Burying an old friend, but not the memories

Digging the grave was difficult.

It wasn't the dirt. The topsoil made for easy going as we dug down about three feet. I used a pulaski while Maureen shoveled. Hard labor it was not.

But it made our hearts hurt.

We were both teary eyed as we thought of Alyeska, the Akita-German shepherd mix we picked up as a pup at the Humane Society of Southern Oregon in Medford 151/2 years ago.

So we talked about the unforgettable times we've spent with our furry friend whose remaining hours are few.

"Do you remember when she started barfing on the way home and I had to stick my head out the window so I wouldn't upchuck?" I asked Maureen as we worked. "You wouldn't have thought a dog could get car sick like that."

"Yeah, but she was so cute," my wife answered. "You were smitten the moment you saw her."

We both were. She quietly stood out among the other young dogs clamoring for our attention. Her thoughtful brown eyes seemed to take in everything.

As a former Alaskan, I insisted on naming her Alyeska, the native name for Alaska, meaning "great land." We nicknamed her Ally.

She was our hiking buddy, our camping pal. When we hiked with friends, she periodically trotted back to the rear to check on the straggler, which was invariably me. It was a good feeling, knowing Ally was keeping watch.

Now I watch over her with a lump in my throat.

After a full life of running and romping, she had a major stroke on Dec. 14, 2007, the day of our wedding anniversary. Her left side was paralyzed.

But the Grim Reaper of dogs nearly met his match when it came to Ally and Maureen. She massaged her, babied her, cajoled her. Ally eventually regained her queenly gait, albeit she would never run again.

Thanks to Maureen's effort and Ally's strong disposition, she had another good year of life. But if you survive life, old age will nab you in the end.

If it is true that dogs age seven years for every year, she is now at least 105 years old in human years.

She can no longer walk. For the past week, she has been curled up on a doggy bed in the living room, eating and drinking little.

She looks at the world through milky eyes that used to shine as bright as Venus in the winter night sky. Her once-dark muzzle is now as white as the top of Mount McLoughlin. Her skin sags where her powerful muscles used to propel her like a bounding deer.

Our two other pooches, Ona, short for Onomatopoeia, and Waldo the Waldorfian, both seem saddened by the fact Ally is ailing. They keep walking over and nuzzling her.

Now we are digging her grave in a pretty spot under an oak tree on our back 40 acres. A veterinarian was scheduled to make a house call to put her to sleep Saturday if she hadn't expired by then.

"I'll never forget the time she chewed up the kitchen when she was a pup," Maureen said during a break in shoveling. "It's amazing how she removed the trim around the door."

"It was her way of letting us know she didn't want to be kept in the kitchen," I offered. "Besides, it caused us to do the remodeling we had been talking about."

Maureen laughed as she recalled how Ally had donkey ears and a whippet tail as a teen-pup — years before filling out into a 100-pound beauty.

"She grew to be so beautiful, so regal," my wife said.

We both recalled the day a braggart of an in-law and a female relative came over for a barbecue. The in-law brought his purebred dog, for which he had paid a zillion bucks. He hounded us about how valuable the dog was, how smart and how it was bred to be courageous.

I didn't blame the dog — who was about the size of Ally — for his master's bilge. But Ally apparently did.

When the wonder dog walked past, she grabbed him by the throat, flipped him over on his back and stood over him, her teeth clamped firmly but not puncturing his fur.

Ally was silent, her front feet placed on each side of his chest. The prize purebred whined, afraid to move. His four feet froze in midair.

The blowhard in-law sputtered indignations for a few minutes, then left shortly afterward with his dog and spouse in tow.

"I've never thanked Ally for that," I said. "I think she did it to shut him (the in-law) up. I always appreciated her lack of tolerance for loud-mouth buffoons, be they human or canine."

As we finished our work, Maureen suggested we later plant flowers on Ally's grave.

"Let's plant daffodils because they'll come up every year and remind us what a great pooch she was," she said. "She was a good friend."

I nodded, unable to speak.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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