I was born in August 1996. I was the runt of a 14-15 litter of a stray dog, a not-so-uncommon phenomenon in Greece. Some of my siblings were adopted, others tortured or killed. As I was the runt, nobody cared about me for better or for worse, and pretty soon I was left alone with my mom. One night in September, when I was less than a month old, there was another litter nearby and one of the puppies there kept crying all night. At some point, a human appeared, clearly annoyed, grabbed me and took me away. I knew she must have thought that I was the one crying, but of course I was not going to say anything! This was my chance and I had to make it work.
After the human took me home, she fed me some milk, put me on a mat on the balcony and went away. It was weird – I was cold without my mom's fur, but I thought to myself, "If this is the price of a home, so be it." But, the next morning I was still there. The human left and forgot about me! What's worse, the balcony was low – within reach from the front stairs. Some other human, with worse intentions I'm sure, tried to grab me through the bars and as I resisted, my left ear was torn. When my human came back, she found me in a pool of blood.
It turns out this injury worked to my benefit. The human decided to keep me until I was well. She did not have money for a vet and treated my wound herself which worked just as well for me. I took great pleasure in scratching the wound with my sharp puppy claws and making it bleed. After all, I knew that as long as the wound was open, I had a home!
Unfortunately, the ear wound did heal at some point so I had to come up with something else. As soon as I found the opportunity, I ran into the street and got hit by a car! It worked, and again the human decided to keep me until I got well. Of course, I knew what I had to do next. I managed to break my leg, and by the time I recovered from that it was almost winter. I still had to sleep on the balcony, so I naturally developed a cough that the human had to treat with various syrups.
The human did not want a dog and soon it became clear to me why. She obviously loved dogs, and in the beginning of my stay with her she even had her own, albeit disorganized, informal rescue system. But she clearly was not ready to have her own forever dog. She was young and could barely take care of herself, much less another living being. She would keep me, she figured, just like the others, until she found a home for me. Not even 'good home,' mind you, just any home that would take me – but it's OK, she did not know any better. Fortunately, that was the end of it. At some point, she realized that she couldn't get rid of me and thus I finally had a home. The human became my new Mom.
The question of my name was still open. Sometime in between ailments, I was taken out and put on the sidewalk. I guess I was expected, as most puppies, to wobble a bit, so the humans were ready to offer guidance and positive reinforcement. Instead, as soon as my feet touched the ground, and Mom started walking away, I bolted in a perfectly straight line by her side. Another human exclaimed, "Look at him go! A tornado!" Mom looked at me and concurred, "Indeed he is - a Sifounas!" ("tornado" in Greek).
Unfortunately, my sickly disposition went beyond securing a home. From a very early age, I was plagued with diarrhea, which received a formal diagnosis of ulcerative colitis several years later. I also had a persistent cough, which at the time the vets attributed to a collapsed trachea. This cough stayed with me until the end, without a definite diagnosis. So let's say I was not the easiest dog to have, but I did make up for it with my behavior!
At the same time, Mom was not the best mother ever. Her ideas about dog-rearing were better than average, the Greek culture being very dog-unfriendly overall, but still a mixture of things she saw around her and things her own mother used to do with her dogs – also not the best example. She did things that ranged from stupid at best (feeding me gyro leftovers on a regular basis, then wondering about my colitis) to criminal (going out of town for a whole month and leaving me all alone in the apartment with friends coming to give me food and two walks a day). Her training skills left much to be desired. Suffice it to say that at the time, she believed that spanking a dog was a perfectly efficient and acceptable training method.
When I was just a baby, a torn ear was the first of my many health problems.
But I perservered because I could see the potential in her. In spite of the “mistreatment”, I evolved into a well-behaved, easy-going dog. When Mom got a job at her college library in the suburbs, she started taking me to work. In the winter, she would keep me in the car and use her work breaks to visit me and let me out to stretch my legs. I grew up thinking the car was home and this proved very handy in my late years. In the summer, I would ride with her on her scooter and then hang out on campus while she was inside working. Yep, that's right, in the leg area of a scooter! Nobody cared or complained about me – the perks of living in a country that doesn't care about dogs. The campus was a dog's heaven and I never took advantage of my freedom until one fateful day when I met the love of my life (or one of them anyway) and decided to run after her. After two days of hell, trying to find a lost dog in the richest suburb of Thessaloniki, full of private estates protected by guard dogs, security cameras and electric fences, Mom found me in the woods with my beloved, covered in mud and starving, but full with luuuuuv. Needless to say, the privilege of wandering around campus was lost to a 30-foot leash.
Dedicated to the best vet ever for keeping my Mom sane for over six years.
When I was three years old, Mom decided to move to the U.S. for grad school. I had survived a stormy childhood, my inexperienced Mom's mistakes and other adventures, such as jumping off said scooter on a highway, and prevailed through all of them. The move to the U.S. was painless. All that was needed at the time was a 'passport' with vaccine documentation, a crate and a ticket.
The actual trip was more adventurous: It was August 1999, and hurricane Floyd was on its way. Our flight from New York to Philadelphia was delayed for 5 hours. In the great pre-9/11 days, the JFK staff was very understanding and accommodating and let Mom go in the staff area of the airport in order to be with me and even let me out of the crate to stretch my legs. The flight was cancelled in the end and a bus was deployed to bring the passengers to Philadelphia. Things didn't look great for me on the bus, but once again the driver showed kindness and reserved the back seat row for us. We got lots of dirty looks from the passengers as we walked to the back but Mom was prepared to fight for me. After all, it was not our fault the flight was canceled! I lay on her feet without making a sound because I knew what kind of a predicament we were in. About an hour into the drive I lifted my head towards her with a deploring look, and finally Mom realized that I was sitting over the engine of the bus and had been baking all this time. She signed to me to get on the seat which I did in a cat-like, conspiratorial manner. Since the driver had turned the lights off, no one around us remembered that there was a dog in the bus.
And thus we arrived in Philadelphia at midnight. It was pouring. The friend who was going to pick us up had gone home when the cancellation was announced. Mom could not call her as the 215 area code had just become mandatory when dialing and she couldn't hear the operator's instructions over the rain. She was stranded at an empty airport, in the pouring rain, in her Greek shorts and sandals, with two suitcases and a dog. All she wanted to know was when the next flight home was.
But I kept my cool. We were together, after all. The rest would follow. And it did. We soon got settled and got to liking life in a culture that doesn’t consider owing a dog as marginal behavior. Six months after arriving, Mom found a place in West Philadelphia, only a block from Clark Park. There were dozens of dogs in "the bowl" ('Clark Park B') with dog parents of the same mindset as my Mom's. An hour's play twice a day or more – in short, heaven.
Life went on without major tribulations. Mom slowly learned how to be a better dog mom. She still left me alone for too long on the days she had class after work, but compensated on other days by taking me everywhere with her, probably because she now could (yay Philly!). She researched dog diets and slowly started giving me bones, which helped with my colitis. Eventually she found good sources of local meats and switched me to raw completely. Most importantly, she did not stop before finding the best vet ever – guess who?
In 2006, I got the greatest gift: a wife! Mom saw that I had a thing for pit bulls and when Molly, the cutest rose-eyed pit bull mix came looking for a new home, Mom stepped in. Married life was great (I also got my green card at last) but deep down I always remained an only child. I was not very happy when Molly got a lot of attention and had to stoop very low to gain it back. I even had to play with toys, like a dog ... here here! And I certainly wasn't happy when she hovered while I enjoyed my dinner. Our marriage reached a critical point with an eating contest which I won by simply swallowing a whole bone which then had to be surgically removed from my esophagus. For three weeks, I got to go to work with Mom and be fed through a feeding tube. After that incident, we all agreed that to make this work. We needed clear boundaries. In short, Mom ended up serving dinner in separate rooms. We still shared the bedroom, though!
As a Greek dog, I still missed the sea but as soon as Mom discovered Fairmount’s Wissahickon park, I found consolation.
In 2008, Mom got a Fulbright assistantship in Bulgaria. Fortunately, Bulgaria was by then part of the European Union, so I did not need a special visa to enter the country. The process was the same as before, only this time I needed a microchip as well. Microchip standards are not the same in the U.S. and Europe, so Mom had to order a European microchip online and Dr. Rubin inserted it. The forms were a breeze to complete. I had my rabies shot and was ready to go! Except that two months before departure, I developed an intestinal polyp that required surgery. The surgery went well, but I lost, umm, some muscle function ... and thus, an incontinent dog went to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Going back to the Balkans was not easy. In the nine years that we'd been away, not many things had changed in people's attitudes towards dogs. Being bowel incontinent didn't help, either, as you can imagine. We had to leave Molly in Philadelphia because it would have been impossible for Mom to deal with two dogs there by herself. She had a hard time finding an apartment that would take me, and in the end had to settle for one with an outrageous rent. Traveling from Bulgaria to Greece was not an easy ordeal, either, as trains did not have provisions for animal travel. Mom was forced several times into paying first-class fares in order for us to have the whole cabin to ourselves. I did not mind a bit, though. I actually thought it was about time to get my well-deserved position in first class!
I didn't mind Bulgaria at all, either. Mom found an apartment right next to the river and because of my incontinence and thanks to her flexible schedule, she walked me by the river several times a day. Then we took several trips to Greece, where I saw the sea again, and took sand baths. There's nothing like the Mediterranean! Best of all, in Bulgaria I met Kiril, the human who was going to be my devoted friend, my nurse, and Mom's right hand in my late years.
Upon our return to the US, the signs of old age started to manifest themselves at last. I started dragging my hind legs and having difficulty getting up. Mom took me to see a neurology specialist, because in Bulgaria I gave her a big scare with what the Bulgarian vet claimed to be a vestibular syndrome episode. Then she took me to a rehab specialist but she got the same answer from everyone, "What can you expect from a senior dog?”
Neither Mom nor I saw me as a "senior dog”, yet Mom started preparing nevertheless. She lined the apartment with mats so that I wouldn't slide on the hardwood floors. She switched my collar to a harness so she could give me a hand with the stairs. And she invested in a heavy-duty carrying harness which I fortunately didn't need till much later. Worst of all, she became even more obsessed with my health. She gave me all kinds of yucky supplements, did not miss a single 6-month checkup, and pestered poor Dr. Rubin with all sorts of weird ideas, from homeopathic remedies for my interdigital cysts to dental cleaning without anesthesia. Dr. Rubin patiently listened to Mom's crazy requests and even granted her many of them. And I ... well, I didn’t really have a choice.
Spending time at the beach was always a lot of fun!
And life went on. I did get to see my wife Molly again, but it turned out that she was quite happy with the people who took care of her while we were in Bulgaria, so she chose to stay with them. Mom had her hands full with me so she settled for joint custody. Meanwhile, I grew to like my 'senior' privileges. I could be more picky than ever with my food, I got four orthopedic beds at home and one in the car so that I never had to lie on concrete again, and most important, Mom stopped travelling unless absolutely necessary, because she couldn't bear leaving me with someone else. Score!
And then it happened. Out of the blue, right after my 15th birthday, I started having seizures. Not real seizures, actually, more like regularly recurring tremors that immobilized me for a few seconds and kept me awake all night. At the ER, Mom was told that I probably have a brain tumor. "Probably," because no one can tell for sure without an MRI. Diagnostic imagery is, for one, an invasive procedure for dogs since no hospital will do it without anesthesia. And then, what for, really? It's not like there is a cure for brain diseases anyway. So Mom took the prescription of anticonvulsants and we went home.
Fortunately, the medication worked and the seizures stopped, but not without side effects. My mobility started showing signs of decline immediately and it only went downhill from there. I became wobbly, could not climb stairs on my own at all, and before too long, I became paralyzed. The Help'emUp harness proved life-saving for me and for Mom's back. She also got me a dog stroller that I hated and fought tooth and nail, until she finally managed to find a garden cart to haul me to work with. At least that I did not feel as claustrophobic.
My appetite was also affected by the drugs. I had always been a finicky eater, but the medication made it worse. I would scorn my delicious ground meat which made it very difficult for Mom to even give me the medication, until she came up with the ultimate evil plan – using chicken hearts as pill pockets!
After my mobility, I started losing control of the rest of my body. I had already been having issues with bowel incontinence ever since the polyp surgery, but very soon I lost bladder control as well. Mom soon became an expert in expressing my bladder, in finding the best deals in training pads and coming up with all sorts of creative solutions to everyday problems. I ended up using a lot of human incontinence products (yay for the "belted shields") and even Mom's grandma's commode.
As soon as I got sick, Mom switched to a flex schedule at work. Fortunately, her amazing and very understanding boss, allowed her to do as much work from home as possible for a while. Mom minimized the time she spent away from home. When I got to the point of not being able to get up and go to my water bowl by myself, Mom stopped all outings, and took turns with Kiril staying by my side so she could go to work, or to buy groceries, or to go to the hairdresser. When Kiril was not available, Mom did not leave the house unless she could take me along.
And that she did! With my new garden cart, I got rides like Cleopatra! I kept going to the park to see my buddies who were kind enough to turn around so I could sniff their butt from my cart.
It's not easy to care for a paralyzed two- or four-legged person. Also, it's not easy for everyone to receive care. It takes a special bond for someone to give up most of their life to take care of someone else, and for that someone else to accept the sacrifice happily. Luckily, it turned out that I got used to being served without difficulty and enjoyed it immensely. And Mom, knowing that my time was limited, enjoyed every second of it. The hardest part was not the physical work but the emotional responsibility she felt for my life. I tried to show her as much as I could that I was not suffering. I may have been paralyzed to the point that I could not even eat without neck support, but I was not in pain. I was well-cared for, and above all, I was never alone. All the anxiety that haunted me throughout my life, being afraid that Mom would leave again, was finally gone. I promised Mom I would let her know when I had enough but she was not convinced. In spite of 16 years of training, her doggish was not as good as expected – and so she cried.
Being a dog of my word, I did let her know when it was time. And being the Mom that she is, she got the message right away and made arrangements for my final trip. Fortunately, I did not need vaccines, microchips or papers this time. I did not need a crate, either, as I had a first-class seat on the kitchen couch. There were no hurricanes on this beautiful early summer day. And so I departed, surrounded by my favorite humans, Mom, Kiril and Dr. Rubin, for my next journey.