How can a loss hurt so much?
I was never a pet guy. I documented as much in this space many times. Save for Sammy, my parakeet, when I was ten years old in ‘62. His cage was next to our in-wall air conditioning unit in our den. My mom was always hot. Yada, yada. One morning we found Sammy frozen to death. Literally. Fortunately, the National Audubon Society didn’t convene a grand jury or Mom, despite not looking good in orange, would have done time.
Dogs never figured into my younger life. In that same Long Island home, we lived next door to a family who bred Doberman Pinschers. The fact that it was illegal to breed and sell residentially, nor my father’s complaint to the town hall, didn’t deter them. They sounded vicious. Not only the family, but the dogs too. If we were playing ball in our yard and the ball went over the restraining fence, it was time to get on our bicycle and ride to Marcal’s Five & Dime to buy a new Spalding. I never got over the fear of Thane’s and Bally’s bark and teeth.
My kids claim for years they asked for a dog, but I ignored them. I have no recollection of that, but I won’t swear it wasn’t the case. Probably so. I was mentally damaged by the Dobermans.
Nor did working at greyhound race tracks for 25 years soothe the phobia. I was a front office marketing and management type. The paddock and kennels might as well have been in El Salvador. I wasn’t going there.
So, in 2009 I finally relented to Andi’s non-stop nagging to add a dog to our empty Birmingham, Alabama, home. Sons Jason and Scott were a couple thousand miles away living in LA and not coming back. I never figured Andi would follow through. She never does when I ask her to go to Walgreens and pick up some shaving cream, razor blades or Extra chewing gum, spearmint please, so why should she now?
On February 5 she phoned me at the office and said, “I found him!” You found who? “I found our dog.” What about the shaving cream, razor blades and gum?
The next day, a Friday, I begrudgingly went with her to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS) adoption shelter to see who she found. It was a two and a half month old, 15 pound, chow-retriever mix with the kennel name Yogi. A bit dopey looking with a large head, big feet and a spotted tongue. They brought him out of the kennel area and put the three of us in something called an ‘adoption room.’ I was petrified. I hugged my back to the wall, digging my fingernails in, scared to go near him. Once again all I saw were Doberman Thane’s and Bally’s teeth.
An adoption counselor came back in and asked, “Are you ready.” I said I can’t do this. Andi pleaded with me. Yogi was about to exceed his days on the adoption floor. Andi said when they first saw each other their eyes bonded. She never said that about her and me. I told her I just couldn’t do it.
I’m not sure if we spoke on the way home, probably not. It didn’t help matters much when I told her I needed to stop at Walgreens to pick up shaving cream, razor blades and a pack of Extra.
I felt like a heel all weekend. Even more than I normally do. On Sunday night, at a chilly dinner, I said, “Let’s go back tomorrow and get Yogi if he’s still there.” I told her I would give it a try, but I had to name the dog. Yogi wasn’t going to stick. Andi relented but only if she had final naming rights.
My first choice was “Go Away.” It was promptly vetoed. My second choice was “Asshole,” but she told me we already had one in the house; there wasn’t room for a second. Finally “Ibis” became the choice, named after the mascot at the University of Miami, my alma mater.
Monday, February 9, 2009, became Ibis’ official “Gotcha Day.” We were counseled on how to care for a puppy. I feigned interest. We had no idea of Ibis’ short life before us or the surrender specifics, but clearly car rides weren’t a big part of it. He threw up on the way home. I was delighted.
Things between Ibis and me were not good. I didn’t want him, and he knew it. January days in Fargo were more tropical than our relationship. Unbeknownst, Andi signed Ibis and me up for ‘Puppy 101,’ a six week program for pups and first time dog owners at a local training center. Things didn’t improve much until week three when I went to class loaded with a pocket full of Charlee Bear treats. That turned the tide.
For the next 13 years, we were inseparable. An “improbable love story” my friend Greg Farley called it. Too many great things to detail with your coffee this morning, but Ibis became an all-star really quickly. He was magnificent looking, a chow with a lion’s mane complete with the black speckled tongue. He was anti-social which made me really proud. However, now I needed to be social. He was such a conversation piece when we were out walking together, which was every day when I wasn’t in an airport, that people stopped to ask questions about him. I passed Socialization 101.
We walked the same Birmingham route nightly for nine years, probably 300 times a year or over 2700 times. Never on a leash. The daily lottery would be on whose lawn would he poop: the emergency room doc; the Israeli’s; the Berman’s or Ms. Jill’s? He didn’t like little kids and was indifferent to just about every adult who approached him. He never took a shine to Jason or Scott. Every morning Andi drove Ibis to a local park where she met the late Doug Richey and his standard poodle, Fairchild. The dogs became fast friends and then others joined the fun. The 7-8 am gathering in Overton Park became the dog owners’ place to be. Today, in a tribute to Ibis and Fairchild, a dozen dogs run free each morning while the adults talk SEC football.
The highest honor that can be bestowed on an Alabama dog is being named king of the annual Do Dah Day Parade, a huge fundraiser for local shelters. In 2017 Ibis was sponsored by the GBHS to be king. Their funding and voter influence made him an easy winner in the competition. No recount was necessary. No election deniers. It was a landslide. He looked regal in his crown and robe. His stately, lion-like posture made him glorious as the king. Ibis being Ibis, had no interest in riding in the lead float. Instead, he found comfort from all the eyeballs on the parade route by snuggling up in his dad’s convertible, fittingly the one with the vanity license plate IBIS 56.
He loved chasing squirrels. When they went up into a tree, he sat and barked until they came down. They never did. He had TPLO surgeries for torn ligaments in each leg from running after them. Before the injuries he caught two squirrels. Afterwards, they were too quick. He wasn’t fast enough anymore to catch them, but he never stopped trying to scare them.
Just like a Washington Nationals outfielder, Ibis had no interest in running after balls. He had a limited bag of tricks including high-fives and ‘pick-a-hand’ when dad hid a treat in one hand, and he had to find it with a paw tap to the correct hand. (Confession- there were actually treats in both hands.). Ibis’ encore was ‘Who let the dogs out?’ I would ask it; he would bark the answer. It always killed. He was chosen to represent all the baseball loving canines on ‘Bark in the Park’ night when he was asked to throw out the first ball before a Birmingham Barons AA baseball game. He was having some left paw tendonitis, so he gave me the honor instead. That’s the kind of dog he was.
When Andi, without mentioning anything to me while I was away playing my fantasy baseball, brought home a three-month old similar chow-retriever mix in January 2017, Ibis showed general indifference toward the soon-to-be-named Deuce. His new little step-brother clamored for the king’s attention which he soon earned, but not until Ibis delineated his territory for the nightly after dinner bone.
When we left Alabama for Las Vegas in 2018 Ibis, though he was named after The U, proudly witnessed six national football titles for his native Crimson Tide. No dog has ever seen more. Moving to his new home in the Nevada desert meant chasing rabbits instead of squirrels. They were as plentiful as cactus, but Ibis found out rabbits were even faster than the squirrels he could no longer catch with two surgically repaired legs.
In early May of this year, at the doggie age of thirteen and a half, he slowed. New dog aging math by the American Kennel Club equates that to the mid to late 80’s in human years. Truth is at thirteen-plus he not only reached his bark-mitzvah age but probably lived five or six years longer than the life expectancy of bigger dogs. He would have been 14 on October 15. Three months ago he began to show signs of confusion and disorientation. He lost weight, down from 95 pounds to 78 even though his eating was still good. His frame, solid for all his life, became boney. He was very clingy, especially to Andi’s side. He became even more stubborn and obstinate than the typical chow personality. His hearing was failing. We thought it was the onset of doggie dementia. Every night for the past couple of years before I got into bed I would lie on the floor with Ibis, he’d nuzzle his head into my chest, and we’d talk about the day and what was happening the next. Lately, I sensed these conversations were getting more special by the night. I have a feeling so did he.
A week ago Friday morning Ibis, Deuce and I went on our neighborhood walk, a daily ritual. Up the block to a community park. Ibis fell, all fours to the ground, three times. He had done that a couple of times over the past few months but this time it was very pronounced. Ironically, the night before he channeled his inner Franco Harris and rumbled up the middle for about thirty yards on the fairway of the golf course behind our house without missing a step. That Friday morning, when we came home after his falls, I went to the gym. Before I got there Andi called and said every time Ibis got up, he fell back down. The visual I had reminded me of our son Scott’s amateur boxing career. We were at the vet’s an hour later.
Dr. Emily Redding told us it wasn’t doggie dementia after all, but Ibis showed all the signs of brain lesions and probably had a stroke earlier that day. He couldn’t walk. We either had to pick him up or guide him outside to do his business. He couldn’t get his balance because of vertigo. We made it through the night; Andi slept by his side. On Saturday, July 30, things only got worse. Looking like an adult stroke victim, his head was cocked all the way to the left and his tongue hanging out. It was beyond devastating.
Andi and I went to synagogue that morning. Nothing in the rule book prevents praying for an animal, especially the G.O.A.T.
We came back home and found Ibis outside. Somehow he stumbled to one of his favorite lounging places on the side of the house. He tried to get up and greet us but he couldn’t. We called Dr. Redding. It was noon. She said to bring him when we were ready. We sat on the living room floor comforting him. Three hours later it was time. Ibis wasn’t Ibis anymore and deserved better. It was the only thing to do for such a magnificent companion. It was a short goodbye for 13 wonderful years together. Two nights earlier he was outside running; now we took him on his last car ride. We bawled into the night.
Every Sunday morning, Ibis and Deuce would ride with me to the nearby Red Rock Canyon, and we would hike one of the trails. Maybe a mile up and back. We did this regularly over the last three years. Every now and again Deuce, eight years Ibis’ junior, had to stop and rest. Never Ibis. He was way too proud. So last Sunday, with Ibis having left us the afternoon before, Deuce and I went up to the canyon. We walked maybe a couple hundred feet and Deuce kept looking back at our car. He finally stopped, turned around and sat down. He was waiting for Ibis and wouldn’t continue. He led me back to the parking lot. I lost it.
Ibis made me a better person. Period. He taught me unrequited love. He taught me patience. He made me social because he wasn’t. He was waiting by the door when I got home from my cinco de bypass in 2017 and jumped into bed with me. He knew something was wrong and never left my side. He was gentle but didn’t want anyone to know it. Because of him I became a GBHS board member and fund raiser. I loved the cause. When I had a lousy day at the office, coming home to him made everything better. As Mike Hallman, a longtime friend and my successful successor at Medjet said, “I have never seen a dog change a person as much as Ibis did you.”
Everyone who met Ibis remembered him. He truly was a legend. Nobody forgot him nor his unique name. One day I might stop thinking about him every waking moment and resume my life, just not yet. It’s still too raw. He is in a much better place, but selfishly I’m not. I know it’s only been a week, but the house feels so empty, and Andi and Deuce and I miss him so much.
I know Ibis will be waiting for us on the Rainbow Bridge. By then I fully expect him to have made peace with all the rabbits and squirrels he used to chase and be holding court like a king is supposed to do.
There’ll never be another.