On Saturday afternoon, Coltrane suddenly looked pretty rough. We took him to the vet right away, and learned that he had fairly advanced cancer of the spleen. He declined very rapidly over the weekend, but we were set to operate on Monday, until we learned that the cancer had spread to his liver and that there was nothing we could do. Coltrane died the way I hope I go eventually: full of years; after a sudden, sharp decline that left just enough time to say good-bye, but not enough time to suffer; and surrounded by the people who loved him most.
I think my bond with Coltrane owed something to the fact that we shared the same favourite sin: gluttony. Coltrane spent most of his life half crazed with the desire for food and possessed by a willingness to take almost any risk to get more of it. He had his appetite right up until almost the very end. And he had the ingenuity of a raccoon and the cunning of a weasel to help him satisfy it. One of his favourite tricks was to watch Yoon and me carefully to see when we were distracted and then slink off veeeeeeery slowly and quietly into the other room to see if we had forgotten to put any food away. Answering the phone in the other room or popping out of the kitchen to quickly check email was almost always a disaster if we didn’t thoroughly “secure” the kitchen area first. And what he couldn’t steal, Coltrane was always happy to beg for. I always thought that one of the funniest things about him was this sort of haughty dignity he carried himself about with (I always told Yoon that he had the reincarnated soul of a haughty French restaurateur), but that he was willing to ditch at a moment’s notice in order to grovel for food.
Walking Coltrane was not easy. Some dogs walk for exercise. I see them strolling around the neighbourhood with their heads up, looking around. Pretty much Coltrane’s only goal while walking was to scavenge for food, and he usually walked with his nose to the ground, his head moving back and forth rapidly, scanning for discarded goodies. Beagles have an especially sharp sense of smell, but for a while it was a mystery to me how Coltrane could know to suddenly lunge three feet to his left for a three day old pizza crust under two feet of snow when the wind was blowing hard the wrong way. I eventually came to appreciate that in addition to a great sense of smell, he had an incredibly detailed mental map of the neighbourhood, so that if he missed a piece of food the first time around, he would know precisely where to look the next time we passed the spot. Once I figured this out, I tried to keep track of the same information, but the little rascal had better memory and sharper concentration, so he won many, many rounds in this continual struggle.
Below, you can see him eyeing some pork. Don’t be fooled by the height of the counter. That meat is well within striking distance.
Here he is, temporarily barred from the kitchen as a security precaution:
And here he is, watching Alton Brown’s cooking show:
Other things Coltrane stole and consumed over the years, much to our alarm and chagrin: a gigantic batch of Yoon’s roommate’s (a professional pastry chef) homemade cinnamon buns (which took three days to make); a large bar of dark chocolate (very bad for a dog); a large package of roach traps (call to poison control = $60); a piece of homemade cornbread snatched directly from the hand of a very surprised house guest; a good part of a pizza, momentarily forgotten about in the middle of a move; a great many loaves of bread; a piece of very hot french toast, which then caused him to vomit no less than 18 times over half an hour; spicy tofu soup; raw eggs; smoked trout and smoked salmon; and numerous other dishes, delicacies and treats.
Probably the most trying – and notorious – series of episodes in Coltrane’s life involved the chaos produced when he figured out how to open the fridge. It all started this way: We were living in Yoon’s parents’ basement at the time. The family was having a big dinner upstairs, and Yoon’s contribution was to spend many hours baking a big chocolate cake from scratch. Shortly before the party, Yoon’s mother donated a gigantic bone to Coltrane. It was a feast, with lots of meat and gristle still on it. Yoon gave the bone to Coltrane for a few minutes and then worried about him choking on it while left alone. So she took it away from him temporarily and put it in the fridge. This must have been a wrenching experience for the dog. Picture him, watching the fridge door open, the bone going in, and the fridge door closing. Imagine him replaying the scene in memory. Opening and closing. Opening and closing. Perhaps, he might have reasoned in the rudimentary way that Beagles might reason, perhaps he could open the fridge door. One way or another inspiration must have struck. Yoon came down 40 minutes later to get the cake and found the fridge door open and a little beagle’s bottom sticking out of the door. His head was sunk deep in the cake in a frenzy of feeding. The bone was nowhere in sight. Later we figured out that he must have gone into the fridge, gotten the bone, buried the bone – slobber, gristle and all – under my pillow and then returned to the fridge for the cake.
I remember thinking at the time that it must have been some sort of fluke, that he surely wouldn’t remember how to get into the fridge. But Coltrane didn’t forget, and once he developed an insight into the mechanics of fridge doors, he started to raid the fridge on a regular basis. We began to pile furniture in front of the fridge – at first a chair or a recycling bin, and then after that proved unsuccessful, all the laundry, until finally we had several feet of obstructing furniture and debris piled in front of our fridge each time we left the house. None of it worked.
Once during this time Yoon came home and found Coltrane unresponsive and sluggish on a chair. His little belly was painfully distended and he looked wiped out. Searching around the room, she found an empty bag of spicy Italian sausages. Another fridge raid. She was so frustrated that she made him get up and waved the empty bag in front of his face, leaning down and scolding him. He looked up at her very quietly and then belched spicy Italian sausage in her face. He drank five bowls of water in a row and woke us up three times to go out and pee that night. We laugh about it now.
The fridge fiasco left me feeling inadequate and frustrated, a PhD candidate regularly stumped by a beagle. Finally, we bought some velcro and started to velcro the fridge door shut. That actually worked for quite some time, and I was very proud of myself, but eventually he figured out to chew through the velcro. Coltrane became a champion fridge breaker-iner, cracking open about 4 or 5 different fridges as we moved around. It was only in our current place that he finally slowed down, partly because of age, and partly because our current fridge has a pretty stiff door.
And of course Coltrane had other qualities worth mentioning. He was gloriously handsome. He was incredibly gentle. We knew that if someone broke into the apartment Coltrane would never do anything more than lick his hand. And he was great with kids and people who were frightened of dogs – many of whom left Coltrane’s company wanting dogs of their own. He never barked except in his sleep or if you asked him to. He used to make us laugh until we cried.
I understand that there are sadder things in this messed up world than the death of an old dog. But I’m telling you, we loved that goofy dog beyond all sense and reason. He was our comic relief, our marriage counselor, our friend. He made coming home fun. Walking him set the rhythm of our days. Now we keep almost seeing him out of the corner of our eyes, looking for him on the futon, expecting to hear him pad into the kitchen sniffing about for food, or barking in his sleep from the other room. But he’s not here any more, and the apartment feels so empty without him.