Dante, 2011

Torn whether or not to write this post,  the thoughts, words, and visions continue to cling and need an escape. And in a way, I don’t want to ever forget.  It began a little over three weeks ago…

Leading into Easter Sunday, professionally, life had never been better for us. We were shooting the beginning of the week for a great client, the end of the week heading down to San Diego to shoot 3 farms for Whole Foods, and had just booked to photograph for Williams-Sonoma.

Easter Sunday was a beautiful quiet day gardening, cooking, and playing with the pups in the garden. Playing “lion” with my big dog, Dante, a formidable “lion hunter” of a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Even at over 10 years old, his agility and athleticism were still amazing.

The next two days we were shooting the client in our home. After recently selling our LA studio, and not having finished getting our new studio location up and running, we converted home into a studio/office for our clients.

Pups were banned to the garden and main bedroom (rough life), but we still checked up on them every few hours. A lump Dante had on his shoulder seems to be getting a bit bigger.  It first appeared about 6-8 weeks prior and always seem to grow and wane randomly over the weeks. He had started developing bumps and lumps for the past couple years and they previously tested benign. We thought this was another harmless fatty bump.

On Monday he seemed a little mopey, but nothing serious. However the change in the lump size was noticeable. So we kept an eye on him, and things began to down spiral. He’s never really been sick a day in his life, and something was not right. The back of my throat began to clench.

We knew someday the inevitable will happen. Life is followed by death and those we love are not always going to be here with us. When I first saw this video on Vimeo, it ripped me up. Feeling his pain combined with the thought that someday we might have to face something similar was gut wrenching.

Monday after we finished shooting, the evening weather was gorgeous, but the feeling wrapping my heart was not. We took the pups out to one of their favorite spots for a walk. Dante’s lump was still growing, and his energy was diminishing. The retching feeling that this may be his last walk crept into my mind. My jaw clenched, throat closed, and tears started creeping out as we drove to the back bay.

It was too late for his vet to see him Monday evening, so we made an appointment for as soon as we anticipated our shoot to finish on Tuesday. All Tuesday, while shooting we were able to escape and focus on the job, but every moment in between was filled with ache over the big dog’s condition. He couldn’t keep down anything he ate. His energy was seeping out of him. His lump was growing.

We wrapped up shooting by early afternoon, helped Dante into the truck, and tried to steel ourselves for the worst. The anticipation of the news we dreaded, and the thought of Dante’s suffering simply hurt. We both agreed that if decisions were to be made, it would be only what was best for our big dog. Not what was for our own sakes.

At the vet’s office, Dante quietly plodded in to see his life-long vet. Dante’s once proud head, drooped with weariness. Although he did still manage to get a crotch sniff in on the tech who weighed him, to her poorly hidden surprise.  That managed to bring a brief smile to our grieving hearts.

Dr. H knew things were bad. He listened to us, asked questions, and gently inspected Dante.  He took a sample to send off to the lab and went over the possible problems and options. His words were honest and compassionate, not trying to influence any decisions we would have to inevitably make, but just trying to inform us the best he could.  And to comfort us from the heart of someone who loves his own dogs, and knows how hard these moments are. It is your dog.

Decisions on what to do going forward would be pending on the lab’s diagnosis. Dr. H comforted us by saying even if we had brought him in when first noticing the lump, it wouldn’t have mattered.  We would have only known this day was going to happen sooner. He saw us out and as our eyes met, there was that unspoken connection of understanding and shared ache. Empathy was pouring from his soul.

Wednesday, we were out of the house before daylight to begin shooting the 3 farms in San Diego for Whole Foods. The drive down there was a mix of ache and excitement. These kind of shoots are our favorite type of jobs, photographing people in their element (especially farmers) and for a client we love. A total dream gig. But personally we were torn up.  Our hearts ached.

One thing about having a job you love, when you are working everything else disappears. When we put the cameras to our eyes we just shoot. It was a perfect day, the farms we shot were gorgeous, and the people were filled with life.

Afterwards, it was back to reality. No lingering to enjoy an idealistic setting, or pause for a moment of discovery. The moment the day was done, we sped back home to our big dog.  We still hadn’t heard back from the lab yet, but the shots Dr. H gave Dante to reduce the swelling of his lump were ineffective, and his health was in a nose dive.  Beyond no longer not being able to eat, he wasn’t even interested in food. This coming from a dog whose life obsession was food.

We laid on his bed next to him wishing our ear rubs and strokes could make him better. Tears wet the pillow as exhaustion forced us to sleep before another pre-dawn wake-up to drive down to San Diego and finish shooting the last farm, Stehly Farms, for Whole Foods.

Once again our job allowed us to escape our troubled emotions for the morning. We photographed the beautiful groves of citrus, avocados, and blackberries. Chatted and toured with the big-hearted owner Noel and his dogs (whom he loves every bit as much as we love ours). Captured Noel, his brother, and their families amongst the sweet smell of the orange trees. And we managed to quality control a few handfuls of blackberries straight from the vines. Once again another day of absolute extremes.  I never knew it was possible to be so happy and to have my heart hurt so much in the same moment.

We sped back home to be with our big dog. On the drive home, we finally heard back from the lab.  They weren’t 100% sure, but the tumor appeared to be malignant, but at this point we had already suspected as much. It had nearly swelled to the size of a football and Dante’s graceful body was shutting down. Even as miserable as he felt, he still forced himself to get up and shakily greet us at the door. But by then, his body was so tired that the top of his toenails dragged as he walked.

That night I had an aikido class to teach, which despite the desire not to leave Dante’s side, it was another brief escape from my reeling emotions. Checking my phone immediately after class, Diane had text, “Hurry home”

Heart in my throat, tears streaming, I cranked the Ducati into triple digits getting home. Had my big dog died while I was at the dojo? Please don’t let Diane have to deal with that alone.

Coming through the front door, Diane’s shaking voice called from the office. Dante had tried to get up and fell.  He wasn’t even able to lift his head anymore. Our vet clinic had put Diane in touch with the doctor on emergency call, he advised as best he could and gave us the info for the emergency vet clinic.

We eased a blanket under Dante and lifted him into the car. The moment we dreaded was here. Tears in our eyes, we knew we were going to have to let go of him.

The young vet treated us with the kindness and sympathy of friends.  We gave her a recap of the events of the past week, and she let us know what possibilities and uncertainties lay ahead if we wanted to try to keep him alive. We listened but knew already what was best for Dante. She almost seem relieved when we told her we had already decided that we weren’t going to prolong his suffering.

While the vet took care of the necessary preparations we shared stories and managed to laugh over memories given to us by Dante. He was our first dog. Our “Big Woof.” Lover of crotch and scalp sniffing. Food obsessed. Athletic. Pure grace in motion. Strong willed. Craftily clever, especially about getting food. And a big, sweet dog.

The memories of him running full steam across the meadows in the Sierras will always stay in our hearts.  Same with the morning scalp sniffs followed by a sneeze as we still lay in bed.

Diane didn’t want to watch.  She wanted to remember him living, not dying. But I couldn’t let him be surrounded by strangers at the end. He was laying down, head resting in his front paws on the gurney. As the vet gave him the injections, one to let him go to sleep, and then another to let help him end his suffering, he slowly closed his eyes as I stroked his long ears and kissed him on the head. “Go to sleep now, my big dog. Go to sleep.”

The vet checked his pulse and gave me a sad nod.  I kissed him one last time on the head, a sob escaping my throat, and blindly walked out to Diane. Holding each other we walked to the car, catching a glimpse of Dante in the window, lying in a peaceful, beautiful sleep.

We knew it was best, but it hurts. It still aches to the core. He was our dog.

We’ll forever cherish the memories of our life with Dante. His quirks and qualities. For every ounce of hurt and loss we are feeling now, our lives were one hundred times all the more precious while we had him. Sierra misses her big brother too. For days she lost her bubbly self. But slowly the rawness of his absence has eased.  Life continues on.



P.S. – Comments have been closed on this post because it is too painful to re-live loss of Dante through the sympathy and “so sorry” tidings. To be honest, we’d prefer not to receive them at all.  Every well intended wish stirs up the sorrow. I’m still not fully sure why I felt compelled to write this. As mentioned at the beginning, I don’t want to forget, no matter how much it hurts. But there is also something else intangible pushing me to do this.  Thank you for reading and for those who want to express their condolences. Unspoken words are felt as much as any other.