, calm down. I just need to loosen it for you a little bit. See? I’m all done, and I will put it back on now.
Wordsworth: Oh man, that was a close one. For a second there, I thought you were kicking me out of the family.
Me: Don’t be silly. I might take your collar off before giving you a bath, but I would not kick you out of the family. We all love you too much.
Wordsworth: Did you say BATH? That might be even worse than being homeless again. Man, I really dodged a bullet there.
LOOK WHAT I FOUND, MAMA!
A Play in One Act
Cast of Characters
EMERSON: A Bernese Mountain Dog
WORDSWORTH: A yellow Labrador Retriever mix
KARI: A human female, mid-to-late 30s
Kari’s kitchen and back yard
A weekday morning, early autumn, around 7am
SETTING: We are in the kitchen of Kari’s home. At Stage Left is a large bin of dog food with two large metal dog dishes on the floor next to it. The stage is divided down the middle by a wall. In the wall near the front of the stage there is a door which leads out to the back yard, partially visible on Stage Right, beyond the wall.
AT RISE: Kari enters the room, and approaches the door. She opens the door to the back yard.
Wordsworth: Hey Mama, what are you putting into that bag?
Me: A swimsuit and a change of clothes. Daughter and I are going to see some friends at their family’s lake house.
Wordsworth: I don’t think I know what a lake is but I can’t wait to find out!
Me: Sorry buddy, but we can’t bring you with us. Maybe another time.
Wordsworth: Oh. I see how it is. So I’m just gonna go ahead and stare at you pathetically through the window as you back out of the driveway. We’ll see how much you’ll enjoy your trip to the lake WITHOUT ME.
Son: Sheesh, it’s like something out of a horror story. “The house has been abandoned for years, but on fine summer days, people still see the ghost of a yellow lab staring sadly out the window at them.”
Wordsworth: Hi Mama, whatcha doin?
Me: Putting on my shoes.
Wordsworth: Oh! Well you don’t need two hands for that. You could be petting me with at least one of those hands.
Me: Actually no, I really need both hands to tie my…
Wordsworth: *pushes face in between my hands*
Wordsworth: *puppydog eyes*
Me: I guess I should get some slip-on shoes.
Emerson: Mama, may I be on the bed with you?
Wordsworth: Great idea! I’ll come up there with you too! Hey! This bed is kind of lumpy!