God, I miss Katie Darlin' terribly; let me tell you about her.
Nearly four years ago, my wife Holly and I were at Collie Rescue of the Carolinas, in Winston-Salem, N.C., and we were looking to adopt a collie to be a companion for Lady, our No. 1 dog.
When we first saw Katie, she was a mess. They had cut off all her hair because of hot spots on her hip; her belly hung low, probably from a pregnancy, and she looked more like a calf than a collie. But those big brown eyes looked into mine, and she wiggled forward among the dogs to get petted.
I knew she needed us -- few people would want an older dog who looked or smelled like that -- and she obviously was choosing me, so we took her home.
Katie was traumatized at first. She'd lay on the couch in the basement for hours at a time. She'd go into the backyard to do her business, then head back to the couch. Or she'd head to the dog bowls. Katie had been a stray in Virginia when Collie Rescue found her, and she tried hard to make up for lost meals. She eventually ballooned to 86 pounds, and I put her on a diet that included a lot of green beans (healthy filler), and she lost to 83.
But she'd lose a lot more. Lady and Katie never hit it off, and it got worse when we got our boy, Buddy. The girls would fight over food, or Lady would just try to dominate. Katie, who outweighed Lady by 40 pounds, might "win" the fight, but afterward Lady would put her front paws on Katie's back. And Katie, who wasn't competitive like Lady, always gave in.
One day, it got worse. Without noticeable provocation, Lady attacked Katie five times. I later figured out that Lady was showing me that I couldn't protect Katie and that she'd do what she wanted. The fifth time, Katie was lying in the hallway with her back to us. Lady eased up to her from behind and sniffed her; suddenly, she pounced and grasped the back of Katie's neck in her powerful jaws. Katie howled in pain while Lady applied full pressure. It was obvious Lady had murder, not justice, in mind.
So I did the only thing I could think of: I forced my right calf between Lady's jaws and Katie's neck. Lady was still applying pressure, but she realized something was different. She looked up at me, saw that it was my leg, and backed off. A few days later, we noticed blood oozing from Katie's ruff. We took her to the vet, and, when they shaved the hair off the neck, she had a scab three inches wide and six or eight inches long on the back of her neck.
It was obvious they had to be separated. So Lady and Buddy stayed downstairs in the basement, and Katie became the upstairs dog. When Lady and Kate had to be in the same room together, Katie stayed in her "condo," a wire dog crate. But since Katie had started having trouble climbing stairs, staying upstairs was a good thing. By then, Katie had dropped to 72 pounds.
But things changed again. We noticed that she dragged her left back foot sometimes and never sat down. She groaned when she had to get up or down.
A year ago, Katie suddenly started losing the use of her hind legs; the vet said it was because of arthritis in her back. We'd have to wrap a towel around belly to help her outside so she could do her business. Eventually, though, we couldn't even do that. Katie would make a mess in the hall long before we could get her outside, so we'd just clean it and her up as best we could.
Katie started crying every time she had to move. She'd wail when she had to pee or poop. We never knew if she hollered because she had to do her business and was frustrated by not being able to go outside or because she was in pain. By then, she was down to 60 pounds.
Along the way, I started calling her Katie Darlin'; it was a way to remind myself that Katie was just as wonderful as Lady (or Buddy).
The last time Katie cried was Tuesday, March 13, 2007. We had to take her to the vet for tests and grooming. We used a towel to pick up her hind end, but she didn't want to go. She tried to bite, and she laid down in the carport and refused to move. We finally got her in the van and took her to the vet's office. Once there, we needed help to get her inside, but we left with the assumption that everything was all right.
We did a chore or two and headed home. On the way, I got a call from the vet, who said that Katie was dangerously weak, and she thought we ought to put her to sleep. Katie's heartbeat was erratic, and she was so lethargic, the vet said, that she feared that Katie would die from heat exhaustion when they put her under a dryer after grooming her. Holly, choking on tears, said that we agreed -- reluctantly -- but we wanted to be there to say goodbye.
I felt like I was going to an execution when we returned to the vet's office. They ushered us into a room, where Katie lay on the floor with bands on her paws and a catheter in her leg. We spent a few minutes with her, and both of us fed her a Cheerio with Cheez Whiz.
When the time came, Katie lay on her side, as she had much of the last few weeks. The vet was sweet to her and told her that she was a good girl, and the injections worked within a few seconds. The vet checked her heart and said it was stopped; Katie made one final sigh and lay still. We patted her one last time, then made arrangements to have her cremated. The staff whisked her away.
I was wracked with emotion as I paid the bill, and I walked to an empty area outside to be alone with my thoughts. Finally, I rejoined my wife, and we went home alone. To make it worse, I realized that it was four years to the day that my dad had died. I cried most of the day, off and on. So did Holly.
Now Katie's ashes are in a box on the mantle; we'll bury her soon. I'm tearing up as I write this, realizing again that all we have left are the memories. I know I'll think of those big brown eyes imploring us to take her home with us; Katie crying when we took her back to Collie Rescue months later for a visit (and her happiness when we took her home again); running across the street to find someone to pet her; peeing in the front yard and doing a stiff-legged but triumphant pee dance; laying in the hall and looking expectantly for a treat every time I walked by.
I'll remember joking that Katie was always willing to give it the old-collie try. She would have made Lassie proud.
We're putting together pictures and mementos of Katie, including my favorite, a shot of Lady and Katie leaning over my lap, looking more like sisters than rivals. And there's the shot of Katie being washed, with a grumpy "I wish I were somewhere else" look on that long face. And the posed shot with Santa Claus holding their leashes as Katie and Lady looked at the treats being held by the photographer.
Mostly, I'll remember the feel of her tongue when she took that last Cheerio.
Goodbye, Katie Darlin'.