Four Paws & a Tail – What an Aspin Taught me About Love, Life, Death & More

One more Holy Week for the books, the routine exodus of Manilenyos expending their annual vacation leaves in Boracay, Palawan or in any one of the seven thousand one-hundred (7,100) islands, meanwhile the prodigal families return home to their provinces and catch up on the newest gossip on their relatives, or the lucid staycations of many city borne families tired of the hustle, but for me; Easter will never be the same. It was another Black Saturday like no other except it never will be the same without him the next day. The bunny had no golden eggs in the basket.

That night the moon was blood red. It was an ominous sign for transformation, change that one cannot be prepared for. The time of new beginnings, of a new hope for bountiful harvests, of salvation from the sins of man for the Catholic faithful was a joyous occasion for millions, but on Sunday, April 5, 2015, the vivid memory of grief had hanged in the air like dust. Mourning was like fresh cut grass. And this man fed on it as fuel for the sadness of a lost friend, family, and companion. No tears were shed that night for my furry brother, only sweat and blood from the grave digger were due.

When man started domesticating wolves and breeding them as dogs for specific purposes and companionship, the bond between man and his canine were inseparable from that time on forward. And I shared this bond with the first four pawed and white tipped tail friend I had named Pooch. I wanted to give him a name inspired by 1990’s computer games and ninjas like Shadow, Black, Cage, etc. because of his nearly all black coat with distinguished white paws and chest, white tipped tail, and a white stripe that runs across from the center of his face down to the back of his neck. Alas a little brother hath no decision making power over an elder sister which dubbed him as Pooch. This was in reference to the name of one of her teenage celebrity crushes’ dog. The name does grow on you in time, and it did remind you of those sweet rubbery sugar snacks that sound the same when you start to get his attention from Pooch to Poochie.

Even before Pooch, growing up with a pack of dogs from an early age had given me the fondest of memories a child could ask for. As a small two or three year old boy, I was like a knight together with his noble Japanese Spitz riding forth in the wind in a quest for the nearest bottle of milk. It was a natural and joyous occasion to extend this compassion from dogs to other animals. But as a kid with nothing to worry about other than who will give him his bottle of milk or whatever adventures are conjured in his head, I never understood how deeply it hurt my family when these dogs returned to the earth until now.

The circumstances of how Pooch became part of our family were one of debt and the power of persistent begging of siblings to take him in. He was offered as payment for a debt owed to my aunt who lives across us; she accepted the puppy as fulfillment of the person’s obligations but she could not take care of him at the time. And so, one summer afternoon, learning about this new puppy that needs a new home and reminiscing of the time playing with my grandparent’s dogs, I wanted to see for myself and with a glint of hope to have fun with this dog before me named as Lucky.

Indeed, luck was on his side since my sister and I was able to convince, well—it was more like coerced with aggressive negotiations on our parents in keeping him. His date of birth was unknown to us, but we estimated that he could be between 3-6 months old at the time, and we assumed his birthday would be at the beginning of the dry season. It couldn’t have been simpler than Boy meets Dog, and Dog finds Home, and Home became Family. Looking back at the life he had, these are just ten of the many lessons he embarked upon me.

Lesson Number One – Sniff, Bark, Run, Sniff, Bark, Run

or Explore Until Tired

While travelling or moving into a new place, what does one should do instinctively? By his example, on the first moment he set his paw prints around the house; he started running across the living room and jumping up and over the sofa and the stairs like those dogs on an obstacle course shown on ESPN, exploring every inch of new territory that he could grasp his nose on. He wasn’t afraid that he had been transferred from one home to the next without any assurance that this would be his final stop for the next fifteen years of his life.

This fearless attitude can only come from a youthful wonder of a child. Taken from his first home, away from his second house, far away from his brothers and sisters; yet there was no shaking in him, only the gumption of wide eyed curiosity.

He came into my life when I was going through the changes and challenges of puberty. What twelve year old kid needs most during these times of sea change is a companion whose sense of exploration goes beyond the bridge of his nose.

Lesson Number Two – When in Doubt: It Could be Worms

The youthful vigor of a young pup every morning is like a good cup of green tea. You can never go wrong with green tea with honey and lemon. And that’s the way it was for the first year with Pooch. He simply never misses a morning howl while you slowly descend from the stairs and there he is sitting by the door with his white tipped wagging tail. Joy was written on that panting face of his. Until one day he just sunk his body at the back of a water drum. No morning barks, no wagging tails, no smiling pants, only a depressed crouch behind a blue water drum.

Something was amiss, and like any concerned parent or sibling the welfare of this new family member must be taken care of. It took us a couple of referrals from family friends on which veterinary clinics were highly recommendable. Alas we decided on one that was accessible by tricycle in less than 30 minutes.

This was the first time I carried him. His ailing body was whimpering with eyes drifting far away. One could see the fright in him while we brought him to the resident vet. He was diagnosed with some intestinal disease, most likely caused by worms. The vet wanted him to be confined for observation, but we could not in our hearts leave him there. In the end, we brought him back home with us with an I.V. One could not accurately describe the desperation and upsetting feeling that this Pooch injected with anti-biotics and a saline solution. How would you feel when the thought of death for someone you have grown to love in a short amount of time?

Hoping for the best, the morning next; we found him jolly enough to stand on four paws and already started nibbling on the tubes that saved his life twenty-four hours ago. I felt incredibly joyous that this new friend of mine, which I considered my little brother was up and about & doing his fun doggy ways.

Lesson Number Three – Bones, Rags, and Pillows All Simple Things

The plague of man is his inability to quench the thirst of the abyss in his spirit. Blessed be the Pooch that showed me that the simple things are more than enough.

A bone to chew on, a pillow to rest with, and a rag to toss about are all the material things he needs. No clothes, no bling-bling to flash around other dogs in the park. Only he is enough to be noticed. Soon, the Barangay folk, especially on our street came to know him as the big black dog with a white tipped tail and paw, greeting him as they pass.

People should be more like that, naked not in the physical sense, but in the deeper emotional and mental needs by man. Once we learn to satiate the appetites of our worldliness that we may yet to learn the contentment and fulfillment that only a dog knows. All you need are the simple things.

Lesson Number Four – Patience is a Virtuous Dog

Could there be a more laidback and patient living creature than the Askal? A sloth comes to mind, but Pooch was no sloth, although he knows how to be assimilate the indolence of the Filipino (which he probably learned from me or someone else in the family) when indulged by the hot humid dry months or by the breezy and cold wet season.

He senses in the morning each time we were about to leave the house and entrust the kingdom into his care. Dutifully taking a pat on the back and a wiggle of the nose, we say our brief separation and take his post flat on the ground with droopy eyes patiently waiting our return.

Ecstatic joy is his springing up from the silent confinement of a day without us, his family. You can’t miss this reunion of sorts, since he was always there, waiting at the foot of our door with excitement in his breath. His greetings would be more intense when I or anyone from the family would return from work or vacation longer than a day or two. He taught me in these moments that the one of the most important things in life is to come back home to your family and embrace each moment that you can spend with them.

Lesson Number 5 – The Pack that Eats Together Stays Together

Remember what your grandma tells you about never missing a meal because one day a pot might come into your sleep and eat you instead? Well as long as Pooch was around, you will never have to fear the magical pot that eats kids at night. A happy tummy for a dog is a happy meal for you as well. I don’t know and could hardly explain this behavior of his. His internal clock seems to be in sync with that of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes with snacks in between.

He will not stop nudging everyone at home until all are seated at the table and with him while waiting for his meal. Maybe instinctively he is basically hungry or maybe intuitively he understands the importance of a family that seats and eats in one table. In a time of social media, and popular cable series; it is challenging to engage in meaningful conversations with your siblings, parents, friends, or love one that requires you to sit through between 30 minutes to an hour meal. But somehow when there is that one source of belongingness that pulls you to each other is what makes it more important to be whole in a meal.

Essentially knowing when the time is nigh to sit down and turn off distractions was one of his endearing qualities. I wished more humans could be like him. People need to take the time and surround themselves in thoughtful and sincere speak. Bombarded as we are with the nuisances of instant communications and the propaganda of what is not essential is adamant to learning to slow down and enjoy these short moments in life.

Lesson Number 6 – Exercise is Bark for Ya

Raising a life onto its own is no easy responsibility. Ask any parent or an animal companion on what it’s like to understand the temperaments and provide for the needs of something that you don’t know the language too.

One important aspect of this animal rearing is exercise. Fans of the Dog Whisperer know this too well that exercise is necessary to a disciplined and happy dog. And as responsible pack leaders to their dogs, one should not miss the opportunity for a walk out with their canine brother.

The initiative to exercise comes from him, when we got him his first collar he wasn’t hesitant but excited to go out there and see the world. Day in – Day out, he would like to walk in the early morning and in the late afternoon whenever someone is at home to take him out. An important trait he deliberately imprinted on us was his persistence on this daily routine. It’s time to take him out for a walk when he would bark and point out the door and impulsively look at you and the leash hanging by the gate, signaling ‘hey, human, yeah you; time to get your butt off the couch and move to enjoy the outdoors.’ One cannot forget moments of wonder in the intelligence of these paw walkers.

Lesson Number 7 – Happiness is a Cold Nose

There are no limits to the surprises of how dogs care and comfort their companions. There will be times that one is down and out from life. There will be moments of existential pondering on the meaning of life. When jobs become burdens instead of opportunities, or when love become lies instead of compassion, and when simply life seems nothing instead of everything; a cold nose by your side can instantly give you a shot of happiness.

Have you felt that comforting feeling from a dog that nudges their nose on to you? They seem to instinctively feel or see in you moments of vulnerability. Truly they are like friends of human kind that will be by your side in your trying times. Pooch was exceptional in his attempts at uplifting you out of a state of sadness. He can remind you that whatever happens in life is nothing like a cold nose could fix.

Lesson Number 8 – Fangs Up Yours

Protect the members of your pack, but your pack can be as small as a nuclear family or as big as all of the creatures on earth. Pooch was a true guard dog and throughout his life. A name not so intimidating like those of junkyard dog names in the likes of Butcher, Pain, or Slash, but with his bark a stranger would immediately feel his overbearing demeanor towards strangers.

Even days before his demise he still showed his fangs to the contractors fixing up our kitchen, that he had a difficulty in standing up but it did not deter him to check on these humans whose intentions were unknown to him. Until we vouch for the safety or the welcome entrance to our pack, only then will he stand down. Like what static could to your hair or when you just woke up and your hair is all fuzzy the back of his fur would usually rise up to warn those that his growl, bark is as sharp & strong as his fangs.

Shielding your family from the dangers of evil and the destructive acts of man is the duty of every responsible member of the pack, especially the alphas. Always on guard duty, not a single attempt of trespass or theft happened on his watch while neighbors reported theft and a murder couple of blocks down our home.

Lesson Number 9 – Color Blind to Race

They say dogs see no color, or they could simply see shades of black, white, and grey. No, this is not about that graphic and explicit novel turned to controversial movie about sado-masochism/ bondage-submission. This is about how one dog’s eternal compassion to life extends beyond his species.

I thought I have known everything about there is to know about him, but he seems to be full of surprises. He never runs out of qualities that would soften the heart of an incarcerated criminal.

When he was about six or seven years old, I brought home a white rabbit, not the edible candy kind, but the long eared fluffy red eyed kind out of sympathy to the street vendor who was insistent on needing cash for the day. I thought it would be a mess introducing a new creature to the fray. But to my amusement, his paternal instincts somehow kicked in. He would protect and cuddle the hopper, unimaginatively named by me as Bunny-Rabbit.

If he was capable of broadening the reach of his kindness to animals other than his own kind, I find hope that humans to be the most evolve into caring beyond our own selfish wants.

Lesson Number 10 – Midnights Offer Death and Togetherness

Writing this lesson is difficult to bear. Recalling his death is packed with emotions of grief that was felt like the loss of a close relative. How a person had be invested with emotions to a dog brother? At the beginning of this essay, it is true that I shed no tears for my fallen little brother, only shock with the automaton response of giving him the best funeral possible. At around 12 midnight, Easter Sunday; after gasping for breath for the last time, all movement stopped. Death came for him, he was at peace. I decided not to put on paper how his last moments were, for I do not want to remember him and those that have read how wonderful his life was; of struggle to keep a hold of life.

We were complete by his side at the time of his death. Remorse & guilt were the initial flow of thoughts on what happened and how his death could have been prevented. No tears were shed that night, only blood and sweat for the grave digger.

While my mother washed his body for one last time, I started digging his grave with my father in front of our home garden 3 feet deep, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet long. With every ground taken deeper by the shovel, memories of his younger self start flooding back. If it is true that at the moment of your death you see your whole life flash in front of you, I hoped that dogs do see the same, for in that moment I want to thank him for an amazing 15 years of life he blessed us. Longer than any relationship, longer than most careers, longer than friendships; 15 years to a farewell with one last farewell. A Filipino to his grave, we wrapped him with a base cloth and an old Barong Tagalog. For one last time, I carried him with my arms. Slowly taking my time, I clutched his body like a child; his head rested on my shoulders. I had forgotten how big he was and the thought that I will never hear his morning greetings, or a touch of his fur. As I laid him to his final resting place, I whispered farewell hoping that it will be taken into the afterlife.

Before I went to sleep the blood moon was looking back; and I wanted to shout to the man on the moon out of desperation in to questioning why? But only my heart could hear the scream of my spirit, & only the cold night knows of my grief.

The weeks were followed by a stream of condolences from relatives, neighbors, and everyone on my sister’s social media account that somehow knew or got to know Pooch. Each one recalled their fondest moment with him. It is strange that humans can show this kind of compassion. Even in his death, he still teaches a lesson.

As I came into terms with his death, I needed to know what had happened so I would know if I could have done something or warn other dog lovers about a similar incident. A quick input of keywords into the search engine: dog + choking + hard stomach + excessive salivating, showed the top search for related causes of death. Top on the list was ‘Cause of Death Gastric Volvulus or Bloat’. It was an informative read but terrible as it was, I recall the exact listed symptoms in his last moments. The condition was the rotating of the stomach out from its axis. It said that the condition was common to old dogs like him who like to eat fast and plenty. Surgery was the solution but it was no guarantee for his old age, and recurrence is almost 100%. I frowned but relieved at the same time, knowing that his journey had ended and that I could tell his story to other people so that they will know what to look out for their dogs as well.

Dogs like Pooch are rare. And maybe I won’t see or love the likes of him in my lifetime. He was special because he knows how to instruct man about his true nature like a mirror into his soul. Hopefully, one day I will pass on his teachings like a true disciple to children; and tell them the parable of how one dog whose unfortunate beginnings and a strange name became my best pal and teacher about life. I do not know how, when and where he was born, but I do know how his life taught me more about humanity than any other philosopher would.

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