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A Dog's Life

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My dog died this morning. He was a small, black, mixed-breed, part Chihuahua, perhaps part miniature pinscher. I adopted him five years ago after someone dropped him off at a pet shop in South Miami Beach. The owners gave him to their parents, who are my friends, and I fell for his hyperactive long-legged stumbling and running and prancing and turning circles. He shot me one beseeching "don't you abandon me too" look and I brought him home.

The next day I went to my favorite lunchtime eatery only to find it closed. It was a little Italian deli across the street from my writing office in Boca Raton. A Brazilian couple of Italian descent owned it. The manager was a good enough businesswoman to keep the tables full with fair prices, good service, a friendly smile and remembering everyone's favorite dish. The real draw was her husband, Lelo, though, for he was a magician with a pan and spices. Lelo kept a seat at the counter for me no matter how crowded the place got, and he effortlessly whipped up magnificent dishes, sandwiches and salads and traditional plates, as well as rigatoni pasta for my young son, who sometimes joined me for a bite.

The inside was dark and the door was locked and a sign in the window said "Closed for family emergency". I had the wife's cell phone number as I had once held a private New Year's Eve party there, but when I called it there was no answer. The door stayed closed for a week, then into the beginning of a second week. I left to give a speech in Eugene, Oregon after that, and was walking along the forested bank of the Willamette River when my cell phone rang. It was the restaurant manager. "Are you sitting down?" she asked.

I found a stump. "I am now. What happened? Are you back at the restaurant? Is everything okay?"

"Nothing's okay," she said. "Lelo is dead."

I went cold and held my breath.

"37 years old," she told me. "We were taking a shower. He looked at me and said 'Oh', and then he dropped to the tile. He was dead very quickly. It was a brain aneurysm. The restaurant is finished. I'm going back to Brazil."

When I got home, I gave my new puppy Lelo's name. The idea, I told my family, was to honor the memory of a man who had died too young, and had been kind to us. I wanted to remember his friendly manner and his terrific cooking and I figured this was a good way to do it. I wasn't sure how Lelo's wife would take it, but when she heard she was delighted.

Lelo grew into a ten-pound ball of energy that could zoom in a way that said whippet. He took great joy in circling my local park at high speed, harrying my 16-year-old toy Mexican Hairless like a black wasp. As he matured he became more and more dominant and the old hairless dog took refuge from him at every opportunity. I ran Lelo with me on my bicycle. I taught him to obey me even when unleashed and then took him with me to my tai chi classes in the park so he could run free. He had the life of Riley for some years. Everything was going well, and there seemed to be nothing but a joyous connection between him and the man who had died so young.

Then my little dog killed his hairless "brother".

I didn't see it happen, but at the time I was sure it happened, and later became even more so. The dogs were often in my back yard together when I was out. One day I came home to find the old Mexican hairless floating dead in the pool. He had drowned there, and from his expression had suffered mightily. He might have had a seizure--he was prone to them--and fallen into the water, but more likely Lelo had "humped him in", in his customary expression of dominance. I don't think Lelo intended to kill him, but I imagine that watching the old boy drown was traumatic for the other two dogs, especially for Lelo.

I say this because shortly after the sad event, Lelo developed Addison's disease. In this syndrome, also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal gland fails to produce enough steroid hormones. One day he grew unresponsive, and could not stand or walk. A visit to the emergency veterinary clinic and a large and expensive number of tests later confirmed the diagnosis. For the rest of his life, two more years, a monthly shot kept him alive, but he grew fragile, docile, and delicate.

My guess is that the genetic odds were stacked against him. In addition to Addison's, he developed gait abnormalities and his chest grew asymmetrical in a fashion that suggested a tumor, although we couldn't find one. Whatever his ills, the halcyon days, the proverbial "dog's life" were over and Lelo no longer cavorted. He still greeted me with gusto in the morning, but spent most of his day lying around, was intolerant of exercise, put on weight and moped after the fashion of someone overcome by the guilt murder can bring.

His final day was not as painful as some I've seen, but in a way I think he began dying the day the Mexican hairless did. I can't prove it, of course, and maybe his disease would have had exactly the same course without the drowning, but watching him fade away--and trying everything from acupuncture to dog whispering to help--brought all my mind/body pursuits to the fore.

Regardless of our genetics, we really are who we think we are and we really do reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of that self-image. The latest research, so well explained in Bruce Lipton's magnificent book The Biology of Belief points to the fact that our state of mind actually changes what our genes express. Our DNA, it turns out, is less a carved rock than a paper screenplay constantly evolving.

I will never know how little Lelo regarded himself. I will never know if he really died of guilt, will never know whether he took measures to pull his hairless brother from the pool but failed or even whether he had anything to do with the drowning. I do know, however, that the health of our body is always in a delicate dance with the health of our mind. The old distinction between the mind and body has given way to a modern linking of the two. We need to continue on this path and go one step further to the point where we see the mind and body as one entity. See if you don't gain valuable perspective thinking about life this way, see if your ills and your trials and your challenges and your strengths don't all have roots in how you see yourself and what you believe.

And watch for the return of a soul who was once a little black dog.

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