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a familiar feeling

Sunday, September 13, 2020 [4:25pm EST]. I took our dog Cooper on a walk. I know the time exactly because I have a record--a text conversation with my friend Alex from Los Angeles.

Within the hour, Cooper will be dead.

He'll die in my arms on the way to the emergency vet as Lisa frantically drives our car. We don't get there in time. Like all tragedies, there is a lot more to this story.

It's a beautiful day. We go to Folly Field beach on Hilton Head Island and it's windy and cooler than it's been all summer. Thank God summer is almost over. I grew up in Ohio and summers were always humid, but 1) you don't notice when you're young and its all you've ever known, and 2) the Southeast geography of the United States is a whole other level. My 3 year-old son, Augustin has fallen asleep on our way back to the house. The kids are happy and in good moods. They do what we ask them to do without complex negotiations, they seem to enjoy sharing and acting like normal, mature humans. It was that kind of day. When we get back to the house, I'm inspired and decide I'm going for a walk, which I never do at that hour because it's usually too hot. I consider going by myself, but then feel guilty. How can I NOT take my dog for a walk? That would be irresponsible of me. He looks at me with his big round dark eyes and slobbery grin. He's so excited when he sees me putting on my tights and running shoes.

Lisa and I both decide, yes, I should take him.

We start out slow because I'm walking and texting. It's 4:25pm. I never get tired of looking around as I walk. The homes are beautiful with lush green landscaped yards along wide lagoons that are inhabited by alligators. There's one that Lisa's mom, Susie, calls Big Al, an enormous alligator that frequently sun bathes on the other side of the lagoon. It's not uncommon to see deer, cranes, or herons on our walks. It never gets old. I learn that the "low country" is the geographic and cultural region along South Carolina's coast, including the Sea Islands. Once known for its slave-based agricultural wealth in rice and indigo dye that flourished in the hot subtropical climate. Today, its known for its historic cities, natural environment, and island tourism. We pass the entrance to the community pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and club house. A little further, we cross a bridge with a creek underneath, where I've spotted turtles. It's beautiful and the smell of water and grass reminds me of Lake Erie.

Cooper has a spring in his step walking beside me. His walks have been spotty because (in case I didn't make it clear the first time) it's been really hot and humid and he can't breath well in hot weather (or any weather actually). He's a brachycephalic dog, which means he has a flattening of the face which many people find extremely appealing (including my wife Lisa). Brachycephaly literally means ‘short skull’. It refers to the length of the skull from the back of the head to the tip of the muzzle. We reach a street and Cooper decides he's had enough. He needs to rest so we stop under a tree in the corner of someone's yard and I give him ten minutes--petting him, trying to get him comfortable, completely confident that he's fine.

I text Lisa [4:55pm] that we've stopped for a rest and we are just down the street. After ten minutes I decide to call...twice. No answer. She's bathing the kids, I'm sure. I call Greg, my father-in-law, who is cooking tonight so surely his phone is nearby. "Greg, Cooper is struggling and we need you to pick us up. Bring some water. I'm on Farnsleigh, go past the pool." He leaves immediately, with water, but without his phone. He misunderstood me and can't find me. Ten more minutes pass and in that time, Greg goes back to the house and the neighbor man has given me water so I use it on Cooper's head and chest. Lisa calls me before I can call her and she's there a minute later.

We go back to the house and my first instinct is to hose him down with water, but we take him into house for air conditioning instead. We still think we have time. The kids are concerned. Augustin pets Cooper's head and Dakota looks on, very intrigued with his breathing. Within a minute Cooper gets limp and his tongue starts to turn blue and Lisa screams to get him in the car. We are out the door again heading to the vet. My heart is pounding. I keep patting his sweet head and telling him that we are going to get this taken care of. I tell him I'm sorry.

We go to the closest vet. They are closed. It's Sunday.

We call the next vet and as we're calling...Cooper takes his last breath in my arms. I stutter, "I think he's stopped breathing." Lisa jumps out of the car and runs around to confirm the worst. She howls unlike anything I've ever heard.

His breathing had become rhythmic, steady but I think he was already on his way. Lisa calls her Dad sobbing, "Oh man, goddammit honey, I'm sorry." The vet tells us to bring him to the clinic so we don't have to take him home.

That's what happened. Exactly.

But for days, we are not satisfied. We'll press the repeat button over and over and over again until it makes us nauseous. The incessant waves of grief are heavy for a few days, crying and then explaining to the kids that it's OK to cry, that Cooper is in doggie heaven with Georgia (which is ludicrous, but I find myself relying on rote, traditional explanations out of laziness and comfort). My grief has an altogether different flavor. It contains the feelings of shame, regret, confusion, bewilderment and shock..because, of course, I'm the one that took him on a walk.

"The physical sensations are an ambush. They sneak up on you, sucker-punch you in the face. One minute I’m fine and the next minute I’m sobbing." 

Lisa got Cooper when we first started dating. He was from north of Santa Barbara and the only one in the litter who sat staring at a yellow wall in the yard. Clearly, he was the one. Cooper was Lisa's little boy, her pride and joy...until she had Augustin. Then, like many dogs who's lives are upended, he and Georgia took a backseat to the demands of the young human creatures in the house. Our dogs could not have been more different. My Georgia was an Australian Shepherd--practically a wolf. Cooper was a man-made structural phenomenon who sounded more like a piglet.

Back to the repeat button.

Why did I go for a walk at that hour?

Why did I just not carry him home?

Why did Greg leave the house without his phone?

Why, when Greg did leave the house, did the car not start? (It seriously did not start).

Why did we not just go straight to the emergency vet?

Why was it Sunday?

Why did we not have enough gas in the car?

Why, when Cooper was used to taking 30 minute walks on hotter days, did he only make a 15 minute walk on a cooler day?

Friends are suspicious. Even the vet found it odd, considering the coolish day. There had to be something wrong? Maybe it was the ear infection he was taking medication for. After a couple of days I clocked the walk. From the house to where Cooper and I stopped, it was exactly 10 minutes and 4 seconds. He was outside for longer (maybe 44 minutes), of course, but how could a ten minute walk send him into overheat mode?

One week later the weather will cool to a beautiful 67 degrees and Lisa and I will be shaking our heads like, WTF?!

Maybe it was just his time? That thought gives me a tiny bit of relief, but mostly I feel at fault. Grief and all its familiar feelings flow steadily every day. I'm ashamed (which is the absolute worst), then I'm deeply sad, then I'm angry at dog breeders who would make such a dog in the first place, then I swear I'm never getting another animal ever again, and then I'm quiet and without words.

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