Sunday, August 15, 2021

Coco (2007 - 2021)

It’s Tuesday as I sit at the desk in my home office and begin writing this; it’s a gray and gloomy morning here in Michigan.

Fitting weather for a heartbreaking morning after.

On Monday, August 9th, our sweet boy, Coco—with Brian and I at his side—crossed the Rainbow Bridge. It feels infinitely more comforting to write that instead of “he died” or “he passed away” but we’re all adults in the room and well-versed on the deceptive reality of such feel-good words. Yet we cling to them when there is little left to cling to, don’t we? It somehow lessens the gravity; too bad it doesn’t lessen the ache.

Coco was a special dog—a Miniature Schnauzer who personified love with his gentle spirit. He was handsome in the stateliest of ways with a dog show prance for miles. He shared a birthday with my own Dad—December 30th—although my father has a few years on him. He was a lover—no dog could cuddle like Coco, whether it be on a lap or beside you in bed. He oozed affection and goodwill and could instinctively gauge moods and give you just what you needed at just the right moment. Along with that German pedigree of his came stubbornness (sometimes it became a battle of wills over pooping), and no dog could throw shade as effectively or comically as our Coco. 

I met Coco in October of 2011, shortly after Brian and I met in New York City. It was our third or fourth date and Brian brought Coco—then about four months shy of his 4th birthday—over to my weekend apartment in Hell’s Kitchen one Saturday evening. I had mentioned to Brian how my own childhood dog had been a Miniature Schnauzer, given to me by my father for my 8th birthday. When I met Coco, it was love at first sight. To this day, I joke with Brian about who I fell in love with first—him or his dog. That would have been 10 years ago next month. As Brian and I grew closer, our little family of three solidified.

Coco had an amazing life of adventure—from growing up in the heart of Manhattan to our long road trips to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even when Brian and I settled into the suburbs on Long Island, there were weekend getaways into the city for Broadway shows, with Coco always happy to be safely ensconced in a NYC hotel room with late-night and early morning walks around city blocks bustling with city dwellers and tourists alike. Coco frequently came with me to work at the nursing home, always happy to go office to office visiting my staff, presiding over morning meeting sitting on my lap at the head of the conference room table, and those midday strolls around the perimeter of the facility. Coco loved riding in the car, and I was happiest when he rode shotgun in my truck even if it was just to the Starbucks drive-thru to get coffee. 

Coco had the tenderest of dispositions, instinctively knowing when to play gentler with a puppy (like his buddy Missy at The Hamptons Center) and when he could assert himself with a larger dog. There is still a YouTube video out there of our Coco hilariously terrorizing Brian’s brother’s late 100-pound-plus English Mastiff, Dante. There wasn’t another dog or person who Coco didn’t get along with. He was always a mellow, go-with-the-flow kind of dog. Even with our frequent moves (seven in the space of just under ten years), Coco always proved to be adaptable and resilient. As long as he had us—and a favorite “baby” or two—he was good to go and happy. And as long as we had him, our lives felt full and complete.

He became a big brother in December of 2019, when Cooper—also a Miniature Schnauzer—joined our family. My only regret is that we waited so long to get another dog and playmate for Coco. Although they only had about a year and a half together, they bonded quickly. In testament to Coco’s generous and loving spirit, he (again) quickly adapted to sharing his dads with the family’s new addition, never once showing signs of resentment or jealousy. Even as the years advanced on our Coco, he did his very best to keep up with mini-Cooper’s endless energy. They’d tussle together on the floor and be happy to go on long walks together, but sleeping arrangements were where we always let Coco maintain the upper hand—he got to sleep between us in the bed, while Coop snuggled amongst his blankets and “frog baby” in his crate. It was our one way to remind Coco that he came first and had at least one privilege his upstart little brother did not. It was an arrangement he seemed satisfied with, even until his last night with us.

About two weeks ago, we noticed that Coco was drinking exponentially more than usual and urinating a lot. We took him to the veterinary clinic we’d carefully researched and selected when we moved back to Michigan last December, and he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. He had been eating voraciously up to that point, but after one sprinkle of the probiotics the vet had prescribed and one dose of the heavy-duty antibiotic she’d ordered, he all but stopped eating. On the Saturday before his passing, I called the vet to report that now Coco hadn’t been eating for 2 or 3 days despite my ever-patient Brian even trying to hand-feed him. Although the vet had office hours that day, we were brusquely told that they wouldn’t be able to fit him in and to try an emergency veterinary hospital. Panicked, I began calling other local vets. The second call I made was answered by a lovely young woman named Sarah at the Somerset Veterinary Hospital in Troy. Even though Sarah didn’t know us from a hole in the wall, she made us an appointment for that same morning, and we brought Coco in. There we met Dr. Whitney Reinhold, who was just lovely—gentle, empathetic, and possessing excellent clinical skills. Concerned with Coco’s dehydrated state (despite his continuing to drink plenty of water), she ran some diagnostic tests.

The news was delivered with compassionate candor—based on his symptoms and lab values, Coco was either suffering from Leptospirosis (possibly treatable) or bone marrow cancer (not treatable). We were left with an agonizing decision: Hospitalize him or bring him home over the weekend. Somerset Veterinary was not open on Sundays, so if we left him with Dr. Reinhold and her staff, he’d be essentially alone, save for a few overnight checks by the vet. If something went wrong and he took a turn for the worse, there was the possibility that he’d die alone. There was also the option of an emergency veterinary hospital; upside was immediate treatment, downside was that (again) he could take a turn and we wouldn’t be with him. The third option was that we take him home with us for the weekend and monitor him closely; Dr. Reinhold suggested that we offer him anything he would eat—baby food, peanut butter, rice and chicken. Coco—around year 5 or 6—developed a ridiculously intolerant gastrointestinal problem that limited him to one Science Diet variety of food that was particularly vile to my human sensibilities in every way possible, from texture to smell. Although Coco was weak and his breathing a little congested (likely due to an enlarged liver pressing against his little diaphragm), we opted for option #3. Dr. Reinhold gave him some subcutaneous fluids, a gentler antibiotic, and medication for his liver. We would nurse him all weekend and pray that he’d pull through until Monday, when we could return him to Somerset Vet for additional treatment. By then, we hoped his Leptospirosis test results would be back and we would be in a better position to determine a course of action. In an act of such compassion and empathy, Dr. Reinhold gave us her personal cell number in case we ran into any problems over the weekend or Coco took a turn for the worse. 

That weekend, we dedicated ourselves to our little buddy. Brian, in particular, was so attentive to his needs, from helping him stand outside and spreading his back legs so he could urinate to sitting on the floor with him every two hours with any combination of peanut butter and baby food on his finger trying to coax Coco to eat. He administered his medication, without fail, like clockwork. My heart broke watching them together, because Brian raised him from a puppy and their bond was an unbreakable one. At night, in bed between us, we took shifts cuddling him, turning him over every two hours or so to prevent any kind of skin breakdown. With his poor nutritional intake, he was in a much-weakened state by now. Although we forced ourselves to stay hopeful, there was a looming reality hanging over us like a dark cloud those two long days and nights, and we took every opportunity to stroke his head and tell him everything that we needed to say. He was able to make eye contact with us and we spent hours just sitting with him, staring into those soulful eyes of his, trying to figure out what he wanted. He didn’t appear to be in any pain, which buoyed our spirits somewhat. By Sunday night, he stopped urinating and his breathing slowed. We were positive he was going to pass away during the night, and we tried to take some comfort from the fact that he would be with us, at home, in the familiar comfort of his own bed.

But our Coco, once again, defied the odds and proved to be an intrepid little fighter. He made it through that night and even seemed ever-so-slightly more responsive in the morning. We took that as a sign that he wanted more time with us. We called Dr. Reinhold first thing on Monday morning, and she had us bring him in. She would start IV fluids and IV antibiotics while we waited for the test results, run some more diagnostics, and see how he was in a few hours’ time. But she was guarded and benevolently honest: Coco’s prognosis was poor.  

I’m not going to lie—that morning was the longest few hours of my adult life. Brian opted to go to work to busy his mind; I ran into the nursing home for an hour to tend to a few of my usual early morning tasks and came home. Around 1:00 PM, the phone rang. It was Dr. Reinhold explaining that Coco had taken a turn and advising that Brian and I should come as soon as possible. Instinctively, I grabbed one of Coco’s favorite toys—a silly-looking orange dinosaur that he’d had for years. Jumping into my truck, I called Brian and told him. Thankfully, Somerset Veterinary is only a few blocks from the house, so I was there within minutes. Running into the vet’s office, my heart was lodged in my throat. I was ushered immediately into the back where our beloved Coco was lying in his doggy bed, the soft blanket we had left with him covering him. He was breathing heavily—too heavily, I knew—and had a plastic cup-like apparatus over his snout delivering oxygen. His eyes were wide open, and he seemed markedly more responsive than how I’d left him earlier. Dr. Reinhold explained to me that he’d been doing ok for a while that morning, that he had perked up with the IV fluids. But when they’d gone to turn him over—changing his position as we had to avoid skin breakdown—he’d gone into respiratory distress. She’d run more tests and his kidney and liver function were both poor. 

There is that moment that all responsible pet parents know well—that agonizing reality and crushing weight of the decision to do the kind and loving thing for your furry loved one. While I waited for Brian to arrive, I sat with Coco and cried and cried while again and again telling him how very much I loved him, how sorry I was that I couldn’t make him better. My hand never left him, as I stroked and caressed his fragile little body and repeatedly kissed the top of his head and nose. I consciously tried to commit the feel of him, the smell of him to memory. My thoughts went to all those times when I’d failed him—when my patience fell short or when I raised a voice to him in frustration. I apologized to him, telling him how utterly and completely perfect he was and that those moments of harshness were my failing and not his. I begged him to forgive me and, in that moment, saw nothing but unconditional love in his expressive, tired eyes. There was my proof, my confirmation of what I’ve long known—that dogs are superior to us humans in every way that counts. Their capacity to love, without qualification, is limitless and sets them apart from every other living creature on this earth.

Brian arrived and Dr. Reinhold explained to him what she’d told me a short time ago with nothing but patience and compassion. Without needing to discuss it, we both agreed to end Coco’s discomfort before it turned into suffering. We spent another 20 minutes or so talking to him, stroking his salt-and-pepper coat and frail little body underneath, kissing him, and making sure that when he left us, he did so knowing how very much he was loved. When we were ready, Dr. Reinhold explained the process to us—it’s one we’ve both been through before. We positioned ourselves directly in front of our beloved little buddy, and made sure that he could see us, that our loving faces would be the last thing he saw as the lights dimmed and he went to his eternal rest.

As he left us, I simultaneously prayed to whatever force in the universe gives us the gift of these beautiful creatures and cursed it for not giving us more time together. Our grief was unbearable in those first moments when Coco left us, and Brian and I held each other—and Coco—and just sobbed and sobbed. Dr. Reinhold and her staff—truly angels who walk amongst us on this earth—gave us as much time as we needed with Coco afterward. I think we stayed with him for another half an hour before finally pulling ourselves away. Leaving that sweet creature’s empty shell there broke our hearts all over again, but we knew that Dr. Reinhold and her staff would handle his remains with the utmost care. He would be privately cremated—Brian made sure that his silly little orange dinosaur baby went with him—and he would come home to us the following day.

As I stepped outside the vet’s office, it started to rain. It was as if the universe was crying with me for the loss of this magnificent, selfless, beautiful-in-every-way dog named Coco, loved boundlessly by his two dads, a slew of family and friends, and his little brother, Cooper. I sat in my truck and my heart burst open even more than I thought possible. I just sat there, hunched over the steering wheel, and sobbed until I was empty. In those first heartrending moments following Coco’s passing, I wanted to truly die, to go with him and walk him over that famed Rainbow Bridge. If there is one thing I hope and pray, is that all dogs truly do go to some kind of heaven and, especially, that we’re somehow reunited in spirit and form at the end of our own lives. I want to believe that. I need to believe that.

The week following Coco’s passing has been filled with heartbreak—those first days and nights were nearly unbearable. 

Coco’s collar and leash hanging on the hook by the back door…

His empty doggy bed that still carries his scent…

That empty spot between us in the bed where Coco slept every night for so many uninterrupted years…

We received word from Dr. Reinhold yesterday: Coco’s Leptospirosis test finally came back from the lab and was negative. That’s good news in the sense that we don’t’ have to test or worry about Cooper contracting the disease. That also means that our beloved Coco succumbed to likely bone marrow cancer and that there was nothing that we could have done to save him, which takes some of the guilt off me for not opting to admit him to the emergency animal hospital over the weekend. Our choice gave us—and him—more quality time together to express our love and prepare for his final journey. It’s bittersweet news, but in the midst of this numbing heartache, it’s good to take whatever modicum of comfort you’re afforded. 

I finish writing this on Sunday, almost a week after Coco has left us. If you’ve read this far, I thank you for taking the time to read this tribute to him. I wanted to commit the events of Coco’s last days and life to writing so that there is a lasting homage to this extraordinary dog, who was loved more than these words can convey—try as I might. I hope his journey over the Rainbow Bridge has ended with all the promises contained within that beautiful poem. The grief this week has been unbearable at times, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. I asked him in our final moments together to send us a sign that he’s ok, that’s he still with us, watching over us. While I’m waiting for that sign, I’m replaying countless Coco memories in my head, taking comfort in the many heartfelt messages of sympathy left for us on social media, and just taking it one day at a time with lots of deep breaths to quell the panic attacks when I’m overwhelmed by the sense of loss. Coco’s final resting place—a beautiful, personalized wooden urn—arrives tomorrow. Brian and I will transfer his ashes after work and likely shed even more tears for our sweet boy. 

I am grateful that Brian and I have each other to hold one another up through this. Grateful, too, for little Cooper who now inherits the benefits as the singular recipient of our focus and doting. He’s our reminder that life continues, that there are always more dogs to love and care for. We’ll continue to love and care for him with the same dedication and passion that we cared for Coco—and the countless pets between us that we’ve loved and cared for over the years. In time, we will undoubtedly open our hearts and home to another dog, a little brother or sister to keep Cooper company. We’ll repeat this cycle of love and accept that this gift comes with the eventual—and inevitable—loss. 

That is the cycle of life.

Rest in eternal peace, beloved Coco. Thank you for sharing part of our lives with us and for making us better human beings through the example of your steadfast loyalty and unconditional love. We will forever try to be the people you always thought we were. Our love for you transcends the meaning any mere words could ascribe. Miss you and love you dearly, little buddy. 

Coco Liaguno-Charles

December 30, 2007 – August 9, 2021

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

I feel that I know Coco thru that beautiful blog. I have my Gracie who is only a couple months younger than precious Coco and I cannot bear the thought of losing her. My heart ♥️ goes out to you both. May she Rest In Peace. Thanks so much for sharing such a personal experience with me.
Love you xoxo Cheryl Wentzell