My dog, a golden retriever named General Custer, or as I called him, Custer, was not only a man’s best friend but my teacher, guru and the gentlest of souls ever to walk this earth. A month ago, Custer was diagnosed with a hemangiosarcoma tumour on his heart. The vet suspected something like that when he saw that his heart had become radically enlarged from only three months before. An ultrasound confirmed his suspicions.
Custer and I walked out of the veterinarian hospital, he labouring because he also had partial laryngeal paralysis which affected his breathing and I in that surreal state of mind one goes into when you have just been given some news that you can’t quite process. Six months earlier he had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I was witness to a higher level of courage than I had ever seen before.
I asked all the right questions. How did this develop? What will his life be like, is he in any pain, how will this end his life? I heard the answers but felt as though I were living someone else’s life, playing a role in a script written for an actor much better than I.
I helped him up into the back of my truck and looked into his eyes. His face had whitened considerably in the past few months and he reminded me of my father who had passed away only a year and a half ago. He too had heart and lung disease which made each breath a monumental effort. Dad made a brave effort and smiled grimly, hoping he would get better.
Looking into Custer’s eyes all I saw was love. He looked back at me with that trusting gaze, panting and, I believe, smiling in that way that dogs do. I asked him if he wanted a treat and right on cue his eyebrows raised in expectation and he stopped panting. I gave him one of his cookies and he swallowed it, barely taking the time to chew it. Custer loved his cookies.
I got Custer eight years ago. Through a bit of serendipity I went from last in line to first because someone who had first choice backed out. I really wanted a boy but said I would gladly take a girl. Now I had a choice and Custer was the first born, the largest and, gift of all gifts, a boy. Before he was born I met the people who owned his mother and they welcomed me to come see my dog as soon as he was born.
I first held Custer in the palm of my hands at three days old. And every weekend thereafter I visited him and watched him grow into a happy but headstrong puppy. I believe because I visited him so early and often that we bonded from a very early point in his life.
In point of fact we never were apart even though I had to travel at times and leave him with friends who also had goldens. He knew he was with family. I have been told dogs don’t really have a sense of time. While I was away he played with his dog pals. And when I returned his life resumed with me at his side. And that was fine with him.
Like a doting grandfather I had pictures of him and showed them to anyone who showed the slightest curiosity. I have one shot of him sitting on a shale rock that was just slightly submerged in water. The effect is that of a dog sitting on the water. Not only was he a gentleman, he could seemingly levitate.
Custer was the opposite of the alpha male. Practically every dog in the parks we visited would come up to him, do their sniffing and then try to hump him. He never complained, just looked at me as if to say “Dad…what are they doing?” in the most innocent voice. Often I had to pull the dogs off and they would climb right back on again. “What to do?” he seemed to say.
A week ago, it was clear to me that Custer’s quality of life had reached an unacceptable point. He wasn’t interested in his food; going for walks was a perfunctory chore and he just lay in the front hall, panting and sleeping. I had arranged for the doctor to come to the house so that Custer didn’t have to go into a sterile, cold environment.
The doctor and his assistant took great pains to assure me that this was the right decision. They explained what they were going to do and what to expect. Custer was given an anaesthetic which allowed him to drift off to sleep. I was lying on the floor with him, my arms cradling his majestic head and stroking his back, feeling the softness of his golden coat. His breathing was slow and relaxed. The vet came back ten minutes later and administered the medicine which would stop his heart. Within seconds Custer let out his final breath, a peaceful sigh that brushed my cheek.
It was over. The last week I have spent being busy, interrupted by breaking down into uncontrollable sobbing. Emails and phone calls have been endless. Custer’s presence was both extensive and well loved.
I am not a religious man but I am trying to maintain a spiritual perspective on things. Custer helped me see things that way. To him, life was. If it was raining it was raining. If he was being humped he was being humped. He loved and there were no strings attached…it was good if there was the odd cookie though.
We humans like to get attached to people, animals, things. I have to let him go. He came into my life and taught me what I needed at the time. I believe we all are a form of energy which fills our human form, propels us through this existence, and then moves on as we leave our bodies behind. Custer’s spirit is now travelling through the universe on another adventure. I have my pictures and memories to remind me of our time together. His epitaph reads: Custer, a gentle giant who gave me the gift of humility.
“Custer In The Water ” Tim Heintzman
“Custer” – Taylor Heintzman Green