For Oona

Last Thursday afternoon, my wife and I drove Oona, our nearly nine-year-old German Shepard to the veterinarian for her 1:30 pm appointment to be euthanized. The decision to put her down was neither easy, nor without extraordinary efforts to save her life. She suffered from Lymphoma which I had providentially discovered while waiting to see the veterinarian nearly 10 months earlier. I can’t even remember why I had taken Oona to the vet, but as we waited in the exam room, I was rubbing Oona around her neck in an effort to ease the intense anxiety she experienced whenever she had to see the doctor. I felt distinct lumps in her neck below her jaw and called the doctor’s attention to them.

“Oh dear. I think the purpose of this visit has just changed,” she remarked. Oona had Lymphoma which would take her life in weeks unless we medically intervened, the doctor explained. We did intervene with a series of some 26 treatments involving four different forms of chemotherapy. Known as the CHOP protocol, Oona responded quickly to the intervention and did remarkably well. The lymph nodes shrank, her bloodwork improved, and upon completion of the protocol, some six or seven months later, she was declared in remission.

Oona has been our constant companion (but more especially mine) since shortly after we arrived in Chapel Hill after leaving San Diego. After the loss of our Yorkie, Niles, we promised ourselves a new dog after settling in. I drove to just south of Spartanburg, SC to retrieve her. She was officially known as Oona Vom Haus Brezel, but to us she was Oona. Shortly after bringing her to our new home in Chapel Hill, we were visited by one of our new neighbors who came to tell us that Oona, as our third dog, violated the HOA rules. You are only permitted two dogs. Indeed, I should have known this, but I did not. The HOA was comprised of 12 homes sited on two land tracts of nearly 29 acres and assumed we would be able to resolve the matter informally. I have written about the dispute in a previous blog posting, and while not wanting to relitigate the matter, do want to offer some context. The HOA Annual Membership meeting, scheduled only weeks later, tasked a small group that included me to propose language that allowed for a special waiver. Three of us came up with what we agreed was suitable language. Somehow, before the proposed revision was even considered, the idea of a rule exception irked several people, and we were informed that our unwillingness to abide by the rules left our neighbors with no other choice but to pursue legal action to compel us to comply. We were stunned and reluctantly consulted a lawyer and who informed us there was nothing to be done. So, after many tears and expressions of regret for having moved to Chapel Hill, we decided to look for a new home less than six months after having arrived from San Diego in order to keep Oona. The idea of dispensing of a pet/companion because we violated/ignored/overlooked/broke a rule about having no more than “two mature dogs” seemed to us unthinkable. To be clear, the HOA rule was not unthinkable, giving up Oona was. We moved to a wonderful new home in Durham.

The decision to do this was absolutely the right one for us. Still, it was both emotionally and financially costly as the house we left sat vacant for a year as we tried to sell it. Even so, let me say it so no one else has to- we have no one to blame for this but ourselves. After trying to sell the house for a year, we rented it at a loss until we left North Carolina.

Neither my wife nor I ever regretted the decision to leave the community of 12 families that decided an HOA rule regarding a third dog was more important than the relationship between the dog and his/her family. Honestly, I was ignorant of the two-dog limit and the neighbors appeared relaxed and even disinterested in HOA rules, telling me ‘Just go ahead’ and put up my fence for which I sought approval from the HOA a few months earlier. Once Oona joined our family, the members of the HOA required we choose between observation of the HOA rule or the relationship with the dog. Apparently, there was some discussion between neighbors. Much of the reasoning that helped harden a position favoring rule over relationship, we were not privy to. Instead, we were informed private polling had been conducted and our position was seen as untenable, inflexible, and legal action would ensue. There were several email blasts to us all that pleaded for civility, one stating “this is not who we are” when reflecting on how ugly the standoff had become. But it turns out it indeed was exactly who they were and who we were. I’ll never forget my next-door neighbor asking me if I didn’t believe communities needed rules to live by. I was so offended by what I believed to be a failure in moral development that I simply asked if he felt our resistance to getting rid of the dog was worth asking us to leave the community. It was. You see, he could not understand my unwillingness to live by the principles that governed the HOA if it meant sacrificing a member of my family.

As I write this, I am aware of the empty dog bed next to my desk. Day after day, week after week Oona has come to lie next to me as I work in my home office. The space between the couch and the coffee table was barely wide enough to contain her but it was where she wanted to be- at my feet. Now, it is vacant. I used ask Oona if it was time to watch the news and she would go lie down in this narrow space where we watched the news together. The pandemic and the weekly trips to the vet drove us even closer together. My car is full of the hair that Oona shed during the many trips to the vet for her chemo. As much as one might wish to remove the painful memories of her absence, I have been slow to do so. Her shed cycles left us with unending efforts to manage dog hair and it still collects in the corners and calls her to mind. Her bed remains next to ours for now, although empty. Only during thunderstorms did Oona ask to join us in bed. Otherwise placing her bed close to ours was enough. If either of us so much as coughed in the middle of the night she would come to our side to see if all was alright. A member of my writing class sent me a note after I left class early to take Oona to the vet. He wrote, “Sympathy on loss of your companion, Oona. Dogs and humans belong together. We need them as much as they need us.”

Oona was family. Oona was a friend and companion. Oona was a protector. So, after a short but rich and consequential life she was put down on Thursday. But her loss has reminded me in the most powerful ways imaginable that the principle of loyalty to one’s dog is inviolable. They are not an accessory. They are not to brighten a summer then leave behind when we go home. They do not deserve to be sent to the dog pound when you learn they will require work. All you have to do is watch the news to see Ukrainian families unwilling to leave their homes and risk their lives because they won’t abandon their crippled father or their dog. They’re BOTH family. That eleven families in that precious Chapel Hill neighborhood chose unbending adherence to the two-dog rule over the relationships we treasure is morally poisonous.

When people cannot discern the moral ambiguity in prizing principles over relationships, it reflects a tragic disregard for our natural capacity to perceive what is right with our hearts as much as our written rules. It is short-sighted to rely solely on any set of well-intentioned rules before our heart has had a chance to weigh in.

Most importantly, Oona enriched our lives as I know we did hers.

1 thought on “For Oona

  1. Sweet blessings to you both. Beautifully said, David, as always.


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