I’ve dreaded this moment from the first instant I saw those two puppies fourteen and a half years ago.
I didn’t want them. I knew how dogs change your life. They have to be fed and walked. Played with. They’re always in a good mood. Always full of love, so when you’re not, you feel guilty until they’ve made you feel better. They insinuate themselves into your life in a thousand ways. You love them in a way that you don’t love your parents, siblings, spouse or kids. Not better or stronger, just different. And you will outlive them. Knowing all this, it is no wonder I paused at the top of the driveway and blinked hard. The kids wanted them. Laura wanted them. Alison wanted to name them after dogs past. Adam and Cameron were enthralled with the Greeks. The little sister was no match for the boys. The dogs were to be Atlas and Apollo. End of story. Beginning of story.
Burt was painting houses. Living here in exile from San Diego and Oahu. He was like that painter on Murphy Brown: indispensible on so many levels. He was engaged in one Sisyphean task after another. Jobs that never ended, or melted into one another. He shepherded those dogs from hand to chair to crate.
Steve was living here too. Also a dog guy, he knew it was important for them to have company, love and exercise. Laura and I were busy outside the house. Our brothers largely raised those dogs for the first year.
Part of the rescue deal is neutering. Burt got a wry look on his face when the boys returned from castration. “Nutless and Noballo, welcome home!” We’re still laughing.
Black and white, like those Ralph Lauren dogs, Atlas and Apollo were rambunctious, sweet, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand puppies. They were full of life, chasing chipmunks, tennis balls, squirrels, or laser-pointers. Trotting up the deck stairs, each proudly holding an end of a (dead) three-foot black snake in their mouths. Was that the Lab half or the Border-Collie half? Atlas had the Border-Collie traits. A girl at the pet rescue place observed, “He got the good blood.” He was the brains of the operation. Apollo, bigger and more densely built dog had more Lab traits. A waterdog. A hunter. A huge heart.
They ran like the wind, and wore a path from the driveway, around the railroad tie wall and up into the wooded backyard, usually with one’s mouth around the other’s neck. They growled and barked and nipped at each other constantly. If you didn’t know they were playing, you’d have thought they were trying to kill each other as loudly as possible.
I was able to keep them out of my heart through the first year. Between Steve, Burt and Cameron, they were held constantly. Like Alison, I don’t think their feet touched the ground during that first year. But then Burt moved back to Hawaii, Steve moved back to Ohio, and the dogs got too big for the shared crate. They began to howl at night, so we let them come upstairs, they would, however, under no circumstances, sleep on the bed. Ever.
They were rascals. Atlas was the alpha, but when it came to scamming food, Apollo had no equal. Just when we had convinced ourselves that he would forever be in Atlas’s thrall, we came home one evening to find Apollo in the great room, perched on the forbidden couch, high up enough to survey the groceries sitting on the kitchen island. We had apparently interceded in the nick of time.
One day we (very) mistakenly left a chocolate cake mix (boxed, no less) on the island. We returned to discover he had somehow (how is a mystery that went to the grave with him) managed to climb up there, snatch the cake mix, and drag it to the living room where he opened the box, punctured the thick plastic bag that held the delicious chocolate powder, and proceeded to lick it into the white carpeting. Visitors always note the unusual Mexican tile that has been in that room since.
And so it went from 1999 through 2003. I had always traveled a couple of days a week for work, but in 2004 I started commuting to New York City at zero dark thirty Monday mornings, coming home on the last one out of LaGuardia Thursday night. While I was gone, Laura discovered the Chattahoochee National Forest and the series of trails therein. A wide exercise loop that runs along the river, and some dandy trails that give one a good sense that one is indeed in the Appalachian foothills. We started taking the dogs Saturday and Sunday mornings. There, we met some now longstanding friends. Dog people. Our boys, who had lived outside on the deck and in the heavily wooded backyard, were used to the woods, and having each other for company. They were therefore easily socialized into the river scene. Most of the dogs they encountered were also pretty social and with one notable exception where a canine of our acquaintance shredded Atlas’s ear in an inexplicable and unprovoked attack, the biggest worry was spooking a snake sunning itself around a blind corner.
When my commuting gig ended, and I started working out of the house, Atlas and Apollo became my associates. After sharing cereal and yogurt for breakfast, there was the morning walk, which quickly became a daily ritual—dogs like routine—we settled into the basement where the boys slept on their bed when not performing secretarial chores for me. (I began to refer to our walk as the Three Mile Tranquilizer since it made them sleep and let me work.)
That walk became (and remains) ritual. The highlight of everyone’s day, canine and human alike. It is the friends there who are helping us through this time of grief. They know what it means to lose a long term companion.
I’ve never met a dog that didn’t like to go in the car. I’ve heard of dogs whose only automotive trips were to the vet, and those dogs, understandably, hated to see the keys come out. These dogs were normal, though, and the car was a second home. They so completely ravaged my last car that I had to go to K-Mart and buy rubber backed bathroom rugs to salvage what little was left of the rear seat.
The years marched on, unnoticed except for new lines in the mirror’s face, and high school, college and law school graduations to mark the passing. Matt met Monica, and grandchildren were soon sharing the floor with Atlas and Apollo. Atlas was predictably aloof, surveying all from his perch. Call it the Ottoman Empire.
Apollo was hungry, and saw the small children as easy marks. Satisfied with licking a toddler’s hands and face clean, he was never far from those kids.
Young Cean shared his father’s relative indifference, but Baby Kier, taking after her mom, became fast friends with “the puppies.”
Essential to this story is that Apollo was our “special needs” dog. He had his first epileptic seizure while I was away. Laura says it was a doozy of a grand maul seizure. It happened at home. Then it happened at the river. We read up on Labs and epilepsy, and were not encouraged. He was about three, and we figured the days ahead were borrowed time. Phenobarbital became a staple of Apollo’s diet, and the seizures relented. Over a couple of years time we realized the medicine was aging him quite dramatically and consulted the vet. He said our choices were to take him off the drugs and watch carefully, or leave him on the sedatives and watch him age unnaturally. We opted for the former and got lucky. The seizures never returned with the previous frequency or devastation, but the damage was done.
At Thanksgiving 2010, Apollo had a major seizure following a particularly manic episode on the river trails. He recovered slowly, and by January was pretty much his old self, but a new pattern was emerging: manic episode, seizure, recovery (although not quite a full recovery). A roller coaster ride where each succeeding peak is lower than the last one, and each succeeding depression lower too. All told, a long story of decline.
In January of 2012, Apollo had a vestibular incident—vertigo. It didn’t look like any seizure I had seen, and after riding it out for far too long a time without the typical resolution, Monica and I rushed him to the emergency vet. They told us he would regain most of his balance, but the head tilt, a hallmark of vestibular disorder, would likely stay. Again, against all odds, Apollo rebounded and the head tilt went away. But his balance was never the same, and somehow, all this neurologic stress had robbed him of the lower body strength that made him a great swimmer and hunter. I thought he was in pain, but it turned out he really just couldn’t feel much below the waist.
His decline accelerated until all he could do was eat and take a slow walk. On July 13, 2013, at fourteen and a half, he had had enough.
So I offer this remembrance as tribute to a fierce watchdog and cuddly friend. We’ll see how his constant companion, Atlas, fares in his absence. Atlas, he of the “good blood,” has not experienced health issues until this year. He has lost most of his hearing. That’s a really isolating phenomenon for man or beast. Between his hearing loss and Apollo’s inability to climb up on the bed or the Dog Chair, they haven’t slept as bookends or interchangeable pillows much lately. Maybe that fact will help Atlas deal with the loss of a littermate who was not farther than the next room for a decade and a half.
I didn’t want these dogs. I knew what having dogs meant. Try as I did to stop it, these dogs got into my heart, and I’m paying for that now. I hope to come out the other side thinking that fourteen and half years of unconditional love was worth this hole in my heart that feels today as if it will never heal.
Rest in peace, Apollo. We miss you already.
Apollo Sinton 2/1/99-7/13/13
Apollo Sinton 2/1/99-7/13/13
Jon Sinton, Atlanta, July 14, 2013