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Survival & Thrival: Life Goes On

July 30, 2020 by Kurt Wilkin

Uncertainty swirls around us. We’re all looking for answers – political, economic, health – that we aren’t going to get any time soon. 2020 has been complete chaos, but we have to do the best we can to survive and thrive in it.

Our lives go on… and “real life” doesn’t care that we’re in a pandemic. We’ve still got our normal work to do, hurricanes are forming out in the Gulf, and our families still need attention. Life goes on, masks and all. Last week, I was reminded of this fact when I had to make the ultimate decision about my faithful friend of 12 years – Dixie, my 12-year-old Chesapeake Retriever. I’m dedicating this week to remembering that in all of our push to Survive and Thrive in this pandemic, sometimes things happen in our lives that we need to make time for. I’m dedicating this week to Dixie.

A Dog’s Life
Dixie was a good dog. Not the best dog – I firmly believe that moniker should be reserved for Scooby Doo, Ol ‘Yeller, or a pup in that class. Dixie never saved Timmy from the well or rescued an old lady who fell off a cliff. What she did do was make you smile with her unconditional love, big puppy dog eyes and swift wags of her tail.

One of her favorite activities was coming to the creek with me on a Saturday morning. It was about a twenty-minute walk, and Dixie passed the time by chasing every new smell on the way. It might have been a deer, raccoon, possum, or even a coyote. She didn’t care, she was just excited about the smells!

When we’d finally make it to the creek, she’d look at me with expectant eyes, her tail feverishly wagging, eyes darting everywhere. She was excited because there was one major reason she wanted to come to the creek: to play fetch. Ans she could definitely smell the tennis ball in my bag!

I’m telling you; Dixie was the best and the epitome of a fetch-a-holic. No matter how many times or how far you threw the ball, Dixie would sniff it out and find it. I’d throw the ball in the water, across the water, in the weeds. It didn’t matter to her.

It was so cool watching her tramp through the creek racing her way to the ball. She’d leap as high as she could to get above the water line. Anything to get there faster. If the water was deep enough, she’d swim as far as needed to get to the ball. At times we worried that she’d injure herself because she worked so hard chasing that damn ball!

On the rare occasions I forgot the ball or we lost one, Dixie didn’t care. ANY stick would do. I’m talking about anything from a 12-foot tree branch to the last nub of a pencil!

At the house, we’d hang out by the pool and Dixie took this as her personal play time. She’d bring you the ball over, and over, and over again for HOURS! Literally, hours. Naïve newcomers would eventually get frustrated and yell at her to quit, but alas, Dixie didn’t speak English. Plus, when you get annoyed you throw the ball harder and farther, which is pretty much exactly what she wanted you to do!

Sometimes we’d even mess with people by throwing the ball into the pool next to them. Dixie would come flying into the water…sometimes next to you, but often just over the top of you, trying to get to the ball.

I got Dixie back in 2008, two years after I originally came up with the idea to get a Chesapeake Retriever. The first time, my wife pointed out that adding a new puppy right after a new baby and moving to a new home wasn’t the best idea. In order to save our marriage, I forfeited my deposit and waited. In ’08, there was less disagreement, but Carrie still wasn’t totally on board.

Her life with Carrie didn’t start out great. Having a new puppy thrust on you against your will is probably reason enough, but Dixie decided to take things up a notch. Her daytime boredom led her to tear up the cushions on just about every piece of outdoor furniture we had. It was not a good thing for me when I came home to couch stuffing all over the back yard!

So Dixie wasn’t a perfect dog. In fact, one of the reasons I picked her was that she had an “imperfection” on her left foot. Chesapeake Retrievers are supposed to be a copper brown color all over, but Dixie had white fur on her left foot that made her toes stand out. I used to call her Tiptoe. This “imperfection” would’ve prevented Dixie from being in a dog show but I believe our imperfections are what make us who we are. And I sure didn’t want a “perfect” dog or a show dog!

“Chessies” like Dixie were bred to swim in the cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay to retrieve birds on hunting trips. They’ve got webbed feet and hair that seems to deflect water for just that purpose. It also explains why Dixie loved swimming so much. It seemed only natural that I would bring her along on my once-or-twice a year dove hunts. Most bird dogs are trained from a very early age for months, it takes time for them to get used to the sound of guns and the task of finding and retrieving a bird. Dixie got her first taste of hunting when she was already five years old!

Before her first trip, I gave her the only “training” she would get by taking her to the backyard and tossing a frozen dove from the previous season as high as I could. I imitated a gun sound as I pointed my imaginary gun at the bird – not exactly high dollar bird dog training!

Even with that poor training, Dixie was smart, so she did surprisingly well when the shots started firing during dove season. Unfortunately, I think her expectations were set a little too high by the frozen dove in the backyard. She understood that when the gun went up, there was a chance a bird would fall. What she couldn’t understand was why her dad’s hit rate was so low!

Despite all of her years of practice on tennis balls, she wasn’t exactly the best at finding a bird that I DID hit. If she didn’t see it fall, she probably wasn’t going to find it. Sometimes we’d be able to work around this by throwing a rock near the bird. She’d go out to fetch the rock and sometimes came back with a dove. I guess her nose was calibrated for tennis balls. I’ve often said that if they would invent shotgun shells with tennis ball fuzz on the BBs, dogs like Dixie would have much more success!

But her nose wasn’t the only thing stopping her from being a world class dove dog. For some reason, she didn’t like birds in her mouth that were still moving. She’d take it upon herself to finish the job, sometimes eating the bird whole!

Life Gets in the Way
Back in February, we had to have her spleen removed due to cancer. The vet estimated that she probably only had two or three months to live. We appreciated every day we got with her and luckily, we ended up getting five months with her. She was a little slower and lazier than usual, but for the most part I think she lived her best life.

Over the past two weeks it became obvious that the end was near. I called the vet a few times, but we knew that we were in a hospice situation. I knew in my heart that the next time I took her to the vet it would be a one-way journey – and I put that off as long as possible. Last Thursday I finally took her.

The vet offered to do a few things to “give her a few more days,” but I couldn’t bring myself to prolong her now miserable life. That seemed selfish. Ending her pain was definitely the right thing to do. But it didn’t make it any easier. My wife and three sons made it a point to love on her and say their goodbyes, and they each gave me huge hugs because they knew how much I was hurting.

When I carried her into the vet’s office I found myself thankful for my COVID mask for the first time. They could see my teary eyes but at least the tears and snot rolling down my face were covered up. I stroked Dixie’s head and comforted her, saying my final goodbyes.

Dixie was a good dog and I’ll miss her. I’ll miss the sound her ears would make when she would shake her head rapidly to get your attention, I’ll miss her annoying “Hey! The tennis ball is too far under the couch!” bark, and I’ll miss the way she’d put her tennis ball right between your feet when other dogs were around so they wouldn’t steal it from her!

Moving Forward
COVID-19, especially in our politically fragmented United States, is making everything uncertain. We’re definitely not out of the woods yet. But we have to remember that life continues around us. Remember that every day is precious, and don’t lose sight of your loved ones and the battles they are fighting, most of which have nothing to do with the pandemic. Reach out, be empathetic and show those you love some – well – some love.

Fetch in Peace, Dixie | July 2008 – July 2020

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