Thursday, 21 September 2017

A Dieu Caramella

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

I always remember my younger sister wanting a dog while growing up. My parents never allowed it and their excuse was that we were living in a hotel, since my father was a General Manager for over 20 years. However, the real reason that I knew of was that both of them had their own dogs when younger and had really suffered from the loss. King my father’s German Shepherd and Cookie my mother’s Poodle, as I knew them from the stories and photos.

The following piece was written exactly four years ago right after the passing of my Cocker Spaniel Caramella. Only when it was published did I begin healing. I would not be exaggerating if I said that I still think of her every single day, especially now that I reside in Venice Beach where everyone has a dog. Getting a new one is a huge decision, though I think I may be ready. The only thing that is making me wait is that I need to settle first before engaging in such a sincere commitment.

I have been an animal lover for as long as I can remember, getting along with all of them and watching nature documentaries. The family had Chico, an African Grey parrot, for ten years before I took him for another seven years when I started living by myself till he unexpectedly passed one day. But until my mid 20s I had never owned a dog. Then in early 2005, an ex of mine and close friend got a six-months old female English Cocker Spaniel that she named Caramella.

As the pup was growing, the bonding came naturally with her. I started taking her out to the sporting club every now and then where she would socialise with other dogs, run around the golf courses, and keep me company — getting lots of attention in the process, to her and to myself. Those trips slowly developed into weekends since my friend could see how much the dog loved me and enjoyed her time when I was around. She also trusted me and knew that I would take good care of her Caramella.

Then it happened. My friend had to travel for a few months and left her with me. I was ecstatic to have such a loving companion, since I was, and had been, living alone for quite a while. We bonded even more during this time as we went away several times on short trips to the deserts of Sinai and the beaches of the Northern Coast in Egypt. I introduced her to my friends and family who all loved her. Being dog people, both of my parents passionately fell in love too and enjoyed pampering her whenever they would meet. I could obviously tell how they were reminiscing about their own dogs.

Caramella had slowly become one of the rare pure joys in my life. Finding her waiting for me by the door when I come back home after long days of doing the unfulfilling jobs I held during those days was priceless. The excitement in the greeting itself every single day is a different story. O’ the companionship I would feel on many cold nights when her warm, furry body leaned on my right leg as we shared the bed. She also became the main reason I forced myself to leave the house for a walk or to the nearby garden every day when I would get into my unhealthy hibernating mode.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
At home in Cairo, 2007

By the time my friend was back I was already hooked, and I could say the same about Caramella. For a while, she was spending the weekdays with her ‘mommy’ while the weekend with her ‘daddy’ – almost like a child in custody. Driving to pick her up from there felt like going on a date. As soon as she sees my car, she rushes towards it pulling the doorman behind her and I would open the door for her to jump on the seat then on my lap for a quick face-licking greeting session with those cute Cocker whines and whimpers. A real love story one could say.

Other times, she would be dropped at my house with her box of cooked food for the weekend, and it was always exciting to reunite.

I recall some people asking me if it was confusing for the dog to have two masters. But I debunked the idea by doing some research and finding that during WWI, the dogs of war were trained to have two masters so they can take messages from one to the other. So clearly that wasn’t an issue.

During that same time, I remember that my friend realised that Caramella had become my weak point. So whenever we would occasionally fight, she would not let me take her for a while as a sort of punishment. But I was always finding a way because living completely alone is definitely not as fun as sharing the house with another soul, I must confess, especially after getting used to it. And of course a dog isn’t a parrot, not even a cat; I believe it’s a much more personal and mutual relationship.

But the thing with Caramella is that our relationship was even deeper. Because if I was going anywhere other than work, whenever I would leave the house I would take her with me. Most people I know who own dogs only take them for short walks, if ever, then they have their own separate lives away from their pets. Some even confine the dogs to house gardens and fences.

On the other hand, I was taking her everywhere like it was my right to do so; family reunions, friends who never had dogs in their homes, even to other friends who aren’t really dog people…and to some shady areas too that I used to visit with my car. But because she was a lovely, well-behaved, pretty-looking creature, everyone automatically fell in love with her. She was even the cause a few people changed their opinions about dogs.

I also remember when Chico the parrot passed away and she kept crying by his cage for three days. They were very good friends and would play together around the house whenever he was out, though he was the dominating one because of his older age.

My attachment to that lovely creature kept growing throughout my darker days. The unconditional love I used to feel through the caring looks she would give me when things were tough was indescribable. She was actually what kept me going during my personal struggles, and a worthwhile reason for me to want to get out from the toxic lifestyle I was leading.

By that time, my friend had gotten another male Cocker, Simpson, along with her cat. So I used my convincing skills with some “Oh I’m so alone at home and you have your daughter and pets” to let me keep Caramella for good, and it worked. We would go visit her house then go back home…like a couple.
A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Nom Nom Nom

Two years later, I decided to leave the comfort zone I had always lived in behind and head to Canada for a fresh start. Of course by then, she had become a family member and a soul mate. Taking her with me was the only logical decision there was.

The then-six years old Cocker made it safe and sound to Toronto after a 17-hour flight including a standby in Amsterdam. The lucky bitch was even taken to a dog hotel for the six-hour layover. I remember joking with a hostess about wishing that I was a dog instead of spending this long time at the airport. Once arrived, we stood in line with my luggage and her kennel prepared with all the vet documents.

To my heart-warming surprise, after knowing that I’m carrying the dog with me all the way from Egypt, the kind lady at the desk let me in without paying the fees – telling me how sweet of me to bring her along. I was all smiles and took that as a good omen to a fresh start. I felt that Canada was welcoming us with open arms.

Canada was definitely a different experience. Fresh air, lots of greenery, parks and campgrounds, many other breeds of dogs and a thriving wildlife. It truly was a rejuvenating new beginning for myself and consequently for Caramella as well.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Fresh off the plane on the first day in TO

During the first week, I remember our first trip to Pet Smart when she had a poopy attack. She was extremely well behaved and had rarely ever did it indoors, but there were so many different dogs and scents in that big warehouse that I’m sure the sheer excitement made it impossible to hold it.

I also remember how she loved playing in the snow for the first time, and how chasing squirrels in the park while making those cute whines became her most exciting adventure.

Other than my ex partner, her 150-pound Saint Bernard and her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies, Caramella was the only companion in my new city of residence. We bonded even more for the next three years, and being the eldest, as well as because of her character, her and I were the Alphas of the pack. We repeatedly went camping and, unlike Egypt, spent lots of time outdoors taking photographs in the stunning wilderness.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
The Family by Starbucks in Toronto

As usual, being the beautiful and gentle soul that she is, she became quite famous in my Toronto building and the whole neighbourhood for being the sweet dog that roams the streets without a leash. At the super market, the pet store, the local pub, everybody knew her name; they all loved petting her as much as she loved it. This of course isn’t the average sight you see in Canada, where dogs are required by law to be kept on a leash. Multiple times I was complimented by curious strangers about how well she was trained. They would ask about “The Secret”, and all I could say is that we’ve been together for a long time and I trusted her and she trusted me.

In truth, Caramella was a genuinely intelligent dog. If she’s walking behind, her attentive eyes would always be on me; and if she’s in front, she would wait at the intersections until I join and tell her to cross the street. Sometimes, she would even look to the left and right like humans when the side street next my building is empty, and we would cross together without me giving her any voice command. We had a smooth, mutual understanding and we communicated a lot though our body language.

Having her unleashed in the city was occasionally frowned upon, as regarded crazy or dangerous by some folks, in Egypt and in Canada. I was told “If I did this with my dog he would get run over straight away” on so many occasions that every time I would truly feel tempted to say “Well, she’s not your dog.

One thing I really loved about her is that she brought so many smiles and sweet moments to the people she met. This naturally did me a lot of good because I would pick up on this contagious positive energy, for the happiness — and smiles — reached me too.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Fresh out of the shower on her new bed in TO

Soon after moving, I had started running with my older neighbour, Brent, and Caramella was always accompanying us through the many beautiful trails around Toronto. After few months of weekly training, we were able to cover around 17 Kms (10.5 mi) in two hours once on a Sunday morning. That was quite the achievement for the both of us for sure.

Mid those runs, she would spontaneously and fearlessly jump in the small lakes and ponds by the trail to freshen up while we wait for her to rejoin us. Sometimes the water was replaced by mud, and if she was too hot and had been running for 90 minutes she had no problem jumping in and coming out as dark chocolate Caramella. And I would let her, even if it meant that I have to give a new shower after the one from four days ago. Simply because after a few times, I reckoned that if she looks me straight in the eyes as I’m running towards her saying ‘NO’ and still jumps in, then she must be EXTREMELY hot and physically needs it to cool off.

Plus, dogs have to be dogs, and owners have to always remember that their pets are still animals that need to connect with Nature as much as possible. I was really loving those unleashed weekly outdoor jogs and everything was perfect.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Cooling off mid-jogs

Time had passed until one of those Sundays about three months ago when I was getting ready for the morning run. Usually Caramella would get excited from the sight of my running gear and would get up to stand by the door with anticipation. That day, there was no excitement at all, even with my high-pitched “we go runny with Brent” which never failed before. After a few trials, she got up and went to sit under the table where she usually rests. I took that as a sign of her telling me I don’t want to run, so I left her home.

The next Sunday I tried again, and the same response… turning around and sitting under that table. Coming from Caramella that was weird. She had always been an obedient dog and had always loved going out. She used to even follow me to the bathroom door and wait till I come out, so this was obviously an unusual behaviour.

Around those same days, she had already developed a small mammary lump from a while back so we went to visit the vet. We were considering removing it or not when we were chatting and I told him that we ran for 17 Kms not so long ago, only for him to look at me surprised. “You know she’s eight now, this is too much. My dog can only take 20 minutes or so,” he said.

OK then, note to self: she’s getting older and I should keep that in mind. I took her for two shorter runs afterwards and then stopped altogether when I saw how much she would get tired compared to relatively recent times.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
My Facebook profile photo for something like four whole years — Mazinaw Lake in Ontario, Canada

n the meantime, I had already started writing about dreams and the subconscious mind, and I was recording my dreams. I realised that Caramella made it to perhaps three out of the five weekly dreams I could remember. But it was always about losing her and the fear and the anxiety I would feel and remember as soon as I wake up.

I knew well that she’s very close to my heart and has become a soul mate, but I had no real explanation for those repetitive dreams. I was even wondering why don’t I dream of my parents whom I haven’t seen in three years or, say, my ex partner. Why am I dreaming of my dog so much? And why is it always about losing her? At the time, there were no dots to connect.

From talking to many dog owners and through the Internet, I knew that Cocker Spaniels may live till 14 and 15. So by the time she had started to lose her energy, I thought it was going to go downhill pretty slowly from there. I even had my own boyhood fantasies about her meeting my unborn children one of these days.

However, she started eating less and less everyday. I even changed her half dry-half wet food to cooked ground beef and chicken like she used to eat for her first six years. Still, she would eat for five minutes then go lie down away from the food, something she has never done before. She also started to sit much more often, even for those brief moments we’re waiting for the elevator, as well as at the park. Believing it’s all an ageing thing, I called the vet and asked a few other people if dogs normally eat less with age. They said it might happen with less energy but none of us suspected anything.

Then came the occasional vomiting and poop trouble, and she had lost about 2 Kgs. After consulting the vet, we stopped the antibiotic she was taking for some skin allergy because she wasn’t getting any better, and I was worried that it might be the cause of the complications. But I obviously knew by then there was something wrong internally.

Maybe ten days later, we went again to the vet for some X-Ray only to find some tissues covering parts of the heart and lungs. As I understood from him, you cannot really tell what it is, but what you can tell is that something isn’t right by looking at the density displayed by the white/black effect on the X-Ray sheet. He said it doesn’t look too good. Hmm.

Another week had passed and she deteriorated even more. Not much food, not enough energy, too quite and even depressed. Plus, she had started breathing from her stomach instead of her chest, and that’s another bad sign the vet had noticed during the last visit. Rapidly after that, the breathing became shorter and faster.

The question I didn’t think would come so soon started to loom on the horizon. Between my parents, close friends, partner and the vet, we all agreed that I will never let her suffer. Though I was still in denial that the end could be so soon. She was nine after all, and I was still thinking of all the much older dogs I met through my life and I was still fantasising about her meeting the unborn children.

Coming to last week, she refused to eat for two days in a row. Also refused her favourite slice cheese, for the first time ever, which was another hit on the head. She was into all kinds of cheeses but she loved those slices so much — La Vache Qui Rit or Kraft — that she could hear me undo their plastic cover in the kitchen from far away and would come closer jiggling and wiggling, and giving me those “looks” that always made me melt.

Sometimes late at night when she’s asleep, I would get myself a slice and make sure I open it slowly so she doesn’t wake up and realise I’m not giving her any. I succeeded most of the times, but because she occupied such a soft spot in my heart I would feel guilty, eat three quarter of the piece, and go wake her up with the remainder in front of her nose before we both go to sleep. Sigh.

So back to that second day she wasn’t eating…she had also refused some ground beef fed from my hand and all sorts of other doggy treats. That moment I remembered a chat I had a while back with an older man at the local pub. We were talking about dogs’ mortality and how his dog had passed, and apparently during his final days, the dog refused to take his medicine. “They will let you know,” he said. I believe Caramella was letting me know as well.

Other than not eating, she would often drink insane amounts of water, not moving much, and shaking on occasions. It was really hard seeing her like that and it was badly affecting me.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
What Love!

If the vets didn’t know exactly, I really wanted to find out what it was all about. So later that night I Googled and within three minutes I found Dilated Cardiomyopathy, which is heart disease that affects Cocker Spaniels — among other breeds — where the muscle does not pump hard enough causing fluids to go back up into the lungs. By checking the symptoms, she had all nine of them. Symptom number 10 was sudden death!

The reality started creeping up on me, so I took the camera and carried her to the nearby park for some final shots... not before imbibing an insane amount of wine in an attempt to numb my feelings. She was so weak by then and not moving much. In between sadness and disbelief, I was capable of capturing a few shots until a group of three girls and a guy passed by, looked at us and said something. I automatically replied “It’s her final day.” It’s like I was looking for any sort of comfort, even from strangers.

They came closer and I said it again. They comforted me with their kindness and sat by my side for a few. The girl closer to me could see my red watery eyes before saying:

Look I don’t know but I will hug you,” and she did.

It felt like a sparkle of light coming from out of nowhere. I said thank you and they walked away. Ten seconds later, they just turned around to ask me if I wanted them to take a few photos of Caramella and I. Of course I gladly agreed; gave them the camera, and smilingly shared that there are 16 GB free so “take as many shots as you want.”

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
The Final Encore
I then laid on the grass with her between my arms, just hugging her and gently playing around while the stranger girl was shooting and her friends watching and cheering for this final encore. The above photo is from that night.

I thanked them again, and I was actually pretty grateful they just popped up to leave me with such sweet memory. Though she was still able to walk but I preferred to carry her again and went home.

I could barely sleep that night, only to be woken up in the early hours of the morning by Caramella puking all the water and fluids on the bedroom’s floor, as well as a little bit of blood in a separate area. I tried to comfort her, cleaned the floor and tried to get back to sleep but it was impossible. By now I really knew I had to do something, and soon.

It was this last Thursday when I called up the vet telling him about the latest news. He said he will be there till 5:45 if I want to pass by and give her THE shot, and that he won’t be back for a few days but his colleagues would be notified and ready if I ever made the call. I still couldn’t get myself to do it, but decided that I will be taking her the next day.

Fortunately, during those tough days two of my old friends happened to be visiting the city and I was able to meet them a few times. They personally knew Caramella and having them around definitely eased the situation.

That Friday morning came and I kept looking at her, feeling a mix of emotions. Wanting to alleviate her pain but still can’t really believe that she will be out of my life in a few hours. This mirthful soul… my partner, my companion, my child…after all that, I’ll be here without her soon. It was one of those hard realisation that knocks you on the head.

I finally called the animal hospital by 12:30 and took an appointment at 3 pm. I remember wanting to say the word euthanasia but apparently my vocal chords had a mind of their own and didn’t want to obey the signals my brain was sending. After three trials, my voice was still hoarse, though I assume that by looking at the file, the nurse understood what I wanted to say.

I spent those couple of hours reliving all our moments together and getting myself mentally ready for the farewell. Then I called a cab and started to caress her, massaging her ears as she has always adored. I was in a dazed state when I carried her to the car, yet I was determined to end the pain. We got there on time and they were waiting for us.

The metal table this time had a dark red wool cover on it, and the vet came asking me if I wanted to leave or attend. I said I’ll be staying. He explained that he’ll take her inside to shave the hair on the arm for the needle and will bring her back here to proceed. He also asked if I wanted her ashes after the cremation, to which I replied with a confident NO.

Between some prayers, mantras, and trying to dry my sobbing eyes, I spent five minutes in the room by myself before they came back. I tried to brief him on what had happened lately since he’s not the same vet we had been seeing, but again, my voice wouldn’t come out right.

It’s the right thing to do,” I forced myself to say, looking him straight in the eyes. He was nodding in agreement. I believe I was trying to get that final approval about taking that darn decision.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

She looked so peaceful on that bed. Maybe for the first time ever as she would always want to move when the vet was examining her and I had to keep holding her. This time she was gently sleeping on her side, with her eyes a little foggy, but looking very ready and done with her journey. I could feel she wanted that relief. And in some subtle way, I was actually happy she was about to get it.

I then bent down and gave her a final kiss, told her I love her, that she’s a good girl, and until we meet again. Then signaled to the vet to carry on. He said it usually takes from five to ten minutes. I kept my hands on her and in less than one minute she had already departed this world. She must have been so close.

The vet left, telling me to stay as long as I wanted. Some more mantras, plus a final hug, another final kiss and a last look, then closed the door and left. The pain of ‘losing’ her was still there but her relief has relieved me. As I held her red collar and leash in my hands on the ride back in the cab, I realised that for the first time in a few weeks I could take a full breath without feeling that worry-ball inside the core of my chest.

I went home, gathered 12 of her best photos from throughout the years, wrote a few words and posted them on my Facebook wall in celebration of her life. I had already halted my work on the essay to write our story down in her honour and in loving remembrance. I needed to write these words to express my sentiments as well as my gratefulness for the years we spent together and for her sharing my journey.

The responses and sweet words I then received through comments, private messages, emails, and phone calls were truly heartwarming. I guess I never thought that so many people knew, and knew of, Caramella. Through those lines, I would like to thank each and every one who reached out with their condolences and kindness. You certainly did make it easier on me.

Six days have now passed and I still keep looking for her around the room before remembering that she’s gone. I’m sure it will take some time before I get used to not having her caring eyes follow me around. This decision might be one of the most profound ones I have ever had to take in my life. Although it took me by surprise, but I know down deep inside that it was necessary and that it really was the right thing to do.

Change is the only constant in life, we need to accept it and move on in grateful remembrance. Among many other things, the whole experience of having Caramella for those several years had taught me what unconditional love is and what having a man’s best friend is really like.

Now more than ever, I remain a believer in Alfred Lord Tennyson words, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

May you Rest In Peace, most beautiful soul. You will always have your own special place in my heart.

When I eventually went back to my writings and the dreams notes, it finally hit me like lightning. All those precognitive dreams of losing her before I even knew anything was a message from the dream world. It was my subconscious mind preparing me for what is yet to come. We know that ancient civilisations considered dreams to be nocturnal messages from the gods sent as omens for good fortune or disaster. And with this experience, as well as others, I now believe even more in the immense power of our dreams.

At the end, I would like to share with you the below poem which I received in the mail today, kindly sent by the animal hospital with a card and a note from our vet. How sweet.

I am the wind blowing through your hair
And the warmth you feel in the air.
When that smile creeps on your face,
Remember that I am in a good place.
And when you’re feeling sad and down,
Recall memories of me running around.
You don’t need to look low and high,
Just search way down deep inside.
And know that we’ll never be apart,
For I have left my pawprints on your heart.

EDIT: Five years later after her departure, I am still dogless, though I ended up with two cats. From Insects to Crows: Dogless and Searching for Companionship is another piece about how things have developed over time.

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
 "Five dogs on the loose"
A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Watching over the kids on the beach
A Dieu Caramella by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Notice that cheeky look she’s me giving while snapping the shot.
And it
’s because I was telling her something about leaving her large-ass
towel and insisting on laying her head on the bed as
she always loved to do. I think she considered herself to be as human as all of us.

*Article originally published on Conscious Life News in September 2013

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