I didn't even get around to taking any pictures of him on this camping trip before we lost him, so here's a picture of him at PiPi Campground in August 2007, the first camping trip I ever went on with him.
Taco was 14 years old. He'd been Susan's for more than a third of her life. Over half her adult life. And he'd been getting sicker and sicker. The vet told us in December 2007 that he had terminal cancer invading his vena cava, doubling his heart rate. The cancer had also permanently raised his adrenaline levels, causing his pupils to remain constantly dilated (part of the "fight or flight" reaction) and probably giving him a constant sense of being filled with the kind of nervous energy anyone feels in an adrenaline rush. The vet implied he had maybe three months to live, maybe even less, and would probably die instantly of a heart attack. There was an operation that could have let him live twelve months, except that there was a very high chance he'd die on the operating table and get zero months instead. We chose to skip the operation. He amazed everyone by living sixteen more months.
He wasn't healthy by any means. He was covered with fatty tumors - one on his eyelid, dozens all over his sides, a few on his legs. Skin tags, too. Two inches long and at least half an inch wide, dangling from his thigh like a small extra penis that had been horribly misplaced. And then there were the skin cancers - dark, irregular moles all over his belly and sides, showing through his extremely thin fur. At all hours of night, he kept licking and chewing them; they must have itched. He licked them through so much of the night that by morning, his saliva had formed puddles that soaked through the comforter and the sheets, and we woke up wondering why we were lying in puddles. He also had a few bald spots, where the bare skin had lately darkened from his usual pink to the dark, dull brown of drying mud. It had cracked like drying mud too, all through. His nose was the same - cracked and mud-colored, instead of its previous black. And whenever his eyes were half-closed, which was usually many times per day, they appeared to be completely filled with deep red blood - no whites and no irises, nothing but deep pools of blood. He looked as if he were already dead.
He also smelled that way. The stench he emitted from his ass several hundred times daily convinced us that every skunk in the county had relocated to his intestines and died there. This had been the case from the time I first met him. More recently, he had also been afflicted with constant diarrhea - diarrhea so liquid that it looked like pee coming out of the wrong orifice. I don't think he had produce any solid poop in at least six months. He drank gallons of water every day, trying to regain what he kept losing through his back end.
I don't want to give the impression that he was ugly or unpleasant to be around. He was ugly and unpleasant to inhale the odors of, but he was also very cute - I could see the younger dog in him at certain moments, particularly when he was having fun - and very, very, very much loved.
But he was also dying. Quite visibly. We didn't think of it as dying, exactly, because you could see that his mind was still lively and vibrant. He still loved to play fetch, even though we always had to toss the toys directly into his mouth from two feet away, because otherwise he had no hope of beating Boston to them. But on recent walks in the neighborhood, he'd walked slower and slower, having trouble keeping up. We thought of it as "slowing down." Of course we knew he was dying, because the vet had told us so, but that was in the abstract, sixteen months ago. Who knew how much longer he might last before it actually happened? He was alive; how can you ever imagine that a dog who's very much alive at that particular moment might suddenly not be alive anymore an hour later?
So anyway, we took him camping. He loved camping, so we wanted to make sure he got to enjoy at least one more camping trip in his life. We left Friday, around 4:00 p.m., and Susan drove to a place not much more than an hour's drive away, perhaps 2,500 feet in elevation. Unfortunately, it was still cold even that low, at this point in the year, so Taco shivered that evening - he didn't have much fur to keep him warm. But he'd shivered on other camping trips too, and he was always welcome to go into the tent and into the sleeping bags if he wanted to get warmer. We shivered ourselves, and Susan built a fire, then we went to bed early to get warmer. Taco decided to sleep on top of the sleeping bags that night, but Susan put a blanket over him to keep him warm.
Saturday morning was also cold, so Susan built a fire again, and we spent the morning reading in the campsite. Late in the morning, Susan took a nap in the tent, and Taco took a nap with her, while I took Boston for a walk around the campground. On our walk, we discovered a trailhead and walked a little way down the trail, until my camera batteries went dead and I turned back.
At the campsite, I replaced my camera batteries and stuck some extras in the pocket of my jeans. Boston wasted no time in waking Susan up, so all four of us sat around the campsite for a while again, until all four of us headed for the trail. Susan's camping book, which we had used when deciding where to go camping, had mentioned that there was a trail at this campground and that the trail passed through some pretty wildflowers, so of course I had immediately wanted to hike on the trail, and Susan had planned to hike on it with me. The trailhead was two blocks from our campsite, and Taco lagged behind us the whole way. When we started down the trail itself, he kept lagging even farther behind, so that before we had been walking even two minutes down the trail, we had lost sight of him. We weren't even walking fast at all; Boston was running ahead, and I started walking at my normal (slower than Susan's) pace, but I soon stopped to wait for Susan, who was walking much slower than was at all normal, because she was trying to wait for Taco. She couldn't see him anywhere. He had definitely started down the trail with us, but he was walking far too slowly to have any hope of finishing.
We always have the dogs off the leash most of the time when we're camping, and they both always wander around out of our sight fairly often, but they always seem to return to our campsite reliably. We decided that Taco would know to go back to our campsite if he couldn't keep up with us, so we continued down the trail. We crossed two creeks and a rocky ridge or two, but we never actually arrived at any end to the trail - we just decided to turn around, and we retraced our steps.
Taco wasn't on the trail, and he wasn't at our campsite either. There were people in a campsite next to the trailhead, so Susan asked them if they'd seen Taco. Yes, they had. Taco had turned around and exited the trail, then wandered through their campsite - in a direction completely away from where we'd been walking, and also completely away from our campsite.
He could have been randomly exploring, which would be typical of him on a normal camping trip but doesn't make much sense for him to do at a time when he so obviously didn't have any energy at all for keeping up with us. He could have suddenly completely lost all sense of direction and believed that either we or the campsite were located in a drastically different direction from him than either we or the campsite actually were, but for a dog who had always previously seemed perfectly able to find his way anywhere he wanted, and who had seen us go down the very same trail that he then turned around and went the complete opposite way from, that doesn't make much sense either. It wasn't as if he could have been looking for an easier way to the same location as us; the trail we had taken was extremely easy, and remained so until far beyond the point at which he turned back. Also, Susan maintains that if he had been thinking anything at all like his normal self, he would have definitely known to go back to the campsite and wait for us there. Why would he suddenly behave differently than he would have in the past?
So we don't know what happened. Did he sense he was about to die and intentionally go looking for a hiding place to do it in? Susan says that dogs don't do that, only cats, and that Taco in particular would never have wanted to be alone when he was dying. Also, the vet had told us that when he died, it would probably be of a heart attack, and it would probably kill him instantly. Was he just exploring after all, and never knew what hit him?
There was quite a lot of afternoon left, and we spent it all searching for Taco. Around and around, even back down the trail again, even though we knew he had left it - just in case he might have later returned to it. There was no way he could possibly have gone very far, when he was too exhausted to keep up with us even while we were trying to slow down to wait for him. I walked down to where I had a clear view of the hillside below the portion of the trail he'd been on, and a clear view of the creek below it, so that just in case he had returned to the trail and then fallen downhill from it, I should have been able to see him - no matter whether he landed anywhere on the hillside or down in the creek itself. But he just wasn't there at all. We walked around the area where he was last seen, and as far as we could beyond that, in the direction he'd been seen going. We called him, over and over. But we couldn't go very far in the direction he'd last been seen going, because there were no trails - just solid underbrush, and it was very thickly overgrown with poison oak. We could have gotten lost ourselves and still never found him.
When dinnertime arrived, the people who'd last seen him had a barbecue dinner. Anyone who ever witnessed Taco in the same room as food knows that there's no way in the world that Taco wouldn't follow the smell of a barbecue. (Heck, earlier that same day, I'd already caught him entering a different campsite in the morning just to eat dry dog food out of some strangers' dog's food dish. I had to apologize for his behavior to them. And he didn't even like dry dog food; he always refused to eat it when we gave it to him, and held out as long as he could for people food instead, or at least canned dog food.) And anyone who witnessed how slowly Taco had been walking that afternoon would know that he couldn't possibly have walked far enough to be out of smelling distance of that barbecue. So from the fact that he didn't come to that barbecue, and also the fact that he didn't come or respond with any noises when we called him, I conclude that he was already dead by mid-afternoon Saturday.
He didn't show up that night either, nor this morning - we didn't leave until afternoon today. Susan is still frantically worrying that he might somehow possibly be alive out there, suffering and wondering where we are. I do understand why she can't get that theoretical possibility out of her head, but realistically I know that he's not out there. He's just not. I wish desperately that I could find him and bring him back to her, but I also know, after all the searching we did and after the barbecue, that he's dead. That he was dead yesterday, before dinner time, probably before we even started searching for him at.
Susan is desperately regretting our decision to continue the hike and trust that he would return to our campsite on his own. I'm regretting it too, because obviously if we had turned back, we would at least have been able to be there with him when he died. But at the same time, the more that I think about it, the more that I start to realize that none of our alternative options were very good either. Even though he was walking slowly, he never seemed like he was about to drop dead. He seemed happy and vibrant, just not able to move very fast. We could have turned around and taken him back to our campsite and tied him up there, then continued hiking - but if the experience of us leaving him behind by himself was what raised his heart rate to the point of killing him, wouldn't it have still killed him exactly the same if we'd left him at the campsite? Or if he was going to die that afternoon regardless of whether we left him behind or not, wouldn't leaving him tied up at the campsite and returning to find him dead there still leave us feeling equally as if our leaving him behind was what killed him?
So the only way to avoid that guilt would have been to skip the hike entirely, to cancel our plans and avoid doing anything that Taco wasn't strong enough to accompany us in. But why would we do that when we didn't think he was going to die? He just seemed like he was walking slowly, which he'd been doing a lot of lately. He didn't seem like he was about to drop dead. Yes, the vet had told us he could die any day now, but the vet had told us that sixteen months ago, and something approaching 500 days had passed since then without him dying yet. Should we have put our lives on hold for sixteen months, avoiding ever doing anything that Taco might not be able to do along with us? Staying home with him at all times for fear that leaving him by himself would stress him out to the point of bringing on the fatal heart attack? By not putting our lives on hold, by continuing to go camping and walking with him, we were able to bring him on four camping trips and numerous walks during those sixteen months - camping trips and walks that he very obviously enjoyed. If we'd skipped all those camping trips and walks and just stayed home with him all the time for sixteen months to try to prevent his heart from ever experiencing any stress at all, his final sixteen months would have been less happy than they were. And how long would we even have been able to prolong his life that way anyway? He might have survived yesterday intact, only to die of a heart attack this morning when some noise outside from the mail carrier or the like got him all excited and sent him running out through the pet door into the side yard and barking his head off, as so often happened.
Of course I wish - desperately - that it had happened differently, so that we would have his body to help assuage Susan's fears of him still being out there, and so that she could somehow be persuaded not to blame herself for his death. But I think he would have been hard-pressed to find any way of dying that wouldn't feel suspiciously like it was our fault. If we'd been walking with him or at home playing with him, we'd worry that we encouraged him to over-exert himself; if we'd been near him but ignoring him, we'd worry that we should have been paying more attention to him; if we'd been anywhere away from him, we'd worry, as we're doing now, that we should have been with him. If he had died barking at the mail carrier after sixteen months of us studiously avoiding ever leaving him alone or paying attention to anything but him or encouraging him to exert himself in any way, we would wish we had taken him on more camping trips and more hikes while he was still alive, so that his final sixteen months would have been happier.
He's found his way of dying, now. Inevitably, it feels like the worst possible way he could have died. And inevitably, we fill in all the details we don't know about what really happened to him by projecting our worst fears into the spaces - such as Susan's fear that he's still alive out there. But the worst possible thing that could have happened does not become the most likely - or even at all likely - by virtue of being the worst.
The truth - the only portion of the truth I can really know, since I will never really know how he died - is that he was an old dog who had lived a good life and been loved as much as any dog in the whole world ever could have been loved. He knew it very well and used it to great advantage regularly (successfully begging table scraps from Susan nearly daily). He lived the happiest 14 years that any dog could possibly wish for. And now he's gone. And his body will remain in the mountains there, in a bed of pine needles or wherever he came to rest. The scenery around him is beautiful, and even though he won't be able to see it anymore now, he did love it while he was alive. And I don't think he would have wanted to go on living forever, with his diarrhea and his skin cancer and his other cancer and his overall energy level continuing to get worse and worse for all time. He had been in the process of dying for a long time, and now he doesn't have to do it ever again.
Also, I want to help lessen my fiancée's guilt and devastation over this, and I don't know how.