Chapter I: White Fur, Red Blood

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
George in the Middlesex Fells (photo: Henry Wu)

It started with a nosebleed: red blood dripping from a pink nose onto the floor, leaving the white fur unstained. George was a 65 lb. Samoyed dog, 7 years old, and the very picture of Stoic good health. I brought him to my local veterinarian, who said, "I can't find anything wrong with him. He is only bleeding from one nostril so he probably just has a piece of grass stuck in his nose. Wait three days and, if he is still bleeding, take him down to Angell Memorial where they can look inside his nose. They have CAT scanners, ultrasound, and everything else you'd find at a hospital for humans."

George seemed sluggish and it made me uneasy. I drove straight to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, the best in Boston, where Dr. Daniel Stobie was able to see him after 30 minutes. Dr. Stobie felt around George's undercarriage and said, "I don't like the feel of his abdomen; he could have a serious problem." His clinical and detached tone chilled me. He removed George's collar and leash and handed it to me, putting a plastic ID collar around the dog's neck instead. I had a fleeting sinking feeling that this would be all of George that would come out of the hospital. It was Thursday afternoon.

After a nervous, nearly sleepless Thursday night, Friday was a day of nail-biting and bad news. Testing seemed to me to proceed at a snail's pace, and I beseeched Dr. Stobie to hurry up with the diagnostic tests so that George could be treated. Somewhat annoyed with my impatience, he called me several times, each time deepening my gloom. By late Friday, he announced that George was in disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), a condition induced by various disorders, including heat stroke, cancer, and infection. Small clots form inside the dog at a rapid pace so that the blood's clotting factors are used up. Thus, the thinned blood can pour out of the dog's nose, though usually not from just one nostril. Dr. Stobie said that 75% of the dogs in DIC die and that the remaining 25% often suffer permanent organ damage. X-rays revealed an enlarged liver and spleen, but not the underlying source of George's DIC and were therefore useless for treatment.

"George probably has cancer. There isn't anything we can do for him at the moment other than give him an IV with plasma and fluids to bring him out of DIC." Dr. Stobie didn't sound as though he had much hope.

Visiting hours in the intensive care unit (ICU) are brief, so I rushed down to Angell to take full advantage of them. Bruce and Neil, old friends from work and college, accompanied me. Seeing George in intensive care was heartbreaking. The place was about as nice as could be expected, but it killed me to see animals suffering. Hospitals for humans never bothered me as much, perhaps because the patients can at least comprehend their plight. George was in a cage about 4' x 6', lying in a sedated fog. He was happy to see us and struggled to get to his feet.

I cried to see him brought so low and in such a cold place. Neil and Bruce felt awkward seeing me break down. I've never been the politically correct, emotionally sensitive Cambridge Man. I probably hadn't cried in 15 years. George was always tough, aloof, and very much his own dog. He'd jump into bed with me, but would eventually retire to his private corner. This is the dog who hit a trip wire in Harvard Yard while running at a full 30 miles/hour, sailed and tumbled 20 feet through the air, landed on his head, and kept running without yelping. Nothing in my seven years with George prepared me to see him in such a state.

After holding his head and crying into his neck fur for 15 minutes, I let Neil and Bruce get closer to George and looked around the ICU, which was a good recipe for heartache. A magnificent black Newfoundland slept in the adjacent cage. A little farther was a sweet-looking Golden Retriever panting in a closed cell with clear plastic doors so that he could breathe oxygen-enriched air. I felt sorriest for him, little imagining that my own baby would be in his place in two days.

We were kicked out at 7:00 PM and Bruce followed me home. Bruce and I moved furniture and did some carpentry. George was never out of our minds, but I stopped crying. After Bruce left, I called my brother Harry, an anesthesiologist in Baltimore, who'd lived with me and George one summer and well understood the potential tragedy.

Harry explained DIC a little more thoroughly--it was definitely something you didn't want to have--and tried to give me a lot of medical advice. He floated the idea that there might be better animal hospitals for canine cancer. It occurred to me that everyone in our family is obsessed with the idea of getting the right specialist. There is no medical problem so serious that it cannot be cured by the genius that cured some cousin's brother-in-law ("everyone said he was going to die and look at him now, five years after he saw that wonderful Dr. Smith"). After I plaintively said, "Harry, I'm calling you as a brother, not a doctor," he was quite sympathetic.

Then I called Chicca, my Italian girlfriend, the only woman I'd ever dated who'd been introduced to me by George. Meeting women with a Samoyed by one's side is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I'd never followed up any of the casual conversations until Chicca interrupted her tour of the U.S. to pet the "poppy." George had good taste, for Chicca probably loved me as much as any woman could. She wanted to jump on the next plane, but I restrained her. "You can't leave school until July and, besides, my parents will be here next week. My local friends can pull me through until Mom and Dad arrive."

I don't remember getting into bed, but I do remember an overwhelming loneliness. I stared up through my bedroom skylight at the empty sky and cried until I fell asleep at about 4:00 AM. Despite my predisposition to sloth, I woke at 8:00 AM without an alarm and wasn't tired. I moved some more heavy things and arrived at Angell Memorial at 11:30 sharp for the only visiting hour on Saturday. Hardly anyone was there, and the quiet was reassuring.

Before I entered the ICU, I could see George through the window sitting up in his cage. He greeted me wildly and seemed to have his energy and health fully restored. The IV plasma had had a miraculous effect on George, and I began to hope. I held him for 30 minutes, and then Rebecca came by.

Rebecca had dumped me a year before. "I'm going to be on CSPAN this weekend," I had said on the phone. "Not only do I not want to see you on television, I don't want to see you in person anymore" was how she had closed the door on our three years together. I had it coming to me, but I would have been mired in despair if not for George's companionship.

Rebecca had a difficult time believing that George was in immediate danger and spoke of breeding him once he'd recovered so that his unique personality would be preserved. She'd never liked dogs and still didn't like them in general, but had grown powerfully attached to George. She was warm with George, but a bit cold and almost bitter with me. We parted from George in a reasonably optimistic mood. He exhibited no signs of illness or depression, and it seemed that he'd be one of the lucky 25%.

Bruce and Henry, my partners in an engineering consulting business, spent Saturday afternoon with me. I wrote some software, relying on my natural obsessive characteristics to take my mind off George. Saturday afternoon, Dr. Stobie gave me some bad news: an ultrasound-guided hunt through George's interior revealed malignant-looking bone marrow cells. However, he promised me no definitive verdict until Monday when a senior pathologist could look at the cells.

Melissa and Mara on the sofa.

Neil, Melissa, and Mara came over in the evening, and we stayed up until 5:15 AM looking at photographs, moving heavy things, talking, watching a movie, listening to Arthur Grumiaux (the Belgian violinist) records, and relaxing on the living room couch. When I met Neil in 1982, just after we graduated from MIT, he struck me as the warmest, sweetest, most sympathetic person I'd ever met. We've been friends ever since, and he is one of the few men that I really feel comfortable touching; sitting close on my couch (hemmed in by the women) was the best time that I had that weekend.

I awoke in a nervous state at 9 on Sunday morning and paced through the hours until 11:30 visiting time. Henry and Bruce met me at the hospital, and we found George in the Golden Retriever's oxygen cage. He looked weak and sick, but when he saw me, he pressed his face against the glass so hard that his features were distorted, like a 5-year-old child smushing his nose and lips against a window. It would have been funny if George had done it while healthy. Now he whimpered and cried, probably from a combination of loneliness and pain. Dr. Stobie had gone on vacation and Dr. Brenda Griffin came by to take his place. She seemed just as capable, but was infinitely warmer and more sympathetic ("call me Brenda").

Without anyone saying anything, Brenda sensed that George was not just a backyard dog to be played with when work and family responsibilities allowed, but rather a best friend, constant companion, and partner in life. She let George out of the cage, and I held him on the floor trying in vain not to cry. I could have cried freely alone, in front of old friends, or in front of someone who wouldn't have cared, but it seemed cruel to burden Brenda.

George was short of breath from being outside the oxygen cage, but when we put him back in he seemed agitated about being separated from me. We had to leave before the end of visiting hours to keep him from tiring himself. I wasn't sorry to leave anyway; it was killing me to see him in that state. Out in the hallway, Brenda was in the middle of assuring us that she was doing everything possible when three fraternity boys came rushing in to check on the progress of their cat. They accosted Brenda, who had nothing to do with their case, and demanded to know how much they would be charged.

Once out of the hospital, I felt free to collapse. Henry noted my despair and kindly drove me in my car back to Cambridge. "Those guys were archetypical fraternity jerks," Henry fumed. Only his proper Hong Kong upbringing had kept him from exploding on the spot. This conversation drew my own attitudes about George and money into sharp focus. I realized how easy it would be to give up everything material if it would save George. Comparing the pain of losing money when one of my start-up companies went belly-up to the pain of losing Rebecca, I knew that there were many things I loved more than money. However, losing George hammered home the utter impotence of money under the most trying circumstances.

We all sat down to brunch in Harvard Square and tried to remember all the good times we'd had with George. Bruce and Henry chuckled that, even in his last days, George was irresistible to beautiful women (Brenda had expressive green eyes set in fine soft features, framed by long blond hair). Wherever I went, women would stop me so they could pet George, unless I was running fast or in New York City, where people are afraid of their own shadows. "How old is he?", "What's his name?", and "What kind of dog is he?" everyone would ask. We used to have fun answering the last question with "Arctic Pitbull."

We all laughed when we remembered the two saleswomen from an advertising agency who came by our plush new Cambridge offices. They were showing us their book when George, who was lying near one woman, started to make whooping noises.

"What's that?" asked the woman.

"He's going to throw up," I responded while quickly marshaling Wall Street Journals to place underneath his mouth.

The women shrieked and closed themselves into a windowless, unlit, 2' x 2' closet, refusing to emerge for several minutes.

Trying to numb myself with fatigue, I ran six miles through the woods near my house, up and down hills that overlook the city and ocean. The run, which I'd done a hundred times with George, was a painful reminder that things weren't the same. I missed the joy of admiring his powerful athleticism in jumping over rocks and fallen trees or in plunging through thickets. It used to make me happy just to look at George, sleeping, lying down, walking, or running.

My friend Mark came over with some Chinese food for which I had little appetite. He'd been in psychoanalysis for years and had absorbed a healthy dose of psychology theory, yet couldn't say much to comfort me. Halfway through dinner Brenda called from her house with the bad news: she'd convinced the senior pathologist to come in, and he'd diagnosed liver cancer that had metastasized (spread to other tissues). George wouldn't live more than a few days and would do so in pain.

"He's crying now, and I don't think he should have to endure the night. Some people wish to remember their dog as he was; you don't have to come back in."

The thought of George dying alone made me shudder, and I was very grateful that Brenda was willing to meet me at the hospital.

I couldn't eat another bite of food, but I did manage to take a shower and put on some decent clothes. I drove hurriedly to Angell Memorial, my mind blank of everything but the worry that George might die of weakness before I arrived. I didn't want George to die in the noisy intensive care unit with so many other pathetic cases all about. I carried George, who was too weak to walk at this point, and walked with Brenda to a quiet grassy area outside. I used to pick George up and hug him all the time, and even carried him around the Lincoln Memorial for 15 minutes once ("you are allowed to bring dogs in the Memorial as long as you carry them"). Despite having lost a few pounds in the hospital, George seemed heavier than expected.

We all lay down on the grass together. It was a perfect June night, warm and clear. I held George in my arms and talked to him. I told him how I'd always felt that I had to do something exceptional for him to repay him for the love he'd given me. I told him I was sorry for saying, "I'll be finished with my start-up companies and Ph.D. soon and then we can spend a year exploring North America together." (George loved hiking through the woods more than anything else.) He gave a mournful yelp every few seconds; it was an eerie, utterly unfamiliar sound. This was a dog who would, in turning around to investigate a cellophane package being opened, hit his head on a sharp table corner so hard that everything on the table flew six inches into the air; not only would he not yelp, but he would not appear to have noticed. Every cry now felt like a physical slash to my chest.

I asked Brenda to give him the barbiturate overdose. I was cradling him and could feel his heart and lungs working hard. I felt them stop a few seconds after the injection.

Lying down and holding his body, I felt freer than I had in days and was able to talk with Brenda for 10 minutes without straining not to cry. I wanted desperately to tell her about George so that she didn't think of him the way she'd met him: weak, helpless, and sickly. Although it was very comforting to be with Brenda and what was left of George, I didn't want to impose on her generosity. I carried George's body, which felt twice as heavy now, back into the hospital and cried all the way home. It had been only 78 hours from the time I suspected anything was wrong with George until he was dead. I fell asleep at 3:00 AM.

My mother woke me Monday morning with a phone call from my Aunt Marge's in New Jersey. Marge was in tears, and my parents expressed their regret. However, they would not be coming up to Boston; my father had caught a cold, and they were driving back to Washington.

If my parents weren't exactly the resources I'd hoped they'd be, my friends more than made up for it. Bruce and Henry called all my friends and told them the bad news so that I'd be spared awkward moments in the weeks ahead ("by the way, how's George?"). Most of them called back and offered their sympathy. For the next two weeks, I couldn't go one hour without someone offering me dinner, a shoulder to cry on, or their assistance in any task.

Best of all, friends offered happy memories of George. Mitzi remembered the night he was running into the sun and rammed a thin aluminum pole in Harvard Yard. He gave a surprised cry, then staggered back 50 feet to meet me and lay down at my feet, bleeding profusely from the nose. George wanted me to hold him for a few minutes before he resumed walking around. I recalled that, rather than get off the bed after 10 minutes to lie on the cold floor, he lay in my arms that entire night.

Cathy remembered the time we were walking through the suburbs and were set upon by an angry 100 lb. Dalmatian that had escaped from someone's backyard. She froze and hid a bit behind her female German Shepherd, but noticed that I instinctively got in front of George and her, prepared to give the Dalmatian a discouraging kick. "I couldn't believe that your first impulse was to worry about George and not yourself."

Although George in his later years was ready to fight with big male dogs, he never killed anything and shrugged off small threats. Cats who attacked him never got worse than a punch in the face or a mouth-hold then a toss. Small dogs who attacked were basically ignored. Children who pulled his hair and tried to ride him were suffered in silence, although he did try to escape them. Just two weeks before George died, exploring with his sister Sky, he approached and sniffed a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest and was walking around the ballfield a few blocks from my house. They let it pass unmolested, and it walked under a fence into a yard where two Siberian Husky bitches killed it within seconds, then didn't bother to eat it. George wasn't that kind of dog.

I remembered our first swim. I took him up to the reservoir on top of a forested hill, about 10 minutes walk from my house. Arctic dogs know that water is deadly, and he wanted no part of it. I dragged him in and then blocked his return to shore. He eventually learned to love swimming and would come when called to the middle of the lake. George would even go swimming on subzero days. His outer fur was so well-insulated from his body heat that it would freeze, eventually thawing into a filthy mess inside the house.

My happiest thought was that I'd spent more hours with George in seven years than most people spend with dogs that live a full life. It took us a year to really get close to each other, but after that George was always with me at work, at home, on many trips, at most parties (my friends would invite him and not me!), at MIT, etc. I gave up sports that I couldn't do with George. I was reluctant to go on trips of any length if I couldn't take him.

George felt the same way about me. To look at him eat, you'd think he loved nothing more than food. Yet if I carried something out to the car while he was eating, he'd leave his food and rush out the door, afraid of being left behind.

Hurt though I was, I remained thankful for a few things. Foremost was that I was not responsible for George's death. If I'd left the gate open and he'd been hit by a car, I never would have forgiven myself. I had taken him to his regular vet just two months ago for a checkup. Even if he had found something, it would only have meant prolonged agony for me and complex, perhaps painful, and certainly ultimately futile treatment for George. I was thankful that I only spent four days worrying that my baby might die. I was thankful that Fate sent us Brenda Griffin to be with us during those last moments. I was thankful that my friends proved to be so loyal and caring.

Bereft of George, I couldn't understand how a lot of people make it through the day. Without a dog, child, or spouse, why don't they ache inside? Friends only go so far, families are often spread far apart, and most love affairs don't last long enough these days to become deep and rich in understanding.

That was in June, 1991. Two years later, I was still asking myself the same questions. I felt kind of stupid grieving over a dog, but then I read a short piece in Harvard magazine that claimed it might well be more difficult to get over the loss of a dog than of a family member. "One often has mixed feelings about relatives, but few people could identify serious problems in their relationships with dogs."

I'd go away on a trip or fall in love with a woman and say, "OK, now I've recovered from George's death." Then Life would throw me a curve, and my reaction revealed to me how fragile George's death had left me. I decided to take the trip we were going to take together, Boston to Alaska and back, rather than wait until I finished my Ph.D. This book is about the summer I spent seeing North America, meeting North Americans, and trying to figure out how people live.

Chapter II: Boston to Montreal, Ottawa, Lake Superior

Table of Contents

George's photo album.

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