Friday, July 2, 2021

Our Dog Isla: A Love Story, Life Story, or Obituary

(pronounced I-la)

For the first time in nearly 20 years, I wake up and walk around a kitchen without a dog to salsa dance with while I make breakfast and she wants a treat or the back door opened. I leave home without waving goodbye to a dog watching through the gate as I go. I return home to no waiting dog who heard the car from blocks away and raced outside, excited to reunite. 

I did not grow up with dogs. I grew up with one cat, named Rusty, that my father got for himself when I was six years old, and I never considered fully my own cat. Rusty lived 17 or so years before wandering off one day and never finding her way home, or perhaps never meaning to.

I got my first dog when I was in the last year of college, knowing that I was moving across the country to Texas to attend graduate school, which meant leaving my best friend, a human named Alexa, in the Midwest. She was getting married, starting grad school where we'd attended college, and would drive with me to Texas to find an apartment but would return to the Midwest to live and start her life. My mother's the one who asked if I got the puppy because I was already missing Alexa.


That dog was Gretta, born early 2003 and discovered at the Terre Haute, Indiana Humane Shelter. We liked each other, we danced together, she did sweet things, and she moved with me to Texas and later to Washington state. When she was about about seven years old, she moved to Illinois to live with my mother and they did just that, going on multiple walks per day for the next ten years. So, when she died at the ripe age of 17, I wasn't there and hadn't been part of her daily life for over a decade. My mother mourned. I felt bad for my mother, a widow, now left again to live alone. Her cat doesn't really count, if you ask me. Now that I've had dogs, I know there's a difference.

In 2004, Jeremy and I got married and celebrated by adopting a puppy named Molly. We lived in Texas but adopted Molly on our visit to the Midwest. We found her at the Terre Haute Humane Shelter, too. Molly will be your dog, I told Jeremy. I have Gretta; you have Molly. I guess back then I believed that symmetry in marriage meant equality in marriage. Maybe it does. 

Like any story about how the third child arrived by accident, that is the story of Isla the dog who appeared in June 2005, only a few months after adopting Molly. She and I instantly bonded. 

When Isla was about five years old, I wrote her life-story for a blog that was, at the time, sharing "life stories on a postcard" (or the equivalent size of what might fit on a postcard). Here is that story:


Isla the Dog

(October 2009, age 4-1/2)

The dog showed up on the back step of the house in the middle of the night. The people already had two dogs, Molly and Gretta, who were barking their heads off. The people thought they’d find a burglar, but when they turned the backlight on, the dog was sitting there looking up as if she were expecting them. She was. The dog had fleas and a round belly because of worms, so the people called her Little Mama. Unfortunately, the people couldn't afford another dog, so the next day the woman took Isla to the shelter and then she cried the whole way home. The woman cried until the man got home. The morning after that, the man went to the shelter and got the dog back and brought her home. The people named her Isla after a short story by Susan Steinberg. Isla is probably a black lab and rottweiler mix. Isla is the dog the people always wanted when they were kids. She's like a big stuffed animal that will never leave your side. Isla loves running in huge circles as fast as she can with a stick in her mouth. Isla loves dancing and when the woman sings "Hey Mickey" in her terrible falsetto. One evening, when Isla was just a year old, a huge black dog showed up at the carport while Isla was sitting outside with her people. His dog tag said his name was Gravy and he looked a lot like Isla, but Isla and the people never saw him again. Isla loves Molly and Gretta and will start looking for Molly if she isn’t where Isla is. Isla is so relieved when she finds Molly. When they go to the dog park, Isla squeals the whole way there. Isla introduces herself to every dog and every owner there. When her people are away, Isla stands on the back of the couch and looks out the window until her people get home. Isla loves to spoon in bed. Isla snores and runs in her sleep. After a while, the people bought a king-size bed—because Isla scrunched them up in the full-size bed—but Isla just lay diagonally across the whole thing. If the man gets home late, he sleeps on the sliver of bed that is left. Isla would love it if she fit in a backpack and could be carried around all day like when she was little. She thinks she's smaller than Molly and Gretta, maybe because she once was, but she isn't. Isla likes to curl up in the woman’s lap even though she weighs 60 pounds. Isla is the only living thing that the people have ever met who is always happy. Isla even enjoys going to the vet. And life doesn't seem as bleak now that Isla has her people and the people have Isla. Isla loves her people more than anybody ever will. Isla keeps them alive.


Isla smelling the air, 2010

It's good I wrote that life story back then because I'd forgotten many details of her youth. Her zest, strength, and winsome personality. Once, she was so excited to arrive at the dog park that she pulled me through gate and the gate latch took off several layers of skin from the back of my hand. 

Now, it's time to add it to a larger story. One that is not containable, of course, not with any tangible borders. But it began June 2005 in San Marcos, Texas when she was a puppy and ended 16.5 years later in June 2021 in Spokane, Washington.


Isla relaxing on our trip from Texas to Washington, 2010

Isla and Gretta, 2010 (Molly there but not pictured)

In November of last year, my partner and son sat in the car, waiting in the parking lot as Jeremy and I took Molly into the veterinarian for the last time. Molly, Isla's faithful companion, and our dog that lived 16 years, too. Neither my partner nor our son wanted to come into the building but they wanted to be there. 

And now it was June, and again they sat in the car, while again Jeremy and I took our old puppy dog, now Isla, into the same building. Our friend Rosalie was there with us again. She's how we found the veterinarian when we first moved to Spokane. She lived up here and knew my friend Jack from Texas. Our first meeting was arranged, and from there the friendship blossomed. 

Rosalie escorted us first to the surgery room because it was a busy evening. She brought tissues for us, for her, for the fact of the event. She too was saying goodbye to a friend. She stayed poker faced in the way she has; this wasn't her first or 100th time watching departure. She wasn't even scheduled to work but had come back to be with us, to climb in the ferry too.

Eventually, a regular room opened. The room next to the room where Molly had died. The room where Isla had her first check-up there nine years ago. 

Where in November we stood by the examination table with Molly, now in June we knelt with Isla on the floor because the vet said bigger dogs did better on the floor. That's also how he used to examine Isla for check-ups, letting her walk around and following her to listen to her heart, to check her ears, to feel her body for signs of health. Now, she staggered under the sedative and we helped her to the blanket. Now, he crouched in front of her, gently shaving a patch of fur from her leg and taking out the needle. Her blood pressure was low so he had to try again on her other leg. She was asleep, drifting. 

And then he lifted the stethoscope. 

It's stopped, he whispered. 

Isla's heart stopped beating there on the floor on a plaid fleece blanket I'd never seen before--my hands on her back, my breath mixing with hers, while time or grief shifted from one foot to another. 

She died on the hottest day on record in Spokane. 111 degrees Fahrenheit. She died during a pandemic. She died. I know this because Jeremy and I stayed with her long after her heart stopped. We petted her. We said the secret things to her that people who love each other, despite an ended marriage, say to their sweetest dog. We felt her ears. Always so glossy-smooth. She felt no different than when her heart was beating. 

I used to listen to that heart of hers. Now and then for 16 years, I'd stop and listen to it. Or I'd watch for proof of it by the movement of air coming in and out. In and out. Toward the end, I watched her as a parent watches a sleeping child for breath. Often, and with their own breath held as though breathing is a matter of taking turns.

There is such little difference between the last heartbeat and the one that doesn't follow. 

On Tuesday, June 29th, our dog Isla died at the age of 16-1/2 years. 


Before the death appointment, I'd find myself at work thinking, My dog has died and I am so very sad. I'd be walking through the store and think, My dog has died and I am so very sad. Preparing myself for it. Creating the path of thought I'd be on soon. Looking ahead at that path, I guess. I thought maybe I could order a shirt with that phrase on it, so that when she did die, I could wear it, and people would know. They just needed to know. A 21st century form of the mourning band. I'd tried this with my sister's death, having a green line tattooed around my arm. Green because she gardened. But then when I was first asked what it was for, I replied curtly, For my dead sister. I realized, then, I didn't want the band in order to discuss its presence but simply to have it there as a signal. But no one recognizes a signal that's a variation on a theme over 100 years old. 

My dog has died and I am so very sad. No need to say anything. Just read my shirt.

That was one of my ways of preparing for what has no well-known or readymade guide for  preparation. Because it's a preparation for what could happen. And then, once it does happen--well, that's an entirely different thing and, hence, you aren't prepared for that at all. 

And in that same way of grieving that raises all your dead and gone back to memory, surfacing them because they must live in the same part of the brain where I would store my sadness for Isla. And so my sister has been more present in my thoughts. My best friend Alexa, who would die while I was living in Texas, who would die while Isla was asleep on the kitchen floor or playing in the back yard. And then my father, too, returning in my dreams. Everyone from my own personal Grief House come to visit. Or me come to visit them, this time on a walk with my dog.

Isla and me


Isla was a mix of black lab and rottweiler, probably. I don't like how many dogs look like her. Too many pictures of black labs on Google Image Search look like her. Like but not like. Close but not quite. One day, I probably will appreciate this. It's why, someone recently said, people keep buying the same kind of dog, over and over. A copy of a copy of a copy. Or the wish, I think. An ode to that first one? And every one after that an ode to all the ones before? Elegy maybe. 

Molly, 2011
Like Isla, Molly was a mix. Unlike Isla, she was part black German Shepherd and something. They are uncommon dogs, which I would learn after she died, which was why Molly felt like her own unique self. Only a few times over her life did we encounter a dog that resembled Molly. 

About a month after Molly died, I was at work and one of our preschooler's went home early. I went out to the car and there sat the child's dog whom I had never met. Charlie was the dog's name, and Charlie looked so much like Molly that I immediately hugged the dog and pressed my face in its fur and told him how good it was to see him. And by him, I meant her. But I meant him, too. Once, I had encountered a woman say the same thing to a stranger in a coffee shop where I was writing. You look like my sister, she said. Or maybe it was friend. She died four years ago. This was her birthday. You look just like her. It's so good to see you, she said. 


In her younger days, Isla had to have a harness not only so we could grab her more easily in a backyard-escape situation, but also because she loved walking so much, she'd walk on her back legs while straining against her collar until her front legs lifted off the ground and her breath heaved from a squished esophagus. 

She and Molly loved jumping the backyard fence. First, we built the fence. Then we added height to the fence--and by we, I mean my former spouse and his father, who welded the fence from scratch and drove the pipes into the ground by hand in Texas Summer heat. And it wasn't a small yard.

And still, they jumped. Which left us with a very tall fence and two dogs who had to go out on a leash to keep them from visiting the neighbors. 

Finally, we realized that Isla would return to us if we were in the car. So, off she'd run, and off we'd drive until she stopped, we opened the passenger door, and in she jumped. Otherwise, she'd scram and no one was ever as fast as Isla. Only a most interesting scent or a corner would stop her long enough to grab her by the harness. 

Probably I knew Isla was old, and not returning to youth, when I took off her harness and gave her a collar; she was no longer a flight-risk. 

Isla and me

Of course, Molly and Isla's escapes weren't from refusing them treats or not letting them sit on the couch (in fact, they ate through about four couches, at least twenty left shoes, and the arms of my grandmother's rocking chair). 

No, they seemed to enjoy the puzzle of a fence. Of moving from here to there. First, you're here in the yard. Then, with a simple jump and maybe a flinging of your backend over the fence, you're over there. And over there is super interesting. It is likely our chasing them to try to take them home that led to their realizing what a great game chase was.

While walking our very leashed dogs, my spouse and I would marvel at neighbor dogs who stood taller than the fences they stood behind. They don't know they can jump that, we'd say to each other. They just have no idea. That's what--a three-foot fence? Christ. What silly dogs those must be.

When we moved to Spokane, and my sister died, I walked the dogs every morning. Long walks. Morning-long walks. Down to the park and miles around it in this place unlike any place I'd ever lived.

Isla, our baby, and Jeremy

When our son was born, I started running. I began taking Isla with me. She too was a girl come late to the exercise of running. By now she was 9 years old. But she found running to be fantastic. It probably felt like the perfect compromise between an escape and a walk. For the first few miles, she'd try to make me run faster. The last few she'd agree with me. Because I prefer to run at night, and she was 99% black, we wore matching reflective vests. Maybe I could have bought her a dog-sized one, but she did fine with a human-shaped one. We ran in winter, in summer, on asphalt, on trails.

Then a few years later, Isla stopped running with me. It was a hot day, and we'd gone out about five miles when she stopped. Just plain halted and refused to go any further. I called my partner who drove out to pick us up. After that, she'd agree to walks but even then, she'd be the one who decided when to turn back for home. Over the past year of her life, she has slept more than walked, and the walks she has gone on were a few blocks out and back, and as with Molly in her last years of life, the walks took far, far longer to reach a much, much shorter distance. More of a saunter. A halting saunter. 

A few years ago, Isla had some kind of immune-system response that led to her body rejecting/attacking her right eye. It started as bloodshot. Then redder. Then nearly the whole white of her eye was red. Luckily, there's an animal-eye specialist in Spokane. He said there was little chance of saving it. She underwent surgery to have the eye removed, and that was the first time I saw how old she was. The shaved surface of her face. The black stitches. Her fatigue. Her tired, and pained squeals. Of course, she had her graying and whitening face. But I'd never seen the age. I'd yet to shift my idea of her to old dog. It was like when my mother visited me from our rural town to where I lived in Chicago, and she seemed to walk so slow. I'd not seen my mother as aged, but the contrast was vast enough now to see it. It took Isla longer to heal from the surgery. It took more out of her than I thought anything could. Eventually, she recovered. Her fur grew back in the slope of her eye socket. 

Eventually, her good eye began turning blue from the incoming cloud of a cataract. 

Although Molly's hips began locking up with arthritis several years before Isla's, I didn't expect Isla to have arthritis. But that crept into Isla's bones, too. And so came the two, twice-daily medications to help manage the pain. That worked for a few years and a monthly subscription for pill-pockets.

There was a brief two weeks one summer--before the pandemic--where it seemed Isla was about to die. She suddenly couldn't stand straight. She was wobbly. She sat down suddenly. She seemed unable to control her legs. How could she die before Molly? Molly was the one who sat now by letting her back legs slide until she was laying down. But here it was. I made the death appointment. I took her on a final walk, even taking off work to spend the day with her. But then she was walking fine, suddenly. The more we walked, the better she walked. I thought I was undergoing wishful thinking and was likely hallucinating. I made an afternoon appointment just to have her checked. We took her in. The vet said she had a dog-version of vertigo. It happens. It comes, it goes. Several days later, Isla was back to herself--without falling, without the shakes, the wobbles. She trotted. I cancelled the death appointment. I thanked the moon, the roads, the paws--whatever it was that happened to prolong our living friendship, I felt gratitude to it. Or perhaps gratitude is simply a feeling, and does not need something to fix itself upon. 

A few years passed. Then came the falling, or the difficulty in standing up. We placed yoga mats under her dog bed so she'd have traction. We rolled out yoga mats across the floor for Molly to maintain traction. 

Whereas Isla once would jump from any height to escape a fence (once a fence eight feet high that she sort of flung herself at and threw herself over), now she could barely manage the deck step into the yard without a clear concentration and consequential wobble. If a throw pillow fell on the floor, Isla would scoot it under her legs and body until she was comfortable to lay down. 

And so we added another dog bed under her other dog bed. 

Sometimes, even with a rug and a carpet mat, she couldn't gain traction to stand, and I'd gently squeeze my legs on either side of her back legs to keep them from splaying out from under her. That usually worked.

I guess that pain medication works for a while, but the pain still increases, and eventually, the pain is at a higher level than the medication can reach.

Her eye clouded over so badly that she'd wander into our son's room and have a difficult time getting back out. Maybe because of her sight, or because she was lost, or because she forgot where she was or wanted to be.

Still, though, she would now and then greet one of our cats by jumping on her front legs and scaring the cat into another room. Good girl, Isla! I'd say. Because there was her pep. And pep means she can't be that close to death. 

The pacing began when it hurt too much to sit down--not the sitting part, but the lowering part. So, Isla would spend a long time walking around the house, asking to go outside, barking to come inside, doing another slow lap to her bowl and back before asking to go outside again. She was trying to manage the pain that the pills no longer could. Or, by managing it, avoiding it by walking instead of stopping.

On Tuesday when she died and her lips sagged gently from nearly white gums, the vet said that she likely had anemia. 

Yes, physically, she was an old dog. 

When I write all this out, of course it makes perfect sense that she has died. That "it was time," as friends try to remind me in order to console me or have something to say about this terrible pain that burns my eyes and feels like a corkscrew turning down my throat. 

I'd made a previous death appointment a few months ago after a particularly difficult week for Isla--multiple seizures, clear pain. But then she had a much better week and was herself again--her old self, but not the dying-version of herself. I cancelled the appointment. I texted all my friends to let them know. It's not time, I said. And it wasn't. Because it never is. But, you see, when Isla slept, she still ran in her sleep. She still snored. She still made the sleepy-squeaky sounds that she did as a younger dog that signaled a lively session of dream-fetching or dream-escaping or just plain dream-joy. I have vivid dreams, too. Even vivid nightmares are better than no dreams, I figure. Better, I thought, to delay death and let her live joyfully during her lengthening naps than to end both the waking and the sleeping. 

But then she stopped showing joy in her sleep. More pacing. Longer sleeps. More incontinent issues due to her pain at standing or because she simply did not know it was happening.

I texted my friend Rosalie who works at the veterinarian's office. I'll need to make an appointment for Isla.

I'm sorry, friend, she replied.


Sometimes, I think euthanasia is rationalized by characterizing the human or creature's life as not worth living--by explaining the death as an end to pain--by rejecting pain as an unnecessary and cruel part of senior living that a person or animal needs rescued from. Euthanasia as the hero wood-cutter who hears the screams and breaks down the door.

I don't know what to do with pain. I know less what to do with pain than I do the idea of a god. Is pain to be felt as part of the living experience? Is the fact of a life stopping a reason to speed up the stopping? The old coaches liked to say that pain was gain. No pain, no gain. That's it. Sore muscles the next day were to be interpreted as a sign of a successful workout, as a sign of your weaker self diminishing in the shadow of your strengthening, stronger, better, healthier self. 

There isn't anything about Isla's death that makes me feel like a hero or that I've rescued her by setting the appointment for her death and driving her to it, my family with me, Isla in the back on her two beds. I am driving my dog to her death appointment. This is what it's like. It's plain and ordinary like all impossible things. 

Older Isla, older child


Maybe it's because I'm an atheist, and the idea of a Rainbow Bridge, makes me feel a little nauseous. Heaven, a beautiful yet harmful distraction from living and feeling for a finite time here on Earth. 

I don't know about pain, but I do know my dog is not in an idyllic place. Not even my Grief House is idyllic, despite how beautiful it is and who is there and what glittering memories wallpaper it. And the Grief House only appeared when my son and I were driving home from school, remembering that today would be the day Isla died, and I explained to him why people believed in souls, and how comfort can come from imagining Isla meeting up with Molly, and that it's fine to imagine that. It's fine to imagine Alexa greeting Isla. There's a good reason, you see, I said, for people to imagine the end as a fence that you jump over into Heaven.

Well, I didn't say that part, but it was the gist. 

We cried together, he and me, as we drove the familiar streets from school to Jeremy's apartment to pick him up and bring him back to our house where Isla lived and would live for another two and a half hours. 

Isla's 16th birthday


In the living room  hang the turquoise curtains where, on the wooden floor, is the empty space where her bed should be. And it still would be if I hadn't moved it to the car so she could lay there on the drive to the veterinarian. It's still in the car.

Her water bowl is still full of water and where it should be--I say it's for the cats. It's hot and the cats need water. It's Isla and Molly's bowl, though. In their space. The food bowl is on the plant stand. Maybe I'll plant something in it. Maybe I won't.

The morning after she died, I opened the back door for her. 

Then paused. 

Then shut it. 

My partner heard Isla squealing in the night. But then remembered that it couldn't be.

Mainly, I need you to know that my dog has died, and I'm very sad.

Isla watching the world