With three last great breaths, our dog Promise passed into the Great Beyond on a beautiful sunny Friday morning, September 2, 2016. What we had thought was some sort of spinal injury, detected only two weeks earlier when she had difficulty keeping her hind legs under her, turned out to be a rampant form of cancer, what the vets called a blood sarcoma. A scan revealed tumors spreading throughout her body only three days before she died. So sudden. So shocking. She was only seven years old.
We had hoped Promise would live long enough to greet our family members about to gather at Sylvan Dale for our 50th wedding anniversary. But that Friday, the morning of their arrival, it became obvious that Promise would not be able to hold on. We carried to our car, laid her in the back on her special blanket, and drove to the vet. Thankfully, she didn’t appear to be in pain, and she fell peacefully to sleep in our arms when the vet administered the anesthesia.
Everyone who met Promise seemed to be irresistibly drawn to her. Initially it was her striking beauty– those big dark eyes fringed with mascara-like lashes bordered with swirls of tan and black. That pure white ruff of collar, chest and front legs, the bluish-grey back of fur so silky and soft you couldn’t keep your hands off it.
But she was more than just a pretty face. Promise was a real people-lover. She would greet people, lean against them, smile her doggy, pink-lipped smile, and wiggle her bottom with its stump of a tail so vigorously you’d think she’d lose her balance. With other dogs, she was mostly indifferent. But if you were two-legged, you got the royal welcome. If you happened to enter a room where her stuffed toys were handy—green bear, fat rabbit, dust ball, road-kill kitty and many others, she would select one and bring it to you, twisting and turning and rubbing her body against your knees while inviting you to scratch her rump and admire, but not touch, her toy of the moment.
And oh my, the sounds she would make! All manner of low whines, eager moans, throaty groans, and passionate pants, a vocalization more diverse than that of most babies, all to let you know that you were the best thing that ever happened to her, that you just made her day by entering the room, that her life was now worth living because you had arrived.
She was smart, too. Like most Australian Shepherds, she learned a surprisingly large number of human words. All you had to do was say, “do your go-go,” and she would dutifully trot outside and squat in the grass to squeeze out a few drops, whether she had to go or not. This amazed the vets, who gathered around to witness this command performance whenever a urine sample was needed.
Like all working dogs, Promise had jobs. Fetching the paper was one she looked forward to every morning during our coffee time. At the ranch, she cleared geese of the grass at our wedding site and chased elk off our hay field in Big Valley (you can watch her on Youtube: “Promise, the elk-chasing cow dog.”) If you ever said the word “elk” or “geese,” even in normal conversation, her ears would leap to attention, and eager whine would escape her throat, and she’d be ready to go to work.
She never got the hang of cattle herding. Instinctively she knew she was supposed to take this on, but she got too excited and would bark and watch me rather than focus on the cattle. She was expecting me to give direction, which I was untrained to do, so we never quite became a cattle droving team.
The flip side was that she almost never ran off and disappeared for long periods of time. She seemed so devoted, and so focused on Linda and me that she never wanted to leave our side. She would get upset if Linda and I went off in different directions. “Stay together, we’re a pack,” she would say in dog language. If she was alone with one of us, she would follow us from room to room, and lie or sit as close as she could to wherever we were working.
When we drank coffee in the morning on the couch, she would lie as close as she could. She knew better than to climb on the furniture, but she would now and then test these limits by casually putting a paw up on our legs, then, if no one pushed her down, the other front leg would come up, than, sneakily she would edge forward, hind legs still on the floor, until as much of her body as possible would be in our laps. Hey, as long as her back feet were still on the floor, it wasn’t really getting on the furniture, was it?
The hardest two days for me came after her diagnosis, when her eyes would follow me around the room as she lay on her doggy bed, too weak to pad around after me.
We buried Promise under a ponderosa pine tree on Memory Hill beside the J-house at the ranch. Sylvan Dale staff members helped dig the hole in the hard-pan dirt, which resisted our pick and shovel efforts as if reluctant to accept her furry body. We tossed some of her toys, a rose and a pine cone in with her before covering her with soil and flat sandstones. Later, someone left a can with sunflowers beside the boulder beside her grave.
Promise had a good life and a gentle death. We will miss her.