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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Thoughts From Six Feet Away: Cold Nose, Warm Heart

My original intention was to reflect upon some humorous musings of the past couple of weeks, sort of a lighthearted attempt at humor, since the last year has been, well, fairly heavy. I can’t recall a year with so many profound events, most of them sad. I was ready to compile these quips last weekend, since my wife was out of town and the kids are adults. But, the universe had other plans from me, it seems. I need to warn you – what I’m about to say is sad, and if you’re triggered by such things, it’s best not to read this. In fact, I doubt anyone needs to read this nearly as much as I need to write it.

There are few things in this world that bring a human being more joy than a pet. I firmly believe that they are here to remind us of what our potential is when it comes to unconditional love. They ease our sorrows, they lighten our burdens, and they lift our spirits at our most desperate times. They accentuate our lives, give us strength to carry on, even if it’s out of a sense of responsibility to this creature that depends on us to survive. But even with all these great attributes, there are some pets that are just, more.

A handsome snow dog

I live in a house full of cat lovers, and that’s perfectly fine. I mean, my wife once had a snake – a cat is a perfectly acceptable consolation prize. That being said, I am, and will forever remain, a dog person. To me, dogs have that little bit of extra, the path to greatness in a game of inches. Some would disagree with me, and that’s okay. When the kids were little, we decided it was time to get a dog. My family wanted one of those tiny, yip-yip numbers, but I wanted more. My most meaningful relationship growing up was with Walter, a Brittany Spaniel who listened to all my problems with a gentle ear, a kind look, and a wagging tail. I wanted that again, and I made it clear I wanted a bigger dog. “You clean up the poop, then,” was my wife’s only demand, and I gladly accepted. After doing some research, we found the Mile High Labrador Rescue Mission, and we learned of a dog who was saved from being euthanized in Kansas, who was pregnant with a litter of six pups.  There was one left from the litter with a foster. We must’ve called that poor woman twelve times that night, but she called us back the next day, and we went over to see him. He was looking out the window as we walked up the driveway, and he immediately started following my kids around the house. “A single guy wanted to take Diesel,” the lady said, “but I refused. I told him that this dog needs to go to a family.”

Scarf dog.

One thing we knew after we got home with our new guy – the name Diesel had to go. Wanting to name him Sirius, after Sirius Black from the Harry Potter movies; we were still thinking of other names when my son walked up to us, 5 years of age and said, “his name is Nestle.” No need arguing with that level of confidence, I’ve always said, and Nestle he became. He was scared to be in a crate that first night, and he cried constantly. The only thing that calmed him was when I sat next to him. Taking the hint, I grabbed a pillow and a blanket, and he went to sleep knowing I would be there.

You know the phrase “pure as the driven snow?” It conjures images of the color white, but to me that phrase always makes me think of black, because that’s what color Nestle was. He was definitely labrador, but I distinctly saw golden retriever in him too, making him essentially the greatest hits of family dog. His disposition was always pleasant, he had a gentle soul, and he loved the kids. When he was a puppy, he’d sleep in your arms for hours. I got through a very toxic job that year because I had him to come home to for snuggles. He never bit anyone. He was never aggressive. In fact, later on when we adopted a feisty little tabby cat named Loki, he would let Loki attack him. He would growl and bite at the cat, but you could tell he was biting as gently as he could.

My daughter and Nestle

We had him trained as a puppy, and the trainer described Nestle as a “wise guy.” If Nestle didn’t want to do something, he’d let you know. If you tried to shame him for a mistake, he’d talk back to you. It’s no wonder that this dog and I bonded instantly. My family often referred to me as his “favorite human,” and I’d have it no other way. Everyone loved Nestle, from the boarders to family members, to friends, and even the veterinarian. One day, my daughter had a friend over that I correctly guessed was trying to get in good with her for romantic reasons. We were grilling out on the deck, and while we were eating, Nestle came up to this kid, prompting the kid to respond, “I hate that dog.” He never came back to my home after that day. Anyone that didn’t like Nestle was not to be trusted.

Annoyed dog

He loved to play, although he didn’t understand how to do it in the beginning. We would throw things, and he’d just stare at them. We got him to play with two other older black labs at one point, but he chased the other dogs, not the frisbee. When anyone would make comments about his intelligence, I would simply reply, “I don’t keep him around to discuss current events.” I used to let him chase me around the house, and then I’d hide so I could jump out and scare him. He caught on eventually, and he’d bark with every step he took, knowing that I’d jump out at any moment. He destroyed a lot of “non-toy” toys in the beginning – mini blinds, the lattice work on a French door, and even one of my favorite pairs of shoes. Perhaps my favorite “toy story” was when we redid our bedroom and moved out the dresser. Underneath, there was a squeaky toy that had held up to his destructive jaws. As soon as he saw it, he took it and ran downstairs. About five minutes later, we heard him crying in the living room. When I went down, he started wagging his tail – he had been reunited with his favorite toy, and he was sad that no one was playing with him.

Sad dog, resting on his toy. No one will play!

He knew it was wrong to take food, and he had learned to wait for the coast to be clear. One time, Robin made a cake and left the room, and he promptly jumped up on his back legs and licked as much icing off the cake as he could. He knocked over freshly delivered pizzas. Once, I had grilled out and noticed one of my buffalo sauce burger patties was missing. After watching Nestle go to the water bowl every ten minutes for about two hours, I had nabbed my culprit.

Me and my dog.

Nestle was a constant in our lives. He was always happy. And when I’d look in his eyes, I saw pure love, the kind of love that very few humans can muster. Even though my family thought it disgusting, I’d let him lick my face. He always wanted to know where I was. He knew what the phrase “go get Daddy” meant. And when I’d have to shower and go to bed, he would dutifully come upstairs with me.

He wasn't without his quirks. When he got a treat, he had to take it to the other room to eat it, for some reason. Labradors are notorious water dogs, but Nestle hated water. On the other hand, he loved snow. He was never happier than when he was out in a blizzard. Although, he would get confused at times and pee on the deck, rather than go to his designated area. But his biggest pet peeve had to be his jealousy. He hated when I held another pet, and he even got mad when I'd hug Robin, my wife. Speaking of Robin, she took so many pictures of that poor dog that he'd bark every time she pointed her phone at him. I used to complain about it, but I'm glad she did.

Annoyed dog in sheets

I think the biggest lies we are told involve the fact that things happen gradually. To me, they hit at once, and they hit hard. I remember waking up one morning and realizing my entire body hurt. That hadn’t happened the day before. Maybe it did happen gradually, but my awareness was like a light switch. In a similar fashion, I remember taking Nestle for a walk, and it's suddenly hard for him to walk a half mile, and I realize that fourteen years have passed. I’m not naïve – I know the life expectancy of the average labrador, but I pushed it away, saying that he was hardly gray. He still had a lot of energy and man, that appetite! I think he would’ve literally eaten himself to death if we had let him. We never had trouble with pills because he liked peanut butter that much. His mobility limitations were easily solved; when he couldn't jump on the bed any longer, I built him stairs so he could get on the bed, as well as into the back of the car.

But last week, he didn’t want to eat his food, or even his treats, and the day I had been dreading was looking me in the face. I remember sitting on the deck where he and I had spent many moments, and I looked at him objectively; he looked like an old man who was hurting. He clearly wasn’t the same. We were so connected, I knew what different forms of panting meant for him, and I had suspected for a month that something was wrong. Last Sunday, with my wife out of town and my son in the dorm, Nestle was struggling too much for my taste, and I took him to the ER in Indianapolis. They agreed to support him and give him fluids while waiting for an ultrasound on Monday. So I went home, slightly more optimistic. But his condition worsened over the afternoon, and he began running a fever. The vet and I had worried about a tumor affecting his stomach, and I rushed to his side, knowing that there was only one thing to do. God has a way of humbling us – here I am, Dr. High and Mighty, and I’m lying on the floor with my best friend, his head resting on my arm, singing "You Are My Sunshine" and telling him about all the people who love him. But I reminded him that no one loved him more than me. I made damn sure the last thing he heard was “I love you.” Just prior to that, he licked my face one last time, not because he felt like it, but because he knew I needed it.

A dog and his toy.

Humans are awkward. I’m sure someone will offer misguided condolences in the form of “it was just a dog.” How many humans have enjoyed good health in the past fourteen years at my hands, not knowing that the ultimate physician had a velvet snout and a tail that always wagged? You will never hear me say the words “put down” in reference to his final moments – you put down dogs. You “say goodbye” to angels, put on this earth to protect you, hoping like hell they’re waiting for you at the gates when you go to meet your Creator. How could I say he’s “just a dog” when he was literally better than 99% of humanity? He loved with all his heart, and everyone felt joy just being around him. Anyone that remembers him knows I’m not spewing dramatic hyperbole. He was really that good. He was my avatar in canine form. My author bio states that I hope to be half the man that my dog Nestle thinks I am. I will continue to see myself through his eyes; even clouded over with milky cataracts at the end, he could still see through to my soul, and there was never a day where he wasn’t proud that I was his dad.

I thought about closing by grousing about some dissatisfaction with a certain aspect of my life in the grander scheme of this loss, but I can already feel my dog angel putting his paw on my hand, reminding me that this is not what we do. If I had a tail, I’d wag it. Instead, I will do my best to smile, as painful as that is to do right now. Be excellent to each other, and…

Resting pup

Rest in peace, Good Boy.

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1 Comment

Apr 29

Beautiful tribute to a good boy indeed. 💖

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