Remembering Coal

July 27, 2014

My friend died eight years ago today.

This is what I wrote then:

It has been said that every newspaper columnist should have a dog, if only for the opportunity they provide for the occasional cheap column. Today Karen and I have one less dog.

Last Monday, after a couple of weeks of alternating hope and despair, we drove Coal to his remarkably compassionate veterinarian, Dr. Bill Ormsbee, and let him go.

My heart is broken, but I am all right. Karen seems to have taken it better than I have, but I suspect she’s being brave for my sake. (That’s another reason I love her. )

It is no tragedy that Coal is gone; he was born Nov. 9, 1991. He was well into his 14th year, which is a long time for big dogs like him. He spent his last weekend eating peanut butter ice cream, roast beef and a couple of cheeseburgers from McDonald’s. He was in the company of people who loved him. He knew no anxiety and little pain in his eventful, lengthy life. He was an uncommonly sweet and cheerful animal and he kept his dignity to the end.

The problem was that he couldn’t stand on his own anymore, much less walk more than a step or two. He had a degenerative spinal condition, something which had first shown up more than a year ago and caused us to retire him from our daily walks with the other dogs. He started dragging his right rear paw, knuckling up on it so that he wore the skin off the top. We bought him some special boots that he quickly wore through.

Then he seemed to lose control over his rear legs completely; it became increasingly difficult for him to walk. We got him a special leash that allowed us to support most of his weight, and for a time Coal could go on short walks. But in the heat of summer, the walks grew shorter and shorter, and I stopped making him go a couple of weeks ago when he began to seem reluctant.

I thought I’d try again with him in September if it cooled off a little. He seemed to like his little strolls, the neighborhood smells and the cat named Willy who’d rub against him and slalom between his legs. Coal’s heart was strong—for a dozen years he’d run seven or eight miles a day, and walked four more besides—but his wind was going, and his body was wearing out.

When we went to New Orleans recently, we took the unusual step of boarding him. We have great friends who care for our dogs when we’re away, but Coal had gotten to the point where he could barely move himself. He needed help getting up and we thought it too much to ask that our friends lift and lug him. Besides it was so hot and Coal wouldn’t use the dog door to come inside where it was airconditioned, even when he was able.

And while Coal was being boarded, he suffered a storm of seizures. He was epileptic, and from the time he was 2 years old he’d endured them periodically. Only in the past year or so has he seemed to be deeply shaken by them—he used to recover in a matter or hours, but in recent months it took a week or more. They called us from the Doghouse to let us know; when we got back in town our kind friend Bob Smith kept his place open late so we could come and collect our Coalie and bring him home.

He never really came back from that last storm. Though he was alert and engaged most of his last weekend, he still had spells where he seemed remote, removed from the moment. I got a little irritated when he didn’t seem to be trying, and one morning when he was able to walk a few steps on his own I sat down in the back yard and bawled like a little kid, all hot tears and self-pity.

Karen and I had our talk, and made our decision. And we had a picnic in the sunroom and fed Coal by hand. We stroked him, and I carried him out to his favorite tree and held him while he did what dogs do in the yard.

Monday morning, he walked a few steps and we thought he might recover. When I came back from my morning run, I urged him up. And then he fell, and crashed, and seemed to want nothing more than to lie on his side and gently pant. Karen was at the office so I sent her an e-mail; she called me back before she realized why I hadn’t used the phone myself.

Dr. Ormsbee has known Coal for more than a decade; we picked him as our vet because he was recommended as someone who was very good with epileptic dogs. Coal never minded trips to his office, he was never a skittish animal. He relaxed in my arms as I carried him in.

There is, Karen suggests, something about ending a life that is anathema to the human soul. No matter what the circumstances, we simply recognize the wrongness of it, that it is not rightly in our purview to presume to the prerogatives of God. I’m afraid that is not a universal inhibition; there’s too much wanton killing and too many adrenalininducing tough words floating around. I’m sure some people are perfectly comfortable killing things.

And I’m also aware it’s been a tough week for a lot of people in Arkansas, and that we all have things we lose and times when we hurt. I don’t mean to blubber and snort and call attention to myself. We all go through sad times, and I am through mine.

I miss Coal, but I remember him and his equanimity and the sometimes blunderbussing way he attacked life. I have photos and memories and, if I am honest, a little bit of guilt about how relieved I feel that the decision is behind me, that Coal has gone on.

I know some of you have followed his story in these pages through the years, and I appreciate your kindness and indulgence. I want to tell you all thanks, to express my gratitude for allowing me to occasionally talk about my dogs in this space. The last time I wrote about Coal was a little over a year ago, and I was touched and amazed by the response—I had more than 100 e-mails and probably two dozen letters in response to that column. I didn’t answer them all—I’m sorry, I should have but I was overwhelmed by the response. People are good, for the most part, and the people who complain that we are “surrounded by mediocrity” don’t live in the same world that I do. Most of us try hard to do right.

If you are interested, I’ve posted a couple of photographs—and a wonderful cartoon that was done by my colleague Ron Wolfe—at http://coaldog.blogspot.com. I felt a little silly doing it, but so many people seemed to care about Coal, so many people seemed to know him, that I think maybe it’s an OK thing to do. He had a great life and though I miss him, I don’t regret anything about it, not even how it ended.

Coal Dog out. Courage.

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