“Was it four times we pumped Cobber’s stomach — or five?”
“Four times, I’m pretty sure,” I said. “Once for the cat food. Once for the Halloween candy in its wrappers. Once with the corn cob. And once with the rat poison.”
“No, no,” contradicted 21-year-old Miranda. “He gulped down the front-hall Halloween candy two years in a row. It was definitely five times. Plus the year he ate my birthday cake. And grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey, I think it was Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas.”
“We didn’t have to pump his stomach for that, though.”
“No, he digested that.”
Cobber was a dog who tested his luck, but the luck held until yesterday, two months almost exactly to his 15th birthday, when he died peacefully and without pain in his kitchen, surrounded by his family — a long life for a Labrador Retriever, especially one who ate his Halloween candy wrappers and all. He was a dog who enjoyed his meals, and other people’s meals too. In that he was no different from other dogs, or anyway, other Labs. Yet I’ve had many, many dogs in my life — two still remain now, a Cavalier spaniel and a younger Lab — but there was none like Cobber, and there never will be again.
“He was the only dog I’ve ever known you could talk to without feeling insane,” said 18-year-old Nathaniel, broken-hearted on the phone from college. “He understood.”
Cobber did understand, quite literally. He had an enormous vocabulary. He’d move aside at the words, “excuse me.” He could count too: he retrieved the papers in the mornings. In his prime, there were four of them to collect. If one was late, and he could find only three, he’d wander over to a neighbor’s house and retrieve one of theirs. If the Northwest Current was dropped on the stoop, raising the total to five, nothing on earth could induce him to make the additional trip to collect the Financial Times as well.
He was so calm, so patient, so trusting: the only dog I’ve ever known who’d drop the bone he was chewing into your hand at a word of command. In his later years, he’d lie on the floor and allow a very young Beatrice, now almost 11, to spread a table cloth over him and use him as a tea table for her dolls. My wife Danielle recalls:
For several years Cobber was a licensed therapy dog, assigned to the psych ward of Sibley Hospital. Every two weeks he would visit patients suffering the gamut of depressive disorders. Many times he would approach a patient and wheedle his great head under the patient’s hand. Minutes would pass in silence, and Cobber would fix his big limpid understanding eyes on the person’s lost face. Slowly the fingers would start to move and scratch the enormous soft skull and velvety ears. Then he or she would start to speak, mumbling thoughts to the dog, recalling his or her own pets. Cobber would listen and rub his head in closer. Eventually I would have to tug Cobber away. Afterward, the nurse would say, “Do you know that patient hasn’t spoken to anyone for a month?”
Cobber had a way of identifying the one non-dog-lover among any group of visitors to our house. He’d focus on that person, give him the big eye treatment, and then finally rest his head on the former skeptic’s foot. A hand would reach down to stroke the soft head. The conversion was accomplished. Cobber liked dinner parties. As the preparations intensified, he’d creep under the dining room table. Halfway through the dinner, loud snoring would erupt. The guests would look around to identify the offender, and whoever was talking would catch himself or herself, wondering why his or her funny story should have put someone to sleep.
Cobber’s snoring sounded like the surf of the sea; the most reassuring sound in the world. His presence could comfort any frightened child. He’d leap onto their beds (in his younger days) or they’d make their own bed on the floor beside him (later), and no nightmare would trouble them. Sometimes there’d be a competition for Cobber’s company. After we acquired our second dog, a little spaniel we named Jumble, I’d sometimes try to adjust difficulties by proposing that one child take Cobber, the other take Jumble. The offer would be scornfully rejected. “Jumble doesn’t make me feel safe!”
Cobber’s smell was not as universally endearing as his sound, although I always liked it. Yet that smell did inspire my one contribution to science: my discovery, and I do claim credit for this, that the pads of a Labrador Retriever’s paw smell like popcorn. If you have a Lab, sniff for yourself, you’ll see I’m right. I’ve often wondered whether there might not be a market for a men’s cologne in the fragrance of wet Lab.
Cobber’s magic worked even on the hardest cases. With my wife, Cobber some years ago visited a classroom in a troubled school and within a few minutes of his arrival, the children all had their heads resting on his trunk as my wife read to them. Only one angry-faced little boy refused to engage. He isolated himself, crossed his arms, refused even to look at Cobber. By the end of the day, Cobber had won him over too, and it was that boy who walked Cobber out of the classroom to my wife’s car.
Not that Cobber needed anyone to walk him! He accepted the crazy human rules that required him to wear a leash, as he accepted everything, but he registered his own silent protest by always insisting on holding the other end of the leash in his own mouth. That’s how he walked through the ravine opposite our house. And as he got older and slower, we learned to leave him behind to walk the course at his own pace, holding his own leash, and then to wait for him at the end of the circuit as he slowly ambled up the last hill.
Despite his chillaxed attitude — and a girth that at one point bulked up past 100 pounds before we diagnosed his thyroid condition and learned better how to secure the birthday cake — Cobber could move when he had to. My wife & I are very soft on squirrels, as readers of this blog know, but we allowed Cobber to chase them in Battery Kemble Park on the theory that the exercise would do the squirrels good without exposing them to any real risk. My mistake. He caught and killed two of them, the second as late as his 11th year. At night, sometimes I’d see his legs running in his sleep, and I wondered if he was dreaming of those two sprints, the proudest moments of his life.
He was never happier than when the weather got hot and it came time to leave Washington and drive north to my in-law’s house in Prince Edward County, on Lake Ontario. He would wander the property, foraging for crab apples, which he ate until he choked, or marching after my in-laws’ assertive little Jack Russells, barking at everything they barked at, apparently on the assumption that the Jack Russells would not bark unless they had a very good reason. My father-in-law called him the “heavy artillery,” bringing up the rear after the Jack Russell reconnoitering party. Cobber uncannily always discerned our time of departure for the country, even before the bags were pulled up from the basement. All the preceding week, anytime anyone opened a door to the SUV, Cobber would jump inside, waiting on the back seat for the long drive to start.
As the years passed, he lost his ability to jump onto car seats. He had to be helped, first with a ramp, then finally by direct hoisting. He went deaf, then developed a cataract in one eye. This summer in the county, he lost control of his rear legs. We thought he was a goner for sure. A local vet recommended a new anti-inflammatory drug, and bought Cobber a last two months of active life. After a year when he almost never rose from the floor, he could suddenly again greet me at the door. We began to think that we’d beat the system, that he might last another year, maybe two. His blood pressure was good, his heart seemed strong….
But no. The first inkling of trouble came Saturday night, when he refused a dog biscuit — something virtually unprecedented, except of course when a corn cob was blocking his intestines. The next morning, I went to release him from the cage in which he’d been sent to sleep since he lost control of his bladder and bowels during his summer health scare. He was lying on the floor of the cage, unable to raise himself. I reached in and lifted him out and up. He clung to me like a chimpanzee baby with all four of his weakened limbs. He released his bladder all over my pajamas. I laid him in the grass of our backyard, raced to wash and change, raced back to feed him — and he was lying still exactly where I’d placed him. I brought him into the kitchen, and lowered his dish of food. He didn’t even notice it. I added some left-over roast brisket and a scoop of Chinese takeout rice, two favorites. Not even a sniff. Yet there was no pain, not even any visible discomfort. Chillaxed to the end, he stretched out on the floor. My wife stroked him. Little Bea lay beside him on the floor. I wrote my weekly CNN column at the breakfast table, walking over to stroke his head every few minutes.
The morning rolled on. Soon I was alone, as I’d so often been alone with him in early morning hours and late at night.
About 11 AM, his breathing became more labored. I moved from the table to sit on the floor beside him. Nearly finished my work, I rested my computer on my knees, stroking Cobber’s head as I answered some late-arriving questions from my CNN editor. One of the questions raised a challenging point, and my attention was drawn and held by the screen as I replied. A few minutes later, a vague sense of wrongness touched me. I rested my hand again on Cobber’s head — and the wrongness was stronger. Cobber was gone. He had died as gently, kindly, and peacefully as he had lived.
His remains will be interred beside the great lake he loved, by the family that loved him.