In honor of my dad, Cecil Riffe Counts, Jr. aka “Chip” born September 25, 1956, died January 11, 1992
and in honor of Orion, aka “Squirt” born January 11, 2002, died December 6, 2013.
I was a tall, blonde, 17 year old living a block from Broad and Belvedere in Richmond, Virginia (on the corner of Pine and Grace). For those of you who know where that is, yes – I actually lived there, alone – for a year when I was a teenager. There were monthly drive-bys, homeless folks who camped out on the fire escape, millions of roaches, people breaking into the building and dying in the hallway, domestic disputes that always ended in police lights flashing in the apartment. Needless to say, I wanted safety…protection… aka, a dog. And not just any dog, I wanted a pit bull.
When I was a kid, we had chows, dobermans, and pit bulls. We didn’t choose these breeds for any particular reason but just to have a family dog – like the way other people get labs and retrievers. But I loved Early, our family pit bull – the most. So when I moved out, that’s what I wanted to get. And one of the things about pit bulls that I was banking on, was that people are afraid of them and would most likely leave me alone. Hooray.
(Meet Early, the pit bull i grew up with! RIP, buddy!)
I was working for a busy downtown salon at the time and had been talking about how I wanted a pit bull to some of my clients. As word spread, one day I got a phone call from a client who worked at the police station saying they just arrested some folks who had pit bull puppies and they were taking them to the pound, would I want one? he asked. Heck yeah I do! I asked him how old the puppies were? And he said they were born on January 11th, making them 6 weeks old, (and also making them born on the day my dad passed away 10 years before). He said there was a boy and a girl, my choice. I was drawn to bringing the girl home. They can be a little more feisty, but loyal as hell I heard. So we met at a gas station later that afternoon so I could pick up this new little pup.
Looking inside the crate, there were two puppies – both about 6 weeks old. The female was a red-nosed pit bill, about twice as big as the little boy pup (who was brindle), she was sitting in the far back of the crate with watchful eyes. The little boy however, came rushing to the front of the crate and nearly fell out of the car with his fierce curiosity of this world beyond bars. He was clearly the runt of the litter and a little spitfire, no less. And I knew right away he was mine. Orion was to be his name.
We rode home together, him asleep in a tiny little ball on the seat next to me – opening his eyes every once in a while to meet mine. We were soul-mates, from the start. I remember feeling this mixture of total excitement about this new companion of mine, but also the weight of responsibility that I now carried in protecting this little one.
Orion and I had many adventures together over the years. I took him on his first camping trip when he was about 8 months old (and already 40 or so pounds!) down the coast of North Carolina to Hatteras Island where we could camp on the beach. He would bite the ocean waves, chase sand crabs into their holes and then dig ferociously a couple feet down before getting sucked into another very important task. He was extremely mischievous. The photo here was from the car ride down to the beach where the back seat was littered with toys and blankets and treats (I was a new mom, what can I say? haha). As I was driving, I could hear him flinging himself around, playing with all his goodies and since I was driving, I just slid my arm back and snapped a quick photo. The naughtiness is written all over his face.
When he was about a year old, he earned the nickname “Squirt.” This came about because he would get SO excited to see people sometimes that he would simply squirt a little on their feet, or the floor if you were lucky! Then he would be so ashamed he would turn to walk away briskly with his back all sunken, his tail tucked between his legs and his ears down. It was as though he couldn’t help it. Even if he had just been on a long walk, it still happened. I took him to the vet to get him tested to make sure there wasn’t anything physically wrong with him. Sure enough he was fine, just seemed to get so excited that he would lose control.
Another nickname he developed is “Meat Missile.” This came after his first visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park with some friends. When a friend was about to go sand-boarding, Orion got so excited that he ran and jumped several feet in the air and tried to grab a hold of the person who was going down the dune! It happened so quick there was no stopping him. And no, the shirt did not make it back in one piece.
Eighty pounds of force. When he simply ran down a hillside, it was like thunder, hence the nickname “Pit Bull-Dozer” he acquired in his adulthood. “Watch out for your knees!” I’d scream to the people who he was headed towards.
He was fierce. He was strong. But he slept under the covers at night, curled up behind my legs (don’t tell anyone!) and he shivered at the sound of the wind. Orion has seen me through all of my moves within Richmond and eventually out of state all the way to Colorado. He has ridden across the country with me four times, played in the ocean on several coasts (we called it “attacking”) and backpacked many miles in the mountains, carrying all his own food and treats. He has partaken and given me feedback on all of my relationships, witnessed me through life’s ups and downs, and put up with me when I was stressed out and waist deep in the academic world. I always had this fear that I would do something really clumsy and compromise his safety (like leave the oven on before going to work or not close the gate properly, every possible variable). But luckily nothing like that ever happened. Even when mistakes were made on my part, he was a smart cookie and he survived. He has been my faithful sidekick, my comrade, my point of reference for most things in life. He assured that I existed (in the BIG sense), and I, for him. He has merely required a little normalcy from me, daily rhythms, and commitment. Without him, hmm…can’t even entertain that.
A year ago he developed this strange cough that wouldn’t go away. Then one day he fainted out in the yard by himself. I found him, his body limp and his eyes glazed over and helped him out of his state of total disorientation. It was time for a vet visit.
Soon enough, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a very aggressive type of small cell cancer that was chemo resistant (interestingly, the same diagnosis my father had). X-rays revealed that he had masses in his chest that were pushing on his heart and lungs, hence the coughing and subsequent fainting. Since he was already 11 years old at this point, I just decided to support him with herbs, acupuncture, probiotics, and so much love he couldn’t stand it – and to let nature take it’s course. Because he was now immunocompromised, I had to be more careful with him. And if he were to get his heart rate up, that’s when he would faint. So summer for him was spent outside only at night when it was cool enough for him to go on a walk. But damn, we had some really good adventures under the stars in my neighborhood and the surrounding open space. We were night warriors, and we would watch Orion rise in the sky, as on the ground. We would romp around at the sound of the coyotes and howl at the moon when we needed to. We would play hide and seek, his favorite game ever (he would be walking up ahead of me and I would duck behind a tree, then he would suddenly realize that I wasn’t there and come hunting for me, with such great intensity. Sometimes he would even whimper a little when he found me as if to say, “what the hell mom!!! (It pretty much always brought tears to my eyes.) I committed myself to him even more after his diagnosis. I made sure he got a walk every single day and treats galore. I took him to the dog park often and got him new toys every time I visited the pet store. When we had our follow-up visit with the vet 6 months later, Orion was doing amazing. He had actually gained some weight (the opposite of what happens with cancer) and all of his numbers were really good. He was coughing only rarely and hadn’t fainted for over a month. The vet was impressed and said I didn’t need to treat him like a sick dog anymore. So we enjoyed life fully and lived every day as though it were a rare and precious gem. Because we knew it was.
(Proud of himself sitting at the top of S. Arapahoe Peak.)
All this being said, I still knew it would be the lymphoma that would take him. What was happening inside his body was inevitable. A mere 2.5mg of Prednisone was working like magic to keep the masses in his chest slightly shrunken so that he didn’t feel like he was choking all the time but not enough to save his life.
Every morning I was waking up and before doing anything else, reaching over to feel if he was still breathing. “Ahh…we get another day” I thought to myself. I would fix him his breakfast and if he didn’t eat it, I’d spin out a little wondering if this was the start of the downhill. In fact, every little thing that happened out of the ordinary started the feeling of dread within me and then I spiraled out from there. Did he poop today? How much has he eaten? Is his heart rate too high? Why is he looking at me like that? Is he in pain? You name it, I feared it. I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on me worrying and caring for Orion these last few months until I went out of town for a week and got to take my mind off of him and relax. Wow.
When I came home just 2 days before Thanksgiving, I saw for the first time that Orion had lost some weight. The shape of his head had changed and he shivered a lot, despite wearing his little red fleece jacket around the house (which he clearly felt like a Prince in). He was still enthusiastic about taking walks but would want to turn around after only a couple of blocks. Things were changing, and fairly rapidly.
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I was in the office and my roommate texted me to come home right away because Orion was not doing well. When I arrived, he could hardly stand up. Each time he tried, he would faint. Then when he came to, he would lay there for some time trying to re-orient and then eventually move his body. This was happening because when he got upright, his heart couldn’t pump hard enough to oxygenate his brain and limbs. I went ahead and cancelled my next few days of clients as I knew in my heart this was it. And I thought for sure that one of these times he would just faint and not come back. My God, that would make things just a little bit easier.
Tuesday was a long night of singing to Orion, rubbing his little quivering body with leaves of Rosemary and Lavender, talking to him about our life together and all that we’ve been through as well as what’s to come for him, his exciting new potential on the other side. I guaranteed him that he could still watch over me and guide me when he goes. I slept in his dog bed with him that night and I asked him (with my heart beating nearly out of my chest) to please trust me and go on his own.
Wednesday morning I awoke, he was still breathing. Ahh. Relief and fear hit me hard all at once. He couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I was sliding him around the house on a rug so that we could be together and he could be comfortable. Despite the fainting, if i stepped out of sight of this boy even for a second, he would try to get up, at least long enough to turn his body around so he could keep a watchful eye on me. He would plop down really quickly before he fainted. (Yes, he had mastered this whole heart-not-working-well situation!). But this was getting desperate. We spent the entire day, snuggled on the floor of the living room, watching episodes of a really silly show, one after another. I knew a big decision was coming. A decision I never thought I would have to make when I first got this little one. A decision that felt downright wrong for me, his woman, his companion, his momma, to be making. And yet – there is not a single other person in the world who could make it for me.
I decided I’d give him (and me) until Friday at noon on this Earth. Every message I was getting from him was that he was ready to go. I wanted to give him the chance.
But when we awoke on Thursday, I reached over to feel him and he wasn’t there. Where the hell was he? Standing by the back door wanting to go outside.
(What?!? My heart was so tired of this rollercoaster…)
Yes, he wanted to go outside. He wanted to sniff things. He wanted to go to the bathroom. He wanted to jump up on the couch. He wanted to bark at passers-by in the front window. He wanted to eat his food. He wanted to assess the whereabouts of his toys. He was alive. He was himself. It was startling to my system.
Though I really wanted to believe this was some amazing miracle of a turnaround, my heart knew better. I have always heard that when death is coming, often there is a final rising of energy just before. I invited Orion’s friends and family over to come say their Goodbye’s. He was brought carpaccio, peanut butter, toys, jerky, and turkey. He was in heaven, gobbling everything up. He got a massage, a little acupressure, essential oils to keep him relaxed, flower essences to aid in the transition, and lots of LOVE. When it was bedtime, I picked his little frail body up and placed him in the bed with me, under the covers. I laid there all night with him while he slept hard and dreamed vividly. My mind went crazy. It ventured into all the dark places before arriving at peace and falling asleep for a short while.
When the sun came up the next morning, I felt a mixture of total dread, fear, doubt, and relief all at the same time. My dear, dear friend who has known Orion almost his entire life drove over to be with us during his transition. My gratitude for her is immeasurable.
We had a sweet morning together, lying around on the floor, she and I and Orion. Snapping tear-laden photos….laughing and crying hard at the same time. Reminiscing over stories of Orion when he was young and talking about all the transitions we have been through together. Nearly twelve years is a very long time to spend with another being!
Come…don’t come…come…don’t come, I kept saying of the vet. But at noon, she knocked on the door. I was terrified and my body was dissociating. My head was spinning, my heart racing, and I don’t think I spoke more than a word to her at the beginning. And yet, she didn’t need anything from me. She has done this so many times before. She knew exactly what to say and do and she moved slowly and thoughtfully through each step. When we got to the place where Orion gets a sedative, I got up to get him his last few slices of turkey. With his eyes on me the whole time, he gobbled up the turkey in an instant and then the vet administered the first part of his transition so he could fully relax. With his eyes still locked on me, “Go get your stick, buddy…” we kept repeating, as he was given the euthanasia, “go get your stick, Orion.” And in moments, his tired, weary, 12-year old heart stopped, he let out a big exhale and had left this world.
I spent a little time with his body, caressing it for the last time. Making a permanent imprint of his smell in my body, getting a clay print of his paw, nuzzling his head and neck, assuring him (and me) that I’m going to be ok and to let go all the way, to trust me.
Shortly afterward, my dear friend and I wrapped him in patchwork blankets and placed him on the stretcher. She and I carried him out to the vet’s car together and placed him in the back next to stuffed animals with angel wings.
From there, he was taken to be cremated and the ashes were returned. Soon they will be scattered on the trails he spent most of his life wandering up in Sunshine Canyon and near Gold Hill. What a great life he has had, and what a great life I have had with him.
Whew. It was over. His suffering had ended. Now all the personal work that I’ve done up to this point, was suddenly called into action. I think this is the medicine of death (among many things). Death requires that we trust.
Today Orion would have turned 12 years old. As such, today is also the anniversary of my Father’s passing. In honor of both of them, may we love deeply, live sweetly, and play often. Today, and every day. Go get your stick!