Sunday, July 11, 2010


We had our dog, Gunther, put to sleep in May. I wrote about it then but had already posted the story of Blindey the Chicken and thought it was too much morbidity in a row. So, after a nice respite, here's more animal death for ya. But go on and read - it has some redeeming parts too.

Fourteen years ago, I and my boyfriend at the time saw a pack of free puppies in a pickup bed at Walmart. While most of the puppies were rolling around and playing with each other, one laid against the wheel well, head up, poised like a lion, relaxed and cool even as a cozy fluff ball. He was the one I wanted. That nonchalant pose matched his personality, and whenever I saw him lying that way over his life, I thought back to our first day with him. He pooped on the floor of the pickup on the way home.

We all stood in the kitchen watching Gunther run around on the linoleum. I looked up at Dad, who'd been the lesser of the annoyed parents at our bringing home a dog, and Dad was smiling. He said something about Gunther being one of the cutest puppies ever, and he was right. Plus, he was the most wonderfully random addition to our family in awhile. And I do like random. He was part blue heeler, part rottweiler, part Sharpe. You could always feel a few rolls of extra skin underneath his strangely course, brown fur. He was enough heeler to chase the horses, but enough cat to not care exactly where he should herd them to.

Gunther came home a few times with barbed wire slits in his legs or claw marks on his body, having narrowly escaped a coyote or mountain lion. After one such incident, Hugh the Vet stitched him up good and put a white cone over his head to keep him from scratching or nibbling at the sores. One of our clearest family memories of Gunther is him chasing the horses through the pasture with that cone on his head, looking like a flower in a children's play. 

Gunther always maintained a certain detachment, obedient only if it suited him. I had him for a couple of months, before I left home for the summer and was then off to college. He slept cuddled into the covers with me. I failed to potty train him (because I didn't know what I was doing), and whenever he wanted to, he'd go on the floor if he didn't feel like going outside. It was maddening. I always felt guilty for abandoning him so young and wondered if every one of his indoor poops was delivered with a side of resentment for me. Not that this household was a bad place to be left. He became David's dog and would sleep on his bed whether David was home or not. He was most happy when David was home.

I didn't feel much sadness in having to put him down, somewhat because his health was failing, but somewhat because his catlike ways sort of bugged me. In fact, I felt eerily unmoved throughout his actual day of reckoning. I was only fearful of being there for it, because my emotions were a little raw from a series of upheavals, some self-inflicted like too much travel. But it has become a family tradition that whomever's around goes together when we're ready to let our dogs go, and we stand in a circle over the dog and say our goodbyes. We cry a lot. We crack jokes. It's easier on everybody that way. Then we watch the vet give the injection, and we pet the dog and cry over him for several minutes after they've listened for the heartbeat and said, "He's gone." We bring him home and bury him under the big tree.

And even though I knew how it'd go, that day the fear started lifting only when I helped Dad dig the hole. I guess it was in the doing something that I stopped being paralyzed by fear. Plus, when I saw how sad Mom was, I knew I could make it through - for her. When the moment came, I gave Gunther a good scruffle and hug and a couple of tears. Luke lifted Gunther onto the table, and we all surrounded him.

There was another layer of sadness to this letting go. My parents had had the same veterinarian for years and years; Hugh had dealt with all of our pet-related needs, including coming to our home to put down several horses. Tragically, he died last year in a plane crash on his 50th birthday. This was our first animal death since his, and we more than ever missed his tenderness. The technician we had instead was in a hurry since it was the end of the day, and she must've been sick the day they covered "empathy, even feigned empathy" in school. All I wanted was for Gunther to be at ease, in death as he was in life. It took a little sedative and some helpful suggestions from the accompanying, more astute technician, and soon Gunther calmed down.

Heather held Zoralee, who waived very sweetly to Gunther when we asked her to tell him goodbye. She didn't seem alarmed by the proceedings, including our burying him. I thought about it ahead of time and knew I wanted her to be there, because it's part of life, death is. And this wasn't violent or gory, just sad. The next day when Mom gave Zoralee a treat to give to Molly, she said, "Gunther?" because she had always given him one first. We told her Gunther had gone bye bye and gave her two treats for Molly. She still asks about him, over two months later, and when we say, "Gunther died, honey. Remember? Gunther went bye bye," she says, "Good boy, Gunther. Good boy," with a hint of sadness, and then goes about the day.

Recently we started reading a Little Golden book rendition of Cinderella. At the beginning, it tells of Cinderella's widowed father marrying another woman with two daughters so as to have a family for Cinderella. It says, "But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died." When I got to that line, Zoralee stopped me and said, "Gunther? Good boy, Gunther." Somehow, someway, she recognized that both Gunther and the father had done the same thing. She said it again when we read the story a couple days later. There are times I find myself staring at this child and not breathing.

So, Gunther. Yes, you were a good boy, most of the time, when you wanted to be, and I'll take the blame for what training you lacked. May your body rest in peace under the big tree in the yard with Rags, Sheba, and the memory of Job and Beth. May your soul sense that you are known and remembered, even by the littlest of us. And say hello to Cinderella's kindly father.


Elisha said...

Lori I just love to read what you write...its true. Makes you feel right here again :) While cleaning out my parents house before they moved we found another old roll of film that had photos of Beth and our men with long hair. Oh the days gone by!
Kids do understand so much more than we give them credit for...

Rena said...

Lori, you've captured the essence of Gunther here. What a sweet tribute to him! And to Hugh. My heart is still sad every time I'm at the vet clinic and he's not there, or whenever I think of him and remember his amazing care for our dogs and horses. If "Good Boy, Gunther" is in Heaven, maybe Hugh can read this to him :)

Rachel Clear said...

This was so precious, sis.

Even though you failed to mention that I was also with you and Aaron when you got Gunther (and I got pooped on as well, everyone seems to forget), but that's okay. The story was better without that part anyways.

I always liked Gunther the best, mainly because he was the least annoying (he and Sheba) of all of our other damned dogs that seemed to need constant attention, in between their rolling in horse crap and eating smelly things out of doors.

I'm glad he had Zoralee there at the end to give him pets and attention and unconditional love (though I know he got plenty of those from mom too). That's sad about the treat. But sad in a good kind of way.