Monday, July 30, 2007

A Hole in Our Hearts

Whenever my wife and I think of anything good--a well-turned phrase, a beautiful sunset, an inspired musical performance--we think of Murphy.

That's what she came to represent to us. For example, when a particularly good smell finds its way to my nose, I think of Murphy. My wife had the idea of caring for Murphy as mostly an indoor dog (except for our daily walks). I'd thought of having an "indoor-outdoor dog," with the fenced backyard and all of that, but my wife wasn't having it. "I want her to be clean so she can be close to us and be part of the family," she said. That turned out to be a great idea.

If you get a schnauzer bathed and groomed every 6-8 weeks or so, and brush their coats regularly, they have the most wonderful smell. It's like fresh laundry, only better. If heaven has a scent, it must smell something like Murphy's coat.

We think of Murphy every time we see a northern mockingbird, which is so common here in Alabama. With its gray covering, erect bearing, and alert/piercing eyes, the mocker reminds us so much of Murphy. And like Murphy, mockers don't suffer fools, cheaters, or intruders gladly. Ever seen a mocker dive bomb a cat who gets too close to the bird's nest? Like Murphy, northern mockingbirds take security issues seriously.

We find it ironic that readers throughout the world have come to associate the Alabama mockingbird with justice, through Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird. To us, Murphy represents justice, too.

In many ways, my wife and I feel we owe our lives to Murphy. She was six years old when this legal nightmare started, and without her, I'm not sure we would have lived through it. She invariably made us laugh several times a day, and that alone did wonders for our mental health. And on the darkest days, she seemed to try extra hard to provide a positive, upbeat presence, one we desperately needed.

(We also owe a huge thank you to our family physician, Dr. Edward Childs of UAB Internal Medicine. I recall reading an article several years ago about the most stressful events that can happen in life. Death of a spouse was No. 1 and death of a child was No. 2. I don't recall the list exactly, but I'm pretty sure dealing with a lawsuit was in the top 10, maybe the top five. I would encourage anyone facing a lawsuit or other highly stressful event, to consult their physician. Modern medicine now has some wonderful treatments for stress, anxiety, and depression.)

Murphy was such a cool older dog. As adorable as she was as a puppy, she was even neater as an adult. When she was eight or nine, her vet gave her a "senior profile," which they do for all dogs of a certain age. We used to joke that they must have meant "senior puppy profile," because Murphy still looked and acted a lot like a puppy. Even her vet said that, if he didn't know better, he would think she was about five years old.

We joked that her favorite athlete must be Joe Namath because he was famous for the quote: "I can't wait till tomorrow because I get better looking every day."

So we were caught completely off guard when Murphy developed a cough on Sunday, January 11, 2004, and didn't show her usual interest in a walk on a cold day. She was always sniffing things on the ground, so we figured she must have gotten something caught in her nose or throat. But when the cough did not get any better, my wife took her to the vet on Monday.

Naturally, Murphy did not cough at the doctor's office. (Murphy was so good-natured that she liked going to the vet. The doctors and assistants almost always commented on what a good patient she was. Even when they put a thermometer up her butt to check her temperature, she would get a funny look on her face ["Oh, that's cold"], but she wouldn't jerk away or move.) With no sign of a continuing cough and her vital signs looking normal, the doctor thought she might have a type of benign, phantom cough that older dogs sometimes get. If the cough returned, he encouraged us to bring her back.

By Tuesday afternoon the cough had returned and seemed to be getting worse, so we scheduled an appointment with the vet for Wednesday morning. We went to bed that night with Murphy in her usual place, right between us with her head resting between our pillows. We never heard her cough all night long.

When my wife woke up, she noticed that Murphy had poo-pooed in the bed. I heard my wife say, "Oh, my baby doesn't feel good" and then she went into the bathroom to get some tissues to clean things up. She patted on Murphy, but Murphy didn't move, and my wife let out a scream.

Murphy's side was against my back, and I turned to look at her face. Her eyes were open, and she seemed OK, so at first I couldn't figure out why my wife was screaming. "She's not moving," she said.

Then I noticed Murphy's tongue was stuck slightly outside her mouth, and blood had come from her mouth and nose. I thought maybe she was choking, so I tried to press on her chest, thinking I could get something dislodged.

When she didn't respond, we frantically put a towel around her and carried her to the car. We drove to an emergency animal clinic that is about five miles from our house. The doctor there was wonderful and kind, but there was nothing she could do. It was January 14, 2004, Murphy's 11th birthday.

Based on the symptoms, the doctor said Murphy probably had died from a heart-related problem. Murphy had been diagnosed with a heart murmur when she was nine years old, but it had sounded mild. The emergency doctor, though, said heart murmurs, with little or no warning, can turn into a more serious valve problem and lead to sudden death. Also, there is a type of tumor that often grows in the heart or spleen and can cause sudden death in dogs. It is called hemangiosarcoma, and Murphy presented with a number of the symptoms.

Heartbroken, we took Murphy to her regular vet, Dr. Bill Christenberry at Caldwell Mill Animal Clinic, where she had an appointment scheduled that morning. We were in a daze, and there was nothing Dr. Christenberry could do, but it seemed like we should go there. When Dr. Christenberry and his colleagues were building their new building a few years earlier, we were one of many people who had bought commemorative bricks to honor our pets. Ours said "Murphy Shuler, God's gift." It just seemed natural to keep our appointment at Caldwell Mill.

The staff at the clinic must deal with death every day, but there was nothing commonplace or routine about the care and kindness they showed toward us. Dr. Christenberry agreed with the emergency vet on the probable causes of death, but explained that we could not know for sure without an autopsy. And he said even that is not always conclusive. We elected not to have an autopsy done, and the staff allowed us all the time we needed to be with Murphy. Dr. Christenberry prayed with us and thanked God for allowing Murphy to come into our lives.

The day we brought her home from Selma, we had taken Murphy to Dr. Christenberry for a checkup before we even took her home. She had been a great patient right from the start, and he knew how much she meant to us.

We elected to have Murphy cremated, and we keep her ashes in a wooden urn in our bedroom.

About a year after Murphy died, we adopted two Siamese cats (or Tonkinese, we're not sure), a brother and sister named Baxter and Chloe. A good friend of my wife's is a cat lover (I think she and her husband have seven cats), and she told us about Baxter and Chloe. They had a good home, in a family with a mom and dad and two children. But the dad developed allergies to the cats, so they needed to find them a good home.

We were happy to have them, and they've proven to be a wonderful blessing. They were about a year old when we got them, and for the first couple of weeks, they spent most of their time under the couch. But they warmed to us pretty quickly. Now we have to be careful when we turn around because one of them is likely to be following right behind us.

Murphy's tail had been docked, so we never had to worry about stepping on her tail. We quickly learned that we had to be careful around the cats and their tails. Also, Murphy was such a physical presence, with the clip clop of her feet on the floor, that you always knew when she was nearby. But the cats are so quiet that they can be right behind you, and you have no idea they are there. We've learned to move carefully.

Unlike Murphy, the cats don't seem to have a clue what we're saying when we talk to them. But they are funny and loving and comforting, in their strange, catlike ways. And we think they've decided that, all in all, they have a pretty good gig.


Loretta Nall said...

I'm so sorry about your baby Murphy. I have an 11 month old German Shepherd that I got for Christmas and I love him like one of my children and would go nuts if anything happened to him. It is amazing how close we get to our pets.

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks so much for your kind comment. German Shepherds are such regal dogs. Hope you have a wonderful experience with him.

Posse Pal said...

I was so touched to read of your love for your darling schnauzer. I have a 10 year old schnauzer named Sheriff Tom who was just diagnosed with a heart murmur. Thank you for sharing your story, and valuable information. I will have my boy checked out for the things you mentioned. Your darling Murphy would have fit perfectly in our "posse". Please feel welcomed to visit or and share the schnauzer love ! Tommy sends you a big poke with his nose, meaning "hello and lets get to know each other."

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks so much for your comment. It made my day. And I've checked out the Sheriff Tom Web site. What a handsome feller. Will look forward to checking in on his site regularly. I've written several other posts about Murphy. If you go to the search function at the top of the blog and type in "Murphy," it should call the other posts up. Schnauzers are wonderful aren't they? Thanks for a day brightener.