Friday, April 18, 2014

It's a Dog's Life

At dawn on mid-January morning with
"Rodrigo in the Vineyard" by Lera.
Helping dad recover from open heart surgery I learned how to take care of the dog. Taking care of the dog during his final days taught me how to take care of dad when the time comes.

After the New Year’s holiday it was time to get back to work so with remorse in our hearts we dug the dog’s grave.  He got better.

After hearing Bluey wouldn’t eat, neighbor Randy took pity so he and Danni Dog came over, opened a can of dog food and Bluey followed Danni’s lead and ate it, gaining another day. We had cooked filet mignon and lamb chops but the dog chose canned food.  So be it. I like the sayings “eat your own dog food” and “drink your own dog wine” and that’s what we do. We’ve been cooking his food and making his wine for over a year and that’s what I eat and that’s what I drink. The next day, he wouldn’t touch the canned food. Or the pizza or the steak or the hot dogs. Steve, visiting from Colorado, along with Lera and Kepa Dog came to pay their respects and Bluey ate her treats and gained another day. Lera gave Bluey a squeaky toy we named “Kepa” we kept by his side with his favorite “Birdie Birdie” stuffed animal.

I had been praying for the Lord to look after him and was wondering if there was a miracle in the works? He was starting to eat a little something each day.

Photo courtesy of Lera who writes:
"Beautiful Bluey was so happy and talkative
today." - Jan. 14
Lera gave us a painting of “Rodrigo in the Vineyard” and the colors are Van Goh and it’s beautiful in our little country home and I asked her if she’d paint for wine?  Thank goodness Lera didn’t give us a painting of Fidel, that rascal. The Queen would curse his likeness. At dawn the next morning I bring Bluey outside for a picture with the portrait. 

I fasten a bib under Bluey’s chin to catch the non-stop drool. Every time I walk near him, I wipe his mouth. Stomach cancer is nasty.

When it was hard to eat with
a spoon, we injected soft
food into his mouth.
Sometimes he needs a diaper changed. And a spoon of food put into his mouth.  And his teeth brushed. And then there was the medicine to control the stomach acid and nausea. After taking care of him for a weekend the man of the house was ready to go back to work, because there’s nothing more tiring than caring for a baby and it didn’t matter we had cut the satellite TV because there was no time to watch and we were too tired to watch and I swore I would never want to father another child. And after I said that realized I should never say never about such things.

This is a traditional household and it when it was time for the men to go back to work the women stayed at home. It’s almost always strong women who put down weak dogs. When I came back from London and a visit to the Polar Vortex two weeks later the Queen walked from the house carrying a smiling Bluey.  He could no longer walk on his own. He weighed 35 lbs. and his hip bone stuck out and I worried about it breaking if he fell. Eight years earlier he weighed 62 lbs.

Greg writes: "Took a number of photos of Bluey
during my visit to Blue-Merle Winery

but I think this image (taken by putting the camera 

on the floor and firing the shutter without looking

through the viewfinder) is my favorite. Bluey is resting

comfortably and peacefully because of the comfort

provided by his human's touch."
He could still walk with assistance so we slung a towel around his waist and hoisted him and when he sprinted he went 5 yards and this lasted a few weeks until he could barely take a step. When the neighbors saw this they said “the time is coming” and “you should put him down.” We took him out to pee but he wouldn’t. After the first day it was a worry and by the third day I wondered if it was kidney failure?  When he finally peed it was dark orange and as pungent as the latrine of the 82nd Airborne and since we live on a hill you had to lift up the dog so his foot didn’t get wet from the stream flowing down the hill then perform a quick Texas two-step to keep your own feet dry. That’s the best dog dancin’ we ever did.

Finding a place where he’d pee became part of the daily routine. We drove him to Randy’s and Danni-Dog’s and that worked a couple of times and then other days we drove two miles to where the dogs peed on the golf course but often he wouldn’t pee, even when Greg came from Maryland to pay a visit and to photograph him he wouldn’t pee. He welcomed Greg and sat outside on his blanket observing us prune the vines while a little poop came out and soiled his towel. I felt terrible because I couldn’t offer much hospitality to a friend from junior high school days who came all the way to see the vineyard and Bluey and our simple life on the hill but at least he met Bluey before it was too late.

Supervising pruning. Barking at sticks,
but not chasing them.
After Greg left, we found a favorite spot at the bottom of the driveway and I became something of an expert at bringing Bluey to pee and dodging the stream. Although he had lost weight it was still a strain on our backs to carry him and support him and it wouldn’t do good for us to throw out our backs so I prayed for strength to the caregivers.

Bluey was alert and engaged. When we pruned the vineyard the first two weeks in February he supervised but didn’t fetch sticks – always great fun while pruning. Grandpa called while we were outside and I held the phone to Bluey’s ears and the two eighty year-olds exchanged sympathies. I brought Bluey into the winery where we could be together while I blended and topped barrels. This time, he didn’t sip the wine. If he passed away with the barrel tops off would his spirit enter the wine making the best wine ever?

When I came back from another trip to the Polar Vortex a week later a nurse was giving Bluey an IV and she taught us how to administer it. This winter in San Diego the weather was warmer than June and the Vet said Bluey was dehydrated. In addition to the IV, the Vet proscribed prednisone to help manage inflammation for his arthritis and an appetite stimulant and we continued the regimen of sucralfate to coat his stomach. When I walked into the room where Bluey spent most of his time it smelled like a hospital ward from all the medication. 

Every day could have been his last so we cooked a Monster’s Ball of his favorite foods – lamp chops, filet mignon, fish sticks – in the hopes he would find something he liked. The dog didn’t eat but a little and at the end of the day the food was too good to waste so I gained weight.

The Queen made the decision back in November to take care of him to the end and as his condition worsened she said “You can decide,” and she was beginning to think it wasn’t a pleasant life drooling all the time and throwing up each day and unable to walk and having all kinds of medicine lovingly forced into your mouth. I wasn’t going to go there because if I suggested to her to put him to rest she would blame me for his death and hound me to my last days with “You killed Bluey.”
“Let’s wait and see,” I said. “He’s still alert and he’s not in pain and he enjoys being with us,” and what I didn’t say is if he gets worse we’ll see.

February 13 from Twitter: “Just when you think it’s the morning to call Dr. Dogvorkian he wakes up frisky at 5am shouting “I want to play” in dog.  It must be the IV.” So I woke up early to take care of him.

He was now waking up at midnight and talkative and agitated. We would take him outside. He wouldn’t pee. But the fresh air calmed him, just like a baby. I suspected the appetite stimulant was stimulating him a bit much so we cut it back a little.

On Wednesday February 19th, day three of Bluey’s hunger strike, we visited the Vet who saw no signs of pain. He suggested we purchase a dog harness to better carry him and a dog cart on wheels to move him down the hill more easily to his favorite spot. I worried about us breaking our backs carrying him. He could no longer support his weight at all. He also suggested we purchase more IV drip bags and needles. “How many do you need?” The Vet asked.
“How about a two week supply?” was the diplomatic answer but I was really thinking a few days.

The next morning I had to get to work and left the Queen holding an IV bag to finish administering it and 3 miles down the road I got a phone call from her screaming and rushed back expecting to find Bluey unconscious. There was the Queen, who had managed to stick herself with the dog’s IV needle. “I’m going to get AIDs!” I called the doctor’s office who said she’ll be fine – she had a tetanus shot the other year after she was hospitalized and went to heaven and came back again.  Two days later I give Bluey the perfect IV good enough to film for YouTube. “Be careful with the needle,” warns the Queen and before I can say “don’t worry” I’ve stabbed myself with the dog’s needle.  Even monkeys fall from trees.

Saturday morning, April 22 we made another Monster’s Ball of lamb chops, chicken wings, beats, risotto and a new treat – bacon.  When a dog doesn't eat bacon the time is coming. I filled his mouth with yogurt and soup – perhaps some of it made it to his stomach.

We finished pruning the vines and with bud break starting we needed the dormant spray done quickly, before more green was showing. I arranged for a vineyard management company to do the spraying but when the manager started driving his ATV on our hills he finally admitted our vineyard is too steep for his equipment and he backed out after telling us no problem he could spray our vines.  There was nothing for me to do but call Fidel, that rascal, who arrived in Merlot Mike’s Gator to do the dormant spray which can only be done by foot on our terrain.
“How’s your esposa?” I ask about his bedridden wife.
‘Not too good,” he says. “How’s your son?” he asks about Bluey.
“Not too good. You should go down to the house and see him before you leave.” So after the spraying is done he waddled down the hill to the house, peeling an orange. Fidel’s knees are shot. He’s on a waiting list to have his knees rebuilt.
“How are you Senor Dog?”
“Woof” says Bluey and the two old dogs start yacking about their pains. Bluey looks up at Fidel with mournful eyes. Fidel says, “It’s time to put him down.”
“Maybe it’s time to cut off your legs.”

As I head out to the vineyard the Queen says “don’t let Fidel steal all the oranges” and as I walk past the Gator I see the better part of our orange tree in the truck and pinch an orange from the pile he had taken from us and head up the hill peeling it as a walk with a trail of peel behind me. Let him have the oranges, I think, as I toss peels in the vineyard. She hates it when I litter her vineyard with organic scraps.

On Sunday February 23rd in the morning I tweet, “Laying on of hands, stroking his head, whispering a prayer, grateful for the joy and blessings he has brought to us, praying for relief from pain”
“praying that we as humans may be as generous as his dog-friendly nature, that guardian angels be with him and take him home to St. Francis” “And that in the fullness of time we may all be reunited in your heavenly kingdom. Amen.”

No trips to the vineyard that day. Just to the porch for some fresh air. How long does it take a dog who has stopped eating to die? I put a little ground vegetable meat puree prepared in a Cuisinart inside his mouth and for desert a little yogurt.

At 11:53 AM I tweet, “Whoops, forgot to put diapers on geriatric dog. Well, he had at least 1 poop left in him. Time to clean it up. Growing old not for sissies.” I lift him and carry him to the terrace behind the house where we have hooked up a hose to the sink and shower his butt with warm water and wash it with soap.

As I head out the door for a black tie dinner and wine tasting for the local Rotary Club, KarlRove, the neighbor’s cat, walks softly by the front of the house. “KarlRove, kitty kitty, come here,” I call, “It’s safe for you to come. Bluey won’t chase you today.” At the Coeur de Cuisine event I explain to the Mayor, the head of Major Market and other guests “our label is a Blue-Merle Australian Shepherd and here’s our dog’s picture on the back.”  A lump in my throat. Is branding your winery with your pet ever a good idea?

At 10PM I’m back from the event and Bluey calls “pee pee” in his dog talk –. I carry him down to his favorite spot and he pees, good boy. And I’m thinking I just threw out my back and this can’t go on much longer and maybe in the morning it’s time to have an honest conversation with the Queen and tell her it’s time to call Dr. Dogvorkian. I bring him back to his bed and wipe the drool from his mouth and brush his teeth. I place a fresh towel under his head to absorb the drool. We’ve set up a bed for him in the living room and I lay a blanket down and fall asleep beside him my hand on his back. After midnight, Bluey wakes up again and calls out. I knew he didn’t need to pee because he had done that two hours before but I need to pee and while I’m doing my business he’s calling and the Queen wakes up and asks “what’s wrong?” And I say “I don’t know – I just took him to pee before bed,” so I go to his side and he throws up and I change his towel and he became sick again on the fresh towel. He became still for a moment and I’m not sure if his heart skipped a beat. “How is he?”she asked.
“I think he could die. Bring another towel.”
“This is the last one,” she says and I put it under his head and wipe his mouth. “Why are you opening the windows?” I ask.
“If he dies it will be easier for his spirit to go outside.”
As I hold him he wretches for a third time and a squirt of pee escapes and he lies still in my arms. His heart has stopped and his breathing has stopped and the time has arrived.
“How is he?” she asks.
“He’s much, much better,” I say, “Please go back to sleep. I’ll stay here with him.” I keep vigil by his side then fall asleep beside him as a new star brightens the night sky.

In the morning I carry his corpse outside and residual throw-up leaks out of his mouth and we wash his face and the poop from his butt . We brush his calico fur blue and all. She lays out new white sheets on the blue velvet blanket and I carry him back inside and lay him down. She cuts fresh orchids and Birds-of-Paradise and fragrant wisteria and a grape-vine and places the bouquet beside him with favorite foods and a bottle of wine with “Birdie Birdie” and the “Kepa” toy looking on. Bluey looked so peaceful and beautiful it would bring a tear to your eye if you could have seen him. I thought I saw him smile.

Healed and resting at peace.
Just then two angels from the Lord walked up the driveway while the third waited in the car. Jehovah’s Witnesses. They saw the signs on the door stating “Do Not Ring Bell – Dr’s Orders” turned around down the hill and drove off.

Instead of carrying Bluey up the hill to lay him in the grave we made arrangements to have him cremated. “How much does he weigh?”
“I’m not sure. He’s lost a lot of weight. The last time I checked he was 35 lbs.”
“That will cost less since he’s under forty pounds.”

After saying goodbye we wrapped him in the new sheets then wrapped the royal blue velvet blankets around him and I carried him to the back seat of the car without any leaks and wondered how I would explain to the police if stopped about the dead body in the car. Bluey loved riding in the car and we were going for the last ride.

I stopped by the office on the way to the crematorium to put out some fires and parked in the shadiest area I could find and I kept the windows open so his spirit could escape and he waited in the car for an hour and when I returned he didn’t smell that bad. We brought bottles of wine to the cremation place – when you’re tipped by this winemaker your “pourboire” as the French say is going to be a bottle. The manager made sure those going through twelve step programs didn’t get this “pourboire.” Does working in a crematorium drive you to drink or attract staff with demons?

Private cremations are done on Saturday and it was Monday morning so Bluey’s mummy was put into cold storage for 5 days. When I got home from work two boxes from Amazon were by the front door: a harness and a dog carriage.

It’s often said that hot days and cool nights make for great wine – but in February? At least the unusually warm weather made it easier on Bluey, who could go outside without getting wet or cold. Did guardian angles keep the rains from San Diego so Bluey could be warm and dry? Is a dog responsible for California’s drought? At his death, storm clouds formed over the Pacific and the season’s first significant rain headed towards Southern California – almost four inches of rain. Did God change the weather for Dog?

We dug his grave but then she said she wanted to cremate him and spread his ashes. Can I rent that pit in the ground on Craig’s List?  “For Rent. One grave. Ideal for Jimmy Hoffa….”
She wanted an individual, private cremation so there had to be quality control and inspection to make sure she got her Bluey back. We had paid our respects and I didn’t feel the need for a wake and I guess they didn’t hear me when I explained that because it was part of the service and that’s what they do.  “Would you like the cremains back in a bag or a cedar box?” That’s when she saw the marble urn and said “I want that.” And so it was.

They kept him in a refrigerator for 5 days and when they brought him out I knew it wasn’t a freezer because he was starting to resemble the gopher caught in a trap and rotting for a week when he dug him up and ate him.  “Bluey kusai,” she said holding her nose.  It was time. We brought his Kepa toy and some snacks and his Birdie-Birdie stuffed animal and flowers and they all went into the oven with him.

We found a spot for the marble urn on top of Victor Hugo’s desk next to which Bluey spent his final days and the top of that desk is also green marble and it becomes a memorial shrine for Bluey with candles on either side and flowers from the garden – we find amazing orchids in full bloom and Protea flowers - and dog’s treats and then meals and condolence letters from neighbors and vets. The urn looks like it belongs there and I begin to think now that he’s with us why bury him?  “If you don’t bury him he can’t go to heaven,” she said.  I’m not so sure.  The empty pit in the ground was still for rent on Craig’s List.

Each night the ritual continues.  She cooks up a Thanksgiving meal of the dog’s favorite foods.  Lights candles on the dining room table and changes the water in the dog dishes on the table. She sets food on the table and on the shrine and she talks to the dog. Her voice cracks. The tears flow. When you talk to a dog’s ashes in an urn does he know it’s his twelfth birthday?

At night, when I get back from work she tells me to take Bluey for a run.  In the morning, she tells me to take him for a walk. “He’s here, look at the candle,” she points to the flickering flame. After how many days and weeks of talking to a dead dog are you certifiable as crazy?

“Don’t take Bluey’s food!” she snaps and later says “You can have Bluey’s food for dinner.” Navigating the rules of mourning your dog are another minefield in this household.  If you eat the lamb chops cooked for a dead dog will his ghost be angry?

He’s cremated on March 3rd the “Girls Day” in Japan and we have forgotten to put out the ceremonial dolls in honor of our daughter.  How will she ever find a husband? First I cut her off the payroll so I could use the funds I send her each month to pay for the dog’s medical care. And now by not putting out the dolls I’ve cut her off from marriage. How long will it take her to work that into her stand-up comedy routine? I receive a text from our sales co-op informing me they are cutting us from the shared tasting room because our wine sales are down, because we’ve been taking care of the dog. “Brother,” asks a man down on his luck, “Could you buy some wine?” Perhaps this is the beginning of "Death of a Salesman: Winemaker's Edition."

The Princess flew down from San Francisco to help us spread his ashes. When she walked into the house she burst into heavy sobs looking at the urn and lit candles. Three minutes later she was chatting away and telling us how she had worked material about Bluey into her comedy routine. I wonder if she will mourn me for all of three minutes when my time comes? For sure I will be in her comedy routine. When may I start collecting royalties?

The last time I carried him up this hill it was Christmas and we were all together and the Queen started singing the off-key “Beautiful Boy” song. This time I carried his ashes in the urn and with each step I remembered the last time we had made this trek.

And so it was three months after the pit had been dug the Queen commands the Princess and I to jump in and remove all the leaves. “Why mama?” asks the Princess.
“Because they’re dirty.”
“Isn’t the dirt dirty?”
Why argue so we pick up the leaves and as we shovel the dirt into the hole whenever a leaf finds its way back one of us jumps into the grave to pick it up and we throw in a bag of corks and bury a one square foot urn in a pit the size of a swimming pool. We place rocks around site. “Don’t step on Bluey’s head!” I’m warned and she reads the Seicho no Iie sutra and sets out a meal of smoked salmon and fruits and granola bars. I had picked grape leaves the day before and the Princess cooked the most delicious grape leaf dish I've ever eaten and we share that with Bluey. On the forty-ninth day she reads the sutra and his spirit ascends to heaven. Her work is finished. When dogs go to heaven do they gorge on chocolate and grapes?

Final resting spot on top of Blue-Merle Mountain.
It was Spring and new green shoots were growing and the season of the vines continued and some of the vines were hitting the top wire and it was time to get them sprayed to prevent the onset of powdery mildew which can ruin your crop. Since Fidel was going to be out with knee surgery I made arrangements to get another vineyard manager – besides, the Queen can’t stand Fidel and she’s always complaining that the mildew in the vineyard is his fault and she’s always telling me to replace him.
“Why didn’t you tell me you hired someone else?” she yelled. “I want to use Fidel.” This from the woman who accused him of being a thief, a drunk on the job and a scoundrel. She had been hospitalized because of high blood pressure. So had he. She had damaged her knees and had them repaired from surgery. He was about to receive that gift. Could this be the beginning of a reconciliation between the Old Man of the Vines and the Queen of the Vines?

“Are you going to get another dog?” friends ask. Not anytime soon. They say in your life there’s one special dog for you and I’ve had mine and she says he is still with me and any time I call he’ll be there. A vineyard without a dog is a Marine without a rifle and though Bluey loved the vacuum cleaner Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill it.  About another dog, never say never.

In thinking about the fullness of time when the hole in my heart might be filled with a new soul mate, it occurs to me these stories could be weaved into a novel, the tales of planting a vineyard, growing vines and from zero to naked in 1.2 bottles of wine. The stories of Fidel and the Vineyardista; Merlot Mike and Coyote Karen; Joe the Wino and President Obama and the Winos’ Inaugural Ball.  Stories of the Great Recession and bankruptcy and repossession. Tales of winemaking, wine muses, wine tasting and unrequited love.  And standing above them all is the story of a dog and his smile; how he fished for gophers – and swallowed - and chewed corks – but didn’t swallow; the dog who snuck grapes – and survived – and who licked spilled wine when bottling. The dog who would never let go of a rotten gopher carcass one day and who would bring me a lost baby bunny unharmed the next. The dog who made me go fetch and who told me to get my own newspaper each morning- because getting the paper was beneath him. The dog who steadfastly followed his “sheep” everywhere and kept him from getting lost. And the story about his last days and how through it all he bore it stoically to his final breath, even calling out “take me to pee” three hours before he could pee no more. And after he departed for the Rainbow Bridge, his master noticed a pain in his stomach, which he said was just a symptom of mourning, and the next time he noticed the pain he said it was gas from old age and the next time he said it was the beans. And he thought about the food he had shared with the dog and wondered if the dog’s cancer could have been transferred to him since they ate together and shared food and were always side by side and he was always wiping the dog’s saliva. No, you don’t catch stomach cancer from a dog and stop thinking like that or your body might follow the thought and create an illness so he ignored the pains and didn’t go to the doctor. Besides, he had always had stomach pains since he was a kid and the pains were from hunger and if he drank a glass of milk and lay down on his stomach they would go away and he would be fine and when he was an adult the stomach pains came from drinking too much triple espresso and if he lay down the discomfort would go away and after his dog died he said he had sometimes had that feeling in his stomach but when he drank a glass of milk and lay down the pain didn’t go away. One morning there was blood in his stool and he called the doctor. "Is it bright red or dark?" and after he answered the doctor said you better come in and the doctor noticed something and sent him to a specialist who ran a number of tests and when he got the results it wasn’t good news. At that moment he remembered the dog barked every morning when he ground the coffee beans to warn him that the strong coffee he drank was ruining his stomach. There’s no need to write about his last six months because it had already been written about his dog.