This is Murphy.
He’s a four year old border collie with traditional white “bib and boot” markings, bright eyes, and an unquenchable obsession with bouncy balls and bright lights. Depending on how one decides to calculate the relationship, he is either my step-grand-dog, my grand-dog-in-law, or merely a dog who belongs to someone I know. I’ve known him since he was a puppy (and what a cute puppy he was). Being a bit of a curmudgeon, I’ve always found his breed’s intensity of energy and focus a little exasperating — but he is in every way a well-trained and good-natured creature, imbued with uncommon grace and impressive intelligence, and I love him.
About 8 months ago, a few weeks before Thanksgiving and not too long after we saw him during our camping excursion to Lake Bonaparte, Murphy had an accident. It didn’t seem that bad at first, but after a while it became apparent that something was terribly, terribly wrong. A series of tests revealed that one of Murphy’s vertebrae had been torqued and damaged, essentially cutting off all sensation and control from just above his pelvis all the way down to the tip of his tail. Unfortunately, the damage turned out to be irreversible. Murphy is fated to be a two-legged dog for the remainder of his time on this planet.
Many of the qualities I’ve found exasperating about border collies in the past rallied in Murph-dog’s favor. Once he acclimatized to being front-wheel-drive only, his enthusiasm for chasing balls and lights and stuffed animals kicked right back into high gear. Very high gear. He is more than capable of scooting himself around the house or the yard with only two legs, and with the aid of a pair of rear wheels, he can still fly.
At first he hated his cart — the first time they took him out in it, in Westport around Thanksgiving timing, he objected very strenuously, apparently bewildered by its limitations. Since then, however, he has torn through two pairs of tires and is busily wearing out the third pair. Technically he can’t really jump anymore — but he often forgets this in the heat of the chase. By god, I have seen him do a full-on wheelie with his forelegs off the ground for a good three or four seconds. Yes, his heroic efforts did result in a rollover in that case — but he *did* snatch the ball out of midair before crashing. When I ran over to turn him over again, he was laying there on his back with the ball in his mouth grinning with something that looked like the canine equivalent of satisfaction.
As heroic as Murphy is, taking care of him is remarkably complicated. He possesses no awareness of the damage he inflicts to his senseless hindquarters as he scoots around over rough terrain. And our house is *full* of rough terrain — concrete blocks, many stairs, and lots of gravel and rocks. Further, he has no control over his bladder or his bowels. His bowels, for better or worse, take care of themselves — every so often, peristalsis moves a turd out into firing position and then, especially when he gets excited (SQUIRREL!) the turd will be deployed. Special food keeps most of the moisture (and much of the ick factor) out of these, but if he gets any “conventional” food… well, there are dire consequences to be considered. In one case, something that a physician might call “loose stool” got wedged between his harness and his butt, and by golly, he smeared poop all the way from the living room, across the kitchen, and into the mud room. That was fun.
His bladder is a different beast entirely. Murphy is utterly disinterested in water most of the time, and tends to be underhydrated — a serious health risk in his condition. Unlike his bowels, his bladder doesn’t just “take care of itself.” It needs to be expressed regularly, especially in the morning and before bed but also periodically throughout the day. This turns out to be not so easy. Murphy’s hindquarters have atrophied since the accident, but his forequarters have bulked up in compensation, and he is NOT a small dog, and not easy to maneuver — especially if, as if often the case, he is bored, distracted, and ready to do something else. There is nothing like holding a dog in your lap for three minutes, trying to find the “trigger” spot under his pelvis, when he sees a squirrel, lurches away, and only then produces some urine — right on your loafers.
We peed him in our rock garden a number of times, especially before bed, because it’s conveniently near to the house. His urine is so concentrated that it burned out patches of woolly thyme =(
Bottom line, Murph care is a lot of work.
When we initially agreed to caretake for LaRae and Wittstock, I thought I understood what I was getting into. I knew it would be non-stop work, and I knew that it would render our house a wild and unsanitary place, but I also knew that we would only have to do it for two weeks and then we could go back to our sane, comfortable lives. And in the end, that was true — there was a countdown towards completion that sometimes felt like the only consolation, something LaRae and Wittstock certainly don’t have. We did what we had to do. We gave ceaselessly (or very close to it) for those two weeks. But, I am sorry to confess, I was not able to do so with a happy heart. Murphy’s fundamental enthusiasm didn’t help. When he was so excited to see me return after a five minute absence that he squeezed out a puddle of urine onto a freshly-cleaned patch of linoleum in my honor, I could not return the compliment and be glad. I gave what I had promised to give, but not freely: my spirit was clouded by frustration and annoyance strong enough to make me feel humble and dismayed in the aftermath. I tried to smile and let it go, but could not. As a result, I am forced to reevaluate my uncomplicated belief in my own humaneness and to reconsider the value AND cost of deep commitment.
Taking Murphy out for walks in his cart elicits the most fascinating reaction from people (I’d seen this before in Westport and Renton, but it was even more pronounced when experienced on home turf). People pause and stare with unabashed curiosity, and without any of the hesitation they’d demonstrate in the presence of a disabled human. They nod affirmatively, say hello more frequently, and often smile to themselves in an oddly satisfied way. They are touched by the obvious emblem of dedication, determination, and concern that Murphy and his apparatus represent. I felt like an imposter having people react to me in such a way.
In the end, this whole conversation comes back to LaRae and Wittstock. I know they have sacrificed enormously to save Murphy, and that the result of their generosity is a lot more work for both of them. I wish I could have bottled up all of the touched expressions and nods of approval I saw in Bellingham passersby, and handed this bottled up approval to them when they returned from Kona. They have taken care of urine and feces and unfettered enthusiasm, constant heavy-duty laundry processing, beddings, a thousand toys, cart maintenance, Murphy washing, and bladder-squeezing — not for a mere two weeks, in temporary frustration, but for 8 months, in consistency and with relative equanimity. It’s no easy feat, and I am freshly impressed by their generosity of spirit. I thought it was significant to understand their experience deeply and sympathetically, and to acknowledge their goodness in light of this knowledge, because the experience fades into the numb distance of past time. My hat is off to both of you.
With no further ado, pictures!