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The Adventures of Skylar Grey

Heaven help the ones who fly away

Constant companions: Steve and his beloved pit bull mix, Blue.

I’ll take it year by year

Watching the dust go clear

We’re all afraid to fear

Or to remember

How we remember

Heaven help the ones who fly away

Heaven help the ones who have to stay and place the blame

Maybe what you think of me won’t change

But I still

Hold on, hold on

Hold on to the old days

— Ingrid Michaelson, “Old Days”

“You need to come soon,” said the nurse. “Can you bring Blue? He keeps asking for Blue.” Steve’s pit bull-Lab had been with me since Steve was diagnosed with colon cancer in January 2018.

It was mid-September. The first round of chemotherapy was encouraging, shrinking the tumor by 50 percent. But now, the tumor was fighting back with a vengeance, blocking his intestines and spreading throughout his stomach. He aspirated and got pneumonia, all within a few days.

When Blue and I walked into his room, he weakly reached out, his hand covered with bruises from the many tubes and needles. He was down 30 pounds, his face gaunt, and his usually sparkling blue eyes, dull. He tried to smile. Blue tucked her tail between her legs. I gently nudged her toward the bed, and Steve was able to touch her briefly before she slunk away. “She’s scared,” I said. “I know,” he said hoarsely. “Me too.”

He clutched my hand, trembling. “Please take care of her, Suzie,” he said. I squeezed his hand. “You know I will, Steve. I love Blue and so does Skylar. They’re best friends, just like us …” He told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him, too.

The night nurse came in and asked Steve how he was feeling. He said he was in a lot of pain so she increased the morphine drip. I held his hand as his eyes slowly closed. His breath was labored, and the nurse came over and hugged me. “This tumor is a bad one in a bad place,” she said. “He’s been suffering, but it won’t be long now.”

I sat down in a plastic chair, a little numb and a little lost as I stared out at the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog. Blue went to Steve’s bedside, stretched her neck to sniff the air, and then curled up under the window a foot away.

When I had visited a week ago, Steve said he was at peace with leaving his body as long as he knew Blue would be taken care of. We had a good laugh with the nurses about how it was my fault he had her in the first place. I had called  Steve on a lovely summer day in 2009 when I was fostering three pit bull mix puppies for Rocket Dog Rescue. “Come meet my new puppies.” He agreed, and I made a pitcher of martinis. “This little grey one is cute,” he said. A few cocktails later, he went home with Blue.

***

I can’t imagine my life without Steve. For nearly two decades we were friends, seeing each other through new loves and breakups. Even when those loves weren’t reliable, our friendship always was. When my dad got dementia, Steve was my rock. He would bathe him because my dad didn’t want me to. He would take him to the VA Hospital, where they would get haircuts and eat lunch. “I figure you could use a break,” he would say.

When Jazzy’s cancer returned, Steve was there when the veterinarian told me they couldn’t save her. “Do you want to be there?” she asked. “She’s already asleep, so she won’t know.” I turned to Steve. “I can’t … that’s not how I want to remember her.” Steve wrapped me in a bear hug. “I’ll go. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” When he returned, I fell into his arms crying uncontrollably. “She was wrapped in a warm blanket,” he said through tears, “She went so peacefully.”

It was Steve who Kickie called for during her last night. “You get some rest,” he said stoically. The next day, he dealt with the nurses and the mortuary so I didn’t have to.

There were many good times, too: Eating at a zillion restaurants for my reviews; sojourns with the dogs to Baker Beach and the Albany Bulb; spectacular trips, from Mendocino, Marshall, Half Moon Bay, and Carmel to Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and Marina Del Rey for my column about traveling with your dog.

“I think God is a dog. That’s why Dog is God spelled backward,” he said to me once while we watched the sunset at Crissy Field. As Steve took his final breaths, I knew his soul was with Dog, and a piece of my heart would fly away with him, never to return.

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