For Salima and Chloe
I have been hearing, recently, from a friend who went through a cancer scare about her beloved dog, although happily, the cyst her dog had developed turned out to be benign. It really brought back memories of Maggie, our Golden Retriever, who died of Osteosarcoma, although she lived a good, long life before that. I wonder if there is always one animal in a family’s life who is the one most remembered . . . If so, the one we remember is Maggie, truly a saint among dogs. We got her in Minnesota, during the one winter we lived on the Upper Peninsula of Wisconsin, in Bayfield. We lived, that winter, in a lovely house on Lake Superior, and it was truly a beautiful time, for many reasons. The night we drove down to get Maggie, outside Minneapolis, although I don’t remember just where, it was mid-winter, that cold Northern winter that we later found was even colder and snowier than Alaska, where we went next. Maggie was about six weeks old, and she looked a lot like another Golden we’d had: she was bigger than all the other pups in the litter, and very shy, retreating under a chair to hide from these strangers who seemed interested in her. We bought her anyway, and I remember holding her on my shoulder most of the way home. She remained shy for about an hour, and I remember the moment when she suddenly bonded: all of a sudden, she started licking me under my chin, and her tail wagged, indicating that she had accepted the situation and us. Snow started to fall heavily, and we ended up sneaking her into a motel for the night, where she behaved perfectly. Maggie never seemed to need “training.” She just needed to know what the rules were, and then she followed them: she was that eager to please. We had another dog at that time, a collie, Merlin, and I remember watching them racing across the ice of the Lake, rolling and romping happily that winter.
Maggie would come in, shaking herself happily, and trot up beside me at my desk, where she would immediately roll over on her back in the “submissive” position she seemed to love, waiting to have her belly rubbed. We eventually came to refer to her as the “love bandit.”
During that snowy, beautiful winter on the Lake, we got job offers in Alaska, and began excitedly to prepare for the drive across country. It was a huge preparation, because we had to make decisions such as what to do with our furniture (store it? take it with us?) and our car (ship it on the barge?) . . . And we ended up towing the car with a moving van all across the country to Seattle, with the dogs riding in the car, and us in the van. Both coped well with the drive, although the Collie occupied himself with chewing up the gear shift, while Maggie coped with her usual aplomb. The Collie, Merlin, also loved to sit in the driver’s seat, and would astound other customers when they would see the car pull up to a gas pump, seemingly being driven by a very dignified Collie who appeared to be completely in control of the situation. We never followed the rules about crates and the like, except during housebreaking, my one unshakeable rule, and we couldn’t bear not to occasionally let them off the leash for a few minutes, especially when we were driving for such long hours. Merlin was Maggie’s big brother, and where he went, she went, as in the moment when, in Montana, we let them free for a few moments, and they disappeared over the rise and galloped into the desert. That was a bad moment, during which we promised ourselves “Never again.” They reappeared within minutes, on the other side of the exit, and our hearts nearly stopped before we could get them back to the car, across what was thankfully a rather small amount of traffic that day.
Maggie and Merlin loved Alaska. For those first years, we lived in an Aleut village at the end of the Alaskan Peninsula, with some 15 miles of roads going nowhere, and everyone seemed to let their dogs wander. Within the first few weeks we were there, Maggie went into heat for the first time. Every masculine canine in the village camped at our front door, and my husband would try to take her out on the leash during “low traffic” times. She enjoyed mincing around the guy dogs with a “come and get me” attitude, while he hauled on the leash. We learned then how you cope with situations such as this when you live 650 miles by air or water from the nearest vet: we put her on the plane for Anchorage, where the vet’s office came and picked her up in her kennel, took her to the office to be neutered, and put her back on the plane. In Alaska villages, there is usually an itinerant vet, an itinerant psychiatrist, and an itinerant dentist, but if your dog goes into heat when it’s not the vet’s time to visit the village, that is what you do, and so we did. I don’t even remember it being terribly expensive, oddly enough. But Alaska is prepared for such emergencies.
I just asked my daughter what she particularly remembers about Maggie, and what she remembered is that, despite her saintly demeanor, she had a “dirty bark,” even though she remained puppy-like longer than most dogs. She was built low to the ground, too, but that didn’t stop her from happily exploring the Alaskan landscape we lived in. Once, she came home with a bad cut over her eye, and we thought she had most likely visited the village dump which was near us and where bears loved to visit. Maggie pretty much refused to discuss the matter, so we never knew, but despite all efforts to get the cut to heal up, it continued to weep. Finally, under cover of darkness, our local clinic personnel broke a cardinal rule, the rule of “no animals in the clinic,” and hauled her up on an exam table and cleaned and sewed it up. She was fine after that, although she was never known to complain about anything.
When the salmon came up the streams and rivers to spawn, the dogs were in a permanent state of bliss: when let out, they galloped down to the streams where for weeks dead salmon washed up on the shores, and made what were no doubt delicious meals of them. Then, they returned dutifully to the deck and puked them up. Good times, good times . . .
When we left the village for good, our Collie, Merlin, went to live with a coworker, because he was prone to wander a little too much and it was decided that he needed to be where he had lots of open space to do it in. Maggie went with us, though, to Valdez for a couple of years, and then on to Wasilla, our last Alaska home. Once we were back on the road system, Maggie discovered moose, and when they wandered into our yard in Wasilla, she would bark her “dirty bark” for hours, letting those moose know, in no uncertain terms, what she intended to do with them if she could get ahold of them. She never did, of course, and mostly, they ignored her. Moose are far from stupid, although you’d never know it to see them.
It was in Wasilla that Mag began to get a lesion on her leg. It was toward the end of our time there, having made the decision to return to the “Lower Forty-Eight,” and we took her to the vet, who immediately diagnosed Osteosarcoma. He said he was sure she had it, and we avoided expensive testing, although she was x-rayed. The vet didn’t seem to want to come right out and say it, but he hinted that we might consider having her “put down” before returning to the States, but intuition told us not to, and we took her back with us on the plane, although she could barely walk at that point. I remember my husband hauling her out of the crate in Seattle and taking her out to pee in her terrible condition. We flew on across the country to a week’s respite on Jekyll Island before going on to the family home in Florida, my mother having died some time before that, and being concerned about my father. It was sometime during that time, always hoping to opt for “alternative” or “natural” cures for what ailed us and our animals, that we discovered Essiac tea, and herbal concoction with a Native American origin, which had been used by a Canadian nurse to heal cancer in thousands of people before the Canadian phamaceutical giants managed to shut down her operation. We ordered some and began to dose Maggie with it, although the lesion on her leg was enormous by now, and we were gravely worried. She remained good-tempered and in love with life through it all, but we had to shoot it down her throat with a turkey baster, because she did not care for the tea, unless she was very thirsty.
The lesion began to shrink. Mag began to feel better. Within months, she was chasing squirrels (no moose in Florida that I know of!), and there was no evidence of a lesion. Mag lived for two more good years. By now, she was about ten years old, maybe twelve… and we decided, with no available guidance, that she was cured. We stopped giving her the tea, and after a time, the lesion returned. Rapidly. By now, we were here in North Carolina, and we did take her to the vet, but there wasn’t much to do except monitor Mag’s “quality of life.”
I remember the morning we decided that Maggie should be allowed to move on. My husband and I took her to the vet’s office, and we were treated compassionately and kindly. We were given a moment to tell her how we felt about her, and then she was given the lethal injection, while we held her and stroked her.
I have been at a number of home and hospital births, having been a midwife trainee at one time. What I noted most poignantly about the moment of Maggie’s death is that it was curiously like the birthing of the babies I had witnessed. One door closes and another opens.
Some people don’t choose to live with animals. They don’t want the inconvenience of having to pay vet bills, of having to deal with them when they travel, of housebreaking and the like. But I am not one of them. All my animals, particularly my dogs, have taught me much about love. They have been my friends when it seemed that no one else was. The popular belief is that animals are not capable of the same emotions people feel, but I have seen that my animals are capable of guilt, fear, anger, love and joy. And loving seems to give them the most joy of all, which is saying quite a lot. Maggie remains my “most unforgettable character” in the “loving joy” category. If I were Hindu, I would be convinced that she will be a person next time around, but I don’t know about things like that. Because Mag and Alaska will always be together in my heart, let me end this in the style of a traditional Alaskan storyteller:
This is a story about Maggie.
It is a story about Alaska.
It is a story about Salmon.
It is a story about Essiac tea. Draw your own conclusions.
It is a story about love and life and death and birth.