We would have celebrated Murphy’s 15th birthday or his 105th—take your pick—on Jan. 4.
It all depended on whether we were celebrating in human terms or dog years. A year in human terms equates to seven in a dog’s life, just in case you’ve never heard that formula before.
But Murph never made it that far. His little but influential life ended on a sunny late afternoon in July at Dr. Mark Thompson’s veterinary office just a short drive north of Eden.
It’s the kind of afternoon we probably will never forget. It’s the kind of day that we might ask ourselves why we ever decided to get a dog. Why put ourselves through that inevitable tears-on-your-cheeks agony when a pet’s life ends?
It’s a question that’s asked countless times by countless people just like us. And for good reason.
The wave of grief and sense of loss has subsided or changed in some unexplainable way but it builds from time to time.
This is one of those times. Eight months ago I had virtually no doubt we’d be celebrating and marveling at Murph Man’s longevity on his 15th/105th birthday.
By the way, Murph Man was one of the nicknames added to his list along the way. Instead of singing “Do you know the Muffin Man?” in a children’s song, someone changed it to “Do you know the Murphin Man,” and the name stuck to the little guy for the rest of his days.”
Everybody who knew Murphy well called him Murph Man — even the veterinary staff members who cared for him until his final moments.
Our family — that includes my wife Kathy and our children Maureen, Julie, Brian and Colleen — made the trip in the dead of winter in 1999 to see the family of puppies born in January in the rolling hills of the Blue Mounds west of Mount Horeb on the farm owned by Kathy’s sister Mary and her husband Fred.
We, the parents, went with the understanding that we were going for a visit. There would be no dog returning to our home in Fond du Lac. We made it clear from the get-go. No dog!
As it turned out, two pups from the litter of five became Fond du Lac residents for the rest of their lives.
In the process they changed our lives. That’s what good pets do.
Sadie became Maureen’s dog and her faithful companion in the years before she married Chad. And then Sadie became Sean, Emma and Conor’s pet when they came along.
Murphy — the shyest, quietest, most timid of the litter — became everyone’s dog. But Kathy’s the most.
That litter of pups makes me smile. The chances of that litter happening at all couldn’t be better than slim to none.
The dad (if that’s an appropriate description of a dog) was a lhasa apso by the name of Mopsy (because he looked like a bedraggled mop) with legs no longer than 4 inches or so; and the mom was Daisy, a beautiful dark brown (statuesque by comparison) golden retriever.
They had been friends and cohorts for nearly nine years with nary a hint of romantic interest whatsoever…until that totally unexpected liaison by the side of the house.
Fred began yelling NOOOOOOOOO! when he first saw them from the kitchen and was still yelling as he ran down the back stairs toward them.
Today, we think YESSSSSSSSSSSS! It was meant to be and we’re all better because of it despite the sense of loss we feel from time to time.
Of the five, four resembled miniature Daisys, handsome but tiny golden retrievers. People asked us many times what breed Murphy was and where they could get one like him. In a way, he was unique. There are none like him or his siblings and never will be again.
The largest was dubbed Hercules. He looked like a giant lhasa apso (three times the size of his dad) but was blessed with the golden disposition of his brothers and sisters.
Murph Man came to us at a bargain basement price — FREE. I can’t help but smile.
Free comes with price tag…
Pets are never free of charge – free of spirit maybe, but never free in monetary terms in the long run.
They often need medical care, and I’ve noticed that people make sacrifices in that regard. Decisions obviously transcend responsibilities. Love enters in.
Murphy needed major eye surgery when he was 2. It was costly. He made annual or semi-annual visits to the eye surgeon for the next 12 years. Murph achieved a measure of fame as the dog with the longest successful eye procedure from the Brookfield area eye clinic. In his final year, Murph’s picture and his “bionic eye” became the subject of a presentation to veterinary eye specialists.
Murph needed surgery for a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) — you know, the leg injury made famous by a litany of great athletes, especially football players.
In fact, Murph needed ACL surgery on each of his back legs.
There were many other visits, mostly routine ones. They were never free.
Murph had three favored caregivers — Dr. Lyle Hansen at Town & Country in Fond du Lac; Dr. Mark Thompson at Country Hills at Eden; and Dr. Keith Collins of Eye Care for Animals in Pewaukee. He was on a first-name basis with all three. They got along like the best of friends.
Nagging medical issues…
Like a lot of oldsters, Murph began experiencing a number of nagging medical issues. His teeth needed cleaning, he couldn’t hear well, he became terrified of thunder storms, and he began limping on his back left leg.
We figured the limp last summer had to be an upshot of the ACL surgery and probably the fact that he still wanted to keep up with the young dogs.
We didn’t know it then but it was much more complicated and serious than it appeared.
It turned out that it was a back problem, a spinal issue. It pained us as much as it plagued Murph as we watched him struggle.
I’ve come to believe that animals have an incredible tolerance of pain. They put us mere humans to shame in that regard.
Dr. Thompson suggested laser therapy. We embraced the possibilities.
We began a series of laser treatments at Country Hills. At first Murph responded well.
It was a truly eye-opening experience. Over the course of a few weeks I watched fellow pet owners arrive and wait patiently and leave. From my spot by the window, I heard descriptions of procedures ranging from routine checkups to complicated therapy and surgery. I began to realize the costs and the level of commitment by owners and staff.
A special room…
I learned that there is a special room when the end is about to occur. It was painful to watch and know.
One day I heard a woman say to her obviously loved but struggling golden, “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is.”
During those summer laser treatment visits, I discovered a book in the corner of the waiting room titled “Bliss to You: Trixie’s Guide to a Happy Life” by Trixie Koontz, Dog, as told to Dean Koontz, an author with millions of books of various titles in print.
I read and reread a chapter or two each time I waited for Murphy.
I read about Quiet Heart, Wisdom, Meaning, Humility, Loss and Gratitude from Trixie’s point of view. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that little book.
By mid-summer it was clear that Murph was dealing with a serious setback. His apparent progress was undone by what appeared to be cancer in his hip and a shocking deterioration in a matter of a few weeks.
We carried him up and down stairs. He slept for hours on end. He didn’t eat or drink well. The end was near. We hoped and prayed he would go to sleep and not wake up. We wanted the easy way out, but realized we were about to enter that special room at Country Hills. On July 24 late in the afternoon, we made the final trip.
It was a merciful, caring, tearful farewell. Dr. Thompson and his staff could not have been more supportive and caring. When it was over, Kath and I sat alone for a long time with Murph in that special room.
Food for thought…
“The Seventh Step to Bliss – Accepting Loss. Losses that have happened, losses to come. Cannot find bliss until can accept loss.”: That comes to us courtesy of Trixie Koontz, Dog. By the way, that’s the way Trixie writes. She often leaves out words like a, an, and the. Just so you know.
I found myself thinking about that chapter countless times.
There were a couple other aspects of that chapter from Trixie that stick with me.
Here’s one: “Loss is hardest thing but also is teacher most difficult to ignore.”
Here’s another: “If you never knew pain or loss, never grief, how would you learn compassion? Empathy for others comes from understanding their suffering.”… “Grief teaches humility, teaches compassion.”
Trixie even quotes from a book by her human dad, Dean Koontz:
“The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time; you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.
“And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”
Let me leave it at that. Something to think about on these cold, quiet nights in the dead of winter.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column in the Scene.