This entry in the special Dogs We’ve Loved series is a little different than the others. While this series focuses on and pays tribute to dogs whom I have photographed in my almost decade-long career as a pet-exclusive photographer — dogs who we have loved in life and continue to love beyond, who live on in our memories, in our hearts, our souls, and through the very important photos we create of them — this entry is a throwback to the original scruffy dog.
This is Murph.
He had no silly McScruffy name, as the scruffy dog brand had yet to come in existence. Murph was simply Murph. Or, quite often, Best-Dog-In-the-World-Murph.
And all that I have of him is a couple of rolls of film taken on a waterproof, point-and-shoot camera from the late ’90s … so these are all scanned photos from old, crappy Kodak prints.
He passed 14 years ago to the day … 14 years and 9 hours ago.
Murph was what I call a true ‘rescue’ dog … not a shelter dog. He came into my life when I was living in Baltimore. My partner at the time — a homicide detective — discovered him, emaciated and abandoned, locked in a house for 17 days while his drug-addict owner (a witness to a homicide they were investigating) was being held in jail on unrelated charges.
When Murph was brought to the ER Vet Clinic, they were going to euthanize him as his body was simply too far gone to consider him adoptable. But my partner figured this was the dog for me … and after spending a day on IV fluids, Murph came home to me.
I’ll never forget that first meeting … 2 a.m. He’d had diarrhea all over the back of the old Volvo during the drive from the city. We had to keep him separated from the other two dogs, so he stayed in the finished basement. You’d think he would have been starving, but affection was far more important to him than any treat.
Those initial days and nights were long, with small feedings every hour to bring his system back up. And there was never any question that Murph and I belonged together.
My life over the next few years was not easy. Ultimately, after much heartbreak, I had to abandon my life in Baltimore. It was Murph who always pulled me through those tough times and emotional turmoil. He was my world and my rock. For a while we were essentially homeless … moving between family and friends … and Murph was always fine because he knew his home was me … and my home was him.
When he and I did finally settle, I had found a stray pregnant cat, took her in, and Murph played nursemaid to the kittens. While my parents kept mom and some kittens, I took one of the kittens for Murph when Hank was old enough.
…those two loved each other. In fact, I don’t think Hank ever knew she was a cat.
At the age of four Murph had to have cruciate surgery … it was the beginning of the end. I won’t get into the details about how his system became so utterly overcome by vetting, how vaccines on top of an already weakened immune system finally did him in and he succumbed suddenly and very quickly to lymphoma at the age of 4 1/2, a mere 6 weeks after his vaccines and his surgery … an otherwise vibrant, healthy, full-of-life dog … gone.
If I knew back then what I know today about canine health and nutrition, I do
absolutely believe Murph could have lived a much
longer life. For years I blamed myself, blamed myself for putting Murph in harm’s way, for blithely believing everything every vet told me. But over the years I have taken everything I learned from that loss, from all of the reading and research I have done as a result, and made a difference in not just the lives of the dogs who came after — Morley, Matea, and Merrick, and my cats — but also in the lives of countless clients’ dogs and friends’ dogs. Murph will always stand as my first great teacher.
His loss was unlike any other I had suffered. I grew up on a working hobby farm … I’d lost animals before, even my own horses. Nothing … nothing compared. He had spent two days at the OVC while vets were determining what was wrong with him, and during that time I never left my bed … because I knew … they didn’t know, but I did. I knew I was losing him, and I swore I could never and would never have another dog. I could never go through this again.
When I was finally able to bring him home — told that I’d have only a few short days with him — I took Murph up north where I knew he was always the happiest. And while he lay in the sun, I spent my days preparing his grave site. Up on the Niagara Escarpment you don’t dig a hole with a shovel, you use a pickax. It is one stone after the next. And that is what I did, for three days, in a lovely little spot beneath three wild apple trees among the rocky ridges and pines.
We slipped down to the lake that one morning, took a few photos with my super crappy camera … and fourteen years and nine hours ago I sat out on that rocky ridge, the sun touching Murph’s soft hair, his amazing smell filling my nostrils, the breeze ruffling his ear tufts, and I held my amazing boy in my arms for the last time, and felt his last breath leave his weakened body.
…and all the while I kept saying in my mind: Never. Never again.
I held his body for a long time and only then, after three days, did I allow myself to cry because Murph — being so sensitive — didn’t like when people cried. I held him and rocked him. Never again. How could I live without the feel of his hair? the smell of him? And how could I possibly love another? and then lose another? Never. Never again.
I remember wrapping him carefully in his favorite blanket. In the enormous grave I had spent three days essentially carving out of that rock for him, I had put down a reinforced palette, and on that, I laid his bed. Wrapped in his blanket, I laid him on his bed, and covered him with another blanket, and then a second reinforced palette, onto which I piled an impressive cairn of rocks.
But it’s what happened in between that I will never forget, and is something to which I find myself referring countless times when consoling a client who has lost their beloved 4-legger and is swearing off of ever getting another. As I lowered Murph’s body onto that bed in his grave, I was overcome with something I can only describe as ‘permission’ … like a wave washing over me.
I’m not saying this came from Murph, but it certainly didn’t not come from any place of logical thought process. This wasn’t me thinking anything through like: “I made it through this one, I can make another.” Not at all. There was no logic in this. I was in a state of pure emotion. It was an inexplicable but clear sense of ‘permission’. It is the only way I can describe it.
Whatever it was, wherever it came from, nothing had been clearer in the past week. And I am so grateful for it … because without it I would never have known Matea and Morley … and scruffy dog would never have been born … and I would never have known Merrick. And while I don’t embrace the concept of reincarnation, I have to say, there is SO much of Murph in Merrick. Their spirits are one and the same; they touch my heart the same way; and yes, sometimes I find myself flirting with the idea that a part of Murph has come back to me through Merrick.
God, I miss this dog so much, even fourteen years and nine hours later.
I think of Murph’s bones today, wrapped in his blankets, lying on his red flannel bed under the protection of those reinforced palettes and the enormous cairn of rocks I built over him, and that is what makes me cry. I know he was never happier than when he was on those ridges, running amongst the pine trees and the rocks, the wind blowing his glorious hair. But I think about Murph all alone. And I wish he wasn’t alone.