Goodbye to a special, special soul

My golden retriever Murphy, who ran with me on countless training runs, passed away this weekend

Dear Friends,

This may be the hardest issue of this newsletter I’ve ever had to write. It’s one that I knew would come someday, but never expected to come as soon as it did.

If you’ve been a subscriber for any length of time, you’ve heard me talk about my golden retriever Murphy and our adventures together running in Atlanta — mostly along the Chattahoochee River parks here, but also in a bunch of places around the city that I’d take him when I met friends for weekend runs.

Murphy turned 7 years old last September. While that isn’t old by most yardsticks, even for most dogs, that’s starting to get up there for a golden retriever. I wrote a few times about him last year, as I was so happy that he’d had a resurgence of energy to run with me late last year, after not being into it for what felt like a long time.

This past Saturday morning, my wife and I noticed that Murph — that’s what I called him most of the time; I named him for the 1980s-era Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy — just wasn’t himself. Where he was normally energetic and excited for treats, and went straight to the door whenever he saw me pick up his leash, now he was lethargic. When we let him out in the morning to go the bathroom, he simply laid down on our back deck and stared at the yard.

My wife told me later that she knew something was up because she’d been able to finish her cup of coffee; normally he’s back in the house in a flash after he goes potty, because he’s excited to get a rawhide treat, which means you’re barely able to sit down for a moment when you let him out, because he’s back so quick.

The day before, I’d taken him on a 2-mile walk first thing in the morning, and he was his old sniffing and curious self at every smell along the way. So my wife suggested trying a short walk to see how he’d do, just a few paces down our street.

He could barely walk the distance to our next door neighbor’s and back. I picked him up — no easy task with a 91-lb. dog — and brought him back over to our house. My wife saw, and we both knew we needed to go to the vet right then and there.

Everyone in our family was there at the vet’s office when we first got there. My 5-year-old son, my 14-year-old stepdaughter, my wife and me, with Murphy on the floor of the exam room, his breathing slowly but surely sounding more labored. We noticed that every 8th or 10th breath, he’d have to take in a really big breath, as if he was unable to fill up his lungs with a normal breath anymore.

The vet asked if Murphy could stay for a while that morning, so they could do bloodwork and take X-rays of his abdomen in the hopes of figuring out why he was so lethargic. We left him there for the morning, running errands and getting groceries, glad that Murphy was in such good hands and that the vet would be able to figure out what to do.

A couple of hours later my son and I returned, thinking we were going to pick up Murphy and bring him home. But when we got there, he was still really lethargic. He’d been able to walk from the area where the vets took his X-rays back to the waiting room — the vet told me later he went there on his own, because that’s where he’d last seen us — but then he laid down on the floor and wouldn’t get up.

I tried lifting him, but the position he was in made that impossible. The vet had told me that there was an emergency animal hospital right around the corner; that Murphy was probably dehydrated and they could give him IV fluids, as my regular vet’s office was set to close at 3:00 p.m.

Still not aware of how serious things were, I asked my vet what she would do if Murph were her dog. “I’d take him over there now,” she replied.

So I did. We had to lift Murphy with a blanket to get him in my car — which should have been a clear sign — and, once we got over to the emergency animal hospital, put him on a gurney to bring him inside.

In all the shuffle and hurry to get him over there, I realized I’d forgotten to tell the vets at the emergency clinic that Murph was dehydrated and needed fluids. I mentioned that to the technician at the front desk, who replied that she would go tell the doctor on call.

It only took about 10 to 15 minutes for the doctor to come back to the room where I was waiting. “You need to come down here with me, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said.

Even though I heard his words, it still didn’t sink in. Sure, Murphy’s sicker than we thought, maybe, but he’ll bounce back. He’ll be okay. He’s not even 8 years old yet; his birthday isn’t until September.

The doctor led me into an exam room where Murphy was on the table. His abdomen was shaved around his stomach, where the doctor used an ultrasound wand to glide over his skin.

He walked me through what was going on inside Murph’s body — his spleen and his liver both showed evidence of cancer, and his blood pressure was dropping, which meant that probably there was a tumor somewhere that had ruptured, which was causing blood loss inside him.

The doctor used the term “hermangiosarcoma,” and explained to me that it was a very aggressive form of cancer that’s extremely common in large dogs, especially golden retrievers, and especially ones that were the same age as Murphy. That they could remove his spleen, if that’s mostly where the cancer was located, but that that would give him at most an extra 90 days.

He wanted to run a few more tests to be sure, but he felt pretty confident in his diagnosis. He told me that he’d had two goldens himself that had had this exact same kind of cancer, and he’d had to put one to sleep just a few months earlier.

As he was walking me through all this — I don’t remember the exact phrase, my head was spinning as I was taking all this in — the doctor used the phrase “dying.” I stopped him at that moment and asked him if he could back up. So you’re telling me that Murphy is dying? I asked him. Is that what you’re telling me?

The doctor said yes, that he had begun the process of dying. When he took me back and showed me the ultrasound screen, my rational mind knew this wasn’t good. But when he used that phrase, my heart finally realized what was really going on.

I texted my wife, who was at my stepdaughter’s school where she was performing in a matinee of her school play, “The Pirates of Penzance.” I sent her the address of the emergency clinic and asked her to bring both kids there as soon as she could.

Meanwhile, the doctor had an honest heart-to-heart with me about our options. Like he’d already said, a splenectomy might add another few months to his life at most. But a closer look at what was going on inside Murphy’s heart revealed that a tumor had grown there too, and it in fact had ruptured, and was bleeding into his pericardium (the sac around the heart).

That mas making it impossible for his heart to expand and contract normally, which explained his lack of energy and labored breathing. Because his heart couldn’t function normally, it couldn’t supply oxygen as well as it should to the rest of his body, so his muscles couldn’t respond when he wanted to get up.

The doctor told me he could try to use a needle to drain his heart, but in all likelihood it would fill back up within a matter of hours. Murphy was going downhill pretty quickly, and I could see it in his eyes. He’d try to get up off the examination table, but as soon as he did he would get light-headed and have to lay back down again.

Thankfully, my wife brought both our children in — she was able to go get my stepdaughter after the play let out, and get her to the emergency clinic — and they were able to give Murph one last goodbye. Needless to say, there were no dry eyes in that room.

The doctor had already put a catheter in Murphy’s right hind leg before the kids got there, and after everyone had a chance to give him love and pets and lots of kisses, I gave the doctor the go-ahead. My mother-in-law, who is maybe the world’s biggest animal lover and whom Murphy would run to the door to greet whenever she came over to our house, was also there.

The two of us were there with Murphy, giving him love and caressing his ears and his paws and his sides, as slowly but surely he slipped away. It took only a few moments, and he was peaceful and serene at the end.

To say that we’ve all been struggling with this is the understatement of the year, of course. My wife used to kid me that he and I were like E.T. and Elliott, that we could read and mirror each other’s emotions. I told the kids that he’d been with us since before there was an “us”; my wife and I adopted him almost 8 years ago, when we were dating — long before we got married and bought a house together and became a family, and before the birth of our now 5-year-old son, who’s never known life without him.

Murphy has been an adoring, loyal pet to our family, but so much more — he’s been my running buddy after the group of friends I used to run with split up for a variety of reasons (some moved, some got divorced, some quit running). He’s been there with me through thick and thin, never wavering, always there with a nuzzle and a snuggle.

Please forgive me if you think I’m oversharing here, but I felt the need to reckon honestly about this with you all because I’ve shared our story frequently before, and I thought you’d want to know. So many of you have written to me about your furry four-legged babies too, I know you know how we’re feeling now.

Thanks for letting me tell you all of this. As you might imagine, the past couple of days have been difficult to say the least; as a result, I’m probably going to need a couple more days before we get back to a regular schedule for paid subscriber newsletters. I trust you can understand, and I so appreciate your patience right now.

We’re all really sad here right now. But I keep thinking of something my son said a few weeks ago, when he and my wife and me were riding in my car. It’s hard to believe these words came from the mind of a 5-year-old, but I’m here to tell you he said them: “Sadness is kind of sweet, because sadness is about happiness.”

It is indeed.

Big love and hugs from your friend,

— Terrell