In memory of my boys: Vito, Bowie and Murray

In memory of my boys: Vito, Bowie and Murray


Murray

May 16, 1998 — March 16, 2012

It is with much heartache that I want to let you know that my beloved Murray went to Rainbow Bridge Friday, March 16. After living with congestive heart failure for about a year and a half, his severely enlarged heart finally stopped beating and he died the way we all would wish for our loved ones, just quietly going to sleep. He didn’t suffer, and it was quite unexpected when he slipped away – he had just been trotting around the house happily and bouncing up and down for his breakfast in typical Murray fashion on the day he died.

Big dog in a small package

It’s ironic that Murrdible’s heart should become so big literally, because this little dog had such boundless capacity for love! He was let down repeatedly for the first six years of his life – first by poor breeding at his Missouri puppy mill; then by the family that adopted him from a Petland in Ohio, only to have him live for five-plus years on their porch with no medical care; then by the woman they turned him over to, who left him unsupervised with a grey that was not safe with small dogs and turned on him, leaving scars across his belly.

But Murray forgave. I’ve never known a dog with such joy for life, such appreciation for everything he was given. He was the last to join our family in August 2004, but he quickly established himself as the top dog in the pack, and Vito and Bowie would stand aside for him. His rule extended to the neighborhood, where he made a point of letting every passing dog know who was in charge. He was quite a big dog in that small package – except when he would go out in the world among unfamiliar people. Then, he would become very small, cowering a bit when someone would approach to pet him, as if he expected to be hit. Once Murray knew and trusted you, though, you couldn’t ask for a more joyful and faithful friend.

Life with a cartoon character

Here are some of the things I’ll miss about him most –

Sweet dreams, Murrdible

I want to thank you all for the role you played in Murray’s life and bringing him to me. Melissa, thank you for connecting me with the woman who turned him in to Rescue, telling me that he was “very annoying” – her loss was my family’s gain. Carly, thanks to you and your family for being his first foster home, and Ayeshah, thanks to you and yours for being his second and working so hard to find him a forever home; I’m so glad fate always intended it to be mine. Niki, thank you for adopting my first Rescue dog to me and setting me on the path that led to me becoming an IG Rescue Rep and meeting this extraordinary little dog.

Sweet dreams, Murrdible Convertible. I picture you at the bridge as we always joked you would do with your brothers when you were all left alone – driving your little red car, top down, hat with checkered earflaps, finding some sort of trouble. Vito and Bowie are also old and sick and I know they are not far behind you, but it will comfort me to know that you will be there to greet them, to explore a nice big backyard together again … and to greet me one day, too, when I can hold you in my arms and shower your little head with kisses again.

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Vito Corleone

September 27, 1997 — July 25, 2012

I haven’t even found the words yet to thank many of you for your kindness after the loss of my Murray a few months ago, and now I have to write with the terribly sad news that my dog of a lifetime has joined his brother at the Rainbow Bridge.

Pet store escapee

Fourteen and a half years ago, a little brown dog climbed through the ductwork behind his pet store cage and changed my life...

It was Thanksgiving 1997, and Century III Mall in the South Hills of Pittsburgh was closed for the holiday. Patrolling the empty shopping center was my brother, a security guard, who spotted the curled-up little creature with the long, slender tail near the food court escalators and pulled out his mace, just in case this rat was rabid. Then he saw the Docktor Pet Center tag around its neck. My brother called the pet store owner, who advised him to put the puppy in the security office until the mall opened the next day. But my brother took pity on the shivering, frightened little thing and brought him to mom’s for Thanksgiving dinner, where I promptly fell in love.

That night, the puppy – which I learned was called an Italian Greyhound – slept in my basement, where he pulled down my clothes from the drying rack to cuddle with. Then and there, I believe, Vito Corleone – named after the Godfather because “he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” – chose me to be his mama, and he took that relationship very seriously for the rest of his life. Wherever I was, without fail, there he was; a frequent joke in our house, whenever anybody came in and was greeted by the other two boys, was, “Where’s Vito? Let me guess...” He trusted me unequivocally, loved me unconditionally and would happily follow me to the ends of the earth.

An independent spirit

My favorite quality of Vito’s was his independent spirit. As I should have guessed from his pet store Houdini act, he wasn’t especially interested in winning any prizes for obedience. He knew exactly what you were asking him to do; he simply preferred not to. He failed puppy class out of simple refusal to go along with the program – but years later, just in case anybody thought he was dumb, he went into my backyard and, with no guidance or provocation whatsoever, started demonstrating skills on his brother Bowie’s agility equipment. He looked at us intently as he did this – just letting us know that he was paying attention and he could do that, too, if he wanted to.

Vito leaves behind something of a legacy of Italian Greyhound rescue dogs and loving forever homes that I helped to find each other, all inspired by my utter adoration of him. After finding Bowie through IG Rescue, I devoted many hours of my life to screening adoption applications, answering emails and phone calls from owners interested in surrendering their dogs and prospective adopters, maintaining a website, arranging foster care, transporting dogs between various cities and states, and doing home inspections. Vito and I spent many hours in the car together as he accompanied me on all of these home visits; of my three dogs, he was the perfect one to take along, because he was such an utter embarrassment – I mean, such a perfect example of the breed – that, if a prospective adopter was charmed and not turned off by his interest in assessing the comfort of their couch and “counter surfing” to see what might be good to eat in their kitchen, it was probably a good sign that this was the breed for them.

Tiny Tim

Along with a nose that his first vet said looked like Snoopy and white paws that once inspired someone to tell me he should’ve been named Reebok, Vito’s puppy mill breeding came with plenty of health challenges. I had him for all of three days when he managed to pop his back kneecaps out of their sockets. He had a mysterious issue with protruding eyes; visits to out-of-state specialists eventually diagnosed an autoimmune condition that we treated with cyclosporine, an anti-rejection drug used by organ transplant patients. Last year he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, an endocrine problem that was caused by a malignant tumor on his adrenal gland; we attempted to treat it, the tumor showed no signs of reducing and then, suddenly, there were no further symptoms from the disease in a turn of events that no vet could explain. But what struck me most over the past year was how my boy aged with such dignity and grace. He developed a mass that ranged from the size of one to two grapefruits on his side that would fill with fluid, which the vet occasionally drained to keep him comfortable, but never once did I doubt his quality of life as he carried on with his days like this enormous inconvenience wasn’t even there. When he was younger, we sometimes called this fragile-looking dog “Tiny Tim,” but he was braver and stronger than I ever imagined. He loved his life up until his last day.

Vito’s most serious medical problem was the liver failure he was diagnosed with many years ago but, somehow, through good veterinary care, a homemade diet and good fortune, we were able to keep the disease in check. One day in early June, though, he suddenly lost the strength in his back legs. Rushing him to the emergency vet, we learned that a large liver tumor had developed sometime over the past few months, and that these tend to bleed, making the dog anemic and weak. The bleed can sometimes seal off and the dog can recover, and – as Vito proceeded to do twice – have a great quality of life in the interim. I decided it wasn’t time to put him down just yet, and we got a month and a half of great quality time that my head knew was borrowed and a precious gift, but my heart wasn’t quite ready to accept as the beginning of the end. The bleed that finally took him started sometime last Tuesday; that night, I could tell that he was uncomfortable, and neither of us slept much; every time I opened my eyes, I saw his soulful ones fixed on me. The next day, he started to slip away on his own but, in typical Vito fashion, he waited for me. Of course he would. I’m both honored and heartbroken that he gave me the chance to hold him on the way to the vet and kiss him goodbye as we gave him permission to slip back into his puppy body and run free. It’s been a week now and I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a world without my Bee Bee.

Vito leaves behind just one brother now, the other half of “The Bee Bee and Bo Bo Show.” Bowie has been beating the odds since January with stage-five lymphoma, and he is a bit lost after losing both of his brothers in just four months. So far, he is having a rough time with the loss of his beloved ear cleaner and companion of 14 years, and so are Vito’s people. It will take time, but I know we will eventually be able to take comfort in a life well lived by that obstinate, squirrel-chasing, treat-hording, piano music-loving, absolutely adored little brown dog. He will forever be an indelible piece of my heart.

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Bowie

October 1, 1997 — August 8, 2012

They say it often rains at a good person’s funeral. I think that must also be true of a really good dog because, last Wednesday, the skies here in Pittsburgh opened up just after I said goodbye to the last member of my little dog family. Bowie has joined his brothers Murray and Vito at Rainbow Bridge, just a few months after Murrdible and two weeks to the day after Bee Bee.

My Bowie Bo

I’ll never forget the day I met my Bowie Bo. It was December 1998 and I had decided that Vito needed a friend to keep him company during the long work day. I found IG Rescue, applied to adopt and chose “Beau,” sight unseen, from his description – friendly, outgoing, just over a year old and big for his breed, like Vito. I met him in a hotel room in Cleveland where his foster mom was exhibiting at a dog show, walked around the show with him for a little while, then took him home. He was on the thin side for his big frame, his black fur was dull, and he smelled like he had some intestinal issues going on. He had already been through several homes, and I’ll never forget the way he slept limply on my best girlfriend’s lap during the ride back to Pittsburgh. It wasn’t like a normal dog that wants to look out the window and seems curious about where he’s going; Bo simply looked like he was resigned to whatever was going to happen next.

Bo’s short but well-traveled history had left him with a world-class case of separation anxiety, starting from when he was crated in his first home for about 20 hours a day, then getting worse in each new home. You didn’t have to actually leave the house; you just had to go through the routine of preparing to leave to throw Bo into shredding mode. His tally included a sofa, several comforters and, in his crowning achievement, my waterbed. But no sooner would he finish the destruction that he would turn his gaze on you with those big, soulful cow eyes of his, as if to say, “I’m really sorry, mom; I couldn’t help it.” I knew the situation would only get worse if he was rejected from yet another home, so I committed myself to helping him become the good dog I knew he could be.

Prince in a Barb Cow

I found and worked with an animal behaviorist, who taught me the Nothing in Life is Free training method and recommended that I give Bowie an outlet for his nervous energy, like obedience class. And Bo thrived! He wanted nothing more than to please. He sailed through a basic obedience class with a very tough trainer, then an advanced class. He earned his Canine Good Citizen certification, and things were going so well that the trainer suggested we might try agility. Bo was big, strong and athletic, and he loved agility. I bought some equipment to practice at home and we went to weekly classes and trial runs. I loved that time we spent together, forming a close trust and bond. Some of my favorite memories involve us sitting on the mat listening to the instructor, and everyone would turn around to giggle at the sound coming from Bo as his whip of a tail – there was a knot toward the end from a prior break – went thud, thud, thud against the mat. That tail pretty much never stopped; he was such a happy dog and never knew a stranger. In his one attempt at an agility competition, he was so busy running around the ring, trying to visit with the judges and wagging all the way, that he was disqualified. No matter; the boy I registered as “Three Libras Diamond Dog,” in honor of a song by his namesake and the fact that he had proven to be such a diamond in the rough, was the runaway winner to me.

Did I mention that Bo was a really good dog? I once slipped and fell at the park during the winter and hit my head; when I opened my eyes, Vito’s leash was still in my hand but Bo was many yards away, on the other side of a field. Panicking, I put on my most cheerful voice and called him – “Bowie Bowie Bo!” – and he took one look and came bolting back to my side. He used to march around my infant nephew’s crib as if he were the official guard dog, and once nudged him up the stairs with his nose as he was learning to walk. He was terrified of storms, and a lot of other things – we used to joke about him being the Cowardly Lion, so nervous for such a big dog, and would have him put up his paws: “Put ‘em up, put ‘em up!” – but, if we got caught out in the rain while walking, he would very seriously lower his head and “power through,” as if he was bravely assuming full responsibility for getting his person and brothers home safely. Sometimes, when he got nervous, he would “hide” behind something, not realizing that he was actually in plain sight. When someone would pass by, he would simply look away, as if to say, “You can't see me!” Bowie Bo loved everybody, and everybody loved him – except, perhaps, for the dog that bit him on the nose at the oncologist’s office a few weeks before he died. With his nose bleeding, Bo tried to march right back toward the dog, wagging and wagging, determined to win him over.

I always said that Bowie was a “prince in a Barb Cow” (one of his many nicknames). He simply seemed to understand English too well to not be a person in a dog suit – like the time he injured his paw, my mom walked in and said, “What seems to be the problem, Bo?” and he offered his paw up to her for inspection. I joked that there was surely a handsome prince in there, turned into this handsome dog, though he certainly gave and received enough kisses in his lifetime that I guess we never quite figured out the secret to breaking this particular spell.

Angel dogs

Of my three dogs, Bowie was the most sturdy and strong, with very few serious medical problems throughout his life. That all changed between this past Christmas and New Year’s, when he quite suddenly became lethargic and lost interest in food. We noticed his swollen lymph nodes and, seemingly out of nowhere, my Bowie Bo had a terminal diagnosis, stage-five lymphoma, with white blood cell counts so far off the charts with lymphocytes that the vet had to send out the bloodwork for a double check. We were referred to a specialist who said that, if we were going to consider treating it, we needed to come immediately because he might not last the week. We chose a treatment protocol that seemed reasonable for a dog of his age, once every few weeks, which was the middle ground between an aggressive protocol that would’ve had him at the vet once a week or more and the most conservative protocol of prednisone only. And we got seven wonderful months that I will forever be grateful for, with just a couple days of him feeling under the weather. By late July, he had started to become unresponsive to the last treatment we tried, so we made the switch to comfort care, but expected that he could remain stable for a couple of months.

That all changed on July 25, when Vito died. The boys were so close – the Bee Bee and Bo Bo Show had been running since December 1998, after all – and it wasn’t but a few days after we lost Vito that Bo’s lymphoma flared up dramatically. The doctors said that a highly stressful event like losing a longtime companion can do that, in dogs as well as people, and Bo simply never recovered. I couldn’t get him interested in much food, and he would just lay around looking limp, tired and severely depressed. Tuesday night, I took him to PetSmart to try to give him some special time and, although his legs were weak, he enjoyed visiting with another dog, then his vet tech who happened to be shopping there. But the visiting took a lot out of him, and his breathing seemed labored. I brought him into bed that night, and I woke up several times, noticing that his breathing was especially loud. Wednesday, he was sleeping soundly and quietly when I came home from work. He went outside for a little while, came in and lay on the couch, and there was the labored breathing again. I still carry a great deal of guilt over the circumstances of Vito’s passing and, after that, I’d promised Bo that I wouldn’t let him suffer – so, within five minutes, I had called the vet and carried him to the car to go and be with his beloved brothers. His vet pointed out that there are plenty of lymph nodes we can’t see, and he probably had involvement in his chest by that point, causing his breathing difficulties.

I know I made the right decision by my boy, though that doesn’t help with the overwhelming void in the house or my heart. A colleague gave me a beautiful children’s book, “Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant, that simply and beautifully expresses exactly what I would wish for my boys:

"When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best. He gives them fields. Fields and fields and fields. When a dog first arrives in Heaven, he just runs.

And, oh, the dog biscuits. Biscuits and biscuits as far as the eye can see.

The dogs each find a cloud bed for sleeping. They turn around and around in the cloud until it feels just right, and then they curl up and they sleep. God watches over each one of them and there are no bad dreams.

They will be there when old friends show up. They will be there at the door.

Angel dogs."

Run and play again in your healthy puppy bodies, my beloved angel dogs. I am changed in so many wonderful ways for having had the chance to be your person, and you will live on, forever and ever, in my heart as I try to be the person you believed me to be. It's not time to share that space with a new dog, not yet, but one day, maybe next spring, I know that some little soul in need will choose me. I can think of no better way than that to honor the unconditional gifts that you gave.

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Postscript

August 23, 2012

The boys loved their yard in Pittsburgh. Today, we had an old, diseased plum tree removed from the yard and planted a new one in their honor. It is, appropriately enough, a dogwood tree, and serves as the final resting place for the majority of the boys' ashes. I hope to see it become stronger and more lovely over time - just like our memories - and to bloom in the spring, around Murray's birthday. Thinking of the boys back in their yard, soaking up the sun, makes me smile.

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September 13, 2012

And now the boys are entirely at peace...

One last ride to the beach where we made so many happy memories, a heart drawn in the sand as sunset approached, their remains scattered in the outline and the high tide taking them out to sea. Now they are a part of where people take their morning walks, children build sand castles, and pups run and fetch in the surf. Not a half bad resting place.

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