Eleven years ago, I met the man who became my husband. Our love was quick to take hold, and I broke all of my single mom dating rules when I introduced him to my kids within a month of meeting him. Steve had a year old dog, Clark, a black lab who was his constant companion. I maintain that it was the kids' love for Clark that led to them loving Steve so easily. He was the dog they always wanted, and the one I couldn't afford to give them during my years as a single parent.
Steve bought Clark after deciding it was time to take a year off from dating and relationships. They forged a bond that is one of the strongest I've ever seen between man and dog. Steve made the winning bid for a puppy at a Pheasants Forever auction in Clark, South Dakota. Hence his name. He was a baby-only a few weeks old, and Steve tucked him into his jacket to warm his tiny body. From then on, Clark was carried in Steve's jacket until he was too big for such transport, but Steve still took him everywhere. The dog went to work with him everyday. When Steve visited job sites, Clark was on the seat next to him, or in a kennel in the back of his truck during warmer months. The pair were together almost 24/7/365 until Steve built a new office in 2006 and decided Clark would be better off at home. The kids were home in the early afternoon, and home all summer, and Clark always had at least one other dog at home to keep him company.
This early bond between man and dog left Clark extremely protective of his master. As Clark grew, his bark was deep and loud, and more than a little intimidating-especially once he reached his peak weight of 130 pounds. Any stranger that approached Steve was greeted with a big, black dog growling and barking at them, the hair on his back often raised-a terrifying sight. If you've ever visited our home, you've seen that side of Clark. It was all show. Clark was what my dad would have called a "rough, tough creampuff", quite literally all bark, no bite. But with Steve, the kids and me, the dog was a gentle giant. He was the most loving, sweet natured boy, full of kisses and always by our side.
It was always easy to love Clark. His happiness when family came home from school and work was unflagging, he greeted you with love whether you were gone for fifteen minutes or five days. He was miserable the few times we boarded him. The first time we kenneled him for a week, he lost ten pounds and was almost unrecognizable when we arrived to retrieve him. His joy was obvious as he tackled each of us, relieved to finally be reunited with his family.
Clark was one of the shiniest, most handsome dogs you can imagine. Under the full sunlight in summer, I swear you could see your reflection in his fur.
He was full of wild, unbridled energy for the first two years of his life. We used to own a cabin in Western Wisconsin and Clark loved running and swimming with kids. The first time they went swimming with him, Clark thought Alex needed rescuing, and took his boy's arm into his mouth and began paddling toward shore. We doubled over with laughter, and let our dog know his family wasn't in distress.
It was hard to say whether Clark loved winter or summer more. Every year, after the first significant snowfall, Clark would run outside and roll around in the snow. He loved to take in big mouthfuls of the white stuff, and looked as if his muzzle was covered in sugar.
He loved to go sledding with the kids. Clark loved to do everything with the kids. He tolerated them using him as a body pillow, a foot rest, and a model. He was never aggressive, he just loved being included.
In 2007, Steve rescued a female black lab named Nori and introduced her to Clark. Clark seemed less than thrilled at first, but Nori's youthful exuberance was good for him. She was two years old to his five and proved to be the perfect companion to the older dog.
Three years later, in 2010, a friend let us know he couldn't care for his black lab anymore and Remy joined our family. Remy was only a year old, and the 8 year old Clark and 6 year old Nori were unprepared for the disruption of this wild man. I was sure we'd made a horrible mistake for the first week, but Remy grew on us. Clark made sure the newcomer understood who was boss and that Remy was at the bottom of the pecking order. It only took a couple of instructive nips and growls for Remy to get the message. He loved to lay with Clark in the kitchen while I cooked. As long as Clark had first dibs on any food that landed on the floor, Remy was safe.
Clark could never stand to be alone. He wouldn't even stay downstairs by himself. If I was in the shower, he was on the bathmat. If I was cooking in the kitchen, he was on the floor nearby, waiting for scraps. He followed you from room to room, always watching. He slept in the bedroom with Steve and me each night, either on the floor just below me, or in our walk-in closet. Always close.
Over the last twelve years, Clark had a life full of ups and downs. Mostly ups, but his physical challenges were many. Shortly after we moved into our home, Alex left a sliding door open in the basement and Clark took advantage of the oversight and slipped out. By the time we realized he was gone, a half hour had passed. We drove around a couple miles of our home, calling him, looking for him in the dark. After several hours, he hadn't returned and all of us were in tears. That night was agony. There was no sign of him the next morning either. We left the sliding glass door open in case he found his way home in the middle of the night. Three days after disappearing, I was in the shower and Clark came into the bathroom-soaking wet, covered in dirt and burrs, but no worse for the wear otherwise. I phoned Steve to let him know our boy had returned. He burst into tears with relief, and rushed home to see for himself. The story has become part of our family lore, we never stopped wondering what Clark did during his three days on the run. Where was he, what did he see?
After Clark's great escape, he was taken to the vet for neutering. It was at that vet visit that we were made aware of a cataract and hip dysplasia. Common problems for a purebred black lab. Knowledge of the cataract was the explanation Steve needed for Clark's struggles during hunting training, so that plan was scrapped. While Clark's cataract impaired his vision slightly, it was glaucoma in his other eye that led to his next health crisis. I'm so grateful we had the ability to pay for Clark's healthcare, because it's easy to understand how another dog's family may have made a different decision. Buying a dog is the cheapest part of ownership, the cost in ensuing years is where the biggest expense lies. By the time we realized Clark had glaucoma it was too late to save his eye and our family vet referred us to the University of Minnesota Vet Clinic. We were given the option to have a prosthetic eye implanted, but opted to leave Clark perpetually winking. When my niece saw him, she remarked that he looked like an old grizzled war veteran. He did. But he was no less lovable to any of us, and it didn't seem to slow him down much at all.
Post-surgery, I decided it was time to work on Clark's weight. Clark always found a way to get extra food. In spite of his girth, he was catlike when it came to grabbing chow off the counter. His favorite treat was a loaf of bread. If the pantry was left open, and Clark was unattended, it was feeding time. More than once I came home from work to find empty bread loaf wrappers strewn across the floor. Once I left a 9x13 pan of brownies on the counter to cool. Hours later, the pan had disappeared. I accused the kids of eating them, they all plead ignorance. I couldn't imagine Clark got them, the counter is bar height and he showed no evidence of gastric distress. After an hour of looking, I found the pan underneath a coffee table in the family room, licked clean. Clark's weight topped at 130, and I couldn't imagine the struggles that awaited if we kept going down that path, so I cut his daily food portion and kept a closer watch on his snack intake. He was never small, but our vet was pleased when I got him below 100.
My favorite times with Clark were spent in the yard. He loved to lay in the grass, soaking up the sun and sniffing the air while I gardened. For hours, he would observe the comings and goings of our little cul de sac, I would let him drink from the hose, he would tear apart my empty pots or gnaw on a random branch. This fall, we had beautiful weather until the end of October. As I prepared my beds for winter and planted my mums, I watched Clark in the yard. I knew deep down, this would be his last time watching over me in the yard. Ultimately, that was Clark's job-protecting and loving us. He never flagged in his responsibility.
In the past year, I noticed Clark's weight declining even more. His last annual vet appointment in October revealed he was at 76 pounds. Not small by any means, but the wasting around his hips was especially evident. His doctor called him, "Kiddo" during the exam and I laughed at the joke. Our old man was anything but a kid.
Thanksgiving in our house is open to friends and family. I love cooking for my people, but the dogs are restricted to the garage or bedroom during meal time, their begging is pathetic and endless. This year, one of my best friends, Jill, brought her sister Keri with her to dinner. Keri had eaten with us a couple years earlier, but I'm always nervous about how newcomers to our home will react to the herd of canines in our house. Keri insisted she loved dogs, and wouldn't mind if they were around. Release the hounds! The dogs stampeded to the dining room and instead of barking and growling at a stranger, Clark went right up to Keri and kissed her face as she asked, "Who is this gentle, old soul?"
I nearly fell out of my chair. "Gentle old soul?" Clark? I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Clark needed regular visits before he had that comfort level with someone new. I was even more astounded after dinner when Keri lay on the floor next to Clark, gently stroking him. Folks, I don't like to lay on our floor, but I loved Keri as much as I love her sister Jill in that moment and I was so grateful that she spent the evening with our family.
The night after Thanksgiving one of my other best friends, LeAnn came over for our annual leftovers get together. As usual, she brought big marrow bones for the dogs, who were always overjoyed to see her. After dinner, we sat in the kitchen and talked and Mario announced something was wrong with Clark. He was on the couch having a seizure. I grew up with a dog who suffered with seizures most of her life, so I was calm. Steve was ready to burst into tears. Even though I didn't panic, I knew it was not a good sign to see this symptom show up at this late in the game. Clark was disoriented afterward, but by the next morning was pretty much back to normal. I took him to the vet and we agreed that we'd start medication only if Clark had another seizure. Unfortunately, that was within the week. It was if a clock started ticking down our Clark's time with us. The medication left Clark disoriented, so we dropped the dosage. A couple days after Christmas, Clark suffered two more seizures at night within a few hours of each other. The next morning, he could barely walk, and seeing his world shrink to our family room was awful. We slept fitfully and briefly the next two days, and cried much. Clark looked sad and scared, and it was obvious what needed to be done.
On December 30th, we put down our beloved Clark. I want to believe that Clark held on until Alex was home, insuring that all of his family members would be able to say their final farewells to him. It was probably just serendipitous, but it was enormously comforting to the human contnigent that held Clark as he took his final breath. My husband is beyond heartbroken, and two days later, his tears are still flowing.
I want to thank the incredible staff at Eagan Pet Clinic for the amazing care they gave Clark for the last nine years, as well as the care they continue to provide to Nori and Remy. They have been emotionally supportive in the last week, and took the time to call me back after I called them sobbing, looking for their guidance and approval with our horrible decision. Thanks also to the doctors at The University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center who cared for Clark when he lost his eye due to glaucoma.
Finally, I hope that you never need to use the service, but when the decision to end Clark's pain became obvious, we wanted to avoid an ugly group cry at our vet's office. They are phenomenal, but the thought of loading poor Clarkie into the car in subzero weather and putting him through that stress wasn't the way we wanted him to spend his last moments. Through our vet, we were referred to MN Pets, a firm whose doctors will visit your home and let your pet pass away in familiar surroundings with loved ones by their side. Dr. Melinda came to our door and I went to shake her hand, but instead collapsed into her shoulder with a sobbing hug, which she warmly returned. She was so gentle and understanding with the family, the absolute best possible option for a sad ending. Clarkie was surrounded by the five people who loved him the most, stroking him, declaring their love for a dog who was as much a part of our family as any human. His fur was wet with our tears.
In a book of essays, Just Beyond the Firelight, Robert James Waller writes of the pain of putting down his beloved Roadcat. "For some days after, I swore I would never go through that again. If it came to euthanasia, I would refuse to be present. I have changed my mind. You owe that much to good companions who have asked for little and who have traveled far and faithfully by your side."
Annelise took this photo last August as Clark waited for Steve to come home. It's my favorite picture of him.