By Lisa Warden
Grief can be cruel and unpredictable. I can't help dwelling on the irony that Pickles survived terrible trauma as an ownerless street dog, only to die as a pampered pet. Oh, the regrets I have about not taking him for a million more walks in his wheelchair, not kissing him a million more times and not letting him eat more rawhide bones.
Editor's Note: This is an edited version. The original appears at http://indianpariahdog.blogspot.com/ on the May 28, 2010, entry.
AHMEDABAD, India -- To my friends around the globe who love dogs and know how much they mean to me, I'm so sad to say that Pickles, formally known as Piccolo, recently passed away unexpectedly at my home in Ahmedabad.
I first saw him in early 2009, lying on a road in the nearby dusty village of Jagatpur. Really, what I thought I saw was a dead dog, lying as he was in a crumpled, emaciated, twisted heap. As fate would have it, I often passed through the village. The next day, I saw the carcass again, but down the road. I thought other dogs had dragged it there to eat.
In Jagatpur the next week, I noticed a scrawny puppy near a tea-stall. I asked my driver to stop so I could feed the puppy some biscuits. As I did, I heard a dragging sound, looked up and couldn't believe it. The crumpled canine heap I'd earlier taken for dead strained toward me -- or, rather, toward the biscuits.
I could tell he'd been run over by a vehicle. His back was broken, as were his hind legs. He was bone-jarringly thin and caked with mud and filth. His back legs were raw and bloody from dragging himself around. His condition shocked me. Yet he devoured the biscuits.
For the next two weeks, I brought him a full meal each time I passed through Jagatpur. Crumplestiltskin, my initial name for him, showed no warmth or appreciation, but did scarf down the food.
Of course, I worried what would become of him. How could he survive? Having just moved into a house with a walled garden, I decided that if he'd let me, I'd take him home and give him a comfortable place to live -- or die -- with dignity. I'd ask a veterinarian to examine him. If the vet decided the dog had no hope, maybe she'd euthanize him.
My heart pounded. I'd need to act fast. The local people weren't exactly friendly when I stopped to feed the dog. They tended to converge in an intimidating circle, being pushy, curious and almost hostile.
The plan felt like a commando hostage rescue. I prayed all the way there and planned with the driver. We rehearsed in our heads: stop, jump out, driver opens a back door and I grab the dog. If the dog bites or resists, we abort the mission. Otherwise, I place him inside, the driver slams the door and we race away.
Amazingly, the plan worked. Crumplestiltskin waited in his usual spot near the tea stall. Going to him, I took a deep breath and gripped his neck with my left hand. To my immense relief, he looked up at me with his deep, dark eyes and offered not a shred of resistance. I scooped up his hind-end with my other arm, walked to the van and placed him on a quilt in the back. We left before anyone knew what had happened. Wow, mission accomplished!
When I got the dog home, I put a folded quilt in the garden shade and placed his emaciated body there. He collapsed into an exhausted, relieved sleep.
Soon I realized it wasn't that Crumplestiltskin was unfriendly. Rather, he'd lacked a shred of strength to do anything other than cling to life. The vet advised deworming, feeding and rest. As for the prognosis, we'd have to wait and see.
Then I began to learn that in this crumpled, broken heap of a skeletal dog bubbled a well of love, devotion, gratitude and personality the depths of which I'd be lucky ever to experience again.
As for his name, I knew Crumplestiltskin was temporary. I planned to “uncrumple” him and bless him with a good life for as long as possible. On the second day, he looked at me with incredibly expressive eyes, and a name practically screamed in my head: Piccolo! I don't know why, but it fit perfectly.
In time, as perfection inevitably wears, Piccolo became Pickles and then Pickles, the Incontinent of the Subcontinent as we realized his bladder control was sporadic.
Soon we also took in two adorable puppies found on a construction site. Not to be outdone by little charmers, Pickles made sure they knew he was the top dog and took pleasure in bossing them around. As they grew, he strengthened. Getting the pups, Button and Penelope, renewed Pickles' zest for life.
When we took the puppies for walks in our neighborhood, Pickles couldn't come. He could drag himself around the garden and house while wearing protective leg bands, but the road surface was much too rough. So he'd wait at the gate, peering through the gaps, howling and whining, until we returned.
We knew we had to do something, and we did. Eventually, Pickles got a high-tech, custom-made wheelchair from the United States. Hand-carried from Texas, it proved fabulous.
Pickles loved his wheelchair. It made him ecstatic. When we put him in it and took him out, he squealed for joy. I'd never heard anything like it.
When we’d pass a street dog or one passed us, Pickles would break into a sprint and chase. It was like he tried to make up for lost time. Even the tough street dogs feared him because the wheelchair made him look like he'd descended from outer space. They'd all race away, which heightened the fun for Pickles.
Pickles got another miracle of modern technology from America too -- waterproof, breathable doggy diapers. Then he could enjoy the inalienable right of every house dog to lounge on the sofa. His sofa snuggles and naps with me became standard.
By then, Pickles overflowed with life. His vastly improved quality of life sent him over the top on the happiness scale. I knew he felt like a real prince.
At night when the dogs went outside for a last tinkle before bedtime, I’d carry Pickles to the back patio. He'd relax in my arms and assume what struck me as a regal stance, as if it felt fitting for him to be carried.
It struck me that I carried the reincarnation of some ancient Buddhist sage. “Kundun, Kundun,” I'd whisper into his ears and kiss his face. (Kundun is a title for addressing the Dalai Lama.) In return, he emanated lotus-like bliss and tranquility.
Soon a journalist at The Times of India arranged for Pickles' story to appear on the front page. All kinds of people wanted to meet him. Some wrote to me asking where to get wheelchairs for paralyzed dogs. Later a TV station filmed him for a story about Indian street dogs. Pickles had impacted the public perception of these noble, often poorly regarded creatures.
Tragically, one night in May, I suddenly received a devastating message while away from home: Pickles, the surprising light of my life, had died. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock.
Navigating through the potholes of grief, I reflect on his effervescent life and what cut it short.
A few weeks earlier, Pickles had fallen ill. It turned out he'd eaten a dead rat that had been poisoned (not by us). He vomited everything and got extremely dehydrated. He was on intravenous drips and antibiotics.
Although slated to leave for Vietnam, I postponed my trip to care for him. Within a few days, his blood-work came back okay, showing his organs weren't damaged. His veterinarian believed he was out of danger and cleared me to leave.
Our driver looks after the dogs when we're away. He stayed at our house and took Pickles to the vet for daily medications. Despite having lost weight, Pickles was healing nicely and felt well enough to eat again.
But within a few days, Pickles became constipated and dehydrated and resumed vomiting. The vet put him back on IV drips and gave him a laxative.
The next afternoon, at the vet's office again, Pickles, although dehydrated, very thin and tired, was active and not in pain. The driver took him home and then went out to do errands.
Returning late that night, he found Pickles dead. Immediately, he called the veterinarian, who was shocked. Rushing to the clinic in the middle of the night, she had the driver bring the body for a post-mortem. Later, she called me to say that, tragically, it wasn't illness that killed Pickles. She found that he'd eaten one of his protective leg bands. It lodged in his digestive tract and caused a complete blockage.
At the post-mortem, his mouth was filled with dirt and mud. So before dying, Pickles had tried desperately to do something to clear the blockage and stop the pain. A fighter till the end!
The road from gut-wrenching grief to the beginnings of acceptance isn't linear. One moment, you surprise yourself by talking about it without breaking down. You think you're healing, getting past it, when you slam into another unexpected chasm of pain, and the whole thing starts again.
In an email, my dad wrote, “I hope you'll realize what happened wasn't your fault, but rather was an act of fate that we can't understand, only accept.” That, and an outpouring of love for Pickles from my friends and family, buoyed me just enough.
I'm grateful for the exhilaration with which Pickles lived. His happiness left me with memories that make me smile. Even now, some cause me to laugh out loud. Each tear that I shed gets replenished with a happier tonic -- an elixir sweetened by the experience of Pickles' joy at living and being loved.
After Pickles was cremated, I used some of his ashes to anoint the heads of the Indian street dogs he loved to meet in our neighborhood walks. That seems like a fitting tribute.