Love comes in many flavors. Drool is one of them. Noah, a Newfoundland we adopted from my wife’s parents, was the antithesis of anything we thought we wanted. We wore cleanly pressed white pants and vacuumed every corner of the house. Noah was a mass of black fur who pooped on our carpet the moment his sensitive stomach couldn’t handle something. Sometimes—I am convinced of this—he did it to be funny, standing next to his scatolopus, tail wagging in utter delight even if we failed to see the humor. At his other end he was a “dry-mouth,” but fantastic strands of saliva still cast to the ceiling every time he shook.
Noah was a rescue dog from the start. He might have been put down as a puppy but MJ’s mother fell in love with him and paid full price. He was born with a deformity—a badly crooked tail, like an accordion—and its zigzag bone structure wandered up somewhere into his hindquarters. The one time he was X-rayed the vets could not believe it.
He was supposed to be a replacement for their previous dog, “Sam,” who had some Newfie in him but was of medium size. By the time Noah reached his first birthday he had to have been 150 pounds. They called him “Baby” and they meant it with genuine fondness and nary a whit of satire. In no time he ballooned to over 200 pounds, mostly staying inside because they risked injuring themselves if he went on a walk.
He was three when MJ’s father died and four when MJ’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For many nights Noah lay faithfully by her bed, sometimes barking at her in a vain attempt to restore her health. He loved her dearly and he didn’t want her to go.
After the funerals we had to find a home for Noah. We called around, asking breeders if they would take him. We received leads but for some reason we waited. Days passed, then weeks.
It was one night, watching TV, when we decided. We were on the loveseat and Noah rolled upside down, his legs flailing in the air and his back writhing against the carpet, grinding dander deep into the fibers. His back leg came to rest upon MJ’s lap. She grabbed the enormous hairy limb by the paw and shook the horrid thing before me.
“Look,” she said.
A bear. A live bear in our house. I could not resist that giant paw. He had to be ours.
We renewed his dog license and got to know his vet. In no time our house was blanketed in black fur. MJ set boundaries, putting up gates that limited Noah to just the front hall and family room. The daily fur and dander persisted and after a while I developed a dry cough. I saw pulmonologists and allergists who prescribed rescue inhalers, but as a professional oboist it was of little use. I was fighting a brigade with a slingshot. Anytime I returned home from a rehearsal or concert, Noah ran to me and covered me with slobber. After a while only a prescription cough syrup made my life livable.
Soon after adopting him we flew to New York to perform in Carnegie Hall. Noah was too big for a kennel and finding a sitter was a challenge. In a stroke of luck, a friend recommended a young man who stayed at our house while we were gone. In no time he locked himself out. Noah was trapped inside, hungry and thirsty, while we coached a virtual stranger how to break into our home.
Every part of our lives changed. Noah could not be alone for long, so we scheduled around his needs. Sitters were expensive, so we canceled trips. When our new music group did an experimental concert including John Cage’s “Theater Piece,” we incorporated him into the performance. As violins, flutes and clarinets roamed the stage, tooting randomly and reciting nonsensical words, Noah watched everything from his unique vantage point chained to the grand piano. For one part of the piece we threw biscuits to him and made him “sit.” When it was over the bewildered audience nonetheless applauded the new dog star of the underground avant-garde.
At home, Noah had a special way of saying, “I love you.” As you entered the room he rolled to one side and lifted his front paw, inviting you to scratch his chest. We always did, and that meant, “We love you, too.” When he was mad at you, he would not lift the paw; instead he exhaled in utter disappointment. To win back his affection, quality time with him was the only way. And if you gave him your time, he expected treats. Bits of chopped vegetables did the trick. Fennel was his favorite, but most of the time we had green beans and carrots at the ready. He couldn’t eat meat or bones. If he did, it was diarrhea for days. Other treats he loved were his Kong toy smeared with peanut butter and frozen bananas.
We took him on walks and in no time he was the star of the neighborhood. Cars pulled up and windows rolled down. Always the same question: “What kind of dog is that? He’s so big!” When Noah rode in the car and put his head out the window, cell phone cameras flashed at stoplights.
Noah’s archnemeses were rabbits. Some primal neuron fired and, no matter what you shouted at him, he bee-lined for those rodents wherever they popped. But Noah weighed 205 pounds and his élan was no match for his heft. The rabbits got away.
Except for one time.
A mother rabbit made the mistake of building her nest in our tomato garden. We didn’t know; it was spring and we had yet to turn the soil. Noah sniffed the air and acted oddly. He went to the bushes and pulled strands of ivy over his body as camouflage. Strange, we thought. When I checked on him later, Noah was burrowing furiously in the tomato bed. When he saw me he ran to his water dish—totally empty—and mimicked drinking. He kept his nose in there, pretending to drink as long as I stared him down. Canis ad cuniculus homicidium. A premeditated hit, and when I caught him in the act he improvised an alibi. Clever, very clever.
Our neighbors with three little children invited us over. We brought Noah into their yard and he fell in love with the kids. They ran in circles around him, amused by the novelty of such a large, friendly beast. Noah tackled the little boy, mounted him, and began humping. Horrified, I pulled him off. Then Noah took turns with the other two girls while MJ distracted the parents. He had been neutered since he was a pup, but—as with the rabbits—he had a primal drive buried deep. He thought the children were little dogs.
Newfies are water dogs, with webbed feet. They are trained to rescue drowning victims and they can jump from helicopters to get to them. But when Noah came into our lives, the closest experience he had with water was drinking from the hose. The first time we took him into a lake he trod deeper and deeper until his paws could barely touch the bottom. He held his neck high in desperation as water lapped against his mouth.
“Come on, Noah!” we urged. “One more step!”
He took that step and swallowed water. In a panic he thrashed his paws violently. The webbing between his toes bloomed, causing his head to gain buoyancy above the water. He was stunned—as if he had discovered a superpower—and thus was born my pet name for him: “Noah the Superdog.” Through the clear water we saw his aquapaws settle into a regular rhythm. His head surveyed left, then right, and in no time he mastered how to turn his body with sideways strokes. Later that day, as I led him by a rope through more swimming drills, he surprised me by biting the slack and towing me to dry land. All instinct.
We had to do something about Noah’s weight. He was sixty pounds heavier than an average adult Newfoundland. Walks weren’t enough, and adjusting his food didn’t help. We joined Shaggy Pines, a kind of Disneyland for dogs. Every day I drove him to the outskirts of town, buzzed him through a security gate and took off his leash. He ran wild. With twenty or more dogs at a time, the party never stopped. Whippets, Great Pyrenees, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Terriers, Beagles, Weimaraners, Irish Setters, Akitas, Mastiffs, Great Danes, St. Bernards, Huskies, Greyhounds and Labradors made their own rules and ran free. Noah rushed to every kerfuffle, often arriving just as they broke up. He gained a reputation as the Shaggy Pines “police dog,” untangling any melee by using his size. He never wanted to leave Shaggy Pines; it was there that he met the one Platonic love of his life, a stunning Kuvasz named Enya. Anytime she was there, he put on airs for her and never wanted to leave. If we had to go, he protested by slumping down next to the open car door in a full sulk. In a few months he dropped sixty pounds and never felt better.
But shortly after that, Noah’s kidneys failed. He looked green one day, threw up everything in his stomach and refused to eat. Our local vet tested his toxic blood and sent us straight to the animal hospital at Michigan State University. If he was to have any chance of surviving, that was it. The doctors tried everything. For days they flushed him with saline, hoping to clean his blood and give his kidneys a chance. In addition, they found an irregular heartbeat: atrial fibrillation. They tried a lot of experimental procedures that were of little help.
After five days, his team decided to stop all treatments and send him home. He was not going to make it and at least he could die with dignity in comfort, surrounded by those he loved. His doctor, whom we came to like very much, pleaded with us to try anything to make him eat.
For our benefit, Noah took symbolic nibbles off the smorgasbord we prepared for him. But he had given up. He sat with us for lunch and came into the living room for our pre-rehearsal nap. He showed us his rawhide even though he wouldn’t touch it. With a motion of his head he pretended to chew.
He slept on the porch that night. It was cold. I kissed him goodnight and covered him with a blanket. I told him, “Okay, buddy. We love you. You can have your privacy if you want it.” I came downstairs early the next morning expecting to find him lifeless and at peace. He still breathed, though it was with a stuttered exhale, a kind of wailing cry. I sank to my knees and could not control myself. I embraced Noah and cried an ocean of tears into his thick fur coat, asking why he had to go, why he couldn’t stay with us.
Noah sat up and—I am sure of this—looked at me quizzically. He studied my emotional state and drank it in, as if he had made some serious miscalculation. Then he licked my face. That morning, MJ made me breakfast that included scrambled eggs. Noah watched me eat, following the fork from my plate to my mouth and back. We never fed Noah from the table but I decided to try something.
“Mmmm. Scrambled eggs. Sooooo good,” I said.
Casually, I set my plate on the coffee table, within his reach if he craned his neck. Noah’s eyes turned to saucers. I picked up the newspaper and feigned interest. As a corner of the page curled down I espied Noah’s first voracious bite on his road back to health.
He made a full recovery, but with adjustments. Instead of regular dog food, he required a low-protein blend for dogs with renal failure. A 40 lb. bag cost eighty dollars. And there were pills. Lots of them. With a smear of peanut butter in my hand at breakfast and dinner, Noah consumed more than twenty pills per day for his various conditions and ailments. The medication for his cardiac arrhythmia cost a dollar per pill. Noah needed eight every day. We had already cut back certain lifestyle choices to accommodate Noah, but this pushed us past the limit for years to follow. But we did this with absolute joy, never a question in our minds.
From then on, we assumed every year would be his last. It was his last summer at the lake, then his last football season watching the Lions, then his last snowfall, his last Christmas, his last spring sitting in his favorite spot under the white and pink dogwoods, trampling the yellow sedum flowers. He loved the shaded tranquility there, and when he didn’t want to come inside he rolled on his side and lifted his front paw: “I love you.” He was nine, at the far end of life expectancy for Newfies. But after that it was another last summer at the lake again. Then Lions games started and it was his last time watching football.
Out of the blue, the discovery of my brain tumor sent me on a detour. I chuckled at the possibility of Noah outliving me, an irony I never would have predicted the day we rushed him to MSU. I hugged Noah before neurosurgery, and he licked me enthusiastically the day I came home from the hospital, returning all the love and power I had given him a year before. When I went in for a second neurosurgery—now more serious—he brought his favorite squeeze toy and offered it as a gift upon my return.
But the more I healed, the more Noah slowed. He turned ten and had another last summer at the lake again, then more last Lions games, a last snowfall, a last Christmas, and another last spring under the dogwoods trampling the sedum, rolling on his side and lifting his front paw: “I love you.”
His legs weakened and stairs were difficult, then impossible. Many Newfies suffer from hip dysplasia, often at half of Noah’s age. I wondered if his deformed tail had helped him last so long. Perhaps the bone structure buried in his hips had more angles of crosswise support, giving him extra years. It’s an interesting thought, that ugliness in youth can be an asset in old age.
We tended to him like a patient. We visited the vet frequently and tinkered with his meds. Noah turned eleven. He had one more last summer on the lake, one more last Lions season, one more last snowfall and last Christmas, and one final spring under the dogwoods trampling the sedum and lifting his front paw: “I love you.”
Noah turned twelve.
His bones creaked so badly we started him on pain medicine. It is a slippery slope with those pills, and the key was the art of striking a balance between managing his discomfort and allowing him to be himself. If he showed the spirit—the spark in his eyes—we would go to the ends of the earth for him, because that is what loved ones do. By the time his truly last summer at the lake started, he walked like a newborn colt. Every single day we were grateful he made it to the next. As long as he gave the effort, we were there for him. The last few months we had to lift him into a standing position because he could not do it on his own.
As his needs multiplied he turned grumpier. He bit me in the face when I tried to massage his sore joints. It was not a sudden, regretful reaction on his part; it was calculated. He meant to send a message: Never do that again. I had to go to the ER for that bite and I will have a scar on my cheek forever.
He refused to go outside some nights, and when we fell for that he relieved himself inside. Buckets, scrub brushes, steam cleaners, Resolve: we had our routine down by the end. We always thought it would never happen again.
Noah stayed with MJ’s sister when we flew to California for the Cabrillo Music Festival. We were gone three weeks. Through daily phone calls we heard details about his steady decline. He refused to come inside, instead choosing to sleep in the bushes. He still ate and took his pills, so we had hope.
One night it rained hard and Noah stubbornly stayed out. MJ’s sister left the garage door open in case he wanted shelter. In the middle of the night he went in there, but in the dark he stumbled. A bike fell on him and took a gash from his snout. She found him sleeping under a van the next morning, frightened.
When we came home from California, MJ drove to pick him up while I checked in with my “tumor team” for an important round of tests. I did well, but my neurologist ordered an MRI. But my own health was a far second on my list of concerns.
“How’s Noah?” I asked MJ after telling her my test results.
“Be prepared,” she said.
Noah was still lying in the van as I pulled into our driveway. When he saw me, his tail moved once, enough to show me. His eyes exuded defeat.
He needed the two of us to lift him into the driveway. He could not stand without us holding up his back legs. We cleaned him off with the hose and dried him with towels. He had the itch to shake, but he couldn’t. He stood awkwardly, dripping, so we toweled him again. We attached a back-leg harness and hoisted him up the front steps. Just inside the front door he collapsed into a heap, biting his lip on the way down and leaving blood on the rug. His body blocked the door from closing, so we pulled the other end of the rug, dragging him inside a few more inches so the door could swing shut. He was home.
I stayed up with him all night. He would have to go outside and he would need me. As a precaution, I slid old towels underneath his back end. I put my pillow next to his head and lay there, my body alongside his giant furry frame. I ran my hand down his body gently. He ached everywhere so I gave him another pain pill.
In the middle of the night I heard an explosion. A moment later I knew what had happened. I wiped him down, bundled up the towels and dropped them in the yard. I sterilized my hands and slid clean towels underneath his back and lay down next to him again. An hour later he did it again, and again I reset everything. I lay awake for the rest of the night, thinking about how to make diapers for large dogs. I wondered about burying a metal pole for ballast by the front steps and building a mechanism that could hoist Noah inside and outside the house. Then I mentally designed an adjustable cart with sturdy wheels—strapped underneath his ribcage—to let him walk around. If we can send a person to the moon, we could get this right.
Noah groaned, as if reading my mind. He was so very tired. He had been holding on so we could bring him home but it had not registered with me yet. I am a problem solver, but Noah did not want to be solved. When dawn came, he attempted to stand. His front paws clenched the rug fibers desperately while his back legs pushed. I put my arms around his stomach and pulled up gently. He strained and yelped as he shifted to another position and crumpled back to the ground.
MJ came downstairs, took one look at the two of us, and said, “Noah doesn’t want this anymore. We need to take him in.”
We didn’t need to take him anywhere. MJ called our vet who said she would drive to our house with a technician. Before they arrived, Noah used his energy for breathing. He rested comfortably. We offered him tiny bits of his favorite food, but he would not even sniff. We petted him gently and kissed his ears.
Noah knew what was happening. MJ and I cried, holding one another. We had an hour until the vet arrived. We petted Noah and told him we loved him.
Using all the rest of his energy, Noah rolled to one side and lifted his front paw: “I love you.” He did this three times over the next hour: once when I was alone with him, once when MJ was alone with him, and once when we were together with him. Dog is love, Dog is love, Dog is love. I love you, I love you, I love you.
The doorbell rang.
I answered it and our vet entered with a technician. I had never been more grateful for science.
“Where is he?” she asked.
We spoke in hushed tones. We had dimmed the lights and the air felt thick.
We gathered by Noah. He recognized his doctor, and I think he liked seeing her in his own house for once. We all ran our hands over his fur, respectfully, as we spoke.
She summarized everything to expect. She would need to shave a small part of his leg to be certain they would hit the vein. As the injection happened, it would be a few seconds before Noah would be gone. But it could take slightly longer with him because of his size. There might be involuntary movements or aftershocks, but that did not mean he would still be alive.
“We can begin, but if you need more time alone we can wait until you are ready,” she said.
“He needs one thing,” MJ said.
We gently eased off his harness and removed the special support around his back legs. Now he was pure dog, just Noah as he came into this world. He would not need a leash where he was going.
We looked into Noah’s eyes. He rested peacefully, his breathing relaxed. He looked comfortable. We looked at one another.
“Noah is ready,” we said.
We did not look back and kept our heads next to Noah. We talked to him, kissed him, and stroked his fur. I completely broke down in tears, but MJ stopped me: “This is Noah’s moment, not ours.” She was right, and I regained my composure. We heard the buzz of an electric razor.
“I love you,” MJ said. Then she whispered in his ear, “Love you, Baby.”
MJ’s parents—Noah’s original mom and dad—called him that. Noah knew he would be seeing them soon.
“You’re a good boy, Noah,” I said, then I called him by my own pet name: “Noah the Superdog.” I held his front paw and MJ put her hand over mine.
It was only a few seconds. I saw the syringe from the corner of my eye and looked away. I studied Noah’s eyes, looking right into him and cooed, “Good boy, Noah. We love you. We love you so much.” Noah breathed comfortably. I watched his eyes with every ounce of compassion I had while MJ kissed his head and ran her fingers through his fur. “Love you, Noah. Love you, Baby.”
Noah continued to breath comfortably and then—like a beautiful piece of music that ends in the middle—he did not take his next breath.
It was not a sudden ending. It was just an ending. There was no trauma, no pain, no final twitch, no death rattle, no hint from Noah that anything bad had happened. On, off. A seamless transition. Just another casual barefoot step along an endless, winding stone path. Step, step, step, step, step, eternal peace. That was all there was to it. Noah experienced what most humans will not: a dignified end when the time is right. People can go to the moon but they can’t get this right.
The moment after he died, a weight lifted from the room. Finally, Noah rested in peace. We had cried all morning, and the whole process was a release for everyone. After Noah was gone, his vet cried, and so did the technician. We all hugged, and it felt so good. I am 43, and this was the first time I had ever been there at the moment of a death. What stunned me was the beauty mixed in with the sadness. All my life I had been afraid of death, and now because of Noah I am no longer afraid. It was his last gift to me.
We continued stroking the fur on his lifeless body as we mused about the mischief Noah was surely up to in his new life; he was already greeting MJ’s parents full of a new puppy energy, darting about the sky free of aches and pains, forever chasing winged rabbits and rescuing angels caught in the rainclouds.
MJ and I stepped into the living room while they brought in the stretcher. It was the largest one they had, and Noah almost didn’t fit on it. As they carried him away we could see all four of his paws peeking out from under the cloth that covered him. With each one of their steps his paws danced, and in a glimpse I thought his front paw might have lifted up for us one last time: “I love you.”
While I watched the sunset last night, now a week later, I felt Noah’s presence. Out of habit I put down his water dish and filled it with the hose. For a moment I really did think he would wander up to it and drink. But he didn’t, and as the sun went down I had to imagine him next to me, panting and looking off in the distance. Oh, we loved Noah so much, so very, very much, and the hole left by his departure is crushing to our spirits, though that may pass in time. He had a real soul and his love was pure. It never wavered. With people, love can grow complicated over time, but with dogs it never changes.