Fourteen years ago this September, I met one of the kindest souls I have ever known. With her striking green eyes, she had the power to draw you into her world of simplicity. She became a constant in my life and the lives of my family and friends. She didn’t ask for much, just companionship. She loved being around people. A heartfelt hello and a pat on the back was all she needed. I swear she thought she was a person. And to me and my family, she was.
Nelly Lafawnduh Sprandio came into my life on my 18th birthday.
Yes, her middle name was Lafawnduh. Lafawnduh was the name of one of the characters from the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite. My brothers and I liked that movie and I thought it’d be hilarious to name her that. Thankfully, the ultimate voice of reason, my mother, said that was ridiculous and she would not be walking around with a dog named Lafawnduh. I agreed to make it her middle name instead. Her official Kennel Club dog papers have it listed in prominent capital letters:
NELLY LAFAWNDUH SPRANDIO
I’m not sure who came up with Nelly, it was probably my mom. But when I heard it, it seemed right. As she grew, we learned the nervous and timid nature of Nelly. Nervous Nelly … perfect.
Nelly came into the family a few months after our dog Max had passed. He suffered from bloat, which is when a dog’s stomach becomes distended with gas and puts pressure on the diaphragm. It causes breathing issues. Surgery can be done to fix the stomach, but it can be fatal. It happened to Max one afternoon at the shore in May of 2005. He started foaming at the mouth and his limbs became lame. Me, my mom, and my dad rushed him to the vet. As they were prepping him for surgery, Max went into cardiac arrest twice and died. He was nine years old.
Nelly was a healing puppy for all of us, even our other dog Sam. Sam was a temperamental toy poodle and she had a terrible time after Max passed. I can remember she moaned for weeks. It was a distinct mournful cry. Nelly helped Sam heal by being her punching bag. Sam asserted her authority over Nelly from day one, even though Nelly was considerably larger. Sam is one of the reasons Nelly turned out as timid as she was.
Since I attended college down the street from my parents house, I was able to see Nelly whenever I wanted and my friends got a chance to know her as well. My mom, God bless her, had three dogs at home with her when I was in college. My brother Mike had a dog named King, a standard poodle, and he would drop King off at my mom’s during the day when he went to work. My mom took care of Nelly, King, and Sam. Three poodles of three different sizes. King was also an authoritarian. He and Sam would battle for leadership, while Nelly cowered and tried to be the peacemaker. It was an interesting dynamic.
After about a year of living at home after college, I moved in with my brother Mike and Nelly came with me. I was in grad school and doing freelance work, so I spent a lot of time in the house with Nelly. I had parties with friends and Nelly would wander around reveling in a house full of people. She was one of the gang.
Nelly was five when little John was born. I was surprised at how well she adapted to him. She wasn’t a puppy anymore and was starting to get set in her ways. I assumed there would at least be some resistance on her part, but she never snapped, she never got agitated. She allowed little John to pat her, pull her hair, whatever he wanted to do. For the next eight years, baby after baby would discover Nelly. She met them as infants and watched them grow. She let them climb on her, pull her hair, and chase her around. She would get a spark of youth when she would see the kids. Even if she was having a day where she was struggling to walk the stairs, her ability to run and jump suddenly returned when the kids came around. It was so special to be able to introduce Nelly to my baby.
About 6 months before I got married, I moved back home with Nelly. After I got married in 2015, Nelly stayed with my mom and dad. She was ten years old and we didn’t want to take her out of an environment that made her conformable. While I know Nelly posed some inconveniences for my parents, they did adore her. They didn’t always admit it, but they did. Even though they had a few dogs over the years, they didn’t really become “dog people” until the last four years Nelly lived with them. She offered them comfort as they each took on new roles in their life, “empty nesters.” Four out of the five of us live close by, so the house is never truly “empty,” but during weeknights, it was my mom, dad, and Nelly. On days when my mom was home during the day, it would be her and Nelly. They never really said much to her and she didn’t say much to them. But I know they enjoyed having each other around for the simple comfort of knowing somebody was there. In the mornings, my dad would snap his fingers and Nelly would follow to be let outside. When she started having trouble on the stairs, my dad would help her along, walking step by step with her. After he left for work, she would go back upstairs and join my mom as she got ready for the day. She followed my mom everywhere. My mom used to take her out in the car with her when she was running quick errands. Nelly would sit happily in the backseat. When Zach and I began the process to buy and renovate our house, we moved in with my parents and Nelly. That would be the last time I lived in the same house as her.
Nelly had many lumps that developed over time and a few sores on her back, typical things that happen to an aging animal. One thing that was most worrisome was a cough that would come and go. My dad and I had taken her to the vet a couple times in recent months. The vet insisted we get tests done etc, but we didn’t want to put Nelly through extensive tests at her age. He gave us a few cough suppressants and the cough would subside for a while. My parents had many sleepless nights when Nelly would be struggling to settle herself. They did what they could to make her comfortable.
June 9, 2019.
The day started as an ordinary Stone Harbor day. We woke up and had breakfast. My parents went out to the store as Zach and I got Lucy ready for the beach. I put Nelly in her cage because nobody was in the house. She was coughing a little bit, but nothing concerning. I locked her in and told her I’d be back soon.
When we came back from the beach, I let her out of her cage and brought her up to the porch. I got Lucy down for a nap and joined my parents, Zach, and Nelly outside. Nelly began to cough, like usual. It seems as though in unison we all said, “Okay, Nelly. It’s okay.”
The cough continued on, getting harsher with each breath.
“See, this is what she does,” my mom said.
“It’s never gone on this long,” I said as alarm rose in my voice.
It wasn’t a cough anymore. She sounded like she was choking. My dad googled the nearest Veterinary office and went inside to call them. Nelly laid down on the porch, Zach stroked her head. Her tongue was hanging out, her abdomen heaved in and out like never before. I began to cry. I looked up at Zach.
“Do you think she’s dying? This isn’t right. Something is wrong with her.”
I ran inside to my dad, “Dad, we need to take her. We need to take her now. I think she’s dying.”
Zach picked Nelly up and carried her to my mom’s car. I sat with her in the backseat. She sat beside me. Her eyes yellowed. Her tongue hung out of her mouth. Her abdomen heaved in and out faster as she struggled to take a deep breath.
“She’s choking,” I shouted. My words weren’t helping, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless. My parents were silent up front. We all feared the same thing, this was the beginning of the end. Flashbacks of the three of us driving down the same road with my dog Max flooded my brain.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Nell.”
We arrived at South Paw Veterinary hospital. They brought us back to an exam room. Nelly laid down on a dog bed on the floor and I sat on the floor next to her. My parents sat in chairs beside her. We talked to her while we waited. We reminisced about when we brought her home. My mom went to pick her up with my brother Mike and she sat in Mike’s lap on the drive back. She urinated all over his lap and he sat there patiently until they arrived home. When I first met her, she was sitting in the basement with a bow around her neck. The first time we locked eyes, we were connected forever.
My dad and I had discussed for a few months prior that Nelly may need to be put down, that it was the right thing to do for her. That day, he kept repeating it. “Kate, this is the right thing to do. She’s been suffering. This is the right thing to do.” I know he kept repeating it to make it easier for me to let her go, but I think he kept repeating it for himself and my mom too. We didn’t want Nelly to suffer anymore, but we still needed to convince ourselves that it was time to let her go. She had become such a staple in our family. She was always there to greet everyone at the door, always lying around in whatever room we were all gathered in. She was our friend, our family member. I said to my parents, “Think about how much our family has changed since we got Nelly.” We were kids when we got her and now look at us, 5 weddings and 10 babies later. Nearly 14 years, and now it was time to say good bye.
The doctor came in and saw Nelly struggling to breathe. She was able to diagnose what it was right away just by the way Nelly’s abdomen was heaving in and out. She told us Nelly had laryngeal paralysis. It’s when the opening to her trachea was paralyzed and Nelly was essentially suffocating. When it first starts, the animal exhibits labored or noisy breathing and as it progresses it becomes increasingly harder for them to breathe. We described her history to the doctor. In retrospect, Nelly had been exhibiting classic symptoms for months. The doctor said we could sedate her and help her get out of the current episode and go home, but she said she would keep getting worse. She said she knew it was a hard decision, but the most humane thing to do for her would be to let her go.
The doctor was so kind as she explained the process. She would first administer anesthesia, so Nelly wouldn’t feel anything and then she would administer the euthanasia medication. She got down on the floor beside Nelly’s legs. The doctor covered the IV they had put in. I was sitting up by Nelly’s face. I kept my eyes locked on hers. I stroked her head over and over.
“You did a good job, Nelly,” I said. “You were such a good dog. Such a good dog. You did a good job. We love you, Nelly. You did a good job.” Tears ran down all of our faces.
I watched as her breathing slowed. Her belly heaved in and out slowly a few more times. I looked in her eyes, those beautiful eyes that once sparkled a striking green color, those eyes that held such trust and love, those eyes were dark now. I took a deep breath in as I closed a chapter of my life and said my final good bye to my friend.
Nelly was at peace.
The doctor stayed with us for a moment and reassured us we did the best thing for Nelly. She left the room and said we could take as much time as we needed. The three of us sat there looking at Nelly. We cried together as we talked about her long life. It was sad, it was really sad, but there was also a feeling of relief. Relief that she wasn’t suffering anymore. It was the most peaceful we had seen Nelly in about a year. Relief that we were able to be there with her as she was able to be there for us so many times before in good and bad. As sad as we were, we were comforted by each other and the knowledge that we did everything we could for our friend.
It is often said that dogs are too good for this world. That was the case for Nelly. We often take the love and loyalty that dogs provide us for granted. They become members of the family and we don’t realize what we have until they’re gone. Over the years, Nelly taught us patience, kindness, loyalty, and love. She taught us that even when you get old and sore, you can still be young at heart and reignite that spark of youth.
Nelly lived a long, happy life. She was a kind, pure, loving soul. We were blessed to have known her and will forever share the fond memories we made.
Farewell, my friend. You did a good job.