By Christina Ramos
respectfully submitted by Loree Levy-Schwartz, Rescue Committee
In life, we so often go about the mundane business of the everyday, not realizing just how extraordinary it truly is. Sometimes a single, surprising moment changes our existences in ways we don’t even realize until, just as suddenly, that existence ends.
In September 2004, after almost five years living in New York, I moved to Vancouver, Canada. Part of the motivation for leaving my favorite place on earth, my friends and my interesting, if very low paying job was to live a calmer, less expensive life more suited to a single 34 year old. But the big emotional draw was to finally be able to have a dog in my life. (I’d given up on having a man, and really, at that point, I actually preferred the idea of a dog!).
I soon began searching for a dog to adopt. I wanted a small breed puppy that could travel with me on airplanes (in cabin, of course), and suited to living in a fairly small apartment. I also preferred a Shih Tzu, having had a wonderful male for 14 years in my youth. Needless to say, finding one to adopt in British Columbia proved difficult as there are no dedicated small breed rescues here. It occurred to me to contact Loree Levy Schwartz, from whom my mother had adopted her Lulu in 2002. I had a trip to the Bay Area in March and we arranged to meet and see who was available then. I had my heart set on a female Shih Tzu puppy that was scheduled to be surrendered.
On March 23, the appointed day, I called Loree, only to discover that the family that was giving up the pup had changed their minds. Loree did say that there were two other dogs available: a male Shih Tzu and a male Shih Tzu-Beagle cross, both approximately 2 years old. Having come all the way from Canada, I was disappointed, but decided to meet them anyway. My mother, sister Pia, Lulu and I drove down to Boulevard Pet Hospital. All the while I was wracked with indecision. I knew what I wanted: a female puppy, so why was I wasting everyone’s time to look at two grown male dogs? I decided to just meet Loree so that she could interview me for the next available female pup. For conversation, I asked about the two male dogs and their histories. She mentioned that the beagle mix was too big to travel in airplane cabins and that the Shih Tzu had a congenital heart murmur and had been kept in a pen outdoors by his owners except for winter, when he was kept in the garage. My heart twisted when I heard this: who would keep such a small dog—or any dog, for that matter—in such places? Then Loree asked, “Do you want to meet him”? To be polite (I wanted to make a good impression for the dog I was really going to adopt!), I agreed. Out came a scrawny, sorry-looking, little black and white dog, his fur practically shaved off, wasp-waisted, bowlegged, and not cute! Loree said, “He hasn’t been out yet today, why don’t you take him for a walk”?
The leash was handed to me, and as we rounded the corner of the building, the little dog stopped, turned and looked up at me with an expression and an intensity I had never encountered in a dog or human! To this day, I cannot describe what was communicated in that look, but I understood it in the way religious people understand their faith: that’s the way it is, and it’s not going to change. There was no debate, no rational thought, no examination of the situation. I knew only that in that instant, the little dog had given me his heart, and I would give him mine. We marched back inside, and I blurted: “I’ll take him.”
In the car home, he very gently ate some of Lulu’s treats from my hand, gazing at me with a look of wonder, love and hope. I was a goner by the time we reached San Mateo. We also debated names. My sister suggested “Oscar”, and since it was international, easy to pronounce, spell and sounded cute with Lulu, I agreed. At my mother’s house, he proved to be a tentative, quiet, polite little guy who deferred to Lulu, followed me everywhere and snored as loudly as a 250 lb. man. Even then, he showed a marked preference for curling up on the first available lap!
The next week, we took the short flight to Vancouver, and he fell asleep instantly and was so calm and quiet on the plane: a born jetsetter! Once settled, Oscar took to city life like a natural: trotting on the busy sidewalks of downtown like he owned it and delighting in the parks and beaches that make Vancouver such a great place for dogs. Oscar became my personal trainer, ensuring I walked and enjoyed fresh air and nature daily. He was also my assistant, accompanying me to work and on errands. He appointed himself as my bodyguard--he never let anyone on the streets come too close to me and patrolled the apartment vigilantly. He was not demonstrative with affection, but he never left my side voluntarily, eating and sleeping only in spots where he could see me, and at home never more than three feet away from me—he even posted himself outside the door when I went to the bathroom! Most nights, our routine before bed was watching TV while I cradled him in my arms like a baby. He would stare at me with the most tender expression in his eyes as they slowly began to shut. He insinuated himself into my life and heart quickly and completely. And I could not resist spoiling him a very little bit. Because of his allergies, I began to experiment with cooking his food myself and he relished his organic bison, brown rice and veggie meals. He began to fill out and soon grew a lush, wavy coat. Three months later, we were back in the Bay Area and my uncle thought I had returned the first dog and gotten myself a much nicer looking one!
That Christmas, we went to Manila to be with my family. He loved being in a house full of people and the holiday parties despite the heat. His Shih Tzu aloofness, coupled with the fact that he began the habit of eating only if fed by hand, earned him the nickname “King”.
he following February, I found a very low fare to Paris, and Oscar discovered his favorite place on earth. From the moment we arrived at the airport, I could sense how comfortable he was there. He rode the luggage cart like a Pasha, perched on my suitcases as the officer waved us through customs and immigration without inspection. He loved the snow, the Metro, sightseeing, floating on the Seine, sitting in cafes, snoozing on shelves in stores and boutiques as I browsed, getting smuggled into churches, charming everyone in the pharmacies, street markets, bistros and parks. Jetlagged, we rose before dawn, and together, walked the deserted streets as the sun began to rise, buying croissants warm from the bakery, and sitting in little tabacs, eating them with coffee (well, we both had some of the bread, but the coffee was for me!). Oscar adored Paris because he was able to fully participate in my entire day and because he enjoyed being out and about like any normal person, not a dog banned from restaurants and shops, as he was in the US and Canada.
Without my knowing it, Oscar changed me. Truthfully, he made me a better person, making me more tolerant, more patient, more accepting of other people and the good in them. He taught me to appreciate a nice day, dozing in a patch of sunshine, and, as any pet owner will tell you, the present moment. He was my responsibility, but he always made it plain how much he appreciated my efforts, and the simplicity and clarity of his love for me opened up a new definition of friendship and family for me. He softened me. In short, Oscar made it possible for me to fall in love. In September, 2007, I married Jose, a wonderful man whom Oscar adored (after biting him their first meeting just to make sure Jose understood who he was answering to!). I walked down the aisle with my parents. Oscar and Lulu were not allowed inside Mission Santa Clara (I had wanted them to be ring bearer and flower girl, respectively, and consequently, did without). I had my favorite surprise of the day to find them both inside the church after the ceremony, the first to congratulate us as Jose and I walked away from the altar. Lulu was in a pink ruffled ball gown and Oscar--my handsome boy--was dashing in a tux to match his Papa’s!
We three settled down happily. Oscar loved domestic life, staying home on a rainy day curled up for a nap with Jose was as enjoyable to him as having guests over for dinner. While he was always quiet and civilized, Oscar loved being included in whatever we did—even when we did nothing at all. I loved watching him in his contentment—because of Oscar, I finally knew contentment, too.
In February of this year, Oscar’s congenital heart problem, dormant for nearly five years struck. Literally overnight, my darling boy went from healthy and energetic to struggling for every breath. Because of a misdiagnosis by his regular vet, three nights passed before I realized it was more than a simple infection treatable with antibiotics and got a second opinion. At that point, we were sent straight to the critical care hospital. The doctors there hoped to stabilize him to the point we could drive down to the canine cardiologist in Seattle. That night, as I cried and prayed and bargained with God, I suddenly thought, “It’s time to talk to Oscar”. Over and over, I thanked my precious boy and told him that I loved him and whatever he needed to do, I would understand and I would wait for him to come back to me—at whatever time and in whatever form. Just past midnight of February 6, the critical care vet on duty called to tell me that they were performing CPR for the second time, that he knew it wasn’t working, and that we would not get there in time to say goodbye. He was at peace when we arrived and I cradled him, as warm and soft as always, for the last time. The next morning, we witnessed his private cremation and took him home at last. The following month, we buried part of his ashes under his favorite lemon tree in my mother’s San Mateo backyard— the first home he came to when he joined our family. Some of his ashes I will scatter around his favorite spots in Paris, as soon as I can return there. The rest I will keep until Jose and I are able to settle into our own house--the house Oscar would have joined us in turning into a home.
But that is not the end of Oscar’s story. Two weeks after he passed away, a little black and white rescued Shih Tzu named Valentine had a litter of five at Boulevard Pet Hospital. Only one, a black and white male, survived. Because it was Academy Awards night, Loree Levy Schwartz named him Oscar. He is now officially Rajah (Malay and Sanskrit for “King”) Oscar. He goes simply by Rajah, and he has come home to Jose and me.
It is my conviction that Oscar led me to the little pup in the darkest days of my grief for him. The pain of losing Oscar has not diminished with time—I miss him every day, just as keenly as the day I lost him. But Rajah--definitely his own little entity--is just as definitely a link to Oscar. He is a reminder that love, hope, joy, discovery and wonder are all our right in life. He is Oscar’s legacy to me.