Losing Sophie (My Yellow Lab)

There is an empty space in the middle of my life.

I'm out of sync. My rhythms don't jive. My yellow Labrador Retriever, Sophie, died last week.

When you take an animal into your life, you are signing up for heartbreak. If all goes according to nature, you will experience an entire life cycle in years rather than decades. When that beloved being dies, everything changes -- one's inner compass must reset and day-to-day living goes through a radical transformation, particularly if you have been living one-on-one with your four-legged friend. That is where I am as I write this.

The story began over 10 years ago: Sophie was a blond beauty, a yellow Labrador Retriever, who was bred and trained to be a guide dog for the blind. As often happens, that vocation didn't work out. She was just too social -- so, she was decommissioned at the age of 3 after working with a blind woman in Toronto. I had been on a waiting list for one of these prize beings since shortly after the death of my yellow Lab, Knick. A visually impaired client, who had a seeing eye dog, told me about the program for decommissioned and retired dogs. I signed up, and renewed my standing on the list 3 years in a row.

I was 9 months into my relationship with Christo, when I got the call: "Your dog is named Sophie. Come pick her up." A few days later I drove up to Yorktown Heights, determined to like her, no matter what she looked like or who she was.

I walked into the room and couldn't help but exclaim "You are so beautiful! You are so beautiful!" It was truly love on first sight.

Sophie re-ordered my life. Once again, I was a man with a dog, a man who had to get home to walk her, a man who kept her well-being in my mind at all times.

Fortunately, when I took her to the crisis center where I worked part time, she won them over immediately and was invited to come to work with me. Sophie became part of my private practice, my groups and part of the community of clients that we served. It was a perfect fit.

We started calling her 'the Stepford dog,' because she was too good to be real.

Although she had been officially classified as "Doesn't want to work," she was a product of her breeding and intensive training (according to Oprah magazine, graduates of her school had a "Doggie PhD"). If I had her sit, she would wait patiently for as long as 45 minutes without moving. She always walked next to me to the left, never in front of me.

She also exhibited the neuroses of an animal whose entire life situation had completely changed several times. She followed me from room to room, unwilling to lose sight of her new person.

I, in conjunction with Christo, set out to change two things: First of all, she needed to know that I was now her 'forever person' and he would be there, 2nd in line. Secondly, we decided that she should be more of a real dog and less 'perfect.'

I created a constant rhythm and pattern of walks and treats and care along with the stimulation of the Friends In Deed community and clients. She went with me to dinners and parties, shopping and traveling. Christo, a natural teacher and a choreographer/director by profession, taught her tricks, stimulating her intelligence with challenges and new learning and freeing her body to run, swim and jump -- her lack of physicality was transformed -- her natural grace and agility came to the fore!

It took a while, but she developed a feeling of emotional safety, with me and with my tribe. Sophie became a dog -- still gentle, but now also curious and spunky. At Friends In Deed, she began to venture out of the office, to greet clients at the door and, one day I received this message from Samuel, leader of the moving meditation class:

You should know as the proud parent of an exceptionally-cool-bitch, that last night Sophie joined the moving meditation at FID, brought her toy, and danced with us -- to the sheer delight of the participants...

Sophie had begun to have a life that was, at times, independent of me.

Sophie was always an absolute charmer. When she first came to me, I had been living in a doorman/elevator building for almost a year. Neighbors, who had never spoken to me, were suddenly friendly. The doormen loved her. She became the canine glamour gal in residence: We called her elegant side 'Grace Kelly,' after that other stunning blond. She also spent time at Christo's 46th floor aerie, where, when she got excited, her nails drumming on the parquet floor sounding like tap dancing: We called that high strung side, 'Ann Miller,' after another tapper with great legs.

We moved down to Soho to a charming apartment, 3 flights up. Sophie became adept at racing up and down the stairs. We also added new games and treats to the daily rhythm of our walks, stopping on each landing for a trick and a reward. She loved ritual and performing.

I had thought that I would move out of that flat before she became aged, but, as a typical New York City story, one year became 6. I felt a crisis was looming. The stairs were becoming difficult. Fortunately, a sad miracle brought us relief: Our neighbors sweet dog, Montana was nearing his end. I noticed that he had a harness with a handle on it so that he could be supported as he walked. A few weeks after his death, I asked my heartbroken neighbors about where I could obtain such a harness. They gave me his. Little did I know then that this would make it possible for Sophie and me to remain in Soho for the rest of her life.

Sophie adapted as her back legs ceased to work fully. I noticed at one point that her gait had changed, that she was using both back legs in unison instead of alternately. Brilliant. With the harness, I was able to assist her climb without injuring my back.

Inevitably, as Sophie reached 13, she began to slow down. The walk to Friends In Deed began to be challenging. However, she had spurts of youthful vitality. I have a video of her just 4 months before the end, when we took her to the beach and she got so excited that she gamboled and played for a few moments like her younger self.

In July, her annual physical and the ensuing bloodwork, showed that her kidney function was approaching dangerously low levels. I didn't ask what this meant in terms of time, but I knew then that the end was within sight. There were signs that she was ailing, an intermittent agitation that was probably caused by toxicity. Yet, she was her sweet self most of the time and seemed truly content even as her life slowed and shrunk.

And, then it began: She stopped eating. She became incontinent. We were on the brink of crisis, but perhaps, I hoped, this would not be it. However, new bloodwork showed that her kidneys could no longer support life, that her toxicity levels were extremely high. I asked the wonderful Vet, Dr. K. " What should we be talking about?" His reply, "...euthanasia." Both shocked me and brought me clarity. This was it.

After some tears on the street, I called Christo. We cried together and discussed when -- and after some back and forth he said: "I will support you in whatever decision you make," which is exactly what I need to hear. After some quiet consideration, taking into account Dr. K's schedule and Christo's schedule, I set the time for 5 p.m. on Thursday. 48 hours away. Hopefully enough time to come to terms and not a prolongation of Sophie's discomfort and my emotional turmoil.

I spent that night at home, alone with Sophie. Cherishing the quotidian rituals of our shared life (my friend Andrea gave me a hot dinner so I could stay in). Wednesday, I went to a staff meeting, sharing the news with her friends at FID. Then, home, not to leave her ever again. My men's group came that night. We included her in our circle. Then Christo came over and they communed. The three of us reformed our pack. We put Sophie in the AntiGravity hammock and Christo massaged her and she gently swayed. We took her for a short walk.

The next morning, I awoke, thinking "Maybe it's not time?" But she would only eat a bit of a Greenie, which she threw up and while I was in the shower, she pooped all over the place. I realized, today was the day.

The plan was for Christo to pick Sophie and me up at 1 p.m. and we would go to the beach before going to the Vet. Michael came to say good-by. We had dated for several months this Winter into Spring and then he had stayed with Sophie when I traveled in May and July and early September. He had developed a connection with the old girl. He was devastated and needed and deserved to connect one last time. Sara came with flowers for the beach and a Turkish charm with a bell for Sophie, which I fastened around her neck on a string, taking off her collar. Sara procured a sandwich from the restaurant downstairs and while Michael and I ate, I realized Sophie had that "feed me" look in her eyes, and even though she had not really eaten in days, I offered her a fry and she gobbled it down with relish, as she did with 3 more! Whatever you want, girl!

Our last outing as a pack of 3 was to Ft. Tilden Beach in The Rockaways -- the first beach Sophie ever saw. She loved beaches. On arrival she would run in figure 8's, thrillingly creating a choreography of joy that all present would stop and watch. Now, she ambled very slowly, but with contentedness. We walked and talked and sat with her. We thanked her for the years of joy. We told her that she had kept us together, but that she didn't have to worry, that her guys were friends for life. Each of us took a few minutes alone with her.

Her work was done.

When I opened a chocolate bar (another gift from Sara), Sophie started to give me that look, so I offered her a piece. And then another and another. I know that chocolate is bad for dogs, but, nothing matters now. Enjoy, girl!

And then we left. I lifted Sophie into the car, we drove back to the city mostly in a sad silence, all the while, one hand on the girl's head.

We parked and stopped to get coffee, and as we sat outside, she gave that look and ate a bit of carrot bread. Then, we walked so slowly to the Vet.

Her last moments were gentle. She left this world, looking into the eyes of the 2 men who loved her beyond measure.

Christo and I sobbed in each other's arms. Then we sat with her until we knew it was time to say the final goodbye. I took the talisman that Sara had given us and it now hangs above my door.

We will spread Sophie's ashes on that beach in the coming weeks.

I always knew that Sophie was a star -- nevertheless, I've been overwhelmed by the tributes from friends, clients, neighbors and acquaintances. It seemed she was "the only dog I ever really connected to..." for many. For others, she was one of the best of her species and breed. She was my live-in-anti-depressant. She was my girl.