Thise is an electrocardiogram of the mighty engine powering our copy editor, Jesús "Chucho" Nicholas-Koughan - who, despite his humble position on the masthead, is also the majority shareholder in our parent company, Burro Hall Enterprises, S.A. de C.V. (His name at birth was Apple Valley's Northern Star; he was hardly a man of the people.) This magnificent little pump, which worked longer than we had any right to expect it to, finally went quiet at 2:55PM on November 12, 2014. He was a few weeks older than 15-and-a-half. Five thousand seven hundred and seven days, to be exact. Or, since he had a canine's concept of time, 493,084,800 seconds.
Because posting here has slowed to a trickle lately, we should probably back the story up a bit. (Caveat lector: This will probably be the longest post in Burro Hall history. Go ahead and pour some coffee. Or mezcal.)
Jesús was well outside the statistics for pugs, and it's not like we couldn't grasp the inevitable. If you look back on what I wrote here on his various birthdays, you can hear that train a-comin' miles away. (See here for 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, and 8 - plus a bonus post for being 100 in dog years.) I can't even remember how long
In early August, we hit a turning point, when I stupidly tried to pick him up with one hand and he toppled over my arm and landed face-first on a marble floor. The faceplant left him dazed, and for a moment we thought his back legs were paralyzed. The silver lining is that this happened on a Sunday.
Now, we love our long-time vet, and have praised him here many times for his weird, shamanistic ability to diagnose and treat the boy while barely even touching him. But he doesn't work on Sundays, and so we had to call someone a good friend recommended: Dr Helia Acosta Córdova. It was her day off, too, and she was having lunch in San Miguel with friends, but she cut it short and drove an hour back to meet us. Note that, at this point, she was not actually our vet.
In terms of care, this was like upgrading from a vocho to an F-15. The fall didn't really damage him, but wrenched his already arthritic back - which for the last two years had been curved like the Elephant Man's and which, she assured us, had been a source of constant pain for him, even though he was never one to whimper or show distress. She put an end to his daily walks, changed his diet, gave him a series of analgesic shots and went to work on a treatment plan for his back. X-rays, blood tests - do any of you know your dog's albumin level? We did, and it was dangerously low. She brought in a specialist from Mexico City to give him the electrocardiogram above. She recommended stem cell therapy, though we eventually declined. I'm surprised she didn't suggest sending him into orbit to see if zero-gravity might help. And after the initial visit at her clinic, she did everything via house call, often late at night, because she worried the ride to the clinic would stress him. She and her team became such regular fixtures at Burro Hall, it was like they were on staff. The perro had become Melvyn Douglas in Being There.
|Rehydration infusion, Aug. 15, 2014|
For a several weeks, it all seemed to work. And then eating became problematic. Understand, this is a dog who over the course of 17,000 meals had never had his bowl taken away in mid-bite, yet attacked every meal like it was a race against the Apocalypse. Any time we visited the home of another dog, he dispensed with hellos, strode right over to his friend's bowl, and helped himself to its contents. (The fact there would be a bowl of food left uneaten always surprised us; we had no idea dogs did that.)
But by mid-September, he had lost his taste for dog food, and for his favorite snack, carrots - his rejection of which was a devastating blow to root vegetable futures. Meals became an exercise in experimentation and frustration. Dry food, wet food, bread, tortilla, chicken, steak, cheese, a different kind of cheese, yet another cheese, cochinita pibil, ham, eggs... homemade French fucking toast! All the above. None of the above. Maybe he wants it, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he'll wolf it down, maybe he'll throw it up. Let's not talk about the diarrhea. And by the way, according to all the tests, there's nothing actually wrong with him. Nothing treatable, anyway. Dr. Helia's diagnosis: Es su edad. He's just old.
Still, he was basically okay. He would always eat something eventually. And how can you tell when a dog who slept 19 hours a day in his prime is slowing down? Even though he was sleeping in in the mornings, he would still plod out to the patio in the middle of the day and lie in the blazing sun. And whenever one of us moved from one room to another, he'd haul his weary bones upright and come trotting after us, even as his path grew ever more drunk-and-disorderly. Through most of October, we had good times together, even while Dr. Helia was making several house calls a week. Dehydration was a problem, and he needed IV infusions. (IV is actually a misnomer - the infusions were subcutaneous, and left him looking and feeling like a furry, half-filled water ballon, which was as funny as it sounds.)
And then, two weeks ago, The Man called. "America's reserve of public affairs documentaries is down to critical levels," said the electronically-altered voice. "Your country needs you." So I called the coyotes and arranged for passage to El Norte 36 hours hence.
I'm not what you would call a morning person, but I get up pretty early anyway. And for most of the last decade and a half, Jesús would get up with me, wait impatiently for his carrot, and we'd sit alone drinking coffee (me) and drooling in my lap (both of us, but mostly him). This was our time together. Compared to the rest of his day, this was - to him - nothing special at all. Dozing and drooling took up most of his waking hours. For me, though, it was the best part of the day, every day. But over the last several months, he'd begun sleeping later. Sometimes he'd come trotting into the living room an hour after me. Sometimes I'd have to pull him out of bed even later. It varied from day to day. This is why, try as I might, I can't remember what he did the morning of Wednesday, Oct 29. I think he got up right after me, but maybe that's wishful thinking. I just can't say for sure. This is important to me, for some reason, because Oct. 29 would be our last full day together, and it really would be nice if I could remember every second of it. I know I spent a lot of it out of the house, doing errands. And at 6:57PM, I took this picture of him, as we were on our way out to meet friends for cocktails. The little fleece jacket was doctor's orders, to warm his aching bones as the fall turned to winter. It was the last picture I took of him alive. (This, on Oct. 14, 2000, is the first. These are, admittedly, rather unimpressive bookends to the oeuvre of the World's Most Photographed Perro, but we present them in the interest of the historical record.)
The next morning, at 4AM, I patted him on his head as he slept, and headed north to toil in the fields of The Man.
Over the next 13 days, his eating problems worsened. Señora Burro Hall, who was left to care for him alone as she had so often over the last eight years, spent most of her time as the chef of a restaurant catering to a lone, absurdly finicky diner. Dr. Helia came and went, sometimes multiple times a day. Nights were no easier, as he would wake up whimpering, then sleep all morning, uninterested in breakfast. And yet, the little fella would rally enough to convince us he might be out of danger. One day he bounded out of bed at dawn and ate everything put in front of him. As recently as late last week, Dr. Helia declared he probably had months ahead of him.
A few days later, the Missus called at 8PM New York time. Dr. Helia was with her. "Come home tomorrow." A few hours later, I was at LaGuardia, where for some stupid reason the bars aren't open at 3:30AM.
Backing up a bit: I am, as you know, an utterly fearless man. Except for one thing - for probably the last five or six years, I've had a nightmares about one day having to decide to euthanize my best friend. Anyone who's had to do this know that you're acting in the animal's best interest, but for my own selfish reasons I knew I would almost certainly deny the obvious for far too long. (After fearlessness, this is my other great talent.)
So that's what was going on in my head as I searched for an airport bar before sunrise.
On the flight to Houston, though, I felt, for the most part, kind of hopeful. Dr. Helia had hedged the diagnosis a little, and said I should come home just as a precaution. I did some work on the flight. I watched a silly movie. I wandered around Houston airport. I called home, and was told everything was cool.
Everything was not cool. Dr. Helia was already there, with her assistant Cesar, and would be there for the next seven hours. Things had gone from bad to worse, and the magnificent little pump was slowing... slowing... slowing... slowing. IVs had been placed. Short-term, life-sustaining drugs were being administered. But there was no reason to tell me this, because what could I have done, hijack a plane? So I sat in the Terminal B Chili's drinking a 20-oz. Shiner Bock and sending incredibly important emails, the details of which I can't remember.
My second flight was delayed, but we made up time in the air. I'd been upgraded to first class, which is no great perk on a 100-minute flight, but does get you closer to the exit. I refrained from punching the obnoxious Juriquilla douchebag sitting across the aisle from me, thus avoiding a time-consuming arrest upon landing. I was the first passenger through passport control. My bag was the first off the plane. Got the green light at Customs. First in line for a taxi. No significant traffic hassles. From the moment I crossed into Mexican airspace, I was a charmed man, and I didn't even realize it.
At least until I got to Burro Hall, and the first person I saw was not the Missus, but the vet. "Why's she here?" I asked, charmingly. We all went to the bedroom.
It looked like a fucking MASH unit. Dr. Helia's cantilevered gear box sat open next to a pair of upright oxygen tanks. An IV bottle hung from a stand. Detritus was strewn around the room, and Cesar's bulky figure sat on the edge of our bed, hunched over the little brown doggie bed in which lay our fragile little copy editor, rasping for breath with his legendarily-long tongue hanging out.
My first draft of this paragraph, in which I described my reaction at length, from my steel-eyed stoicism to the way I said all the right things in prose that bordered on poetry, was sent back by the factcheck dept. with some questions. So let's just say that, if you care enough to have read this far, you'd probably have behaved like a blubbering idiot, too.
I took his head in my hands and we had a very long, one-sided conversation, while the Missus dripped water into his mouth from a cotton ball. Dr. Helia was on the other side, holding her stethoscope under his ribs. "Keep talking," she said. "He can hear you."
This continued for about 10 minutes, until somehow we (the people) wound up in the living room, as Dr. Helia tried to explain the options. But her generous attempts at sugarcoating were making it hard for me to understand what she was saying, and I think I began to get nasty and abusive, and it started to descend into a three-way argument when Cesar's voice called out: "Doctora!"
We raced back to the bedroom. He was wheezing again, and the magnificent little pump was slowing... slowing... slowing... The Missus and I pressed our faces into his. I won't drag out the scene here. His breathing grew softer, gentler. We whispered things in his ears, including, repeatedly, "thank you." His breathing stopped, but the magnificent little pump kept trying. Dr. Helia held the stethoscope for another minute or so and then, red-eyed, she took it away.
[Here, insert 30 minutes of stunned silence, as black and as empty as the vacuum of space.]
Let's take a moment to accentuate the positive: this little creature, our constant companion for 14 years, never once did anything unselfishly. I mean never. Though I took great pleasure in having him doze on my lap, he dozed on my lap because he wanted to doze on my lap, not because he gave a shit what I wanted. It was part of his charm, I suppose. But on his final day on Earth, he performed the first two generous acts of his life, and they were enormous: 1) He waited for me; and 2) he went on his own, sparing us the wrenching responsibility of having to choose for him. I have never been as grateful for anything in my life.
[Another 30 minutes of stunned silence goes here, punctuated by the occasional primal scream.]
As Cesar packed up the MASH unit and gently withdrew the IV, Dr. Helia said, "why don't you keep him for a while?" This was enormously appealing; the question "what happens with him after he dies?" had never actually occurred to us, and since I had only gotten out of the taxi 20 chaotic minutes ago, we decided to keep him overnight. Mexico seeps into you without you even realizing it, sometimes. Keeping our dead close felt perfectly normal.
The next morning we cleaned him and brushed him, lay him in his favorite bed, and then just sat with him. It's probably comforting to believe that death is only the end of the physical body, but with him, the physical body was the entire point. He didn't run, he didn't fetch, he didn't bark very much - all ever he did was sit with you while you ran your fingers through his fur or stroked his velvety ears. So for the entire day, that's what we did. People always wish for "just one more day" with someone they've lost. That the perro wasn't exactly lively when he was alive made it feel like we got that wish.
But by late afternoon, it was time for him to go. Spanish, which is such a beautifully indirect and euphemistic language, has for some reason opted to call this next step incineración. We covered him in one of my t-shirts (he loved the familiar smell), and gave him a favorite toy (though he hadn't played with it in years), and a carrot for the journey. We tucked in some photos of ourselves and some handwritten notes. And because - largely thanks to this blog - he was something of a minor canine celebrity, we printed out a dozen pages of condolences sent to us via Facebook. (In the event that Doggie Paradise is run by Mexican bureaucrats, we wanted him to have good references.) Dr. Helia and Cesar arrived, along with a guy from the crematorium. We bundled his little bed into the back seat of our car - the same spot where he slept on the six-day drive to Mexico in 2006 - and the Missus got in next to him. I got behind the wheel and reached back to hold his paw. (Good luck getting a live pug to let you touch his front paws.) And so began Jesús's three-car funeral procession.
It was a true Mexican sendoff: darting at top speed through rush-hour traffic, the incinerator guy running red lights, taxibuses cutting us off. We lost Helia after about 10 minutes, and narrowly avoided three rear-end collisions. A fairly typical drive, all in all. And then we turned out of the city onto the road towards Coroneo, going in the space of a mile from urban chaos to rural emptiness - mountains, cacti, grazing animals, and mile after mile of shattered, neglected pavement. Despite what you may have read, it's surprisingly hard to get rid of a body in Mexico.
Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at "El Cielo de las Mascotas" - literally, Pet Heaven. Despite its trippy, hallucinogenic website, Pet Heaven is a monument to functionality, i.e., it looks like a place where you'd dispose of an animal carcass. According to Helia, it was started a couple years ago by a guy who'd lost his dog and didn't think there was any place around that could handle the task with dignity, which of course explains why she steered us there. ("Steered" is actually the wrong word. When we asked her for directions, she just shrugged; she'd never accompanied a "patient" out here before. If it's not clear by now, she loved Jesús as much as we love her.)
The cinder block interior of Pet Heaven contains two things: a small altar and a big incinerator. We carried the little bundle inside and said a very quick adios, for fear that anything longer would seal that room too much in our memories. Helia said it was okay if I wanted to load him into the machine myself, but I almost knocked her over rushing for the exit. We went outside and watched the sun set. It was probably the most perfectly quiet spot in all of Mexico. At least until the massive gas jets fired, and the metal parts began clanking. This wasn't quite the beautiful pyre you see in the movies.
Perhaps out of professional curiosity, Helia stayed in Pet Heaven for most of the process, but came out near the end just to talk and hug and reminisce. And she took my hand and said, very seriously, "I want you to know something: when you were talking to Chucho, his heart began beating faster and stronger. That's why I told you to keep talking to him. I've not seen that happen before." That story is the third and greatest gift he gave me in those final 20 minutes.
The clanking machinery had stopped, replaced by the sound of scraping and shoveling, and then a horrible crunching and grinding. (There is apparently a third object in the interior of Pet Heaven.) The technician gave us back his bed - we'd wanted him cremated in it, but, as it was hecho en México, it was thought that the stuffing might be toxic when burned. And then he handed us a little box, and inside was a knotted plastic bag full of what looked like salt-and-pepper colored sand: Jesús. He's about the size and shape of a human heart.
|Christmas 2013, Querétaro|
This humble blog and the World's Most Photographed Perro are linked inextricably. Our blogspot.com address was originally a place where we posted some goofy, badly Photoshopped pix of him. We converted it to Burro Hall en route to Mexico, and wrote our first post with the boy snoozing on our luggage.
We broke ground on our corporate headquarters about the same time Calderón broke ground on his Drug War, when a mere quintuple decapitation was worthy of its own post. Since then, we've ground out 3,275 entries - probably a fifth of which were about the perro. He'd been propositioned, gay-propositioned, adopted his own namesake street urchin, discovered horses, danced with concheros, befriended serial-killer-survivors, appeared in a miracle paint chip, outlived at least two Mexican perro amigos and one (possibly two) co-pets. (God, this isn't even our first pet incineration here.) All the while, he tirelessly pursued sunbeams, and provided us endless photographic comedy. Hell, he passed away on Mexican Mailman's Day. A showman to the very end.
As of this month, we've been running Burro Hall longer than we worked at CBS, making this the longest job we've ever held. It's been clear for at least a year that, now that we're working full time, it's harder and harder to maintain this site and - after eight and a half years - to come up with anything original to say. (To those readers who came here hoping to learn how to retire at age 38, we apologize.) And now our muse is gone. Burro Hall started with the perro, and it's only fitting it should end with him.
We can't begin to express how much we've enjoyed all the comments, the feedback, the friendships we made (see the blogroll on the right), many of which have spilled over into other social media or in person. We've written more than a million words here, and have been struggling to come up with the right ending. But as our distinguished copy editor taught us last week, sometimes the best way to end something that means a great deal to you is with a simple, heartfelt thank you.