I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say about Chester, because there’s so much, and it’s so hard to capture the importance she had in my life. To those people who didn’t know her, it’s hard to express what a special dog she was, and why her death has hit me so hard. Part of it, though, is that when looking back at my life so far, there are some obvious points of transition where everything changed. One of those points was the day I walked into the East Valley Animal Shelter in North Hollywood and paid Chester’s adoption fee. I was fresh out of college and ready to start life. The first thing I needed was a dog. Never mind that I didn’t have a job or a place to live- the dog was the most important thing. This is the point when I began the transition from angsty, depressed teenager to happy, productive adult, and Chester had a lot to do with that and was with me through it all.
For the last several months of college, living in a house that didn’t allow pets, I had been scheming about this. I had researched breeds and found shelter listings online. I had decided I should go for an “easy” breed- maybe a lab or golden mix- since this would be my first experience having a dog that was truly my own. All that went out the window when I saw a photo online of an indistinguishable mutt who was just so cute that I knew she had to be mine. Later, it became clear that she was probably a husky/pit/maybe other stuff mix- so, some of the most difficult breeds combined. But it turns out that made for a great, strong personality, along with the inevitable behavioral issues that I was completely unprepared to deal with. In short, she was Trouble. She harassed other dogs until they played with her or bit her. She chewed up everything. She bit people with her sharp puppy teeth when she wanted to play. She refused to be housetrained. She whined or barked until she got what she wanted. She jumped the six-foot fence to go play at Ellwood when I was at work, repeatedly, even when I installed an electric fence along the wooden fence.
But we also had amazing fun together, going hiking and climbing and camping, and eventually in obedience class and agility. She scrambled over rocks and up mountains as if it were nothing, jumping from rock to rock, always trying to reach the highest point, with no fear. I was greeted several times at the top of boulder problems by Chester, who had found the down-climb and gone up it to wait for me at the top. She ran uncomfortably close to cliff edges, often chasing birds or squirrels up or down what seemed like sheer cliffs. We made it through the awkward teenage phase where she resource guarded and bit my roommate every time she walked through the room and her ears flipped over backwards. She was there for me through all of grad school, always eager to see me at the end of the day, wiggling and whining with excitement. We played at the beach, she came to the office with me, we played fetch on the quad. It was a good life.
When we moved into a studio apartment, me and Toberer and Chester and too many bikes, we became a tight-knit family, but despite that, Chester loved all the other people and dogs she considered members of her pack- our friends and family, their dogs. They were always greeted with immense excitement, as if she just couldn’t contain her joy, not understanding why they ever left her in the first place. She didn’t treat all people equally- the people she knew and loved were special, individuals, who she knew by name and remembered even if it had been years since she last saw them.
Chester is a large part of the reason I stayed (mostly) sane during grad school. People often asked me how I could handle having a dog while a grad student, but I didn’t understand how they could handle not having a dog while a grad student. She gave me a reason to leave the lab, get outside, take her for hikes and runs and to the dog park, and if I was putting in too many hours at work, she would not let me get away with it. She could read my emotions completely and would comfort me when I was sad or stressed and share in my joy when I was happy.
When I graduated and moved to Pasadena, Chester got to have her own yard. While she undoubtedly missed the ocean and her friends from SB, she made some great new friends as well and also developed a squirrel obsession, which drove me insane but Toberer loved. He would have her on a leash and see a squirrel, and then he would shout, “Chester! Squirrel!” and they would chase it together. If you said “squirrel,” she would make a run for it towards wherever there was most likely to be a squirrel- which was useful for getting her to go outside when it was raining or snowing and she didn’t want to leave the porch. In Pasadena, she also got her first mast cell tumor, at the young age of 5. Less than a year later, she got a second tumor.
This is probably when I first realized that she might not live forever. Part of the reason I got a mutt is that they tend to live a long time. I was hoping for 15+ years. But a tendency towards cancer didn’t bode well. However, she then went two years without any new tumors, and in that time we moved to Colorado. Since mast cell tumors can be triggered by sunlight and/or allergies, I was optimistic that she may not get any more (which didn’t stop me from having even the smallest lumps checked out by the vet). So we went back to normal, and I went back to treating her as invincible.
Of course, she wasn’t invincible, and I was occasionally reminded of this when I pushed her too far- long hikes in the heat, backpacking trips that ended with stiff joints and sore paws, and the occasional bloody tracks through the snow when the sharp ice crystals cut into her paws. Toberer usually saved the day by carrying her out, and I always thought I would be more careful next time. But I never really learned. Only in the last few months of her life, while ultra training, did I decide a dog of her age probably shouldn’t do trail runs longer than about 20 miles.
The 20 mile limit didn’t stop me from taking her on a 14-mile trail run in the high country as part of my last-ditch effort to prepare for the upcoming Aspen trail marathon (for which I am completely unprepared). Sure, it topped out at above 12,000 ft and had 3,500 ft of climbing, but she’s done 14ers before, and there would be alpine lakes to swim in and marmots to chase, so I brought her along. The run started out as more of a hike, since it was steep and rocky, but the views were amazing and there was plenty of playing to be had. I knew there were rangers all over the place and a $125-fine for off leash dogs, but there were some places where I just couldn’t resist.
This “run” was hard. It kicked my ass thoroughly and completely. So when Chester started acting strange partway through- tripping here and there, weaving off the trail occasionally- I chalked it up to tiredness and altitude, because I was in about the same shape. What I didn’t realize is that this would be another transition point in my life, the end of an era. By the end of the run, Chester was really dragging- it was literally like dragging a sack of potatoes behind me. When Chester has had enough, she’s stubborn, so I didn’t worry about it too much, and I was feeling terrible, too. But how else were we going to get back to the car besides running there? In retrospect, there were two things that should have worried me more. The first was that she kept going the wrong way around trees, i.e. not the same way I went, and since she was a smart dog, that was very unusual. One time I actually fell down because the leash jerked so tight when she went the wrong way. The second thing was that when I tried to convince her to run faster because there were squirrels ahead, I got no response. This would have been a good time to have a large backpack. But, there was no way to get home except using our collective six feet. At the car, I gave her some potato chips in the hopes that she just needed calories, but that didn’t perk her up much.
The next morning, she was still lethargic and uncoordinated. I brought her breakfast in bed and felt bad for wearing her out so badly. But when she didn’t feel better by that evening after sleeping all day, we went to the vet. She performed some neurologic tests, and it became clear that Chester’s brain was not working at full capacity. The symptoms pointed to a stroke, and we were encouraged by accounts on the internet of rapid and full recovery for dogs who had had minor strokes. We made an appointment with a neurologist and waited. He suggested an MRI, still suspecting a stroke but knowing that it could be a brain tumor (which usually are more gradual in onset) or an autoimmune disease, all of which would require different treatment options. When he asked if I was willing to pay the $2000, I said yes, thinking about all of the other things $2000 could buy and how much less joy they brought me than Chester. A single mortgage payment. Major car repairs. A trip to Hawaii. New skis. Nothing that is at all comparable to the positive impact Chester has on my life.
A week ago, less than four days after she began showing symptoms, I took Chester for an MRI. They found a massive brain tumor- it looked like about 1/4 of her total brain volume- and she never woke up from the anesthesia. When we showed up at the vet, she showed us the MRI first. It was undoubtedly, shockingly terrible- there is no way a dog could recover from that. But when they showed me Chester lying lifeless on the table, two vet techs trying to warm her up and restart her breathing, that was when I really knew it was over. Her eyes were lifeless, her fur the wrong texture. It was clear that there was no more hope. We said our goodbyes and let her go. She was 8 years old, still active and young and otherwise healthy. It is very unusual for a brain tumor to grow that quickly, from nothing to enormous in just a few days, and the neurologist speculated that the tumor might have migrated from some other part of the body. Maybe it was a mast cell tumor, maybe not. The whole thing was shocking and improbable. There was nothing predictable, normal, or average about the way Chester died, just as there was nothing predictable, normal, or average about the way she lived. Looking back, she lived an amazing, full life, despite how short it was, and I don’t regret anything about it.
Goodbye, Chester. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.