Bill Weintraub

June 23, 2001

I had Hadrian, our yellow lab mix, put to sleep yesterday. She was about 12, and had a great many health problems. She could barely walk, and had stopped eating.

So it was time.

We got her a little over 11 years ago, because Brett had been nursing a friend of ours who died of AIDS. Tom's death was, like every other AIDS death I've seen, really gruesome, and the next day Brett said to me "I want a dog." I was doubtful at the time -- Brett was unemployed, soon to go on disability I thought, but I was working, and it seemed likely to me that I would end up having to care for both Brett and the dog. But, I thought, how can I say no to him -- he'd seen so much suffering, and was in for so much of his own.

So Brett went down to the pound, and came back a few hours later to announce that he'd thought he'd found our dog, a yellow lab bitch. (He'd been enamored of labs since our Fire Island days, when a neighbor used to sit for one.) I still remember the inflection in his voice as he said it -- a bit incredulous, but full of hope.

The next day we went down to the pound together. There were a great many dogs in cages, most barking frantically, but none more frantically than the year-old yellow lab Brett had hung out with the day before. She was grimacing manically and pushing her teeth up against the chain link fence holding her captive, as though she were trying to chew through it. I asked Brett what would happen to her if we didn't adopt her. He told me she'd be put down, as would any other dog there who wasn't given a home. "You mean, take this dog or I'll shoot it?" I asked in disbelief, echoing a popular joke of the day. "Yes," he replied.

We took her into a small room to get acquainted. She was very big, and pretty crazy, easily distracted and very energetic, but very friendly, a typical lab. I made Brett look at some other, older, smaller dogs. Wouldn't you like, I suggested, a more sedate creature? No, he answered, I want a REAL dog. I groaned inwardly and said give me a minute to think about it.

While I was sitting there trying to make up my mind, the director of the facility happened to come by. Sensing my indecision, he said to me, They're not Albert Einstein, dogs, but they have great, big hearts.

It's as good a summation of the dog as I've ever heard, and it sold me.

And so began our adventure of the dog. Neither Brett nor I had ever had a dog. We were completely green. The pound people looked at her card and said, she isn't house-broken, but you'll be able to train her quickly. Then they asked if we had a yard -- no, we said, a deck. Actually, we lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment -- the deck was on the roof. The guy at the desk looked dubious. We'll give her lots of exercise we promised. A lot of people have looked at that dog, he sighed. It's almost time to put her down. (They only kept them 21 days before euthanizing them.) So he said ok.

I'd been apprehensive about her house-breaking, but the pound was wrong. She was house-broken all right. Over house-broken, actually, because she wouldn't piss or shit on concrete. Had to be dirt, and a lot of it. Not always easy to find in SF. One of the reasons I moved to a farm -- no joke. No, her problem was something called submission urination -- if you spoke just a little too sharply to her, she'd squat and pee -- right in the house. Took about a year to correct that -- glad it wasn't our carpet. (And excitement urination too -- but that's not a big deal.)

So, of course, at first there were a lot of messes to clean up, and, as I thought I would, I experienced her as a burden. Brett did take care of her a lot, but a lot fell on me too, and I really didn't like it.

Not that I didn't appreciate her. She was intelligent, loving, and exceptionally sweet and friendly too, with a fearsome but charming submissive grin, and for both Brett and me she served as ambassador to the wider worlds of both dogs and animals. We entered enthusiastically into her training, and she became an advanced companion dog and a superb, beautifully athletic and boundlessly energetic retriever. We amassed an extensive library of dog and nature books, and filled the house with canine objets d'art. And though sometimes, when she'd done something doggishly stupid, Brett would refer to her, sardonically, as "our daughter," he also spoke frequently and contentedly of our little pack.

She became, in that sense, another, intensely important, element in the romance of Bill and Brett.

Nevertheless, there were still times when the added obligation of caring for her as well as Brett chafed.

But then, as Brett got sicker, and was able to do less and less, Hadrian became my companion, my pal. When Brett wasn't able to go to the beach or hiking on Mt. Tam, I took her instead. She was the perfect buddy for me then -- she'd run when I needed exercise, or amble when I wanted to explore a trail. Because dogs are restricted on Mt. Tam to the less scenic Marin Municipal Water District part of the park, we learned some of the most obscure and wonderful trails up there. She had a marvelous and inexplicable memory for places. Sometimes she'd be on a trail that we hadn't hiked in over a year, and she'd be ahead of me, and when I caught up with her, she'd be resting and waiting for me in exactly the same spot where we'd rested the year before. I've never understood how she did it. So I could always rely on her to find the way home -- or almost always.

But then there were the heartbreaking moments too. Sometimes Brett would go with us, but he wasn't able to walk very far, so he'd say, take the dog, go, the two of you, get the exercise you need, I'll wait here. And then there would be a struggle, I'd have to leash her and drag her away from him. After awhile she'd settle in to exploring the trail, and things would be fine. But then when we began our return, if Brett could see her he would call to her, and she would break into that enormous lab grin and race towards him, run full out. And my eyes would fill with tears and I'd think, what am I going to do when he dies, how am I going to be able to handle her grief as well as my own?

So I began taking more and more care of her -- it wasn't so much that I took her away from Brett, because I certainly didn't, but I wanted her to begin to feel that she was my dog. And it worked -- at one point Brett said to me, she thinks you're the alpha male now -- oh no, I said to him, it's both of us. But he was right, and that, after all, is what I wanted.

She was with us, just the three of us, when he died. We were at home, but he was in a hospital bed by that time and she didn't spend hardly any time in there with him -- she was afraid of the bed, and the house had been full of strangers, we'd had home health aides in to help take care of him, and she'd been in the backyard most of the time, and he was brain-damaged, and I don't know how much he recognized her or knew her.

But when I knew he was dying I got rid of the nurse and just stayed with him myself for the last hours. After he died I brought her in so that she could see he was gone. She licked his dead hand, twice, then left.

And she never showed any other sign of grief, and afterwards I thought I had succeeded too well, that it would have been better for me if she'd done what some other dogs had, refused to eat, or leave the house. But she didn't. It was, I wrote a friend ironically, an AIDS success story -- that is, I had succeeded in grief-proofing my dog.

But not myself.

That was six years ago.

I have videotapes of Brett and the dog, and sometimes I'd watch them with Hadrian and he'd be calling her, "Hadrian, Haaaaaadrian, come here, come here, that's a good dog, what a good dog." And she'd perk up her ears and listen, but then she'd lose interest, it was just TV after all, there were no smells attached. And that was the end of that. I'll never know if she missed him at all.

But I'll miss her.

She was sick a lot the last five years -- arthritis, knee surgery, some stomach thing. She was greatly slowed down, walked very slowly, panted heavily. Our hikes became very limited, and even on the farm when it was hot out she resisted the walk to the river, dragged her feet and I would get pissed at her for not keeping up with me. And sometimes I'd think, ten years, ten years of taking care of sick humans and sick dogs.

But then too, as happened with Brett, caring for her so intimately and intensely throughout her illnesses deepened our bond. I often thought of how, after she was spayed and too sore to even get out of her basket to drink from her bowl, Brett had taken water into his mouth and dribbled it onto her lips. He'd told me that when he did he saw a look of revelatory recognition come into her eyes, and that he knew she'd joined with him at that moment with an unwavering loyalty.

And so she and I became closer and closer over these last years, as she became frailer and more dependent and I became her sole caregiver and master. If she lost sight of me at a park, she became alarmed; parting from me at the vet's, her face assumed a particularly doggishly doleful expression of deep concern and woe.

And I in turn wouldn't go anywhere without her, I'd keep her beside me all the time -- that's where she'd be now, when she heard me working on the computer she'd come in and lie down at my feet.

So I was never alone.

In the end, I realized, I loved her terribly, this animal I hadn't wanted.

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