Sleeping on the Couch with Manning, Nearly Eight Years Apart

It was love at first sight, literally. In the spring of 2010, my friend and co-worker came to me and said, “Hey, Love at First Sight has some black lab rescues, you should go check it out!” I immediately hopped on their website and decided to take a look. Love at First Sight is a pet adoption organization in Nashville, and they specialize in rescue puppies. I was excited about it in part because I had been talking to my wife Emily about getting a puppy for months, particularly a black lab.

Emily and I had moved to Nashville from Washington, DC the previous year. We bought a house with a yard, and a good yard needed a good dog in it. It was a perfect plan except she was not necessarily on board. We went back and forth for months on the need for me to submit an RFP — A Request for Puppy for her review. In this RFP, it would clearly lay out in detail pet responsibilities. My wife, you see, had no interest in walking, caring for or most importantly cleaning up after an animal in her house.

The RFP conversation came and went, until I called her that day in late April and said, “the RFP is ready, let’s go pick out a puppy.” Aside from the initial shock that I had gotten my act together, she reviewed the terms. It was clearly spelled out — I was going to be responsible for 75% of dog ownership responsibilities. It was written in haste, with the intent of getting her to a quick yes, and it was followed through over the years with the same resolve and spirit in which it was written, meaning it was broken many, many, many times.

We went down to the pet adoption office, and picked out a four-week-old puppy. His litter name was Shamu, because he was the biggest of his brothers and sisters, but we had known all along what his true name was going to be — Manning.

Manning came right to me, and snuggled up to me. I picked him up and he tried to nibble on my hand. I remember holding him in my lap, and he immediately went for a kiss on my face, a move he would repeat with pretty much every human he ever came into contact with throughout his life. I got used to warning people as we would go on walks who wanted to pet him that he was going to try to jump up and give them a kiss on the face. It was how he rolled, and no matter how many times I tried to tell him to get down, he went right for the smooch. He was a four-legged make out machine, whether you were into it or not. In fact, if you weren’t into it, he’d try harder to win you over.

We took him home from the pet adoption locale with the crate for training, food, water bowl and some toys. It was an amazing coup. A good friend of ours mentioned to his wife at the time, “I can’t believe Chris won. They really got a dog.”

That first night in our house, I slept on the couch in our den to be with him. He yelped all night. He missed the comfort of his brothers and his sisters, and it was my first sleepless night because of a life I was totally responsible for. I couldn’t believe how tired I was. 7 ½ years and two kids later, I look back on that night and laugh because it would be the first of many sleepless nights because of little Walkers running around our house, whether they be of the four-legged or two-legged variety. I remember whispering to him, “It’s OK Manning, I’m right here. It’s going to be OK.” Little did I know, 7 ½ years later, I’d sleep on that same couch and whisper those same words to him throughout his last night in our home.

That first weekend he was at our house, it happened to be the weekend of the Nashville flood. I will never forget Manning’s poor puppy eyes looking up at me as if he was being punished as we were trying to house train him in the middle of one of the worst rain storms in Nashville history. I was holding an umbrella, with lightning and rain pouring down all around us trying to tell him to go to the bathroom. It’s little wonder for the rest of his life, Manning hated thunderstorms.

Manning was an active puppy. He destroyed his first bed by chewing it up in a matter of weeks. He also went through toys like they were paper. I bought an “Indestructible Toy Duck” for him one year from the pet store, and he chewed through it in about 15 minutes. He loved to play tug of war and wrestle. Mrs. Walker continued to warn me that teaching him to play tug of war would mean he’d want to do it for the rest of his life. She was right. Lesson learned too late. As he got older he continued to want to play tug of war, but we had to play with horse toys, because regular dog toys couldn’t cut it.

In his first year, Manning was bound and determined to lay out some territory in our house, particularly our back patio. We had a massive cedar tree as part of our patio area, and it had a great bed around it — a perfect place where Emily poured herself into improving it with all kinds of plant life. When Manning joined us that spring, she had planted some beautiful hostas in and around the cedar tree, six in total if memory serves. Manning decided to methodically and enthusiastically dig every single one of them up over the course of a week.

After one or two went missing, Emily was starting to review the fine print of the RFP to figure out the terms of a potential buy out or return. By the fourth or fifth hosta destruction, I was starting to fear for both of our lives. With the last one, Manning literally dug up and dragged it into our house through the dog door, dirt and all, and dropped it onto our sunroom carpet, as if to say, “I’m telling you, that bed area is mine.” I walked in and saw it, and just mumbled, in what I thought was a low voice, “oh no.” From upstairs, I could hear Emily shout down, “did that dog dig up my last hosta?!” I will never forget the words I told him, “Manning, she will actually kill you if you don’t stop this.”

It wouldn’t be the last item he brought as a trophy into our house with pride. Manning, you see, loved to chase rodents. Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits or pretty much any animal that dared invade our yard was hunted with Terminator-like speed and efficiency. One day, Manning brought a chipmunk in and dropped it at Emily’s feet in our den beaming with pride. I still remember the panicked call to come get it out of the house in case he wasn’t really dead and hopped up and Manning started chasing him and tearing up the house, Christmas Vacation style.

Manning’s rodent technique was thoughtful. He would poke his head out of the doggie door of our sunroom, looking for unsuspecting animals he could pounce on. He would launch like a rocket out of the door when an animal made the mistake of not paying enough attention in our back yard, and he would have some success with this method of attack. His true nemesis was the squirrel, because they were the most elusive. The Manning v. Squirrel kabuki dance occurred on a daily basis. A squirrel would venture onto Emily’s bird feeder, trying to steal the bird’s food, and Manning would dart out to try to attack. The squirrel would immediately hop up the cedar tree with what can only be described as an elementary school “nah-nah boo-boo” taunt. Manning, undeterred, danced every day, playing his role with gusto.

Manning’s efforts to draw a wedge between me and my wife didn’t stop at plants. He had a laser-like focus on eating things that Emily liked to cook, particularly baked goods. Emily loves to cook and Manning loved to eat, so one would think it was a match made in heaven. Manning just never grasped that sometimes Emily was baking items for folks other than him. One time, Emily tried a recipe for jalapeno bread and was letting it cool on our counter. When I saw it, it looked good, but smaller than a loaf of bread should look. I then realized it was the size that would have been left over from Manning’s reach on our counter.

My favorite Manning baked good story however will always be our daughter Morgan’s first birthday party, and the cake that we left too close to the edge of the table. We were all celebrating and as we turned our gaze from the table where the finger food was to the other room where the presents were, Manning saw his opening. He lunged for the cake and began licking the icing off the side. Emily’s aunt and I saw it first and immediately shouted, “Manning, no!” It was too late, although the cake was salvageable on three sides, so no permanent damage was done. The picture of the semi-eaten birthday cake is still one of my favorites from Morgan’s first birthday.

As I mentioned earlier, Manning was a social dog. He never met a stranger. One time, that same aunt who spied Manning taking a taste of birthday cake deliciousness was visiting in town. She loved him unconditionally and began petting him in our den. She said, “Manning, maybe you’ll calm down when you’re two.” As if on cue, all 65 pounds of lab hopped into her lap on the seat at that very moment. Our aunt had to say, “well, maybe three for you.” I’m glad to say, he never really did. It wouldn’t have been his style. He aggressively loved everyone he came into contact with, and age and maturity would not get in the way of him trying to show some affection.

He loved trying to greet people who might come down our road in the off chance that someone might come and pet him. Every afternoon or evening, he knew the time I would come home from work, and he’d sit at the edge of our yard, looking and waiting. I will never forget the look of excitement as he saw my car pull up and he’d chase the car down our driveway and excitedly greet me as I’d open the door. It was our routine, and if I came home in a sour mood from work, he would improve it immediately.

Our routine always included a morning walk or run at a park. It was pretty much the only thing he truly demanded of us, aside from love. There is a reason why studies show people with dogs lead healthier lives — you have to be active to keep up with them. Our morning time together was pretty much sacred. Spring, summer, winter or fall — we always had our morning time. We saw sunrises, snow, rain, sleet, deer, turkey, owls and pretty much any other animal you can think of in Middle Tennessee. It was hard to wake up, look at my phone and see a temperature of 14 outside and still see Manning’s nose in my face, ready for a walk. I found myself consistently asking for cold weather workout gear each Christmas, just to prepare for the slog of early morning winter walks and runs when normal folks would smartly stay inside.

Manning loved our kids. When we were getting close to arrival time for our first, we made sure to read up on what we needed to do to ensure our dog acclimated well. We had read about bringing back a blanket she had been in at the hospital so he could get the scent and realize she was part of the family. It was unnecessary. He knew. Manning sniffed, and went for the kiss. It’s who he was.

He was patient with infants and toddlers, even as they demanded more and more of our time. When our daughter was three, she told us she wanted to “ride” Manning like a horse one day. Manning dutifully complied, even though I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled. He was part of the family, and he knew that was part of the deal.

When our son was born, Manning gave me a look that could only be described as, “Oh, so we’re doing this again, are we?” Manning loved him just as much however.

With the arrival of our son, we had grown out of our house, and so we moved out a little further with a little more space, and a little more yard. Manning had more territory to patrol, and more rodents to chase. He was happy to add turkeys to his list of animals that needed to be dealt with.

Yes, Manning even had a run in with a skunk, although we had some close calls before his dreaded spray day. It happened on a crisp, cool evening in the fall of 2016. The kids and I decided to camp in our front yard, and there was a nip in the air. We had the tent all set, and the kids were beyond excited. I was too. Manning decided to patrol the area at dusk to make sure we were in good shape. He went off into the woods and we started to smell a skunk smell off in the distance, and didn’t think much of it. We changed our minds after my wife called me from inside the house which he was in for less than a minute, and the entire place stunk like skunk. I felt horrible having to give him a bath outside that next morning. It was 38 degrees, and I’m hosing him off with an entire bottle of skunk off and shampoo. I’d never seen him shiver so much.

Through it all, he always loved us. He’d go through a regular routine every evening of sleeping in the kids rooms for a couple hours, sometimes in their beds, sometimes next to them, but always, always starting the night with them. Through the night, he’d check off each kid’s room, and then end up in ours by around 12:30. Every morning, he was there, at my side, nose in my face and ready for his walk, rain or shine.

Earlier this fall, I began to notice Manning’s eyes would look bloodshot when he was sleeping. It was fall, so I thought it might be allergies. He had suffered through allergies before, and I figured that was all it was. This Thanksgiving, as our family joined us at our house, my wife’s sister remarked about his eyes, and I had noticed they were starting to get worse. The redness was coming around during the day, and not just when he was sleeping. I took him to the vet for what I thought would be a quick check up and a prescription for some allergy medicine and that would be that. He was, after all, a healthy and happy 7 ½ year old dog, and while he had slowed down a little when he ran and walked over the last year, he still had many good years left being a member of our family.

The vet came back in after looking at Manning with a fairly sober look on his face. He said he was worried about a growth he found in his throat, and wanted to do a biopsy to be sure. Either way, if it was what they thought it was, it was in a very difficult area where surgery was nearly impossible and chemotherapy would be ineffective.

With it being Thanksgiving, I had decided to withhold the information until after our family had left. We were hosting around 25 at our house, and so there was a lot of prep and attention needed for that. Emily saw it on my face as soon as I got back that all was not well. I told her, and we began to mull what to do. We proceeded with family time, and Manning really seemed fine. He was trying to kiss everyone who came to our house, and he was absorbed fully in the mission of ensuring any dropped food would not find its way to the floor. As Emily said one time, Manning cleaned up many more messes than he made.

Thanksgiving came and went, but later on that weekend, we found a couple droplets of blood coming out of his eye, and so we took him back to the vet first thing that Monday morning. Some more questions were asked. Was he eating? Was he still active? The answers were all yes, so we decided to schedule a biopsy for the following week and see if there was something we could do to make sure we could fight this and move on. Our conversations revolved around a worst-case scenario of him having six months to potentially one to two years based on how aggressive the cancerous growth could be. It was bad news, but it meant we could strive to make the coming months, and hopefully years, count.

On Wednesday, Manning seemed to be fine, although he waited until the end of the day to eat his breakfast. It wasn’t totally abnormal behavior, as he’d done it before, particularly if he was protesting an insufficient amount of walking time on a particular morning.

On Thursday, I went on a quick day trip to East Tennessee, and on our way back, I could hear in my wife’s voice when I was talking to her that Manning had taken a turn for the worse. He had stopped eating, was lethargic and not really responsive. I was starting to fear the worst was here now, and not six months from now. I knew this dog better than anyone, and I could tell he wasn’t himself. I got home around 9:15 and instinctively thought that might be Manning’s last night in our home. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I was prepping for six months, not six days. It wasn’t nearly enough time.

Like his first night with us in our home, I stayed with him that night. I tried to sleep, but managed very little. Around 4:00, I could barely hear him breathing, but he was still there, struggling, with no appetite and was relatively unresponsive. My wife was up at that time too, and we were both struggling about what to do.

How do you make such a heart-breaking decision about something you have loved unconditionally for years and have received that love back ten-fold? I was barely able to finish a sentence when I called the vet that morning as we scheduled some time for what we instinctively knew was probably going to be his last car ride with us. I was a wreck, but was trying to keep it together for our kids and for Emily, and I was failing badly at both.

I decided I was going to try to spend some time with him and took him outside. It was a gorgeous day, but he wasn’t really interested. I was hoping a walk could give him some pep and fight and chalk up the previous day to just a bad day, nothing more.

It didn’t happen. He stayed close to me, wagged his tail a little at some things I said to him, but overall, the cancer was clearly taking its toll. I was still trying to talk myself out of what we knew we had to do up until the last minute. When we were at the vet, I was the only one still holding out hope. The doctor looked at his throat, and the cancer had grown even larger than what we had seen earlier in the week. It was simply more aggressive and more destructive than was recoverable. Manning was in pain, even though the loyal dog he was, he never wanted to show it to us.

As we had feared, November 30th was his last night in our home, and he left us on December 1. It was one of the hardest days I can remember.

It will take time to turn this current pain into the joy of memory. I look around my house and see his imprint everywhere. The corner of our den where his bed was and not seeing him in his usual spots in our kids’ room when we read to them at night are all just consistent punches to the gut. I look out at our front yard and visualize him running around on patrol. I sit in our house expecting to hear the gentle tap at the door in the kitchen asking to be let back in, and not hearing it is hard. I even miss his cold nose in my face first thing in the morning.

My good friend told me yesterday, “Give it some time. Each day will make it easier. You’ll always think about it, but those kinds of memories will end up bringing smiles instead of sadness.” He is right, but right now, the sadness endures.

As one of my favorite columnists, Jonah Goldberg, said about dogs and our relationship to them, this one is mine. Manning was most definitely mine. I had dogs growing up, but it wasn’t a dog I chose. Emily and I chose Manning. He was our starter kid in many ways, and he grew with us as our family grew.

In the nearly eight years he was in our life, Emily and I started out as young adults. We were married and relatively free and we grew into full-fledged parents, tackling the realities of actual adulthood and life.

One thing is for sure, Manning made that transition all the more palatable. He was the best companion I could hope for, and we will miss him tremendously. He helped us grow, and he showed me how to love a little better, although I fail at that every day.

Early on when we got Manning, one of Emily’s family members said to us, “you know, getting a dog is just guaranteed sadness at some point.” Now that that sadness is upon us, I know he couldn’t be more wrong. Getting a dog is about the time you get to spend with him or her every day. The countless memories and happiness is what will remain.

As Emily and I drove back from the vet without our beloved Manning on Friday, we were both pretty shaken. However, Emily said something to me that isn’t surprising, because she is pretty much always right. She said, “experiencing that kind of love means that when it’s gone, it hurts, and that’s a good thing.”

Well said Mrs. Walker. We had unconditional love for nearly eight years. I miss it, but I would do it again without any moment’s hesitation.

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