Almost every day, for the past sixteen years, I have gotten up early to feed and walk our dog, Sunny. I will not have to get up tomorrow, for Sunny died today.
I had nothing to do with selecting and purchasing Sunny. My goal, on Saturday, March 24, 2001, was to buy a new car, to replace one that had failed. I did not take along my wife and children, because I did not want complications. Instead of helping to buy a car, they bought a dog.
We were living at the time in Vienna, Virginia; I was working as a lawyer in Washington; my wife Masami was working towards her PHD at George Mason; and our children Clancey and Lydia were in third grade and kindergarten. There was an old house, at the corner of Hunter Mill Road and Crowell Road in Vienna, Virginia, that we drove by almost every day, on our way to work or school or the ballet. From time to time there would be puppies for sale in the front yard. On that Saturday, Masami stopped the car, so the children could see the puppies, and they decided to buy one. Masami and Lydia liked one dog, but Clancey liked another, and he prevailed. She was a small female Labrador with a gold coat and pink nose. Lydia had various ideas for names, but Clancey prevailed on that as well, insisting that her name was Sunny, because of her cheerful personality. They had to first pick the dog, then go to the bank to withdraw five hundred dollars in cash, then return to pay for her and take her home. I learned of this through a phone call, which I did not quite believe, saying that they had purchased a dog. We had not talked about buying a dog; we certainly had not agreed to buy a dog. But when I returned home, there was the dog, already in possession of the kitchen, and our hearts.
We used books to build walls to keep her in the kitchen, but they were not very effective; before too long she could place her front paws on the books and push them over. But before too long she was toilet-trained, so we could take down the walls of books. We lived at that time in a large house, with a large fenced back yard, and the back yard was Sunny’s domain. She was never very good at fetching a ball; she would chase the ball, get it in her mouth, and then challenge you to come get the ball from her. One of her favorite games was dog soccer; we would kick around an old soccer ball, and she would try to intercept the ball, then run around the yard with the ball in her teeth. Needless to say this was hard on soccer balls.
We have a book of poetry that Clancey composed in the 2001-02 school year, when he was about eight and Sunny about one. Sunny figures in many of his little poems. In a poem entitled “My Treasures” the first sentence reads “My dog is special, she cheers me up when I’m sad.” In another poem, “The Key to Me,” the first line reads: “I love dogs and pets who love and care.” Sunny was if anything even more important for Lydia, who really does not remember much before Sunny became part of the family. When things were really bad for Lydia, she would get Sunny up on her bed to sleep with her at night.
We lived near Lake Fairfax Park, and Sunny and I would often run in the park. It was not that easy to get to the park: one had to go down to the one-lane bridge where Hunter Mill Road crosses Colvin Run, across the bridge, keeping the dog out of the traffic. But once one reached the park, there were miles and miles of shaded trails, with many squirrels and deer and the occasional fox. I kept Sunny on the lead, always, because I knew that if she started to chase a deer she would just keep going.
Sunny was a good runner. She and I participated several times in the Reston Runners Thanksgiving Day run in the park. This was a sort of informal run/race, with various prizes, such as “best dressed” and “least dressed” and “first dog.” On those chilled November mornings Sunny was so eager, so fast, that I could barely keep up with her. She won the “first dog” prize a couple of times; I think once we selected a large tin of popcorn, something humans and dogs could share.
On normal days, we would run a few miles, then return to the house, where Sunny liked to cool down by swimming in the pool. There was a ledge in the pool where the water poured out of the tub and into the main pool, and she liked to stand on that ledge, letting the cool water pour over her. Even better was if some one would come sit on the ledge with her, and scratch her back side while the cool water poured over both of you.
Sunny was a great traveler. One summer, I think it was 2003, our plans for a dog sitter fell apart at the last minute, and we put Sunny in a crate and “checked her” on a United flight to San Francisco. She did not like the flight, she was SO glad to see us at the other end, but she loved our destination, Inverness, California. There were lots of dogs, lots of places for dogs, such as the beach pictured above, where she could run and swim. I was training that summer for a triathlon, and Sunny would follow me into the water, swim way out into the bay with me. Once a woman expressed alarm to my mother, saying the dog would drown, but she was fine. Another time, I think it was about 2009, we went with our friends the Waltons, and their two dogs, to the beach in North Carolina. It seems like we spent hours tossing the ball into the water, for the dogs to chase and retrieve. Not hours enough.
Our life became much more complicated in the summer of 2008, when we moved to Exeter, New Hampshire. We moved so my wife could start teaching math at Phillips Exeter Academy, but because we did not know how long we would stay and we wanted a place for vacations, we kept the house in Virginia. So for several years we commuted from northern Virginia to southern New Hampshire, a drive of five hundred miles. Sunny must have made that drive twenty times. She would get in the back seat, generally well before we were ready to leave, because she did not want to be left behind. She would stay in the back seat, or on the back floor, quiet as could be. If it was just Lydia and the dog in the back, Lydia would make an elaborate dog resting place for her, with blankets, pillows and the like. Sunny was quiet and calm, however long the day.
We lived, for the first few school years, on the edge of the athletic fields. Sunny loved those fields and the nearby trails. She and I were out on the fields every day, generally more than once a day. I generally kept her on the leash, as the rules required, but sometimes let her run, when there was no one else around. There were lots of squirrels, and after a rain the seagulls would fill the fields. Sunny would chase the gulls until they all rose in the air, and settled in another part of the field. And then she would chase them again. We were out on those fields in deep snow, so deep that she sunk in up to her chest. At other times of year, in hot weather, she would end a run with a cooling dip in the Exeter River, just under the bridge from which students are not supposed to jump.
Our life grew yet more complicated in the summer of 2012, when we sold the house in Virginia and bought one in southern California. Sunny, Lydia, and I were the last people out of the Virginia house; we packed up as the movers packed up and drove to California. We were also the first three in the new California house; we arrived the night before we purchased the house and entered it that day.
We were not done with Exeter, however, so for two school years we commuted from California to New Hampshire. Sunny made the drive five times: twice in the summer of 2012, twice in the summer of 2013, and once in the early summer of 2014, just after Lydia’s Exeter graduation. So Sunny saw America: she ate barbecue in Tennessee; she peed on the banks of the Mississippi River; she roasted in Oklahoma in hundred degree heat; she stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
Each morning on these long trips we would get up, feed the dog, walk the dog, pack the car, and set off. Sunny generally had the back seat, not the back floor, because (I believe) we never did the drive with four humans. At lunchtime we would often stop some place that allowed us to eat outside; other times one of us would stay in the car, to keep the AC running, so the dog would not die. When we arrived at the motel, after five or six hundred miles, we would feed and walk Sunny, then lock her in the motel room while we went out to dinner. She did not bark when we left her, she did not pee on the floor, did not in short cause any commotion.
Sunny liked California as much as she liked New Hampshire or Virginia. Indeed, there were things she liked better; we were not too far from the Huntington dog beach, and she loved to romp in the surf. She suffered from occasional epileptic fits in Virginia and New Hampshire; those ended when we moved to California.
Sunny suffered and survived two major medical incidents in recent years. In June 2015, her stomach “flipped” and she needed emergency surgery to get it back into place. If your dog is retching in the night, but not vomiting anything up, DO NOT WAIT until morning; drive her to the nearest emergency vet, for she may not survive till morning. Sunny did survive, barely. In June 2016, while Masami, Lydia, and I were in Europe, Sunny was having great difficulty breathing. Fortunately my brother Fritz was here; he drove Sunny to the emergency vet; and they were able to operate on her trachea/esophagus and fix the problem.
Although old, Sunny was able to make two long trips this summer, from Newport Beach to Inverness. On the second trip, about two weeks ago, on the beach pictured above, she saw another dog chasing a ball into the water. She did not go into the water, but she did chase the ball, as best she could, up and down the beach. It was perhaps a bit too much; I had to carry her up the steps to get to the car. But overall she was fine, if slow and weak, until a few days ago.
I do not want to write about the terrible details of the past few days. Sunny had liver failure, probably liver cancer. I do want to thank the veterinarians who took such good care of Sunny in her last days: Ashley Cruse, Leyla Fatourechi, and Philip Schissler. One could not ask for more caring, careful, compassionate doctors. And indeed the whole staff at OCVA was great; you could tell that they really loved Sunny, even though they did not know her that well. I had wanted to sing for Sunny, as she passed away, something like Amazing Grace. But all I could do was sob.
Walter Stahr, July 28, 2017