Monday, May 18, 2015

Heaven Has a Beautiful Sky

Heading away from home, seven years ago I drove uncharacteristically slow as I headed for St. Louis and a check-ride.  It was very cold that day and I drove out by the back way in hopes of better traction as I went up the hill.  There, somewhere after the asphalt turns to gravel, about where an old barn stands, I locked eyes with something which was obviously out of place.
Having just moved out of my way, and stopped to observe my passing from the weeds, was a beautiful Border Collie.  Sometimes you lock eyes with someone, or in this case an animal, and you just know their story.  I could tell hers was one of homelessness and a desire to connect.  If she was to survive the January cold, she needed it.  And just as some of the greatest directors have portrayed important moments in life, when I drove by our eyes met and time seemed to slow down.  I knew she needed someone but my family needed me to pass my check-ride.  I continued.
All day, even during the check-ride itself, I thought about the beautiful dog I had seen abandoned in the cold.  It’s common in our area for heartless rednecks to set out the Christmas gift dogs they can’t afford because of their need for beer, cigarettes, and four-wheel lift kits.  But, this dog was not what you typically see “set out”.  She wasn’t a pit-something, beagle half-breed, or abused lab which is so commonly seen wandering and wondering where their family went.  No, this was a well bred canine - a princess dropped in the hood.
When I finished my check ride I called home from the car.  Driving away after a successful sim session feels like you were just released from a death sentence so the mood is good.  Ginger and I said our hellos and I asked what she was up to.  She said, “I’m petting Sky”.  Right then, I was sure I knew what had happened, but I still asked, “You’re doing what?”  To which she replied, “I’m petting Sky.”  “Who is Sky”, I asked slowly.  And that’s when she told me the story.  She had been inside, Ace had barked, she went out to see what he was barking about, and there was a super-skittish but beautiful Border Collie that wanted to trust her but just couldn’t.
Ginger with Sky (foreground) and Ace, watching our Gullwing fly away.
It then took her a significant portion of the day sitting outside with food to finally get the dog to come to her to eat.  Sky, as she was now named, had obviously been on her own and was extremely nervous.  Yet, Ginger persisted, and before the sun went down we had a visitor in our home.
Unbelievably, that same dog I had seen in the weeds had made it a few miles down the road to the one house that would take her in, then managed to do something to arouse the ears of Ace, who in turn barked in that certain way that told Ginger to investigate.  When I got home, there was that beautiful dog I had seen on my way out that morning.

For almost two weeks we tried to find her owners.  We were sure she was lost because nobody would set out such a wonderful canine.  We are the only ones around here who would ever have such a breed, and anyone else who might have such a dog would care enough to find her a home if for some reason they couldn’t keep her.  But, no matter how far away we asked, we couldn’t find an owner.  We did though find people who had seen her stealing food to survive.  We would later find out, during one of her vet visits, she had also been shot.
At this point, I have to admit that knowing Sky needed a good home did not mean I thought we needed another dog.  Each day we set out to look for the owners I hoped to find some little heartbroken kid whose day would be made when they discovered their puppy had been found.  It never happened.  In fact, toward the end, I must also admit that I was praying nobody would claim her.
Having been on her own, she was an emotional mess, but I was growing more attached to her by the minute.  Then, at somewhere around ten days of searching, without openly discussing it, Ginger and I both quit looking.  She was ours and a person would have to use force to take her away.
That's how she slept.  
Looking back on it she really was a mess.  For whatever reason, all of her legs would move non-stop whenever she wasn’t standing on them.  She ate fast like a thief and took food from others whenever she could.   Trash was something she sought out and tore through often.  Sadly, there was also a fear in her indicative of being beaten and she was so incredibly nervous and hyper teaching her anything was difficult.  This would earn her the nickname, “Hyper-Skyper.” 
We started with the legs.  Over time we got her to stop moving them with the command “four on the floor”.  The more she trusted us the more she learned.  Next was the food.  We struggled with that one for a long time.  She was scolded for bad, positively reinforced for good, and made to feel like an honest to God princess when she would leave trash alone.  The addition of a bowl made to slow down eating finally put to rest her frantic feasting.  Unbelievably, she even began to lay down by her bowl and eat one morsel at a time.  After that, Ginger bought her a bowl that said “Princess.”
Where are those moles?
During those early years one thing did come easy to her though.  She loved to ride in a vehicle.  Sure, she loved to bark at every squirrel and rabbit that crossed our path but she also did not want to be left behind.  That’s understandable, and although her excitement was almost unbearable at times, it still made us smile and she went whenever possible, often to the airport.
Exploding out of the truck, she would bolt straight to a mole run.  I can’t count the number of times I yelled at her for digging.  It drove me insane and yet I understood.  She hated those moles worse than I did.  You could see the excitement in her stance as she feverishly dug for them.  It is for this reason I’m sure Ginger was often puzzled when I told her not to get worked up over Sky digging the holes in my beloved aircraft parking area.   I’m sorry Ginger, even when she was bad I loved everything about her.
Did I mention she could jump?  Oh my God could she ever.  Out of nowhere she’d bound over the end of our bed, four feet high, and right into the covers with us.  Every morning, without fail, there she would fly onto the mattress.  If she didn’t, something was wrong.  That brings me to another critical piece of her story.  She was a daddy’s girl.

I have no idea why, but at some point it became obvious to everyone that there was a special connection between us.  She would jump in bed and work me like a con-man works his mark.  Always demanding more head scratching and always getting it.  If I refused, she’d nudge her nose into my hand, lift up my arm, and pet her own head with it.  She also did something else I could never get over.
Whenever we’d come home she would always be there at the door.  And when I came home from long trips she did the same.  In those instances though, the other two dogs and the cat would lean against me and wag their tails with the expectation of some attention.  But Sky, she would sit down in the middle of all of them and stare into my eyes with more focus than I am capable of describing.  Her unblinking giant brown eyes, combined with an absolute silence and stillness, seemed to say “look at me daddy; I’m the one that really loves you.”  And, it always worked.
There was also this one other thing she did that always made Ginger’s eyes roll.  From the other side of the room you could see it coming.  Sky would get a look in her eyes and across the floor she would fly up into my arms in my lap.  Ginger would stare at us with comical disbelief and say, “That’s pathetic.”  It was hilarious and true.  She was as much a part of our lives as any dog could be.
Thankfully, after years of hard work, Sky no longer flailed her legs, got into trash, ate like a fiend, or distrusted everyone.  Even better though, her desire to learn new things developed.  She would wait to eat until we told her “OK eat”, she could sit, lie down, roll over, go right, “crush balls” (Ginger’s call to have her jump in my lap), and toward the end she finally learned to speak.
I have no idea why that command was so hard for her because Ginger had easily taught her to call our other pets home with the phrase “Call’em home little girl.”  Ginger would tell her this command and yell “Heeeyyyy”, as if she was trying to call the other dogs, and the little girl would tilt her head back and bark until Ginger told her “OK, CUT”.  It was hilarious to watch.  When Ace was around, he’d get in on it too.

So much fun.
Being a Border Collie she also loved to run.  Man was she ever wicked fast.  But something was clearly wrong from the first day we found her.  Although she could run with incredible speed and grace for maybe two hundred feet, she would then plop down due to exhaustion.   This greatly concerned us and we had every test known to man run on her.  At one point she was even hooked up to a heart monitor for several days.  Nothing could ever be found to explain it.
Then, about a month ago, she started to randomly limp and at times would not jump.  She loved to jump, “pop wheelies” as we called it, and when she quit jumping we knew something was wrong.  Shortly thereafter she tested positive for a bacterial infection and we thought it would be an easy fix.  But two weeks later, when I was away on a trip, Ginger called to let me know Sky couldn’t move.  Our little girl was in very bad shape and Ginger wasn't much better.  That’s when it was discovered she had cancer of the blood vessels and the prognosis was not good.  It had made it to her liver.
Emergency room vets being emergency room types, they pushed two options; cut or kill.  Gotta fix whatever is wrong.  They pushed really hard for Ginger to put her down right then.  If you can’t cut to fix, then she’s a goner so you are irresponsible to not put her down - that is the message she got. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and she brought my little girl home.  That’s when Ginger’s incredible love for Sky came charging through.
Sky may have been a daddy’s girl, but momma loved and enjoyed her just as much.  And thanks to Ginger’s farm skills, Sky was given another 8-10 really good days.  Some of them were so good we had to restrain her from jumping to keep her from injuring herself.  Fortunately, they also happened to be days I was home.  Then the final downturn came.
Not feeling well...
Yesterday (May 16th) Sky once again began to bleed internally and became very weak.  Ginger and I both knew this was it.  I took her for one last walk.
Seeing me put my shoes on always excited Sky and this time it gave her a burst of energy that got her out the door.  A few stops later and we were off the deck into the grass.  There she lay down from exhaustion.  I grabbed a chair and sat down beside her.
It was a beautiful cool night of 75 degrees and a strong breeze blew through the trees.  Leaves rustling in the wind added a sound like that of waves breaking on a beach.  Behind us distant lightning from approaching storms flashed as lightning bugs randomly did so in front of us.  All the little critters sang their songs.  She loved it outside and together we sat there soaking up the moment and all the fleeting life around us.  An hour was gone in a heartbeat.
Front to back - Bair, Ace, and Sky
When we left the house the next morning, Sky couldn’t even get one foot into the car.  I lifted her up, tenderly trying to make sure her last hour on Earth was painless.  I have no idea how long I had gone without breathing, but when I sat down in the front seat I shut the door, let out a long deep painful sigh, and put the car in reverse.  That’s all I could do before my head collapsed into my hands.
We live in a country where not too long ago every family could expect to lose a child.  Today we have it so good many of us can’t handle the loss of a dog.  I’m ok with that.  The time will come that I will be over it and life will go on.  When I look back, I will be thankful that this wonderful little Border Collie, named Sky, was part of my life.  She made me feel more like a parent than I ever had before or ever shall again.  Her presence added purpose to an otherwise meaningless existence and we gave her the best home she could ever hope for in exchange.  She offered me love; I gave love back; and it’s true - we were pathetic.
What a wonderful dog she was.

****Thanks to my wonderful wife Ginger who brought this beautiful little girl into our home and took such good care of her.  You may have known her as "daddy's little girl" but I know she rarely let you out of her sight.

Ginger posted the following "lessons" online the next day.

Lessons from Sky:
• Find the place that welcomes you and call it home
• Be cautious of people; but love those who love you back
• Test the limits and find the boundaries
• Endure through the pain
• There are bad people in life. Rid yourself of them.
• Ask for attention – you’re worth it
• Scrappiness ensures you have food on the table
• Life really is all about you
• If you are excited about something, jump up and down and let the world know about it
• Run hard, play hard, work hard and then rest before doing it again
• If someone gets in your space, tell them about it
• Everything tastes better with cheese
• The middle child gets the hand me downs - but that’s alright
• Get a facial whenever you can (Gilmore would clean Sky's face every morning)
• Stay alert at all times
• Persistence is the key to getting what you want
• Go to the right, the left just doesn’t seem to work
• Call ‘em home at the end of the day
• Life is short, enjoy it to its fullest


David Parker said...

Damn it, Rich... this post made me tear up at work. And my guys aren't used to seeing their boss cry at work.

Ken Bittner said...

Damn Rich. You have such a way with words. You made me cry. I'm sorry for your loss.

Samuel W. said...

Man, it's dusty in here.

Well written Rich. Very sorry for your loss. Sounds like she was everything a good dog should be.

Jerry said...

Rich... it sounds like Sky brought a mindfulness to Ginger and your life; experiencing the moment... every moment. Sky couldn't have had a better family. Sorry for your loss.

Unknown said...

Rich - I understand so well. Lost my flying buddy, a Chocolate Lab named Koko a few years ago. Took five years before I could get another dog, and probably then, only because she found me. Now I can't watch TV without a lap full of pit bull (yeah, go figure, never thought I would own one). But I don't think it is possible to make this dog bite someone. Sorry for your loss, especially because it takes so long for the loss the heal over. I say, heal over, because it never does completely heal.

Marvin Haught

Unknown said...

Some years ago, after the loss of a German Shepherd who had been a part of my life for nearly 14 years, one of my readers sent me this missive... and now I'll leave it with you...

"God help me be the person my Dog thinks I am."

Take care, Rich... we're all the better because of those we love.


alex said...

Beautifully written, Rich.

Charlie Pyles said...


Now you made me miss my little buddy Buffy the Cocker Spaniel. I can relate to everything with Sky excpet Buffy was always loved and had only us for family before her time was up.

Charlie Pyles

Unknown said...

Thanks for the beautiful read.

Budd said...

Anyone who hasn't cried for a dog hasn't really tasted love, companionship and trust in their lives. And I feel sorry for them. Just as I feel for you and Ginger. We've all been there and done that, which doesn't help you. We always feel as if the one we lost is so unique, that their space will never be filled. And it won't be. No furry creature can equal the one we've lost. But the new one will create it's own space and own brand of love. And will be as unique as the last one. You were standing there, when I learned we'd lost our last one and you remember how distraught I was. It almost brought me to my knees. But, four days later the new one Shahn-deen joined our family and softened the grief over Nizhoni, whom we still love, but Shahn-deen has reminded us why we loved Nizhoni. The years of love are worth the long term grief. And the tears will always be only as far away as the memories. And that's a good thing.

David + Marji said...

Beautifully written - 10 yrs ago lost Aka to cancer (yes, also known as) and just 2 months ago Miss Petunia the Chi died. You wrote the sentiments so beautifully - thank you for reminding us of the Love these dogs give us ..

Anon said...

I'm really sorry about your loss. I think you will enjoy this, one of my favorites:

Unknown said...

A beautifully written tribute to a beloved family member. My sympathies to you and Ginger for your loss and thank you for allowing us to share in your love for Sky.

Anonymous said...

My condolences to both you and Ginger, Rich. I know how hard it can be when you lose that special family member. And it sounds like Sky was truly special.

(Oh, and by the way... after reading your story, the girls in the office now think I'm a total wimp. :))

BruceG said...

The most wonderful fur-bearing family members I've had over the years were the ones who adopted me, not the other way around. They are special. Someone once told me that the act of putting a beloved pet down takes their pain and makes it your own. I believe it, but would have it no other way. My heart aches with you and Ginger as I think of my my Merlin, Coco and Sandy who have gone before. Some day, I hope to be fortunate enough to share some more precious moments with another. He or she won't be the same, but will be a worthy successor.


Anonymous said...

Yup, made me tear up at work too...You write from the heart and it shows...

Unknown said...

Beautifully written Rich.
Don Duke
SSwift N9DB

Bob Waggoner said...

How great life would be if more humans care , loved , gave and lived like our dogs . Sorry for your loss. Thanks for giving a great friend an awesome home and life.

Bob Waggoner

Borkti said...

A beautifully written, beautiful post. I started to tear up reading it, and I am not prone to that.

Anonymous said...

Rich, as a dog lover with a very soft spot for Border Collies your story took me through all sorts of emotions, thanks for sharing. It's a wonderful account of what dogs are all about.

Ed Burke, Queensland, Oz