Thursday, February 19, 2015

Henry 1997-2015

Today was the last day we’ll pet Henry.  He died peacefully, in his own bed, under sedation, with bacon on his breath and our hands in his fur.  It was all we could think to give him and the very least he deserved.

Henry was a very good boy.

The truth is I didn’t choose Henry, I received a call from the floor of the Houston shelter telling me he had to be chosen.  There had been eye contact, and that was it.  Annoyed, I mumbled something like “If you love him, I’ll love him” and went back to work.  I arrived home to a puddle of vomit full of worms and a dog so dirty it looked as if it had been dipped in wax.  There was a small “woof” from this instant watchdog, so I bent down on one knee and stuck out my hand. There was eye contact, and that was it.

A long medical road later he was a prince of the unofficial Houston bayou dog area off Montrose. He loved to chase a ball, stop where it landed and wait for me to come over and throw it again.  He loved being chased in those days.  He could not be caught.  Not by Greyhounds, not by Whippets, not by Rat Terriers.  He had enough speed to outrun the quick dogs and enough quickness to evade the fast dogs.  He’d run three miles, five, fast as you’d care to run it.  

He never learned tricks. Tricks were beneath him.  Instead he learned-or perhaps revealed at his own pace-how to be a fairly well behaved human person, a standard to which he usually held himself and always expected to be treated.  He was the perfect watchdog; a single bark from somewhere in the apartment when a stranger passed the door.  He learned to stay away from people who were eating and taught me I had a certain way of taking the last bite of my dinner and placing my fork down, marking the end of dinner and the beginning of his rights to the leftovers.  

That was something I didn’t know about myself, and of course it was one of a thousand things he taught me about myself, and life, and animals, and other people. If I end up being anything like a decent father it will be due in large part to lessons Henry taught me.  Lessons about patience and perspective and the shame of losing your temper with the powerless.  And forgiveness, just the endless forgiveness.  And how sometimes helping a loved one means things are going to get really, really gross but in the end it doesn't kill you and anyway that’s what soap and laundry and the garbage are for.  

He kept me from the bottom of so many holes and out of at least half the trouble I would have otherwise got into.  He woo-woo-woo’d encouragement at the most jubilant points in my life, not caring what the occasion was, just that he was fully participating in the celebration.  

He was Mutt Healthy once he cleared what he had picked up in the streets and the shelter.  As a younger dog, he once figured out a way to get a five pound box of fudge off a fireplace mantle while everyone was out.  We returned to an eight foot by ten foot room with a newly brown floor, wall-to-wall, but a sleeping, not comatose dog who was ready for action the next morning. He loved to lay out on snow drifts. He hated rain.  Hated, hated rain. Eventually, an X-ray for a dental exam revealed a grapefruit sized tumor on his spleen.  Surgery to remove it revealed other, smaller tumors.  After that, we knew our time with Henry was borrowed and we just had to enjoy it as long as it lasted.  That was five years ago. Cancer took a leg.  Age took the vision in one eye. Recently, most of the rest of his vision and hearing left.  He was a tough cookie these last few months but it’s been a while since he’s been able to do any of the things he enjoyed.  He never complained.  

Today the house call vet asked if I wanted to spend more time with his body once we wrapped it in his warm green blanket and tucked it in a Henry-sized wicker basket with handles. I told her I didn’t, it wasn’t him.  Henry was not the crazy scruff and the eyebrows,  the mohawk and the beard and the prance-prance-prance.  Henry was *Henry*, the personality. He was the dog people crossed the street to meet.  Clipped to a parking meter or tree, there was no trip into a store so short he wouldn’t have someone scratching his ears upon your return.  At stoplights windows would lower so people could yell their recognition of the fact he was clearly not restricted to the back seat, just being chauffeured.  He loved a bar that opened onto the sidewalk where he could lay on the warm concrete, spoiled by a parade of bar patrons out font for a smoke.
That quality is one of the reasons I am writing this-that, and not knowing what the hell else to do with myself for the rest of an afternoon like this, that included this. About the third or fourth time you hear “It’s Henry! Hi, Henry!” yelled from a passing car or across a busy street by people you have never met, you realize you are not in a traditional Dog/Owner relationship.  Because of Henry’s personality and people’s reaction to him, I don’t feel I was Henry’s owner so much as the guy lucky enough to be chosen as caretaker of a knee-high, national cultural treasure.  So many people loved him. He brought a lot of smiles into the world and made literally thousands and thousands of people happy for a few seconds here, a few seconds there as they passed him on the street. All that happiness, added up?  It is a stunning achievement for any lifetime.  

I was so, so lucky to know him. So, so lucky to be the guy who got to be his best friend for all these years.  
We all lost a good one, the best one, today.