Monday, June 15, 2015

Forever My Girl

Today I said goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever had – a blessing in every sense of the word and one who enriched my life in every way possible. My beloved Sydney crossed over the Rainbow Bridge late this afternoon amidst much tender stroking, soft kisses, and too many tears to count. Her beautiful life ended much in the way it began, with her two Dads marveling over her intrinsic exquisiteness. Much like our hearts threatened to burst with love on the day she came home to live in that A-frame house on Longwood Road almost fifteen and a half years ago, so too did they threaten to burst with grief today as she gently slipped from our lives.  

The heart-wrenching decision was made on Saturday morning after conferring with my ex. As some of you may remember from social media posts a few months back, Sydney’s health had been steadily slipping. In addition to a sudden onset of complete vision loss, the veterinarian discovered a tumor of unknown origin and severity near her rectum. That tumor continued to grow and started to bleed with increasing regularity in recent days. Her overall skin integrity started to decline as well, with small growths and scabby areas appearing in spots where hair had fallen out.  Vinny and I discussed that her quality of life was starting to slip now, with no discernible reaction to being outdoors (which was always certain to set her tail wagging) and increased difficulty navigating around his house in her darkened world. A slip down the stairs, a fall off the bed, aimless wandering and bumping into things…not good signs. Although she remained responsive to touch right up until the end, it appeared to us that her overall awareness of her surroundings was gradually diminishing.
See, Sydney was only the second dog I ever had. My first – a floppy-eared Miniature Schnauzer named Scuffy – was a birthday present for my eighth birthday and we were inseparable in the way only an adopted only child and his dog could be. As I grew into adolescence and then young adulthood, my youthful exuberance for the life before me took center stage and Scuffy, whom I still loved dearly, faded a bit – without intention or malice – into the background. She became less “my” dog and more the family dog, with my Dad and then stepmother becoming her everyday constants while I experienced life on my own out in the larger world. And although I was almost 200 miles away when Dad called to say that he’d had to put Scuffy down, the stab to my heart – grief mixed with a new sensation of guilt for all those later days lost with my childhood dog – was palpable. To this day, my warm memories of that scrappy little Schnauzer who served as my constant childhood companion and amateur show dog in summertime 4-H fairs is tempered by my guilt of not being there to say goodbye to her at the end. In fact, it haunts me at times.

So when Sydney came into my life, I made her a promise on the very first day we met that I’d always be there for her. I still remember the late April day in 2000 when my dear friends Lisa and Brianne, together with our late friend Jeffrey, all conspired to visit a local pet store (before it was not politically correct to patronize them) called Puppy Deport in Port Jefferson while Vinny was at work, unaware of what we were up to. We had talked intermittently about getting a dog and were eyeing the Cocker Spaniel as the chosen breed. But I had a long history of “surprising” Vinny with furry companions – beginning the month after we met when he was greeted with two little fur balls who would come to be named Branigan and Bam Bam, both stray kittens found underneath my stepmother’s garage.
“Happy Father’s Day”, I remember announcing on the day they were presented to him.

Two more kittens would come into our lives during those first years together. The first, a gray and white kitten who we dubbed Chapman, was found clinging to a tree by a former roommate and moved into the two bedroom apartment (our first after moving out to Long Island) we shared with her and our two cats. When she split, Chapman stayed behind. A few years later, while Vinny was home painting the interior of the townhouse we had moved into (Yaphank, 1993), a simple trip to the grocery store resulted in Moyet, a fiery little ball of mischief who I gingerly placed on the kitchen counter before calling Vinny downstairs.
“Don’t be mad”, I said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen and caught sight of the latest member to our growing family.

But Vinny was never mad, always melting immediately after the requisite eye roll, as if to say: You did it again, didn’t you?
So on that late April day, as my friends and I meandered through the Puppy Depot, I knew two things in my heart: I was going to find my second dog that afternoon and Vinny would not be mad. Not really. Or at least not for long.

I told the pet store staff that I was in the market for a Cocker Spaniel and they readily presented me with several squirming, licking, panting specimens for my consideration. Let’s face it: All puppies are pretty damn cute and irresistible, and I probably would have been happy with any one of them. But something kept telling me “No, that’s not the one” with each successive puppy I held and so I kept on wandering deeper into the Puppy Depot.
About thirty minutes in, I passed a cage with three puppies. Two – I couldn’t tell you the breeds this many years later – were pressed against the front of the cage, vying for my attention with whimpers and wagging tails. But it was the third – a doe-eyed little Cocker Spaniel with champagne-colored fur and matching freckles on her white nose – that caught my attention.

“That’s a Cocker, isn’t it?” I asked the attentive pet store clerk, pointing to the cage.
The clerk nodded. “Yes, but you don’t want that one. See the freckles on the nose? You’ll never be able to show her.”

Show her? I thought to myself. Did I look like I was shopping for the next entrant into the Westminster Dog Show?
With gentle defiance, I instructed the clerk to let me see her.

And when the pet store clerk shrugged and placed that freckled-nosed pup in my arms, it was Рas the clich̩ goes Рlove at first sight. We locked eyes Рhers always sorrowful and sweet, mine quickly welling with tears Рand then she rested her head against my chest and exhaled deeply. She had picked her owner; she was home.
That story is often repeated amongst my group of friends who were there that day and we laugh at the memory of Brianne nearly screaming from the sheer cuteness of the scene as she exclaimed, “Oh, my God! She looks like you!” I can still recall – with great detail – the immediate sense of urgency I felt at needing her to come home with me that day and the sense of horror when the cash machine Lisa drove me to would only dispense half of my new puppy’s sticker price. I’ve always been blessed with great friends – and Lisa is no exception, quickly taking out her own bank card to lend me the balance.

The freckle-faced puppy came home with me, a rainbow-colored bow adorning her neck. When I heard the crunch of gravel from Vinny’s car, I met him at the front door with a familiar refrain.
“Don’t be mad…”

We named her Sydney, after my favorite red-haired vixen on Melrose Place played by Laura Leighton. I am, after all, always and unapologetically a pop culture junkie. The rest of Sydney’s story is a decade and a half chock full of wonderful memories, each one coming back to me over the last few days as I prepared myself to carry out my last act of love in helping this beautiful creature make her final journey.
Sydney running across the green lawn of our Middle Island house, chew toy in mouth…

Sydney taking her first swim in Lisa and Brianne’s pool, plunking down into the water after slipping off the first step…Brianne shrieking in the background while Lisa and I howled with laughter…
Our refrigerator loaded with “Sydney” magnets from anywhere and everywhere we ever traveled…Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, Boston, Florida, Belize, to name a few…

The way we’d laugh at how Sydney developed this soft little “woo-woo” sound to indicate her impatience at having to wait for her meal-end treat of table scraps. I smile thinking about how she wooed louder and louder the harder we laughed. And how we laughed until our stomachs hurt…
The way we nicknamed her “Woobie Girl” shortly after bringing her home…a nickname that would stay with her throughout her life…

Sydney moving with the speed of light to pilfer an unsupervised hot dog off the table during barbecues…
Sydney rolling around gleefully in the grass after just returning home from the groomers while her fretful Daddy carried on about the money he’d just spent…

Cuddling in the bed with Sydney as a puppy and as an adult, the soft feel of her fur between my fingers, the warmth of her body pressed against me…
Sydney’s gentle kisses on my nose and mouth, the intoxicating smell of her doggy breath…
The look of happiness on Sydney’s face and dance of joy she did whenever one of us came home from work…

The very last sight of Sydney taking her final, gentle breaths – under the kindly supervision of Dr. Kevin Lynch,  the veterinarian who  has cared for her since the day we brought her home – while  Vinny and I wept and wept and wept, knowing that we were doing the right thing but hating every second of it…

This morning, I awoke to the sound of torrential rain. It was as if the universe was in perfect synch with my emotions, weeping torrents of tears with me for what was to come to pass this afternoon. It was a fitting tribute to Sydney, courtesy of Mother Nature. The weather only heightened my sense of overwhelming melancholy, and I found myself thinking of my failures when it came to my sweet Sydney. I hope the majority of her memories of me are good ones and that she’s forgiven me for the times when I may have raised my voice in frustration – not over her, but more likely some inconsequential human problem for which she was the vessel that received my angry tone or impatience.  

I hope Sydney forgives me for splitting with her other Dad, hoping that she never felt for a second like I abandoned her, understanding that she went to live with one Daddy and not the other because we both agreed that she shouldn’t be split up from her younger brother, Kirby, or little sister, Zoe. I hope she knows somehow that even though I often went to bed crying during the ensuing years because I missed having her in my everyday life so much that leaving her with her other Dad and doggy siblings was genuinely done in what we both believed to be her best interests. I hope Sydney knew that her daddies’ split from each other eventually brought two more wonderful people who loved her unconditionally into her life, her “stepdads” Ot and Brian. I hope she felt the four of us gathered around her yesterday to say our goodbyes and spend one more afternoon with her. After a good portion of her adult lifetime spent adhering to strict dietary restrictions due to some persnickety kidneys, I hope she enjoyed her special meal today – steak and Teddy Grahams. Something salty, something crunchy-sweet for her taste buds.
I hope she heard every one of my heartfelt thank you’s – for her unconditional love, for her affectionate, gentle disposition, for her sense of humor, for her compassion and companionship, for her sixth sense in knowing when I needed one of her sweet kisses or a random woo-woo. And I hope, as she slipped into her sweet hereafter this afternoon, that she sensed how much her other Dad and I loved her and that choosing this time for her to make her journey across the Rainbow Bridge was not done lightly or for any kind of human convenience and only to ensure that she never went out in severe pain or suffering of any kind. She deserved infinitely more than that, and I was determined to keep that promise I made to her on the first day we met – that she would never suffer and that I would be with her at the end.

My sweet, one-of-a-kind Sydney is gone now as I type this through tears that feel like they may never stop. It’s times like this where I happily push my agnosticism to the side and believe with unwavering certainty in a place described in that infamous Rainbow Bridge story, where Sydney is young again, her legs strong and steady, her eyesight restored.  A place where the sunshine always beams down on her – catching the red highlights in her fur – and gentle breezes caress her beautiful face. In my mind’s eye, I see her meeting Scuffy for the first time and being reunited with Branigan and Bam Bam and Chapman and Moyet, their animal kingdom differences cast aside and all of them playing happily through endless sunshine-filled days and cuddling together under starry moonlit nights. In the sweet hereafter that I want – desperately – to believe in for Sydney, all dietary constraints are gone and she has a never-ending supply of doggy treats and hot dogs.
Most of all, I hope those last lines of the Rainbow Bridge story prove true. That someday, when my own days are done, that I’ll be reunited with her, that she’ll be there to greet me with wagging tail and endless kisses like she did all those times I walked through the door after work.

 I want – no, need – to believe this today more than anything else in the world:
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....


Goodnight, sweet Sydney. I’ll love you and keep you in my heart forever, my unforgettable Woobie Girl.
Sydney Liaguno-Pers
February 26, 2000 – June 15, 2015