I do not relish revisiting the events from a year ago. I still miss Chaka Kahn, my baby, my pretty girl, my unconditionally loving friend.
Chaka Kahn was an enigma, a walking dichotomy. Always beautiful, blond, and passionate (and sometimes vicious) Chaka inhabited that cleavage where the two trunks of her heritage collided—the goofy, sweet, good-natured golden retriever and the territorial, irrational, ferocious chow chow. She was my dog. I was her person. It wasn’t a choice we made. That was just the way it turned out.
I remember exactly when I first laid eyes on Chaka as well as I do the heavy-hearted day I had to tell her good-bye. Having just finished the privacy fence around our backyard, a new puppy, as we’d agreed, was next on the list. My wife Stacey called me from Love at First Sight, a pet adoption place on Murphy Road. Love at first sight precisely describes the emotion Stace was experiencing at that moment.
“You have to come right now and see this dog,” she gushed.
Stacey had an extremely poor track record bringing home inappropriate breeds. Her criteria had more to do with how she imagined the pup would look sitting on the passenger seat of her car, and nothing at all to do with the creature’s temperament. Winston, an inbred, pet-store, puppy-mill pug lacked the smarts to refrain from peeing in his own bed. Spud was too intelligent for his own good. A wired-out-of-his-skull Jack Russell, Spud got so bored, he ate his bed—and everything else he could put his powerful chompers around. Although I fell deeply in love with the little muscle man, we mercifully found Spud a new, far more appropriate home—on a farm, where he belonged. He left behind a half-eaten, rented house and a hole in my heart.
Due to Stace’s previous poor canine selections, I had claimed veto power over the next dog choice. I promised her I would go to Love at First Sight just as soon as I could make the time. That wasn’t soon enough. As the dinner hour approached, Stace’s Mazda pulled to the curb. Our then 10-year-old-daughter Glendyn’s grin was ear-to-ear A tufted fur ball sat wide-eyed on her lap drinking in the world from the passenger window. Although this new pup certainly passed the passenger-seat test, as it turned out, my wife once again had made a lousy choice of breeds for our household. And, once again, it would leave me with a broken heart.
I find it a great irony that Chaka knew only one president of the United States in George W. Bush. I often wonder whether she ever shook her extra-large cranium and pondered, is this the best you can do? When that first World Trade Jenga pile collapsed on that horrible morning eight years ago, I was sitting, jaw dropped, at the breakfast nook in our cozy kitchen. I looked away from CNN and to the window, to observe that adorable, disproportionate ball of blond, two-thirds head, sniffing around the edges of her new backyard environs. She was a comfort to me then and she brought me joy nearly every day of her all-too-short life.
There is no devotion that compares to the love of a dog. Regardless of what kind of day you’ve had out there slashing through the underbrush of the concrete jungle, that adoring, loyal pet greets you at the front door, tail wagging and eager for a scratch behind the years. With a little lick on the cheek, life makes sense again. You may have lost your shirt, received a humiliating dressing down from the boss, even gotten laid off. The dog doesn’t care. That’s the kind of love I call unconditional.
Chaka developed into a fine-tuned athlete, a high-flying, long jumper capable of springing into the air at a full sprint and snatching a bounced ball eight feet above the ground. The ten minutes we spent in this activity every morning was just as special to me as it was essential to her. She remained tireless in this pursuit, returning that squeaky, purple, rubber orb to me time and time again, begging me to keep the game going for as long as my rotator cuff could facilitate. The pounce in her hind legs outlasted my throwing mechanism; and for a year, I had to toss the ball from the left—awkward and inaccurate to say the least. Then, after one spectacular leap, she came up lame, yelping for a minute and gimping for months to come. She never fully recovered from that one attempt.
The weekend following Thanksgiving, 2007, my mother-in-law, Dee—the sunniest octogenarian on the planet—was out from California for a visit. Stacey had invited a gaggle of women to a pre-Christmas jewelry party. It wasn’t the first time Chaka had bared her teeth unexpectedly. But, it was the first time she had drawn blood. Dee had been mindlessly stroking Chaka’s rear flank when the dog’s jaws were suddenly and painfully clamped around the elderly woman’s fragile forearm. The bite was serious, requiring months of treatment.
Having just picked up the kid somewhere, I walked into the house to be informed of the incident.
“Rand, Chaka just bit my mother,” Stacey cried out. My response was not appropriate. I couldn’t imagine that Dee’s injury could be as severe as it turned out to be. My first thought was that the dog would be quarantined or, worse yet, forcibly euthanized. My sympathy for my dog over my wife’s mother created the worst strain our then 20-year marriage had ever suffered.
According to my enraged spouse, Chaka had revealed herself to be a ticking time bomb, a certain, tragic disfigurement and a devastating lawsuit waiting to happen. This fear was reinforced by the opinions of our vet and a local dog trainer. Stace insisted that we had to put Chaka “to sleep.” I couldn’t go along with that program. Through pet adoption agencies and rescue organizations, I tried to find the dog a new home. In the meanwhile, I hired a dog behavior specialist to help me re-program the chow tendencies. I promised to isolate Chaka every time we had guests in the house and spent two days constructing a dog run in the backyard for that purpose.
There were no takers for a chow mix that had been responsible for a serious bite. But, with daily training, the dog’s behavior improved, and the rift between Stace and me started to heal—a little at a time. I found it profoundly sad and confusing, however, that the same two ladies who had fallen head over heals for a cute-as-a-bug puppy six years ago were now fearful of that same dog as an adult.
Once again, we had not done the proper research before a new pet was chosen. Chows are among the most dangerous of breeds. And, when mixed, they can turn out even more unpredictable. Because they’re so easy to train as pups, they fool you into thinking you’ve got a dog who will be easy to control when it becomes fully grown. But, as they mature, they develop a defiant, almost cat-like independent streak. They choose to whom they will offer their love and loyalty. Those they deem unworthy of their affection, anyone who smells distrustful or at all vulnerable would be wise to beware.
It was the first week of September, 2008. Thus far, it had been a year of tests for our family. Teenaged daughter’s emotional and school issues, a new job that brought my wife to the brink of breakdown—daily—a home expansion project that had dragged on for nine endless, traumatic months, and finally, the rancid cherry on the banana split: my music publishing company closing. Dog and master were departing for our Friday-morning constitutional when I noticed the hot spot on the back of Chaka’s right haunch. She had chewed all the fur off and there was a large, nasty red patch that appeared to be infected. Snap vet-diagnosis: an insect bite that had become abscessed and inflamed. Antibiotics were prescribed. It wasn’t easy giving Chaka medicine. She was one of those clever dogs able to detect a pill, no matter how well you disguised it. I would be certain she’d swallowed her medication only to find an undigested tablet or capsule spit out in some secret spot. I did my best.
By Monday, the hot spot had ballooned into a hanging sac, about the size of a baked potato. A return visit to the vet gave me the first harbinger of Chaka’s imminent doom. What we had here was a tumor attached to the largest muscle in the dog’s body. A biopsy was sent to a lab. Two days later, Mast Cell cancer was the determination. Mast Cell is the most common and curable of canine cancers—if it’s caught in its early stages. Chaka, being so hairy, wasn’t so lucky. That festering mass might have been growing for months, maybe even a year or more. Stacey wondered if perhaps Dee had even poked the inflamed tissue with a fingernail that last November and Chaka had just snapped in response.
By the time comprehensive blood tests failed to find any signs of malignancy in the rest of her system, Chaka had lost 40% of her body weight. She had no appetite and threw up everything she did eat. I needed to know that the dog would be willing to fight for her life before heroic surgical measures were scheduled. We tried antacids and probiotics and a clear liquid the vet prescribed. Finally, injections—administered by me, twice daily, in the nape of her neck—brought back her appetite. So, we decided to proceed with amputation. Lots of dogs do quite well on three legs, after all.
Recovery looked good for the first few days after surgery. Chaka was up and around, adapting quickly to her new tripod stance. She bumped into everything with that clumsy, Elizabethan collar. I fed her special food (it looked and smelled like liver pate) with a tablespoon—antacids and probiotics crushed and mixed in. I slept on the couch in our new great room every night, one eye open to attend to Chaka’s needs. Then, analysis of the removed tissue revealed the disease had developed to early stage three.
Although her appetite was good, Chaka began retching up her food. She couldn’t keep a thing down—for nine straight days. She was suffering. I was suffering—not to mention exhausted, emotionally crushed, and piling thousands on my Mastercard bill.
Vets call it “humane euthanasia.” It’s certainly humane for the animal. For the person who loves the pet, dreads good-bye, yet still has to make the call, this final procedure’s mercy is clad in guilt and remorse. I saw a mean irony in the fact that Chaka had to breathe her final exhalation in a room she hated above all other places. In that same room, I had tried to comfort my aged lab/dalmation, Licorice, as she was dispatched to her afterlife. That dog’s eyes told me she still thought she had some good living left. But, while Licorice’s mind was still sharp, her hindquarters had failed; I had grown so very weary of carrying her, urine-soaked and helpless, down the stairs to the back yard and back up again to lay her in her bed. It was time. Licorice’s eager disposition had outlasted its host.
Chaka, on the other hand—despite being only slightly more than half of Licorice’s 13 years—was ready to go. I sat on a small blanket on the floor of that tiny examination room stroking Chaka’s long, blond fur. Dr. Clarke, our corpulent, lady vet stuck the needle into Chaka’s one remaining haunch and pushed the electric-pink toxin into the dog’s failing body. The doctor listened with a stethoscope until the last heart beat. She looked at me, and I knew exactly what that look meant.
“Take all the time you need with her,” said Dr. Clarke, compassionately, as she backed out of the door, still holding the pointed weapon that had brought Chaka’s life to its premature end. I laid the dog’s still-too-large, now-lifeless head on a rolled up edge of the blanket.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized to Chaka. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I knelt before her limp body, stroking her smooth, soft fur. “Everything’s okay now, baby. Everything’s okay.” That was my good-bye.
It’s a sappy idea to think that Chaka Kahn is flying through rarified air to snag a purple rubber ball on the expansive lawn of some heavenly paradise. I can wish that were true, can’t I? Maybe it is after all.