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Good Night, Sweet Prince (In Memoriam)

September 19, 2011
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Murdock Laemmel – February 26, 1996 to September 19, 2010

My dog was a terrific sleeper. He wasn’t much of a retriever or a swimmer, but he was a terrific sleeper. He would jump up on my bed, take a quick survey of the rumpled terrain, bunch the comforter into a comfy pile, and plop himself down, settling in to an instant slumber. There he would lie, a self-warming water bottle, breathing rhythmically, snug at my feet. Enough to lull even a guilty insomniac to the restful sleep of the innocent.

We weren’t looking for a great sleeper when we found him, just lucky I guess. As far as my daughter was concerned we were looking for pretty much any dog. I was somewhat more discerning. I wanted a dog that was not too big, but not too small. Not too young (that we would have to train him) but not too old (that we would have to maintain him). Not too energetic, that we would have to run him three times a day, but not too lazy that we would be tempted to skip regular walks (for our own health and sanity). Not too aggressive, but not too meek. Not too common a breed, but not too exotic either. You get the idea. I wanted a particular dog. A dog I hadn’t met yet.

We found our dog not long after my daughter’s 8th birthday, at which point (according to her) she had been begging for 9 long years. Since her conception apparently. I wasn’t so easily won over because I didn’t have a dog growing up, didn’t have any pets at all actually, and a series of sadistic dog-owning neighbors had instilled in me a lifelong uneasiness about canine creatures. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was afraid of dogs – though many who knew me would. They’d be wrong. The truth is that I liked dogs; I was just convinced that they didn’t like me. So I avoided contact with them by training myself to pick up the delicate clinking of their metal dog tags from vast distances, so as to provide some advanced warning. I’m serious. It’s a sound that stands out for me to this day. In using their second most sensitive sense against them I managed to avoid many dog encounters before they could occur. Of course this meant I was easy prey for collarless dogs, but one seldom encounters them on the mean streets of suburbia. Over the years I got to know many dogs deliberately encountered, introduced by their masters at play dates or by non-sadistic neighbors. And we got along fabulously. But I remained weary until well into my adulthood. That is, until we met Murdock and I became a dog owner myself. In fact, my years with Murdock made me so confident that not long ago I actually broke up a vicious fight between two large and misguided retrievers. I emerged a bit shaken but unscathed. The dogs exchanged puncture wounds on the face and neck and both felt quite sheepish about it afterwards. But I digress.

Murdock was named after the crazy but lovable pilot in the original A-Team TV series. We didn’t name him, but soon saw that the name fit. He was fearless and loyal, and a bit nuts. We adopted him from a couple that said they had to give him up because he wasn’t getting enough attention or exercise. He was already 8 years old, well into middle age in dog years. In human years he was the same age as my daughter when we took him for a trial stroll around the grounds of the public library. I wasn’t sure what the real story was behind this couple offering up Murdock – a member of their family – for adoption. But now I can see that there comes a time when you have to make the decision of what’s best for your pet and the details aren’t really important. The couple had adopted him themselves as a puppy from a Brittany rescue agency. He was turned in because he had broken his front leg. The woman told us the story of how their original owners dropped the puppy while trying to load him onto a boat for a lake cruise. The result was a broken leg, so they returned him because he’d never be “right again” after that. She told the story as if she had witnessed the horror in person, with the resentment of a mother feeling the sting of her child’s rejection. The child she was now giving up for adoption.

So this is how we learned that Murdock was a pure bred Brittany, perhaps the runt of the litter as he was a bit small for his breed, tipping the scales at just under 35 pounds. Hearing incorrectly, and not knowing much about dogs, I thought at first that his name was “Britney” as in Britney Spears. No, no, his name is Murdock and he is a Brittany. He’s a boy! Oh, of course, that’s what that is down there… So I did a bit of research on Brittanys. They get their name from the Brittany region of France and are depicted “on the hunt” in paintings and tapestries from the 17th century. Commonly called gun dogs, they are working/utility dogs that can do it all; serving as pointers as well as hardy retrievers. Reserved barkers, Brittanys are typically orange or “liver” and white or roan colored. Murdock was mostly white with orange spots and orange ears with a white wishbone pattern on his forehead. Bred to an optimum size-to-strength ratio Brittanys are not so big as to unduly disturb the underbrush when on the hunt or require too much care and feeding, yet they have the strength and endurance for long pursuits. A website with advice on choosing dogs describes the breed in this way: “Typically quite athletic, compact, and solidly built without being heavy, their expressions are usually of intelligence, vigor, and alertness. Their gait is elastic, long, and free. Noted for being easy to train and sweet-natured. The breed is generally more sensitive to commands than other hunting breeds, and harsh corrections are often unnecessary. Brittanys are all around sound dogs, as they are excellent family pets as well as working dogs in the field.”

They are not a frequently seen breed nowadays. Golden and Labrador Retrievers are far more common. A little research reveals that the Brittany just squeaks in at the bottom of the list, at number 30, in the American Kennel Club (AKA) registrations for 2008. The remarks I would most often hear when the breed was recognized were, “Oh, my grandfather had a Brittany!” or from an older woman, “We had a Brittany when I was growing up!” or from a southerner, “My dad has a Brittany for hunting back at our farm in Georgia!”

There was some dispute as to Murdock’s age and birth date. If indeed purebred no one had bothered to keep proper papers. According to his veterinary records he was either born in April 1995 or February 1996 and was either 7 or 8 years old when we adopted him seven (or eight) years ago. He looked good though, and like his new master (I’d like to think) he had a dignified royal European bearing and for a long time defied his years. People would meet us on walks and think he was a puppy. He wasn’t a runner, but he could walk all day. I took him on some major hikes – even some overnight camping trips, each of us wearing backpacks – and we could conquer mountains. He’d sleep the whole drive home, a rest well deserved, his white fur caked with dust and his tummy (which had no fur) still pink with exertion.

Did I say I was his master? Only at times. I shared that honor with my daughter. She finally got the dog that she had begged for since conception. He was hers too. There’s a photo of the two of them in the tall grass not far from our house which captures Murdock in his prime and my daughter in her innocence. A girl and her dog: pure, requited love.

We were never a “dogs off the furniture!” kind of household, which was a good thing because Murdock loved to jump up on a bed, or a couch, or a chair to take a nap. Any place that was more comfortable than a cold hard floor. On the nights when my daughter and I were both home Murdock would make the trip from room to room, spending a couple of hours with her, then a couple of hours with me. Once, when Murdock was still young and agile, I had rearranged the furniture in my bedroom earlier in the day, reorienting the bed from due north to due east. The bed frame is about 4 feet high at the foot, while just a foot or two at the sides. I hadn’t considered that this would cause a problem for Murdock in his middle of the night commuting, but apparently he’s a creature of habit. Imagine my – and Murdock’s – surprise when, as I lie deep in blissful slumber, a 35 lb Brittany came flying over the four foot high wall at the foot of my bed. We were both wide awake after that.

Murdock was a lover, not a fighter, and most of the time he was pretty even keeled. But he could get feisty. When we first got him he would love to play a rambunctious tug of war. And he was hardwired to take off after squirrels and rabbits – though he never got close to catching one. Once, when we were visited by trashcan raiding raccoons in the middle of the night I sent him out to chase them off and then immediately regretted my careless decision. Those raccoons had vicious jaws and claws! Luckily they decided that discretion was the better part of valor and jumped the fence rather than turn and fight. Another time we were walking around the lake, as always off-leash because Murdock was a rebel at heart, and he wandered into the tall grass by the water’s edge. I lost sight of him and kept walking. In the distance I heard a yelp and then, like a wet bat out of hell, Murdock came tearing down the path. Despite his webbed feet he was never much for swimming, so I can only surmise that a frog must have pushed him in. At some point we stopped going to dog parks because Murdock would attempt “relations” with any breed, any size and any sex dog that would allow it – this despite the fact that he had been neutered many years before. You just can’t keep a good man down.

Eventually the years caught up with Murdock. His nightly commutes between my daughter’s bedroom and mine morphed into a “zone strategy” where he would pick a neutral middle ground and camp out hoping it would be sufficient to catch either of us if we should stir. Despite being ravenously hungry and a shameless beggar he began to lose weight even after we began to be more generous with his snacks. His daily allergy pills and monthly allergy “cocktail” injections became less important as we stopped taking the long walks that exposed him to his great nemeses: pollinating grass, elder trees and cat dander. In their place he started taking medicines to ease the burden on his enlarged heart, ACE inhibitors to relax his blood vessels by reducing the enzyme which tightens them and an inotropic agent which stimulated the dilation of his arteries. A diuretic was added to remove fluids and further relieve the pressure on his heart. When, despite all these medications, he began to cough and wheeze as his enlarged heart pressed against his esophagus, we added Hydrocone, a cough suppressant and opiate/narcotic. To top it off, we put ointment on his dry, flakey nose. None of these medications did anything for the cataracts that dimmed his vision and the arthritis that made him move so gingerly in the mornings.

Towards the end there were a lot of pills, a different mix for morning, noon and night. At times he seemed to be as happy and healthy as when we first met – the medications doing their job. At other times the same mix of medications – perhaps even a little bit more here or there – seemed to have no effect whatsoever. He would cough and pant deeply, expelling the darkest, dankest air from the bottom of his lungs. Like the air from a crypt tinged with pungent odors from his weakness for coprophagia (look it up). And from the other side would emanate noxious swamp gasses that could suddenly fill an entire room – the classic “silent but deadly.” He definitely made his presence known. There were times quite frankly, towards the end, when Murdock was simply not fun to be around. His coughing (which sounded like honking) may or may not have been painful to him, but it was excruciating for me to endure. Having started down the slippery slope of trying to fix his issues as they emerged we were conscious of retaining Murdock’s dignity and our sanity. Yes, with careful adjustment of his medications and regular monitoring of his condition with x-rays and ultrasounds he might well have lasted another year. But Murdock was no longer walking between his masters bedrooms at night, no longer playing tug-of-war and there were no more leash-less walks around the lake where the frogs were waiting for their chance to push him in. He would no longer meet me at the door when I came home. He was sleeping more and more, as if building up his stamina for the next long sleep.

It was somehow fitting that Murdock had an enlarged heart. In his case it was both literal and figurative. Never one to wander far from me or my daughter, as he got sicker he stayed even closer. Even when napping – which was most of the time towards the end – he would wake up to walk into the next room so that he could lie down again and nap closer to you. My daughter has spent half her life with Murdock. And in turn he has spent half of his life – probably the only life he could ever remember, with her. In his last year I spent a great deal of time alone at home with him, more than I had in any of the previous years. I think that comforted him. Dogs, like people, are social animals and he got to spend an awful lot of time with the leader of the pack. As a result I’d grown so used to his company that I feel his presence now whenever I am at home. And perhaps that is as it should be. Perhaps he is here, watching over me and my daughter. Or maybe he is sleeping his deep sleep of the innocents, secure in knowing that we are watching over him and that he is safe and warm and protected. Forever. We love you Murdock. Good bye.

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Hamlet, Act V Scene II (spoken by Horatio upon Hamlet’s death)

Rebecca and Murdock – Larson Lake, Blueberry Fields (Bellevue, Washington)

From → Other Writings

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