A small soul passed from the world last Tuesday, a tiny spark of love and joy winked out, when our little wirehaired dachshund Pepper suffered a heatstroke and died.
Hers was such a little life. Even in doggy terms there were no great challenges, no great accomplishments, not even puppies of her own. She once chased a bear ten times her size up a tree. Maybe that counts? Mainly, though, she was just a companion.
Such a little life. So why does its ending leave such a big hole?
Pepper loved to go for rides in the car. Next to her own name and her several nicknames, the sound of which could always set her tail to wagging, the word “ride” was the one she knew best. I only had to say it once to bring her scampering out of our bedroom to wait for me to open the front door.
This past Tuesday was no exception. She hadn’t been feeling well the night before, Kathrin tells me, and in the morning she uncharacteristically left her regular treat lying untouched on the livingroom rug. But when she heard “Pepper, want to go for a ride?” she was there at the door in a flash waiting for me to lead her out to the car.
It was on that brief trip around town through the early morning heat that I first noticed how labored her breathing had become. Arriving home, I called her vet and made an appointment. The earliest they could see her was 1 that afternoon.
I brought her in at the appointed hour. As I was walking her from the car to the veterinarian’s office door, she stopped and lay down in the dirt to one side of the walkway and began to, well, cry. It lasted only a moment, then we went in out of the midday heat.
Pepper was patient throughout the exam, as she always was — she liked Dr. Dubensky. I held her head and scratched her ears, talking to her and comforting her while he listened to her heart. Even if I could have known that would be the last time I’d see her in this life, I don’t know what I could have done more.
The doctor said he’d like to take a chest x-ray and observe her for a while — could I come back in a couple hours? I said sure, and left. That simple.
When I returned, I had to wait a long time. When the doctor finally did come in, he told me that Pepper had passed away. “Passed away.” Not the language one usually uses for a dog. But I think he knew how special Pepper was to us.
He showed me the x-ray and an electrocardiogram: Pepper’s heart was enlarged, and her lungs were inflamed. Her heart nearly filled her little ribcage on the x-ray, her EKG spiked wildly. But in the end — and even though she’d spent most of her days in our air-conditioned house, often lying in my bedroom closet on my shoes — it was this past week’s brutal heat that killed her.
Her heart had stopped twice at the vet’s. The first time they’d administered CPR, put her in a cool bath to lower her temperature, intubated her, brought her back. The second time happened just as I walked through the door. The long delay before the vet would see me was because they were working to revive her again, but this time without success.
I know they did all they could, and that she was in the one place where she had the best chance to live. But I wish, if she was destined to die anyway, that she could have done it at home, surrounded by familiar things and by love.
I only pray she wasn’t too scared there at the end.
I left the vet’s carrying a small cardboard coffin. It felt oddly heavy. She’d never seemed to weigh so much in life.
Kathrin and I gouged a shallow hole out of the hard Pennsylvania soil, down in the wildflower garden behind the pool, where she’d always loved to roam what Kathrin called her “Revier” — her “hunting ground.”
I brought the box down and opened it. Took her in my arms and held her one last time. Together we wrapped her in her green blanket and lowered her into the earth. Scattered a few petals over her, and tossed in two of her favorite chew-toys. Shoveled in the dirt.
Kathrin set a little clump of specially-bought flowers by her head. I tried to sing a verse of “Now the day is over,” but my voice kept breaking. As the sun went down, we lit two candles and placed them on the little grave.
Pepper’s candles burned long into the night.
Now that she’s gone, I can’t stop thinking about the night Pepper first came into our lives. A night that began with a long trip from Milford to Boston, to meet the late-evening flight from Frankfurt to Logan.
By luck, Kathrin’s sister’s son Lucas had been visiting family in Germany for the summer, and Kathrin was able to arrange the logistics to bring Pepper from the farm of her breeder Herr Schultz on the eastern border of the country, through stopovers at friends’, down to meet Lukey in time for his return home. We’d shipped him a small-dog carry case that fit under the seat, and Pepper rode with him on into the night all the way to America.
Kathrin’s sister Susanne still remembers the look on my face when Lukey handed me the case, and I opened the flap to see the puppy stick her head out and look around. We drove back home from Boston through the night and into the morning, the puppy sleeping nestled in Kathrin’s embrace.
That was ten years ago, back in August 2002. At the time, in the aftermath of the dot-com crash, I had been out of work for a year. Two months later, I had a new job.
Pepper was our luck.
As she grew older, Pepper’s youthful enthusiasm for other dogs waned, muting to a polite standoffishness. Her unbounded delight in people never did. I suspect the reason was that, through her lifelong membership in the DeSmedt pack, she had come to think of herself more as a person than as one of her own species.
As regards that species — more properly, breed — wirehaired dachshunds are definitely different. Dachshunds are hunting dogs (the German word literally means “badger hound”), and the story goes that the standard, smooth-haired variety were forever getting cut up chasing through the brambly undergrowth after foxes and such, so back in the 19th century German breeders had the bright idea of crossing the smooth-hairs with Dinsdale Terriers to endow them with a tougher coat.
They got more than they bargained for: Along with that coarse, bristly coat came an antic terrier disposition.
Pepper had this in spades. She was the only dog I’ve ever known to display a (rudimentary) sense of humor. Sometimes, if she saw me heading for my favorite chair with a cup of coffee, she’d run and jump into and then stare at me as if to say, “Thought you were going to sit down, eh? Guess again.”
She also had a knack for making up her own house rules. After a while, she decided that, when I went to the fridge to get some ice for a drink, that meant it was time for a treat. It didn’t matter how quiet I’d try to be, either. The least tinkle of ice in the tumbler and I’d turn around to see her sitting there, patiently waiting.
She always seemed like a puppy to me. It wasn’t just her small size, it was the joy she took in life: To watch her burrowing through the drifts after winter’s first snowfall, or racing headlong through green springtime woods, or eagerly anticipating her morning ride, or just sitting quietly surveying the Delaware Valley from our deck – you got the feeling the world was always fresh and new to Pepper.
And she never seemed to lose her puppylike trustfulness.
Kathrin always used to refer to me half-jokingly as “Pepper’s father,” as though she were more a daughter than a dog. As I say, half‐joking.
Kathrin said to me just now that she thought Pepper had made us better people, made me a better person — calmer, anyway. Pepper didn’t like it when I’d get upset or angry: she’d run to her bed and hide under the pillow. Eventually, her reaction pretty much broke me of the habit.
She was sweet and merry and gentle and loving. How can those qualities simply vanish from the universe and leave not a trace behind?
I’m not sure they do.
The house has become so empty without her. I keep thinking I’ll turn a corner and see her sitting on the couch, like a little lady posing for a portrait. I can’t go to the fridge for ice without imagining I’ll turn around and there she’ll be, waiting on that treat.
I know the sovereign remedy for the loss of a beloved pet is supposed to be “new dog, same breed.” Somehow, I doubt I’ll be doing that anytime soon. I’ve already had simply the best dog I could ever have had, you see.
Facing a far greater loss with the death of his wife Joy, Clive Staples Lewis found that grief felt like fear. In my much smaller and doubtless much sillier way, I find that this sadness feels like boredom, like dullness, listlessness, exhaustion, leaching all the light and joy out of life.
I really have to stop now. But I can’t stop thinking about our Pepper.
Hers was, as I say, just a little life, almost a toy life, of no particular consequence in the grand scheme of things.
But the love — that was real. Still is, always will be.
An Addendum and an Appeal — July 22, 2012
Well, if you’ve read all the way down to the end, you must really like dogs.
Operating on that assumption, I’m going to impose on you a bit more, by asking you to consider making a small donation to the Pike County Humane Society. The volunteers there do great work — they’ve got an adoption rate of over ninety percent — but they’re financially up against the wall right now, staring an imminent shutdown in the face.