As this is a personal blog, sometimes the posts here will be … pretty personal. Or very personal as is the case today. Those looking for basketball thoughts on the WNBA playoffs, there are some on ESPN.com. There will be more here soon. But this is a story about whom I have been watching the WNBA games with, gratefully.
Ripley came into my life when I was in San Antonio at the 2002 Women’s Final Four. The day before I was to fly home, I’d phoned my mom to check in. And after a conversation about all the usual things, she hung up by saying, “Oh, by the way, I got you a dog. Bye.”
You know how you sometimes find yourself explaining to people, “Um, my mom is just like that” because you assume everyone has times when they explain their mother that way? All right, so you understand.
Anyway, after UConn’s Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi (OK, so I am making an oblique reference to the Western Conference finals) and their teammates finished their perfect season, I arrived home and met a furball whom I quickly deduced would grow rather larger than my previous two dogs.
The first was a chihuahua that came as a belated gift for my eighth birthday, which I’d spent in the hospital with pneumonia. The nursing staff had a little party for me, and everybody asked what present I wished to get. “All I want is a dog,” I said. And so later that spring, back in full health, I accompanied my dad out to a house further in the “country” than we lived, where a woman cared for dogs who needed homes.
She had one dog that she urged me to at least consider. Dolly was an extremely shy chihuahua, 3 years old, and no one who came seeking a pet had seemed interested in her because she was always cowering. But after a few minutes with Dolly, I decided I would be the one to help her come out of her shell. My father was less sure, but asked if we could take her for a week and see how it went.
A week later, Dolly was still afraid of everything, including me. She often cringed when I first approached, and I despaired over what might have happened in her life previously that made her so scared. But I was also very disappointed. I had envisioned a dog who would follow me all around my house and yard, who would be my best buddy.
You know, I was 8, and having a dog was the most important thing in the world at that time. The idea of messing it up – choosing a dog that didn’t even really want to be my friend – seemed like a major, major life mistake.
So my father and I took Dolly back to the woman. On the car ride there, though, as Dolly finally relaxed for the first time in my lap, I was flooded with doubt that I was actually doing the right thing. A powerful thought struck me, “If I give up on Dolly, who will ever really give her a chance?”
Like I said, this woman’s house was a ways out in the country. So it took a little bit of courage to say, “Dad, I’m sorry, but I’ve changed my mind. I really do want to keep her.”
But this actually didn’t surprise him. My dad was a wise fellow. We pulled into the woman’s driveway, got out, and Dad said, “Put Dolly down, see what she does.” Dolly sniffed around the yard in her timid way for a few seconds … then came back to me. She would be my best friend for the next 11 years, passing away during Christmas break my sophomore year in college. It will not sound overdramatic or exaggerated to anyone who’s loved a dog that during second semester, I got the worst grades of my entire academic career.
In March of that year, I came home for spring break knowing I was not doing well, to say the least, in college. Or life in general. My parents knew that, too, and one Sunday morning, my mom made me get up and take her “for a drive.” I grumpily complied … but you might guess now more quickly than I did then where we were going.
Mom gave me directions to the house where she said “a friend” lived, we walked in, and then I was surrounded by puppies. My mom was a private duty nurse who cared for the terminally ill. And one of her patients had a Llasa Apso whose extreme devotion to his bedridden owner had made such an impact on her that my mom had decided I needed a Llasa Apso.
Thus, Cager came into my life. I have written about him before, on ESPN.com 13 years ago when he passed away, and soon after I started this blog in October 2008.
Cager was the categorical opposite of Dolly. Timid? He didn’t know the meaning of that word. When I had sat down with him and his siblings, the rest of them had kept on playing. But he’d sat on my foot and looked up at me in a demanding way, as if to say, “What are you waiting for? Pick me up!”
Cager also did not know the meaning of fear. My dad once gave me a “Far Side” cartoon that had a brave little dog biting the leg of a gigantic T-Rex that dwarfed him. It was captioned, “Toby vs. Godzilla”, but my dad had drawn a line through “Toby” and written above it “Cager.”
So Dolly had helped me learn more about patience and compassion. But Cager, who somehow managed to be fiercely loyal to me but also fiercely independent, always seemed to be saying, “Believe in yourself! Stop being afraid of things! Have more self-confidence!”
What Cager wasn’t there to do, though, was help me reason through my grief after his death. I let it overwhelm me to the point where I said, “I don’t think I can have a dog again. I can’t bear losing another.”
More than four years would go by.
My good pal Amanda was rooming with me at the 2002 Final Four and waited until I was done sputtering after getting off the phone with my mom. I’d tried to call back … but, of course, my mom later claimed, “Really? I didn’t hear the phone ring again.”
“So what kind of dog?” Amanda asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, as if I was really exasperated, when in fact I was very excited. “She said, ‘By the way, I got you a dog. Bye.’ Her exact words.”
“Cool,” Amanda said.
And it was cool. Pretty much the best thing ever. What “kind” of dog is she? The best kind. She was a shelter puppy of, shall we say, “varied” origins. Ripley – it was between “Ripley” and “Scully,” and Sigourney Weaver won out over Gillian Anderson _is the dog who does follow me everywhere. She is the one who made me fully realize I didn’t just want to have a dog in my life. I need to have one. Ripley has taught me to not be so worried about future pain that you forgo present happiness.
Last week, though, I feared I was saying goodbye to Ripley. She is 8 now, and dog owners know – especially with large dogs – that you start worrying more and more the closer you get to double digits. Tuesday, I’d laughed watching some of her standard antics, thinking how playful she still was. And we’d gone for our usual walks around the neighborhood.
Wednesday morning, she woke up same as always, wolfed down her food, played a little in the backyard, and then settled for a nap in my office as I was writing about the Atlanta Dream. Then a little later, she went to get up … and collapsed. She seemed to almost instantly have lost coordination and balance. Her eyes seemed a little wild, and she was suddenly panting and drooling.
“Stroke?” I wondered, in panic. “Poison? How could she have been poisoned? I’m always with her! Something in her food?”
I immediately picked her up and carried her to the car. Which is not something I regularly do … did I mention she weighs about 58 pounds? I called the vet on my way, the one who has been her only doctor.
You think about how tough it can be at times for doctors who treat humans to figure out what’s wrong. Veterinarians, of course, have to do it without the patient being able to verbally tell them anything. But my vet, listening to what I said about her activities and watching her symptoms, pretty quickly suggested she might have what’s called canine vestibular syndrome.
He told me he knew it looked terrible, but the odds were that Ripley would begin to improve in the next few days. And that there was at least a decent chance that within a week or two, she would look as if nothing had ever happened. It might take longer than that, or there could be some lingering issues. But that she was probably going to make it. She would just need a lot of TLC, especially in the next 24-48 hours.
The WNBA playoffs were starting that night. My editor at ESPN.com, Melanie Jackson, upon hearing about Ripley’s illness, said, “Do not even think about writing tonight. Not one word. Take care of her. Take as much time as you need.”
That night, Ripley just lay on the floor, and I stayed next to her. I had to help her move around, coax her to drink a little. I distractedly watched the Dream face the Mystics, wondering at some point if I was so out of it that I just couldn’t find the game clock on the screen. (Melanie later told me, no, it wasn’t just me.) Then I saw the Storm and Sparks play, and was glad I didn’t have to write. My creative well on this night was empty.
There was no real sleep. I’d drift off briefly, then wake up to make sure Ripley was OK and to help her change positions. Around 7 a.m., she sat up a little bit on her own, and got her first real, long drink since she’d fallen ill. I had to hold the water bowl right up to her, but she did it. Then we did the same with her food.
Later that morning, after taking more fluid at the vet’s office, Ripley made her first shaky but successful attempt to stand. For the remainder of the day/night, I still needed to carry her out and aid her with her business at home _ which helped me identify muscles that I clearly have not worked on enough at the gym _ but she was rebounding. It was as if she had been a large balloon that had lost almost all its air, but was now filling up again, re-taking shape, becoming its familiar self.
Now, Ripley is still working at this. She is recuperating. It was not a surprise to me, knowing her, that the very first thing to come back at full force was her appetite. She’s walking much, much better … but her balance and coordination are still not all there yet. One leg isn’t always fully cooperating. She wants to run out and bark like usual at those cheeky squirrels dancing across her backyard fence, but we’re not ready for that. One day at a time. She’s getting there.
Her recovery is right in line with what the vet hoped for, and fits the standard descriptions of what I’ve read in regard to the disorder. In the annals of veterinary medicine, Ripley does not stand out in any way. It happens to a lot of dogs, and most survive it pretty well.
Yet to me, it has seemed like an amazing gift to still have her. Each step that she takes with more vigor and confidence thrills me. Of course, at some point, we will have to say goodbye. And no matter how far in the future that is, it still will be way too soon. But my friend remains with me, and that’s what matters now.
As I said, this is a very personal story, but to a large degree also universal. Any of millions of people with pets could tell similar stories about their own dear companions, filling in their unique affectionate details. This was more something I needed to write than anyone else needed to read.
But I do thank you for reading. And I’d say Ripley would thank you, too. But truth be told, she probably hasn’t given it much thought. She’s busy dreaming about chasing those squirrels again.
Update on Sept. 4: Ripley playing in yard again, practically demanding to go on longer walks, says “thank you so much” for all the good wishes. As do I. 🙂