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Losing Our Real Boy

He's not a dog, he's our real boy.

Choked through tears, and in a childlike voice, I answered, “…” in response to the emergency vet asking where I got Colin. I was sitting in the parking lot of the emergency vet clinic after they'd taken him in on a stretcher. He wanted to know if he had contracted an illness from another country that might be causing all of the mystery symptoms. He was a rescue puppy. A litter of little Lab Pointers who were the result of two neighboring farm dogs having a midnight tryst. I’d been looking for a puppy for Theo since we went from working at home to having to commute to desk jobs in 2012. Leaving Theo alone all day didn’t seem fair and aged him quickly. His beautiful “regal beagle” brown and white face immediately became covered in more and more white. The hunt for a friend for Theo began. We lost out on a Great Dane puppy when a woman in line to meet him forcefully pushed me out of the way at the shelter; other pups just didn’t seem right. And then I saw little Colin on He was Chocolate and Vanilla just like Theo. The same markings. White socks and a white tipped tail. August 11, 2002, I rushed to claim him at the pet store in Modesto, and two weeks later after his boy parts were removed, we got to take him home.

When he was just a tiny little nugget, I was allowed to bring him to work with me at K&L. I had a giant dog bed for him that I would transport him in. I would point to the middle and say, “Taco Burrito time!” and he would get in the middle and I would fold the bed around him like a taco and carry him to and from the car. He was so little, I used to call him Little Bit. I'd never had a puppy before. I didn't know the large bumps on his legs were his knees. I didn't have the heart to crate train him, and even when I tried he was hysterical, so it was a struggle to figure out what was best for him, and keep him out of mischief (as evidence to the gnawed on doors in my bedroom from when I tried to lock him up for a bit).

The first two years were a bit of a blur, but a few stories are still ones that I’ve told regularly. When I bought and moved into my house in Oakland in 2011, my dad and I designed and built a fence in the backyard with steel cables going horizontally across, about five inches apart, and five feet tall. We have two backyards. An upper one, and then on the other side of the fence a yard fifty feet below that is outlined by a creek and is completely open. It has a steep hill covered in ivy, a giant ancient Oak, and Redwood trees. This fence kept Theo securely in the yard, and gave us an unobstructed view of the Oakland wilderness. When Colin was just a little guy, I came home from work one day, and found an old, old, old spray paint can behind the couch. It was nothing I’d ever seen or used before. Around the same time my neighbor, who I didn’t have a good relationship with because she’s not a dog person, told me that our dog was getting out. “That’s not possible.” I vividly remember saying. By then Colin was about thirty or forty pounds, and no way he was getting through those tight wires, but honestly, I thought she was talking about Theo. Then another night I came home, saw something odd on the couch, took a step towards it, and in my bare feet, stepped on part of a squirrel skeleton. The thigh bone with fur still on its foot was on the couch. Giant sticks would show up in the backyard out of nowhere. I finally realized that Colin, sweet little Colin, was getting things for Theo. Constant little gifts for him. If he was escaping to the creekside, he easily could have run off, never to be seen again. He was purposely doing this to please his brother.

I had webcams installed in the backyard and in the house for safety and to keep an eye on the dogs when we weren’t at home. One of them was able to catch anything coming or going from the dog door. Little Colin would bring out one of my tennis shoes, once he got halfway out the door with a massive heavy gray blanked, once he brought out a piece of mail from Obama’s campaign. Over the last year or two, we would find a shoe next to wherever he was sleeping. Nothing would be wrong with it, it would just be near him. Other times we’d come home and find the mail shredded, or something taken down from a table and destroyed. We’d exclaim, “Who did this?!” And Colin would sit bravely in front of his brother, ears pinned back, big doe eyes, seeming to say, don’t beat him, beat me instead (We never ever ever beat either of them, but this was his reaction every, single, time.). He would also act like this if we took too long getting in the house after returning home from somewhere. It was as if he was thinking, they’re coming up with ways to beat us, and would act extra timid and sit next to his brother acting guilty as sin. It was so funny we would joke about it every time, opening the door and asking, should we beat you now? And then just give them hugs and kisses until they knew they weren’t in trouble.

On several occasions we would forget something at home, and have to drive in a circle, coming through the front door not two minutes after we left. A shoe would be in his bed, a piece of paper was where it shouldn’t be. We started watching the video clips. Within about 30 seconds of us leaving, he would do something naughty. We always thought it was Theo. Always. And I always assumed Colin was just trying to protect his brother, when in fact more often than not, he was the naughty one.

Another thing that happened, that I don’t have proof of, but I’ve pieced together, was one night in June while I was out, and the day before I was to go on a trip, I came home and the house smelled like a chemical fire. I looked everywhere, I looked under the house, I unplugged appliances. I had the neighbor Sal, who was and is still an Oakland firefighter come over. It was skunk spray. One, or both of them had gotten sprayed and ran throughout the house, rubbing the spray on everything to the extent that it was more on other surfaces (ie the couch and the doorways) than it was on them. It became almost an annual experience of them getting sprayed at the most inconvenient time, and requiring a Technu dog bath to remove the stench.

He grew up in our little historic neighborhood in Oakland, and has been here almost as long as I have (9 years). Monte would take him on military style adventures up the fire trail, he would play battle with Fire the cat who would taunt him on walks or from outside the window. Colin would alert us if someone was rummaging through my car, once he even single-handedly prevented the suspicious Goodyear blimp from landing in our neighborhood from his commanding perch on the couch. He would go on walks with me at the beginning of Covid while I wore a unicorn mask to the confusion and amusement of at least a few neighbors, but he was always so excited to go on a “Dog Adventure” and when we would grab the leashes he would lose his GD mind. Walking him was never easy. He weighed about 75 pounds, and was like a kite on meth at the end of his lead, versus Theo, who would cement himself at every bush or pole until he was done sniffing it. Walking him and Theo together, was an act of insanity. Also, he started out never going to the bathroom except at home, and then after a few years, started doing pirouette style performances of peeing on bushes until he was tapped out.

I find great amusement in putting the kids in outfits at holidays, and I swear they love it. Tails wag, they get in close when I’m putting their legs through the sleeves, and they jump around excitedly once everything is on. Every year I would make my babies Halloween costumes. This started with Hunter the rescue cat/gonzo journalist, who went as a Hasidic Jew the first year, to Bumble Bees the year I got Theo, then Hammerhead Sharks and Amaebi Sushi the years we lived with my Dad, and then the first year in our home in Oakland, Theo was a piece of Bacon, and Hunter was a Sunny Side Up Egg. The year we got Colin, he and Theo were Thing One and Thing Two, and Hunter was the Cat in the Hat, escaping into the night with the red and white knit hat purchased on Etsy, firmly strapped to his head. The next year I had less energy because my life was falling apart, but I made them matching super capes, each with their initials on the back. The Halloween of 2014, would be the last of my former life. I had grand plans of them being dragons from Games of Thrones, and we would dress up too, but everything fell apart, and the boys just ended up wearing black bat wings. A month later I would find myself single, but able to keep what mattered most to me, my home and my babies. I lost Hunter that following April. He had been sick for a while, and one day had a seizure while I was in the bathroom getting ready for a consulting gig. I came out to see what the noise was and his little gray body was banging against the chair legs, as the dogs hovered over him. I quickly took him to the vet, and knew with absolute certainty, that putting him down was the most loving and humane thing that I could do for him. It was so sad, but he had been declining for so long, that it was an act of mercy on all of us when it happened.

It was just me, Theo, and Colin from then on. While I was single they kept me going. They cheered me up, went on road trips with me, including my first solo trip to the snow in my new used car, white knuckling the roads in the snow, staying at a dog friendly hotel, sharing pizza at the dog friendly restaurant around the corner, waking up at sunrise and walking along the snow covered beach at Lake Tahoe. We had great adventures.

The next year I started making costumes for them again. Sheep one year. I thought it would be an easy project. I found it on Pinterest (for human kids) and all I needed was a child’s black hoodie, adhesive spray, and a million cotton balls. It took me for-ev-er. When I finally got it all done I sat them on the green lawn next door and took a couple of pictures. I have a great one of Colin smiling that is one of the best shots ever taken of a dog. They both shook like they were getting out of a bath, and the cotton balls shot off like streamers. The first year I was with Monte, we’d been married for just over a month, and I made Skunk costumes for them. Here we are, my husband, who never grew up with Halloween, who had never seen a skunk until one passes us on the front porch late one night, who came from a culture where dogs were not allowed inside, was now helping his wife find child sized hoodies and other craft materials, to help me turn our pups into Skunks. The next year, and one of my favorites, I got us all matching old school black and white striped Adidas tracksuits, and gold necklaces made out of gold chains from the hardware store, and the four of us walked around downtown Oakland with me blasting Tricky on my phone.

Last year, they were pumpkins, complete with stuffed green leaves that I attached to their heads. The traditional second year anniversary gift was cotton, and I got all four of us matching pajamas from Target that we wore during the holidays, and on a sanity saving trip to the coast, where the boys had their own bed in the loft above us.

Another holiday Monte wasn’t used to celebrating, but embraced with his whole heart, is Christmas. We would gather the dogs in the car, and go to the Christmas tree farm to hunt and cut down the best one, and take pictures for our Christmas card. The boys would run around the lot, sniffing and peeing on everything, and then would lie on the couch while we decorated it. Christmas is a huge one for me. I don’t know why, but as an adult, it’s been incredibly important for me to give my loved ones the best holidays. I made the boys an advent calendar, and every year I hang it on the mantle and fill it with dog treats. Every night in December, before bed, we sing them a little Christmas song while they sit next to the tree, and then we give them their treats. They get so excited when they hear the Christmas songs, and Monte continues singing them into February. They have stockings filled with treats and toys to open on Christmas day.

Birthdays were something I started the first year I had Theo. I made him a meatloaf cake decorated with either mashed potatoes or Greek yogurt, and presented it on an antique red glass cake platter with a lit candle. We sing Happy Birthday and then he gets to eat the whole thing. Every time they would hear the Happy Birthday song, they would get so excited, so if we were at someone’s house for a birthday, or singing to someone on the phone, they would prance and sit like good boys and get a treat, because that’s what they knew. When Colin came along I would make a cupcake sized version of the birthday cake for whoever’s birthday it wasn’t so they could both celebrate.

A few years ago I started making dog ice cream. A quart of organic yogurt, a pint of peanut butter, and two bananas, blended and then put into tiny mason jars and frozen. Colin would murder for those. They were his favorite, and he would lie on all fours, licking the ice cream until every bit was clean from the jar. Nothing made him happier than that ice cream. It was the only thing that he would truly enjoy just for himself. Everything else that brought him joy involved someone else, or sharing with his brother.

He was the best AirBnB superhost. He would greet the other dogs first, and then we’d introduce Theo, and all would get along. He got along with everyone. We could tell from the sound of his tail pounding on the couch, if the people were extra special.

When I met Monte, I wasn’t sure how he was going to be around the dogs. You never know how people’s different backgrounds or cultures will work with our unique relationships with our animals. Now I can clearly see, that Colin waited his whole life to meet Monte. I have pictures and videos of our first week together, and you can see it’s love at first sight. We saw Colin and Theo as our real boys. He would constantly ask to bring them on overnight trips or day trips with us, even if I just wanted it to be the two of us. He would take them out on strenuous hikes in the hills, or just up to the hill to roll in and eat grass while I was at work, sending me videos of them acting like goats. Their bond was something I was simultaneously jealous of, and incredibly proud of.

I trusted Monte with them when we were first starting out. My god did that take a lot of courage. They are not good at coming when called, and I was terrified they would get away from him. They didn’t. Monte used to take them for a walk if he got home before me, or if I just wasn’t up to it, and one time he got lost in the neighborhood, not knowing what way to turn, and kept trying to get the dogs to find their way home for him. He just told me that story recently. One of the moments I fell in love with Monte was when I got off of work one night, and he surprised me at the backdoor of Hakkasan with the boys by his side. He’d walked all the way from his apartment with them along the Embarcadero. I finally felt like I had the family I had so desperately deserved.

Every night after he got off from work, Monte would go into the backyard to decompress, and the dogs would go with him. Monte had taught Colin how to put his front two legs up on the chair, or his dog food container and hug him. It was their nightly ritual, and one that we all loved. I would give them space to be together every night, and Monte would use that time to talk with Colin, to love on him, and to play with him. Monte would be having the worst possible day, dealing with issues no one should have to face, and Colin would be the only thing to bring him joy.

Colin used to love to play Shark and Alligator with Theo. We would throw the ball into the water for Theo, he would run into the water after the ball, and Colin would stand on the shore barking at and corralling Theo and then chasing him and biting his ankles all the way back to us. It was hilarious. We would sometimes have to yell at him to be gentle with Theo. Theo is at least four years older than Colin, and possibly closer to six. Several mornings a week, we would say out loud, “Would anyone like some morning time snuggles?” and they would run and jump into bed with us. This last year Theo has needed help to get in bed with us, but it was time we would cherish as a family, easily justifying spending as much as an extra hour in bed together. Colin started having a hard time getting up and down from things. He used to be as weightless as a bird, jumping into the tall car, or into our high bed, easily getting up and down stairs, and onto the couch with his brother, and then about a month ago, he started to struggle.

I have so many regrets. I hate myself for every time I disciplined him for being too friendly with an AirBnB guest or friend that came over and him not understanding personal space. I regret not taking him out on more walks. I feel awful that we never got to the snow this year. It kills me that I didn’t realize the last time we snuggled in bed together was going to be our last. That the last time I had him sit down for dog food for breakfast next to his brother would be his last. That I didn’t know. That I had no idea, that he wouldn’t be with us for another ten years. That I wouldn’t have a decade to get used to the fact that he wouldn’t be with us, but days.

On New Year’s day last year we found a great deal at a dog friendly hotel in Bodega Bay. We loaded the kids up and drove the two hours to get there. The receptionist told us there was a nice path around the property, so we took them on a little walk off leash. Both dogs are pretty good at staying close to us with a gentle, “This way.” if they start to get too far or lag behind. Out of nowhere, Monte tells me that Colin has run away. I’m like no way, he doesn’t do that! And I see he’s taken off towards a herd of long horned cattle. It was like in his mind he shouted, “YOLO!” and took off after the most dangerous looking creatures on four legs he’d ever seen in person. He didn’t come right back. He chased them up and down the pasture. We were both terrified and thought it was hilarious. He’d never done anything before, or since, like that.

Monte used to make the boys their dog food for dinner when I wasn’t at home. They ate twice a day, and knew to sit in their assigned spots, and then they would be handed their bowls at the exact same time. Sometimes Colin wouldn’t sit down. He’d stand next to the refrigerator a bit defiantly and look over his shoulder subtly at the cabinet, and lick his lips. I quickly figured out that Monte was adding Tunisian Olive Oil, or an egg, or broth, or something else to make their meals spectacular. Theo never cared. That boy was a street dog, and to this day will eat just about anything and is constantly looking for dropped food, going so far as to lay under us at meals. It was frustrating, and endearing, and I would almost always give in.

Colin was a sensitive boy, but could always be perked up by his Daddy. His personality was not it’s usual happy go lucky self, and I wanted so desperately to find out what was wrong with him and fix him. On July 9th (our engagement anniversary), I took him into the vet after two weeks of him being off. That morning, he’d flinched when my heel grazed his ribcage as I was opening the curtains next to his bed, and then yelped and wouldn’t stop shaking. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong except a small legion on his spine, that he didn’t think would be responsible for his symptoms, and suggested he might have pulled a muscle in his rib cage on one of our last adventures. On June 23rd, he was swimming with Theo, which he never really did, and I thought that maybe when he jumped in the water, he might have landed weird. We also went on a few adventures, and he would always drink water from weird places. I found a tick on him a few weeks ago, and immediately removed it. We have trees in our backyard, so it likely came from one of those, and with how much we pet him, I don’t think we would have missed it. So I simultaneously worried that it was a tick disease, toxic blue algae exposure, a slipped disk, something that could have been prevented.

The truth is, neither us nor the many doctors know what caused him to become immobile in his back half and incontinent in a matter of days. We went from thinking the worst case scenario would be to have him have to use a wheelchair, and Monte wanting to immediately build him one, to not knowing if he would survive whatever this was. I had secretly hired a pet psychic to try to diagnose him. I don’t know if I bought any of what he said, and got no insights. When I posted on Facebook what Colin was going through, we had three friends in California that said that their dogs had had the same symptoms, and it was a rare tick borne illness, and when they did a cycle of Doxy, they were miraculously cured. We got our hopes up. I took him to the ER to get the test a day before he was supposed to get it from the vet that was treating him with acupuncture. Monte was at work and I could tell Colin’s condition was worsening, and his eyes looked weird. His inner eyelids were stuck, they were red, and they were oddly glossy. I had Sal, the firefighter come over and put him in the car for me, and I rushed him to the vet. I was hoping bringing him to a different facility would give us a second opinion that would be more helpful.

The vet there was incredibly compassionate, and when I told him a little of our story, and how Colin was Monte’s everything, he agreed to let us in to see him even though the new Covid restrictions prohibited it. They allowed us to see him around 8pm, and we stayed with him for about an hour. The doctor seemed to think that the Doxy was helping, but that overall his symptoms weren’t improving. He called us an hour later to let us know that the new x rays were showing that there were more lesions on his spine, and this was likely a very aggressive form of cancer on top of something else. He told us to leave our phones on.

Colin was built into our business plan. When I pictured the life on the farm we were hoping to start living soon, Colin was supposed to be the Donkey Manager. He would be the friend to all of the rescue livestock we planned on having. We talked to him about it. He would listen intently and get excited, sitting there with his tail swishing back and forth. He was saying, “Yes! I will be the best donkey manager! I will be friends to all of the friends. I will make them feel safe and happy!” I pictured him going out into the field with Monte to check on the animals and the gardens. I was worried that Theo wouldn’t be around that long, or that if he was, that he would be lying in his dog bed by the fireplace while Colin was out doing the hard work built for a young pup. I’m completely caught off guard that what I envisioned so clearly, is no longer an option.

With all of my regrets, that we didn’t get to have any last planned adventures, that I didn’t know that our last walk would be our last, that our last snuggle would be our last, that any of the last things would be our last, all I can do is pour that much more love and attention into Theo, to make sure that his last years, months, weeks, are all that they can be. And I know from the bottom of my heart, that the absolutely selfless Colin would have wanted it that way.

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