Every dog-loving family has one Dog for the Ages. Mabel was not that dog. But she grew on us, and with us.
She became a Dahl when Matthew was a quasi-rebellious junior in high school, and we were on the brink of becoming empty nesters. We knew we needed a lifeline. Chamois, our Golden, was almost 9, and Mabel was to provide Canine Insurance that we would never be dog free. They ended up having four years together. However, Chamois’ sweet disposition never grafted to Mabel's willful nature. She worshipped and protected her aging mentor; every other dog was The Enemy.
Her early obedience training was aborted when she vaulted after a dog during our morning walk, damaging my rotator cuff. I had a frozen shoulder for 18 months. I couldn't fasten a bra, much less wrangle Mabel. To put it kindly, she devolved into a free spirit. To be accurate- she hated all other dogs. She once broke the electric fence to go after a yapping Old English Sheep Dog, which unfortunately was attached to the stroller of an infant and his foster Mom. She spent some time in Dog Jail for that. But Steve forgave her and I rescued her.
Three years after Chamois died, we added a Portuguese Water Dog to our circus, and Mabel WAS NOT HAVING IT. After a puppy nip and a yip, Mabel seized Milly by the snout and crushed her sinuses. Milly wheezed until the day she died. She forgave Mabel, though Mabel never really recognized her as a family member.
They struck a détente, however. Mabel was the Alpha, Milly was the silly. There was enough Janet/Steve love for two dogs. Peace reigned.
And oh, how Mabel loved us. She could not bear to be in a separate room or on a different floor of the house than her people. She trotted out every morning to retrieve the papers- her only trick- and expected a Kraft cheese slice immediately. And she got it. Every day.
At night, she would plant her big Labby body at our feet, waiting for crumbs or words or scratches, and making any egress an obstacle course. She owned the floor, and we learned to navigate it.
Like all Labs, she would chase a tennis ball or Frisbee until she collapsed. Our pool was her Nirvana. If given a nose sized crack in the back door, she would bowl over furniture and humans to cannonball into the water. We tried to restrain her aquatics with in-house lessons. Defeat. She was the black, furry Esther Williams. In later years, I strapped her into a life jacket, because I feared she would swim until she sunk. She loved being in that pool, buoyant and non arthritic, doing Lab laps.
Mabel mellowed considerably as she hit the 9 year mark. For the last six years I have described her as my Old Dog, with the fatalistic notion that she was on her last legs. Every holiday for the last 5 years I took an array of portraits for her Last Christmas. I gave her 4 Last Swims. She, of course had different ideas. She hung round. She aspired to be the Best Dog in her latter years, and so she was.
When I had my knee replaced she parked by the couch I was sleeping on, and tip toed by the walker as I toddled. When Steve spent winters in Florida and I was alone…I was never alone. We had our daily rituals. Without words, she was a fine conversationalist, because she listened to me. For 15 years, she was always at the back door to greet me. I have felt safe and strong in her company.
Best of all, when the grandkids started coming 5 years ago, Mabel found her true heart. If ever a dog could levitate, she did. Despite her 90 pounds, she never tipped or jostled her little ones. She was the canine beanbag, plopping herself so they could climb on her. She would park outside the nursery when they napped. She stood vigil while I changed them, anxious about their squalling. They would reward her devotion with scraps from the high chair. She loved their mac and cheese cast offs. And she loved them.
Friday a few of the grandkids stopped by to visit our old girl. 15 is very old for a dog, unprecedented for a lazy Lab. Mabel had pretty much restricted herself to her bed and bowl in terms of activity. But her higher calling kicked in. She wobbled into the middle of the mini-crew, and let them poke and hug her. She did not realize they were saying goodbye…because we had decided it was unkind not to send her on.
We planned for her to pass on Mabel time, at home. For 8 months, she has been in hospice care under Dr. Amir Shanan, with only palliative treatment, a cocktail of pain meds and supplements. We reconfigured the physical things that challenged her. Our floor looked like a carpet showroom, with squares and rubber backed rugs everywhere to keep her legs from losing traction. But Mabel is stubborn. As long as there was food in her bowl, she wanted to hang around. As long as there were kids to bunker, she had a purpose. As long as her humans loved her, she wanted to return the favor.
Our love for Mabel finally demanded that we do for her what she would not do for herself: let go. We called Dr. Shanan.He came to the house yesterday.
It is bitter to say farewell to a comfort of younger days. There will be no future Big Dog for me. The aforementioned knee replacement is a clunker, and I cannot risk tripping or being dragged by a big pet. I have no way of knowing if Rosie Dog will become a sturdy comfort. I know she will fetch, I expect she will swim. Mabel, however, set the curve for these pursuits. She has been with me for 1/5 of my life…the part where all my kids grew up and made their own ways. She was a constant in an era of vast personal change, and bridge to a more solitary home for Steve and me. It is painful to reset the compass. We will. In time.
What I know is that Mabel gave me an example to live by. She became the dog we needed. When age started to pain her, she never whimpered or yelped. She never stopped trying to overcome her creaking legs, weak eyes and limitations. She always perked up for those she loved, and made them a priority. She was loyal and steadfast and true. She became better with age. These are things I can aspire to.
Last Monday, I forced her paw into clay for a memento. She was irritated about it- but she let me do it. She knew I wanted a touchstone to keep her in my heart. Because she is Mabel the Unstable, a zillion hairs were pressed into the clay, and I had to pick them off one by one. And because it was Mabel- it was worth every moment. She will be with me, in clay and in my heart forever. Good Dog.