Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rocket - a Tribute

This is the last photo taken of Rocket, taken last Saturday evening. The children in the photo are not mine. They are the children of friends who came over for dinner. I took the picture because it captured everything anyone needs to know about Rocket - he simply loved people. He loved his family, but he would show love to anyone wanted it. It was not uncommon for him to just walk up to someone sitting on the couch and lick them in the face for no apparent reason.

I don't even know where to start. My best friend died very unexpectedly yesterday. Rocket was not a human. He was a "defective" Rhodesian Ridgeback - a ridgeback without the ridge.

Please forgive the writing style. I seem to just be recalling random events from our life with Rocket, writing them down as they come to me.

It was a decade ago that I read Call of the Wild to my son. We read a chapter a night until we got through the whole book. For some reason, my son and I re-named Buck to be "Duck". It made us laugh. My son was 7 at the time.

By the time we finished the book, we both knew we wanted a dog. But, we both have asthma. We needed a dog who wouldn't cause allergy problems. I spent a lot of time researching dog breeds. We needed a non-allergenic breed. I wanted a fairly large dog rather than an overgrown hamster. We wanted a breed that would be good with children. We came down to a final list of breeds - Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Portuguese Water Dogs, and Weimaraners. We started looking around for breeders and dogs.

It was a grueling process, to be honest. When we finally found out that a breeder near Syracuse had an available ridgeback, the interviews started. It was more intense than buying a house and as personal as the pre-marriage counseling I remember from 25 years ago. At times, I wanted to just call it off and buy a dog at a pet store. But, from all of my research, I had decided I really wanted a dog from a breeder who would support us if we had any problems. And, after numerous phone calls, a contract arrived in the mail. A contract? To buy a dog? But, we signed the contract and sent a check to the breeder.

Rocket was born on 3/23/2001. He would be ready to go to his new home in late May of that year. But, already, we had a problem. We were going to CA for vacation for almost two weeks in June. We didn't want to put a puppy in a kennel, so we arranged to pick Rocket up after the trip.

We were so eager to get Rocket that we planned to drive to Syracuse as soon as we got off the plane ride home at the end of the trip. We flew home on a red-eye and our daughter wouldn't sleep, so my wife got very little sleep. We headed out on the six hour drive to Syracuse despite being tired. When we arrived at the farm where Rocket was born, we were immediately surrounded by what seemed to be a herd of ridgebacks. One of them had no ridge and we knew immediately that it was Rocket.

And, the last 9+ years have been an amazing blur, with Rocket as our constant companion. My daughter told us last night that she doesn't even remember life without him. I can't imagine life without him, to be honest.

Rocket was a lap dog - a 110 pound lap dog. I'm convinced he thought he was human as well. When we got a second Ridgeback a few years later, Rocket seemed miffed. Why did we bring a dog into the house? The second dog made Rocket share couch space. The second dog would take the best spot on the bed. She would eat his food. She just had no manners.

Rocket was also true to his hound heritage. Twice, while out running with me, he took off after a deer and hit a barbed wire fence at high speed, requiring a trip to the vet to get stitches. Another time, while running with my wife, he lost an encounter with a porcupine. That required another expensive trip to the vet.

Once, after I had just run a 5K race, my wife was walking Rocket back to the car and he saw a squirrel. My wife ended up on the ground as Rocket took off after his "breakfast". Another time, a groundhog barely escaped with his life after Rocket got between the groundhog and its den.

Rocket was big and scary looking to people who didn't know him. But, he had the sweetest soul of any dog I've ever known. If you were a wild animal, he might have bad intentions towards you. If you were a human, after a few barks, the biggest risk was an unexpected kiss on the face.

Rocket never developed great dog manners. He was fine with humans, but not realizing that he was a dog, he wasn't quite sure how to play with other dogs. Mostly, other dogs were annoying to him. He wanted to be with his humans.

My wife tells me that when I traveled, Rocket would sometimes sit on the couch, watching the driveway and waiting for me to come home. This would go on for days.

Rocket loved to be on trails. He would run with me on trails and dirt roads. My son and I once did an 18 mile hike on a bike path with him. Once, Rocket and I hiked straight up Sugarbush's most difficult ski trail in the autumn, before the snow started to fall. During hunting season, I would put fluorescent colors on him so that hunters would (hopefully) realize that he wasn't a deer. Trail running here in Vermont in the autumn is one of my favorite activities. The trails are usually dry, the bugs are gone, and the smell in the air reminds us that winter is coming. Rocket couldn't wait to go on these runs.

As Rocket got older, his endurance seemed to wane. It happens to us all, as I can attest. He also tolerated heat less well than in his younger days. Rocket hated water, yet he would sometimes jump into a pond or roll in a stream to cool himself off during a longer or warm-weather run. Then, we'd have to clean him off before he could go back into the house.

I talked to Rocket's breeder this morning by e-mail. This is part of the message she sent back to me:

"I know how your family is grieving right now. Try to remember all the funny, wonderful things about Rocket and know that eventually time will turn the grief to warm memories. Not soon, but it will happen. Please pass on to your family my heartfelt Thanks for giving Rocket such a wonderful life and so much love."

I could probably write a book about all of those memories. And right now, I'd spend all of that writing time with tears in my eyes.

Rocket was fine yesterday afternoon, or at least he seemed to be fine. But, when we got home from my daughter's soccer game, my wife notice him lying in the grass in the backyard. Rocket never laid down on the grass. My wife called to him and he didn't respond. We hurried outside, knowing something was wrong. He was breathing, but he wasn't responsive at all. His eyes were rolled back in their sockets a bit. My wife wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew. I didn't know why it was happening, but I knew what was happening and I told her "He's dying." I didn't want to believe it, but I was sure it was true.

We called the vet. I knew that it would be a trip in vain, but the vet agreed to meet me at the office. We loaded him into the car and I took off for the office. Suddenly, while driving, it all hit me. I was in tears. I actually yelled at Rocket a couple times, asking him what I would do without him. I still don't know the answer to that question.

By the time we got to the vet's office, he was gone, and he took a little bit of everyone's heart with him. Or, maybe a lot of everyone's heart.

He was a mischievous dog. He would steal food from the counter or get into the garbage any time he had the chance. He would sneak upstairs and eat the cats' food. He chewed up slippers. He chewed up my son's glasses when he was a puppy. We would yell at him every time, but he didn't seem to notice. I'd give just about anything just to yell at him one more time.

I hope he knew that we loved him as much as he loved us. What more could anyone ever want from a pet but undying love?

Rest in peace, my friend.


Tania said...

my heart just aches for all of you.

Moo Bishop said...

RIP Rocket. There is nothing better than a good dog, and nothing more difficult than losing one. I am so sorry for your loss.

Laurel said...

Sorry for your loss Damon. It is kind of nice to think that Rocket was happy and well one day and gone the next. So often, aging dogs decline over many years and their last days aren't always happy ones. I'm glad you had so many good times with Rocket and that he had such a loving family.