A Breaking Heart Still Beats

We lost our German Sheppard, Bruno, to cancer just after the new year .  He was only 6 years old, but had developed a malignant tumor in his nose, which we tried unsuccessfully to treat since early fall. His decline was steady but slow and it wasn’t until mid-November that I began to resolve myself to the fact that he was not going to recover. He wasn’t “suffering” at that point, but was intermittently congested as the growth began to affect his breathing. I made it my mission to get him through the holidays (soft food diet, vet-approved decongestants and meds) so that all those who loved him and visited us had a chance to say goodbye (without knowing he was not going to last).

Bruno was loved by everyone and was truly a character. At 110 pounds of solid muscle, he impressed everyone who walked by our fenced-in yard and watched him bark his defensive warnings. He was bright and stubborn, which all Sheppard owners can understand. His tongue hung out of his beastly mouth like a runway carpet most of the time because his lean and powerful body was never still.

In the summer, he would follow me around the yard as I accomplished maintenance tasks and as evening approached, I would fill his water and food bowls, park them next to our picnic table, crack a beer and a bag of peanuts and listen to the Cleveland Indians scramble through another season on the radio. At my side would be my best friend eating quietly, drinking sloppily and looking up, left and right about every 10 seconds to survey this backyard that was his to guard. He was always on duty. As darkness approached, he would settle in for the evening--usually about the seventh inning--and sit directly in front of me. I’d open my arms and he would gently rise on his hind paws and embrace me with his front paws over my shoulders. He’d lower his ears, look directly in my eyes, and smile; all the while his tail wagging steadily. If my wife or son happened around the corner during this ritual, there was always some comment like, “Oh for crying out loud.” Or “Do you two want to be alone?” I didn’t care what they said. This animal was simply awesome and my heart is broken at his departure. Where in all of creation do you get that kind of loving affirmation and constancy? His loyalty had no bounds.

He had several yard toys, but his favorite was this red rubber chicken and when he ate his dinner he always had to have that chicken with him. I’d put his food bowl down and he’d go find the chicken, drop it in the bowl, eat around the chicken and then take it with him when he was done. It was hilarious. Often he sat before the driveway gate looking out into the neighborhood with the chicken hanging out of his mouth like some prehistoric giant baby pacifier.

He’d become a member of our family when our trusty Lab, Lucca was around 7 or 8 years old. To that end, under Lucca’s tutelage he’d gained some Retriever personality traits and had a warmth about him not often seen in the sometimes-independent Sheppard breed. Those of you familiar with my essays will recall my article about Lucca’s passing just a few short years ago.

When Lucca died, I can honestly say that Bruno’s personality changed. He drew closer to me but also more skittish and insecure. My wife and I had often marveled that when the occasion occurred that the two of them found a way to break out of the fenced-in backyard, we always found them together. It could be hours later and sure enough when we’d spot one, the other was right there. I wasn’t sure if it was Lucca watching Bruno or Bruno following Lucca, but I can tell you when I would find them and yell their names, they would both come running to the car so happy to see me and glad to get home.

A year or so after Lucca’s passing, Bruno began to tremble and pace during thunderstorms. He would wake in the middle of the night, insisting to go outside and then once out there, just stand there and look back at me.  He’d pace the back fence sometimes without provocation as if Lucca was out somewhere and might still be coming home all that time later. Then he’d run to me as if to ask me, “Have you seen him yet because I haven’t?” He mourned a long time for his trusted partner. We had talked about getting a second dog primarily to cure his apparent loneliness, but the right fit was hard to find.

And now it would be so neat and easy to say he’s back with Lucca in that special place that God holds open for once-loved pets, but his passing is not just as neat and simple as that. I know Bruno, like every dog I ever had the honor to own, was given all of the love my heart had in it as my blind affection for things that cannot speak for themselves is a basic part of my overall make up (i.e., infants, elderly). He died knowing how I felt so I am settled with that. But the fact is Bruno was added to our family because my son wanted a dog of his choosing. Sam was about 8 when Bruno was 6 weeks and I watched them grow up together. I watched Sam emulate my behaviors with Lucca as he was getting to know his dog Bruno. I heard the excitement in his voice when his dog would come bounding towards him when he got home from school. I saw the pride in his face when he’d teach him a simple trick or when his friends would see this majestic beast and ask, “Sam, that's your dog?” I’d see him lay his head on the dog’s chest and use it as a pillow while he watched television and most importantly, I’d see him laugh when his dog would do those silly things that dogs often do that make them so irresistibly lovable. “Bruno, how did you get that bucket stuck on your head? Come here, I’ll help you.”

And now, without the ability to still draw breath, Bruno is teaching Sam again; about real loss, about real sadness that cannot be wiped away by mom or dad or a new toy or some childhood distraction. My son is mourning the loss of his dog and his sensitivities have been raised ten-fold in the days that have passed since. There are people in Sam’s life that will pass on one day just as this dog of his has. If life plays out properly, I will be one of those people as a son should one day bury his father. Whether Sam knows it or not, he is being trained for that day now. He’s in pain. He should be. He lost something and will need to recover and when he finally does he will realize that he may feel better but he will never feel the same . That’s a lesson some people take a lifetime to learn and appreciate.  To love something completely is to have your heart go running about outside your body. Only with that kind of reckless abandon can you truly enjoy, endure and risk the emotion called love.

And our lovable pets and all of the happiness they provide serve us in so many ways it is easy to forget the kind of ground they break. The dog of our youth becomes more than a memory. He is a teacher.

Sleep well, Bruno. The work you’ve done here was appreciated. The heart you left here is still beating.

The writer and Scruffy in 1969.