You Are My Sunshine...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


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Leo and Thunder
On the Move!


I have been negligent of “Nico’s Story” over the summer and into the fall.  I’m not sure why; perhaps it was more important to just be with Thunder as I felt all through the summer that his time was drawing to a close. We also had another senior to take care of, Leo, a 13 year old Akita cross.  Leo belonged to a friend of mine who had been battling cancer for years. Early in August she left her home, a small hobby farm not far from us, for the last time. I began caring for Leo many years ago, before the illness, tending him and the other farm animals when my friend went travelling.  Thunder came with me when I went to do the work and after feeding and cleaning up after the other animals, I took them for walks together.

He and Leo were both in their prime then. Akitas, like Malamutes, are strong minded, and status oriented.  They can be fierce, and troublesome with other dogs.  But Leo was very smart and good natured to the core.  Thunder has always been  an excellent communicator. Leo learned very quickly  how to be with a dog like Thunder; he understood Malamute, and had a spirit of his own that earned Thunder’s respect.

A few years passed before my friend’s illness presented itself and then intensified.  She began having to spend more time in the city for treatments. Leo came here to stay with us while she was away.  By the time he came here for his final visit, ours was already his second home, he and Thunder were old friends, and Nico and Benny well accustomed to his presence and the small changes in routine that went with it.

But Leo arrived in very poor condition. He was thirteen years old, had cancerous tumours himself, and in the confusion that attends the final days of a person in serious decline living alone he’d gone without pain killers.  He was anxious; I am convinced he knew his owner was terminally ill.  Then, in the short interval between his owner’s departure, and my being called to pick him up, he’d fallen and gotten trapped in a window well.  I found him there when I arrived at the farm, got help to hoist him out and brought him to our house. He was scared, exhausted and I thought, done for. But when I helped him out of the vehicle he took one look, saw where he was and marched, if not quite steady, right up the driveway to the front door.  He laid down on the grass like he was coming home, but didn’t move further.   I watched him puffing away and thought, “Well, we’ll see.”

Then Thunder came out of the house. He walked right over to Leo and seemed to say, “Leo, get up.  It's not over 'till its over.  Time to do business. Let’s not embarrass ourselves.”  So Leo got up, and they went down the trail. Not far, just far enough to keep up appearances.

By the next morning Leo was a different dog. He continued to grow in confidence and strength.  He put on weight and soon was announcing visitors if not intruders with that big Akita guardian woof.  It was clear to us that he was drawing assurance and strength of purpose from Thunder’s example.  Equally obvious was  Thunder’s enjoyment of  an addition to his pack who was so much closer to him in age and energy than the younger boys, Benny and Nico,  in the yard.  The old fellows gave one another space, but kept track of each other in every regard, including checking out bodily functions.

Leo soon established a guardian position on the hillside where he could watch all entrances to our property, the garage and the house.  Thunder meanwhile gravitated to a corner in the flowerbed at the back of the house where he could keep an eye on the youngsters  in the yard, the kitchen and of course the refrigerator, as well as Leo in his position up front.  Thunder eventually dug a hole back there; I knew then that he was telling me something important.

September came around, and we saw  both Leo and Thunder choosing to spend more and more time in the bedroom rather than out of doors.  Then one day I went in and found the two of them lying at the foot of the bed. Their heads were just inches apart and they were looking directly at each other. It was quite a picture – Akita, Malamute, two adult males who had not been raised together, but respectful and, if not overtly affectionate, certainly bonded.

It seemed to me that I had interrupted a serious conversation. I imagine it went like this: Leo says, “Thunder, you go first.  I’m scared.”  Thunder says, “Hey, how come I always have to go  first?”  Leo says, “Because you’re the Malamute.  Malamutes are never scared. They always go first. ”  Thunder says “Leo. You're Akita. Akita's aren't scared either."  Leo says, "Ah. You forget: I'm an Akita cross. The cross part is scared." Thunder says, "Oh. Alright. It's true. I’m not scared. I’ll check it out. When I come back for you, be ready.”  Leo says, “I’ll be ready.”

Thunder stopped eating at the end of September.  Our vet gave him the grace with dignity and without suffering on October the 2nd. We buried him in the spot he had chosen behind the house in those last weeks.  Leo went into serious decline shortly after. Meanwhile his owner had passed away and we attended her memorial service the following weekend.   Then one week later, on the14th of October, Leo went down and couldn’t get up. We called our vet; she explained what had happened to him, and eased his way.

After a while I was able to write to our vet, Dr. Rosemarie Bahr to thank her. I respect and admire Dr. Rose deeply. She does the hardest thing in the world with sincere compassion, gentle humanity and the absolute confidence we all need most as heartbreak beckons.  Not only did she come at a time of great inconvenience to her for Thunder, but was kind enough to do the same also for Leo although he was not in her long-time charge.

Because I don’t have a better way of describing how much it meant to us to have Leo in our lives, and in Thunder’s at this time, I share part of that letter here:

I find myself grieving Leo and Thunder together, and that is right and true.  For Leo ought to be grieved as every dog should, and he has no one left who would feel this sad at his passing. Thunder was the consummate pack dog, and is much happier  running in my heart with a partner  than alone. How fitting then, that he make this final journey with this, a friend of many years, who so easily embraced  the Malamute way, even while remaining entirely his remarkable Leo-self.

I have to be sad for a while.  Loss does that to you; it’s the price you pay for love.  But always, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  Sled dogs don’t go backwards, only forwards, and the final honouring of Thunder’s life and memory has to be in my doing just that, regardless of how heavy the load behind.

Forwards now.  Forwards.