Two years ago today my first dog, Kobi, passed away. As human beings we have a need to mark important passages, but this day is no more special than any other, really, except that it marks the day I was forced to make the hardest decision of my life. Seven and a half months before this fateful day, Kobi was 13 years old and in seeming good health (except for the slowing I thought was normal for an older large breed dog) when I discovered he had cancer. They were 98% sure it was lymphoma, a type of cancer that responds relatively well to chemotherapy. What could I do? Those of you who have been reading my blog will guess! I felt I had no choice but to, of course, start treatments. They said the chemo would not make him sick the way it does people and that he could live another two good years if his cancer went into remission. The operative word being “good” – I never would have kept him alive if he was suffering.
Kobi came into my life while I was home from college in the summer of 1994, about a month before I moved out of my parents’ house and into my very first apartment (I had been living in dorms before that). My summer job was at a boarding kennel, and there Kobi was day after day, because someone who worked there could not keep him in his new apartment. I fell in love and stayed after work to play with him every day. One day the guy told me I could have him and the rest was history. I was naïve back then and didn’t know about the tragic pet overpopulation problem. I had always thought I would have to buy a Siberian husky if I wanted one (yup, like many, I had a youthful obsession with the breed) and could not afford it, yet here a perfect beautiful mischievous creature fell into my lap. Oh, did I have no idea what I was in for!
Kobi was my constant companion for 12 years. He was there through so many relationships, residences, and life upheavals I have lost count. I always advise people not to get a dog if they will be moving a lot. Kobi and I moved on average once per year during those years and it was HARD finding rental places that would take big dogs. I could have saved a lot of money and stress had I been dog-less. Never ever would I have considered for a second giving him up, though. He was one and a half years old when I adopted him and I was his third “owner” (his first bought him in a pet store at a New Jersey mall). I vowed to him I would keep him forever, and keep him forever I did. When we started chemo treatments, Kobi responded so well it was amazing. I will never forget in the early days after starting chemo the day we went on a hike along the Russian River with Ali and my friend Steve and his dogs. Kobi was running faster than I had seen him in several years with an unmatched exuberance. It was like he was two years old again. He outran all the dogs and barely seemed tired. That memory still makes my heart warm. As his treatment wore on there were good days, bad days, and for me, many sleepless nights, but the good days always outweighed the bad. Until that last day.
Kobi was too smart for his own good, or maybe my own good. He was a difficult dog to live with, especially as a first dog because I was very naïve about dog behavior back then. Kobi was fiercely independent and never once came when I called him, much to my repeated chagrin when I would make the mistake of letting him off the leash at some park or on a hike. He was an infamous ruiner of picnics and pillager of garbage. He could escape from any enclosure, whether it was over, under or straight through, or by figuring out how to undo the lock. He was clever and had a wicked sense of humor. He did not cuddle and did not care to be petted. He did not need me at all. He was the very embodiment of free spirit. Kobi taught me what unconditional love was – not because he loved me unconditionally (ha! yeah right!) but because inexplicably, irrationally, and with no encouragement whatsoever from him, I felt this mysterious emotion…an emotion that is imbued with action. It carries a commitment.
Ali and Kobi lived together for 3 years. They got along just fine but I would not say they had a strong bond. Kobi did not really bond with anyone, human or fellow dog. They were very different dogs. Where Kobi would run away at the first chance he got, Ali would stick by my side and – surprisingly – come when I called. While Ali would play all day long (stick, tennis ball, squeaky toy, whatever – whatcha got?), Kobi would very rarely run after a ball with comically fleeting enthusiasm, only to get distracted and drop it three seconds later. Where Ali had separation anxiety when I first adopted him and could not stand being left alone, I think Kobi’s only anxiety was the agony of being imprisoned in a human world and not allowed to run wild. After living with Kobi for so long, Ali’s blatant and unrestrained affection for me nourished my love-starved soul. This is not meant to disparage my headstrong self-contained dearly departed friend Kobi. On the contrary, his spirit made me admire him tremendously – as difficult as that “spirit” made it to live with him at times. Because of those difficulties, I really learned what the word “commitment” meant, well before all of this happened with Ali.
Of course, I could not have foreseen what happened with Ali. I had some savings that were rapidly depleted once I started chemotherapy with Kobi, and then I got a credit card just to charge his medicines and treatments. Prior to his illness, I had zero credit card debt, only student loan debt. But as I have said before, I can think of no better reason to go into debt, so there I went. And in case you’re wondering: no, pet insurance does not cover chemotherapy. But I would not change a thing. I was able to buy Kobi seven extra good months doing his favorite things – going to the beach, the river, romping through the woods, and trying to run away until the very end, even though he had slowed down considerably. He never stopped trying.
On the morning of July 10, 2006, he couldn’t try anymore. The cancer had come back with a vengeance and apparently attacked his nervous system. That morning he could not get up. He couldn’t move. Even then, I still thought as I rushed him to emergency, he has had so many ups and downs, they will fix this too. But there was no fixing him this time and his cancer doctor told me the words I never wanted to hear: “If this were my dog, I would euthanize him today. I wouldn’t wait.” He said it was the “beginning of the end” and Kobi wasn’t going to get better this time. There were no treatment options left. I stayed with him for hours, asking him to give me a sign. He lifted his head once, but never again. I agonized over the decision. But I knew I could not keep him around for me. I could not be selfish. I had to do what was right for Kobi. But what was that? Who put me in charge? Sigh. I did, when I took him into my care all those years ago. Even though he had been sick for months it still came as shock to me. I told the doctor I had hoped, barring living forever, that he would pass away in his sleep. He told me it rarely happens that way. So I told him I loved him and a bunch of other things and then said good-bye.
Today I will visit the beach where Kobi spent so much time during his last months and remember his long, amazing life and all the lessons he taught me about responsibility, love, commitment, and freedom. Ali accompanied me on this pilgrimage last year, but because the beach is not accessible to dogs in wheelchairs, this year he will not be able to…so I will keep it short. I have so much more to learn.