It’s been a while since I have sat down to write and in part, the reason has been that I was digesting the news that my dearly beloved companion of 12 years, Hector, who has long played a lead role in our merry band, was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks ago. Since then, my culinary endeavors have been devoted to getting him to eat.
As a big, handsome English Labrador, he never met a bowl of food he didn’t like. In fact, once, upon finding the lid off his kibble container, he decided to dive right in and inhale as much of it as he could before he was discovered. I found him outside with a blue tongue, choking and unable to breathe because he had stuffed so much in his mouth! He quickly recovered.
It has been very hard to witness his decline and increasingly fussy appetite. Throughout his life, I had a strict rule about no people food. I also regulated his diet so he wouldn’t end up overweight like so many Labs, never letting friends or family feed him from the table – much to their (and his) chagrin.
He had great table manners. He would go lie on his bed and never begged when we were eating. Yet when it was time for his meals, he would prance and careen around the house like a horse, so excited for his favorite hour of the day. He stopped doing this just a few weeks ago, which is when I started to think something was up. That, and the fact I noticed he didn’t finish his meal for a couple of days in a row. These were completely ‘did hell freeze over?’ type of events. Kibble would typically remain in his bowl for precisely 15 seconds.
Over the course of a few days we made repeated visits to the vet and learned that he had tumors on his spleen and cysts on his kidneys. The prognosis was poor and his decline shockingly rapid, although we don’t know how long he had had the cancer before we discovered it.
Devastated, I was determined to make his last days comfortable and ensure that he felt loved by us. We spent the first few nights camping out in the sitting room with him, but soon realized that none of us were getting much sleep that way, although I think it lifted his spirits. Labradors always want to be with their people.
The hardest thing was that he didn’t want to eat much, if anything at all. He immediately turned his nose up (or rather, away) from anything that resembled dog food. My ‘no people food’ rule flew out the window. Bowls were no longer for him. Being hand-fed, by me alone, became the only acceptable food delivery mechanism. I didn’t care what he ate, or how he ate it. I knew as long as I could get him to eat a few hundred calories a day he would have enough strength to keep wagging his tail and bark at the mailman – key indicators that he still wanted to be with us.
We tried prescription-only high calorie dog food from the vet. I heated up hot dogs to release the aromas, bought expensive roast beef, deli ham, turkey, baby food and roasted chicken. It soon became transparently clear that Hector was on a mission: to eat only people food, and to sample as wide a variety as he possibly could.
One day he would LOVE ham, so I’d rush out and buy as much of it as I could lay my hands on, only to find the next day he’d give it a disdainful sniff and turn his head away. This went on for a few days until he had exhausted all the options I had to offer. Then I cottoned on to the fact that he was only interested in what we were actually eating, no Hormel luncheon meat for him. We started to bring home leftovers: burritos, pizza crusts, calamari. In fact, I started to order things I never eat, just to tempt his palate.
For a couple of weeks it worked and each time he accepted an offering I would feel irrationally happy. He ate just enough to stay alert and get outside to the yard a couple of times a day. But all too soon he decided that he had sampled all he wanted from my ‘all you can eat buffet’ and it was time to lay down his head for the last time. We were there at the end, and my heart is broken. But I know we gave him the best of everything, including people food.
Hector left us on August 1, 2013. He will be forever in my heart as my most faithful, enduring love.