On Sunday, at around 8:30 a.m., I held our dog Nova’s face in my hands, told her I loved her and that I was sorry I couldn’t do more, and hugged her as a veterinarian euthanized her. She was 7 years old.
Nova woke Taylor and me up that morning crying and panting heavily. I thought she just really had to pee, so I walked her outside, where she was limping so badly she could barely squat. She was arthritic and had hip dysplasia, so my next thought was that she was having an arthritis flareup. Maybe she ate something that made her sick. But she was still panting and not taking any medicine, so we decided to take her to the ER. It all came on so suddenly. She was fine the night before, when she was happily playing with some houseguests staying with us for the weekend.
Within 30 minutes, the vet had a diagnosis: hemangiosarcoma, an extremely aggressive type of cancer that forms in the heart or spleen and is common in German Shepherds. In Nova’s case, the cancer caused fluid to leak into the protective sac around her heart, which was what caused her pain and excessive panting. Even if we chose to extract the fluid, the vet gave her three to four months to live, and the fluid would likely just come right back as soon as the next day.
After a tearful conversation, we made our decision. A few months left with her in unbearable pain would be no way for her to live, and would be selfish of us to inflict upon her.
And so, just as suddenly as that big, goofy, hairy white German Shepherd entered our lives, she left.
When Taylor and I brought Nova home, I wasn’t sure I wanted another dog. We were deep in the throes of wedding planning and in the middle of combining our stuff over to a new apartment. Plus, I had already grown attached to Opal, Taylor’s rat terrier/Chihuahua mutt. Adding another dog into the mix would complicate things.
Opal riding shotgun.
As soon as Taylor asked me if I would be OK if we took in an underweight, anxious, very hairy white German Shepherd, I had my doubts. My first concern was how much money it would cost to get her back into shape, and then to keep her in shape. And I wasn’t wrong — Nova’s arthritis painkillers alone cost around $100 a month, besides food and other routine vet visits.
But then I carried her up the stairs that first day we took her home because she was too scared (or too weak) to walk up herself, and she looked at me with what I swear was a look of gratitude, and it was all over. I was in this dog’s corner, no matter what.
She came to us about 20 pounds underweight, anxious and scared of her own shadow. After a lot of vet visits and food monitoring, she got back to her regular weight of about 75 pounds. She was still scared of plenty of things, despite her size — she was a giant chicken, frightened of thunderstorms and the baby gate in equal measure.
Nova’s first day with us in Austin.
She wasn’t scared of other dogs or other people, though — often to a fault. The sight of me walking both Opal and Nova every day caused many other dog owners to cross the street, terrified that Nova would attack their dog. She would bark at them, but in a friendly way (I’m sure every dog owner says this; in this case, it was true).
Her bark was gruff and loud. Coming from a big dog with a hunched arthritic back, she probably looked menacing. But she was truly a gentle giant who just loved playing with other dogs, if they would let her. You’d think she was part cat with the way she would rub up against people’s legs, begging for attention.
We spoiled her to the point of no return. We got her an orthopedic bed for her to sleep in the first night she was home so that it would be easier on her bones; she promptly sat down right next to it and slept on the floor instead. I would cajole her throughout the night to go sleep in her bed; she eventually relented.
This was one of a handful of times she actually stayed in her bed the whole time.
If you think all of this is too much to write about a dog, I would have told you the same thing not too long ago. It’s weird, writing all of this about a dog we only really had for about two years. But she was a great dog. She truly was one of my best friends, as absurd as that is to say. I wasn’t planning on getting attached to her so quickly, but she took a liking to me that I didn’t understand.
And no matter how many times I got mad at her for knocking over the trash can and eating garbage, or for eating other dogs’ poop, or for stopping to smell every. single. thing. on a walk, she was always ready to see me every day and always made a beeline straight for me whenever I came home. You ever want an example of pure unconditional love on this earth, get you a dog.
One of the first times I brought Nova to work.
I’ve always liked dogs, but I was never really a dog person. Side effect of moving around so much that we had to let my first (and only) childhood dog Cochise the cocker spaniel stay with my grandparents when I was around 8 years old. I was thousands of miles away when he died when I was 16 (frankly, he probably should’ve been put out of his misery much earlier). So, at 27 years old, this is basically the first real pet loss I’ve ever really had to deal with. And it’s been rough.
Cochise the Wonder Dog, circa 2001(?), may he rest in peace
Nova was there for a lot of transitionary points in my life. Marriage. Moving to another city. My first experience with unemployment (Nova, Opal and I took a lot of walks that month and they sat by me in front of the TV a lot as I played video games after mornings spent job searching).
Death is inevitable, and I knew hers would probably be because of a health issue, but having it happen so suddenly feels like theft. Every time I sweep white hair off of some clothes, I feel a pang. The void she left in our lives is palpable.
But our lives were made richer because of her. Every time she chased a squirrel, every time she played fetch by pouncing on a toy and running gleefully around the house, every time she would poke her head into a room just to check on you to make sure you were all right was a joy. She wasn’t a person, but she definitely had a personality.
Animals are gifts, and we should take care of them accordingly on this earth. And we did all we could for her, and there was nothing we or anyone else could have done to prevent her death. To anyone who ever helped us watch her or take care of her: Thank you.
And as many times as we took care of her, she taught us a lot, too. Namely:
Stop and smell the flowers every once in a while
Sometimes, one’s bark is worse than one’s bite
Long walks are good for the soul
Protect the weak (in her case, Opal, who is not weak but is not as strong as Nova was)
Everyone needs love
On Sunday, in a full-circle moment, I again carried Nova down a flight of stairs. It was hard being with her there at the end, but it brings me peace knowing her last night on this earth was spent doing what she loved the most: playing and showing off and getting a ton of attention from everyone she saw. She was so loved. Rest easy, sweet girl.
This post originally appeared in the June 7 edition of my newsletter. Sign up to subscribe here.