May 10th, 2005 — Sept 5th, 2019
Barkley came to us one warm July evening in 2005, thanks to a single split-second decision which ended up changing our lives forever.
After dating for five years and being broken up for two, Anna and I were hanging out again. We’d had a nice time at a dark wine bar in Pasadena and were walking out, laughing and maybe walking a bit closer than usual. In the midst of night vendors and passers by, I spotted a young guy holding a puppy. Knowing Anna’s love of dogs, I decided to point him out.
Ten minutes later he was ours. Anna employed a dangerously effective combination of eyelash-batting appeal and eye-rolling acquiescence to convince me to visit the ATM for the $150 asking price. We carried the tiny puppy to her Jetta, where we found he fit perfectly in the space between the two front seats. The kid told us he was “half mastiff and half pit-bull”. Just great, I thought — he’d grow up to be a giant ferocious beast of a dog and probably eat one of us. [We were later informed that he was half Bullmastiff and half American Staffordshire Terrier, a much less frightening combination]
Anna was in school full-time, so not in any position to be raising a puppy. I was working remotely from a drab Fullerton apartment which took pets. Within days, I offered to let Barkley stay with me, figuring it would be better for him and better for me, because I’d get to see Anna more. There was only one problem — I really wasn’t a dog person.
The first few days were rough. Barkley was a feisty little puppy with razor sharp teeth and his favorite thing to do was to attack my ankles while I worked. Anna remembers me despairing over this to the point where I actually asked her if we could return him. But a few more days passed, and a profound transformation occurred. Instead of complaining about the ankle-mauling, I’d excitedly tell her about everything he did. I’d fallen in love.
The next two years brought the three of us closer. We took Barkley to the Altadena dog park, trained him, hiked in Eaton Canyon, taught him to swim, let him splash around in Pasadena fountains, brought him to Three Dog Bakery for treats, took him on road trips to San Francisco and San Diego, and moved into a small Altadena house together in 2006. Later on that year we vacationed in Maui, and Anna proposed to me on the balcony of the Lahaina Inn (in fairness, I proposed first, but she declined.)
A year later we decided to move to Maui, and went through the complex process to allow Barkley to avoid quarantine. We slipped him a sedative in a croissant (which didn’t kick in until well after he’d charmed the TSA agents) and after clearing him in Honolulu, we took the short flight over to Maui. That first evening after dropping off our luggage, we drove him to the beach and the three of us went for a long swim. I’ll never forget bobbing in the gentle swell, glow of dusk reflecting off the silky water, and Barkley swimming between us, tail excitedly wagging (and serving as a rudder).
Our first few years on the island we were in heavy exploration mode, and Barkley adventured with us over every part of the island. Paddling in waterfalls, hiking through the jungle, long swims in the warm Hawaiian rain, bounding through lush grass, he embraced island life with a passion. He ate (after peeling) avocados (leaving the stone behind), he slurped fallen mangos (once swallowing the stone, to our consternation), he became an expert husker of coconuts, he loved tangy lilikois and once played tug-a-war with me over a bunch of apple bananas he clearly had designs on.
Barkley deeply infused our family culture and traditions. He clearly held pack values deeply, and if we ever spoke to each other in the stressful tones of a brewing argument, he would interject with growls and whimpers until we stopped and laughed or scratched him. If guests were visiting, he would try to spend the night with them, and would refuse a walk unless they came along. He was an outstanding communicator (we’d call him the “Ronald Reagan of mastiffs”) and would either gaze-alternate or round us up and lead us to the object of his attention, whether a bit of food on the counter or the car (to bring him to the beach). When we’d walk hand in hand he’d come up from behind and chomp on our joined hands as if to dissuade the public display of affection. He had an incredible nose for tennis balls, often stopping on a walk, sniffing the air, and then diving deep into a hedge to retrieve a (seemingly) decades old ball. We joked about sending him to college and after a late night browsing session, he started to receive course catalogs and prospective student mail from Ball State University. He clearly understood his place in the pack (which would horrify Cesar Millan) and when we’d settle in to watch TV in the office with Anna on the love seat, he’d stare at her for a few seconds, start poking her with his snout, and if she didn’t relinquish her seat, he’d simply climb right up and sit on top of her, upon which I’d remind him that his ancestors were wolves, wild and wary. He also had an outstanding dedication to good sleep habits; regardless of what we were doing, and from a young age, he’d head off to bed around 10 pm. He’d take a few steps, look back, whine a bit, and wait for us. If we didn’t follow, he’d eventually give up and go to the bedroom alone, climb into bed, and fall asleep.
Dogs burn so brightly in the lives of their humans in no small part because they burn for only a fraction of our lifespan. This agonizing fact is also one of the most important things they teach us: do not take time for granted. Indeed, a dog’s seemingly innate joie de vivre is a constant reminder and inspiration for their humans. But it’s hard to do so while being ignorant of their mortality; we definitely had moments of profound sadness around this, especially in the later years, which Barkley honestly didn’t seem to have much patience for. Stop getting my fur salty, silly human, and take me for a swim.
In celebration of his fourteenth birthday, he spent longer than usual at the beach, and went to bed a well-fed and pampered pup. The next morning, to our horror, he was unable to stand, and I had to help him walk with my hands wrapped under his chest. We thought perhaps he had over-exercised the day before, but after a day of rest didn’t improve matters, we brought him to the vet, Anna and I using his bed as a sling to carry him to the car. They gave him fluids and did an ultrasound and X-Ray. The vet called us into a darkened room to show us the results: a large mass on his spleen which was almost certainly hemangiosarcoma, an evil and aggressive cancer which causes internal hemorrhaging on its way to ending the life of its host.
I sat on the floor of the clinic after hearing the news, sobbing into his fur as he lay in his bed, stroking him and holding Anna’s hand. After calming down a bit we quizzed the vet on every possible option. For a dog of his age, there really weren’t any. Surgery would be extremely risky, offer a poor outcome, and the cancer had likely already metastasized to other organs. Yes, I could run to the store while Anna watched him, but he might be dead by the time I got back from blood loss. And if not, the next hemorrhagic episode was only a matter of time.
I set my jaw and went to the store to pick up supplies, and then we brought Barkley home. The saline drip had perked him up a bit, but that night was the hardest of our lives. Because of the severe anemia due to blood loss, he was panting in a way which left him gasping for breath as he struggled to get enough oxygen. We rubbed his neck with ice water and I pulled out a sleeping bag so I could be next to him during the night. We didn’t want to see him suffer, so we agreed that if he wasn’t any better the next morning, we would ask the vet to come out to perform the obvious but unspoken act of kindness.
Against all odds and our expectations, he seemed stronger in the morning. I studied iron content of foods and cooked him breakfast, a ribeye with swiss chard seared in a cast iron pan. Anna read about alternative treatments and we ordered some Turkey Tail mushrooms and a Chinese herb called Yunnan Baiyao, both having shown some promise in treating (or at least slowing) the disorder. Over the next few days, he continued to improve, and the frantic panting subsided. A week later he amazed us by rounding us up for a long walk around the neighborhood. And eleven days later, he made his triumphant return to the ocean.
We harbored no illusions; we both knew how this story ended. We didn’t know how much time we had, but it suddenly gave increased significance to every single day with him. Over the next three and a half months, he ate over a hundred ribeyes (mostly with squash, turns out he didn’t really think much of swiss chard). He went to the beach over 100 times (keeping me until sunset almost every time, and looking back over his shoulder as we left as if we both knew this might be his last time). He ate over 600 pill-filled little pockets of butter (if the alternative meds didn’t work, maybe the grass-fed Kerrygold would). This cancer is vascular, and it was slowly burning him up from the inside, so we’d wake throughout the night when he was panting to cool him off by running ice cubes along his neck and back, and scratch his silky ears until he went back to sleep.
This bonus time with him was his last gift to us. All the struggles and hardships, the times one of us would burst into tears for no specific and yet every reason, the lack of sleep, the teamwork in caring for him, the tenderness we showed him and each other, it all brought us closer together than we’ve ever been. This beautiful furry beast helped us get back together, build a meaningful life and a tight knit family, and taught us about kindness and compassion in the hardest of times. And for that, we are forever grateful.
I had feared that memories of Barkley would be too painful and I’d never be able to look at a photo of him again, but I was wrong. The space he occupied in our lives is indelibly etched upon us; the memories and experiences we shared with him transcend time. Laughter recalling his energetic youth is as meaningful and real after his death as it was before; his youth is no less accessible, in the sense that it’s been in the past ever since it ceased to be the present.
There is one photo that hurts a bit more than the others. He’s lying on his bed, looking at the camera while Anna buries her face in his fur. He hasn’t been able to walk for a few days, and we’ve been carrying him outside every few hours. He’s calm, but he didn’t eat his ribeye last night, and he refused any food or water this morning. He lifts his head slightly when one of us leaves the room, so we stay with him. The vet arrives. I kiss his fur as the sedative makes him sleepy, scratch his ears, and then stumble out to sit under a tree because I can’t watch this last part. Anna, who is much braver, caresses and scratches him until he takes his last breath.
The days which followed were incredibly hard, but also filled with just as many laughs as tears. Whenever grief struck one of us (it comes in powerful waves) we’d cuddle up and scroll through the thousands of photos we have, telling stories, sharing memories, and this would soon soothe the sadness. Or we’d sit outside, hold hands, and look for his shape in the clouds (a canine Rorschach test if there ever was one). We deliberately and stubbornly refused to do anything but honor and celebrate his memory, to make it a refuge of sweet solace rather than a minefield of sorrow.
I always worried that I couldn’t get another dog after Barkley, fearing the pain of loss so deeply. Even though only a few weeks have passed, I now realize how wrong I was. And while we’re in no hurry, I know that the future will bring another puppy madly bounding around the house, biting our ankles with razor sharp teeth and completing our little family.