What comes to mind when you hear the word perseverance? Perhaps it’s The Little Engine That Could. Or Jim Valvano.
I think of Nikolaus.
He’s a dachshund, and if you’ve ever owned one or read E.B. White, you know that the breed tends to be stubborn – as my eastern North Carolinian father would say, “hard-headed.”
Nik came to us when he was three months old. My boys, ages twelve and four, had been begging for a miniature dachshund after they puppy-sat one for friends on vacation. They knew exactly what they wanted: A little chocolate female. So when another friend called to say that her elderly mother had this very creature but could not take care of it, and if we wanted this puppy, we could have it, my boys were elated.
On the much-anticipated day of arrival, we opened the crate door and out strutted Nik. He was tiny, weighing maybe five pounds.
Within sixty seconds, these things developed:
“Mom, she’s not chocolate,” the older son observed. The puppy’s glossy coat was deep red, nearly crimson.
“Mom, she’s peeing on the carpet!” squealed the younger son. A remarkably large puddle, I might add, for a bladder so small.
“And she’s a boy,” I noted, running for the paper towels.
Just sixty seconds to an inkling that This Might Not Be What We Imagined.
Nik looked at us lovingly, wagging his tail.
He was, I decided in the weeks and months following, completely untrainable. He could not control his bladder. He wet the carpet, sofa, beds, everything. He would not “go” when we took him outside. Crate training did not work at all – he eliminated in it immediately upon entering. Exasperated, I asked the vet: “Why isn’t this working? I read that dogs don’t like to mess up their dens.”
The vet shrugged. “With some dogs, it’s just a behavioral issue.”
Great, I thought. It did not occur to me until much later that he’d been crated a lot as a puppy because his elderly owner could not keep with the demands of caring for him. He cried loudly the whole time he was in the crate. Nik, I learned, never wanted to be confined.
The futile attempt to housebreak him reached its zenith when we moved to a new house two years later.
“Boys, I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried everything. I can’t housebreak Nik. He hates his crate, I’m going to work full-time, and I can’t let him mess up everything. Maybe it’s time for him to go to a new home.”
The younger son began to sob. “No! We can’t give him away. He is ours. We’re his family.”
My husband, not Nik’s biggest fan by a long shot, melted: “Shh, don’t cry, son. We won’t give Nik away.”
I glared at him.
“Nik can stay in my room when we’re all out,” offered the older son. “I’ll clean up if he has an accident.”
I thought of the new carpet and sighed. “All right, then. This means everyone is going to have to look after him. EVERYONE.”
The strange thing is that Nik seemed to know about this, because, on moving into the new house, he was instantly, miraculously housebroken. Whenever he needed to go, he went to the back door and waited to be let out. Just like that. After two years of abject failure.
The boys taught this untrainable dog to “sit pretty” for a treat, which meant that at every meal Nik was by one of our chairs, holding his pose like a groundhog, in hopes that we’d give him a bite. I taught him to roll over, so if sitting pretty didn’t work, he’d roll over to get his treat. That’s his entire repertoire: Two tricks.
Nik follows me everywhere in utter devotion, and when he was younger he’d jump into my chair to wedge himself between me and the chair back when I was writing. He is wary of my husband – they are in competition for my attention – but as soon as my husband leaves the room, Nik flies over to curl up in my lap, as if claiming me.
The boys say, “He loves you the best.”
Nik’s intense gaze seems to say the very same thing. He watches my every move.
A couple of years ago, we thought we were about to lose him.
My husband and I heard him fall on the landing of the stairs leading to the upstairs bedroom, which we dubbed “Nik’s lair,” as Nik was long accustomed to staying there during the day when the family was out. He’d also go up whenever he was tired or ready to go to bed for the night. By this time the older son was grown and gone, and the room belonged to the younger one, who was not home at the moment. On hearing Nik fall, my husband and I rushed to find him crumpled but conscious on the landing.
My husband began to cry.
“Stop it! You, of all people, crying about Nik! Don’t tell me you’re attached to him after all!”
“It’s the boys,” sobbed my husband. “Having to tell them that Nik … that he might …”
I picked Nik up as carefully as I would a newborn baby. “I’m wrapping him in a blanket. You’re driving us to the vet. Stop crying.”
The trouble was two kinked-up vertebrae, which the vet easily pointed out. He dispensed medication and sent us home.
I made a pallet for Nik in the living room and covered him with the blanket. For two days, Nik didn’t walk. The younger son slept on the couch to be near him at night. Nik did not eat nor do anything when we took him outside. He just looked at us with big eyes and never made a sound – when he’s not crated, Nik hardly ever makes any noise.
In the wee hours of the third morning, I woke up and decided to check on Nik. My son was sound asleep on the couch. Nik’s blanket was still tucked on his pallet, but Nik was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on the couch with my son. I started searching, growing increasingly alarmed. He’s crawled off away from us to die. That’s what animals do. He wasn’t in the kitchen, under the chair where he likes to take his treats.
I woke up my son: “Where’s Nik?”
“He’s not on his pallet?” asked my groggy teenager.
“I can’t find him anywhere!”
I woke up my husband: “Nik has disappeared!”
“How is that possible?” He and my son looked again in all the places I’d just looked.
Then I thought, No – surely not – I don’t know how he could …
The upstairs bedroom. That’s where he’d want to be, if …
My heart pounding, and dread deepening with every step, I climbed the stairs and opened the bedroom door. I turned on the light.
No Nik. Normally he’d have jumped on my son’s bed and gone to sleep.
But he couldn’t jump now, not with his back … very carefully, I lifted the dust ruffle.
A tail thumped in greeting, and two eyes looked out at me as if to say, I just came up to bed like I always do.
I cannot envision how he did it, how he dragged himself all the way from his pallet, up the stairs to his favorite, safe place. Knowing he could not jump, he contented himself with sleeping under the bed instead of on top of it.
I do not cry easily, but I did then.
He recuperated, and it happened again a month ago. This time Nik could not walk for a week and a half. The vet – a different one now – called to see how he was faring.
“He’s not any better,” I said into the phone. “No change. He knows us and wags his tail, but he can’t move.”
“It may be time to think about the quality of life,” the vet said, gently.
We tried to talk about it, the boys, their dad, and I.
“But he knows us still,” I said. “He doesn’t seem to be suffering, except for not being able to walk.”
“Yeah, it’s not like he’s in a coma,” said the younger son.
“If you make that decision, I want to be there,” said the older son, who’d come by on his way home from work. He rubbed Nik’s head.
Nik looked at us lovingly.
Another day passed, and another. He still did not walk.
My younger son and I took turns bringing Nik’s food and water to him. Nik ate and drank – good signs. I carried him out several times a day – he obediently did what he needed to do, lying in the grass. I carried him back inside, put him in his beloved new dog bed, and covered him with a blanket.
More days passed.
And one day when I carried him out, I felt his back legs press against my side. When I took him out, he stood. By himself, he stood, for a few seconds, on his old white paws, looking at me lovingly from his little white face, before his legs gave out and he flopped down.
Each day after, he could stand for a bit longer at a time.
He is fifteen now, turning sixteen in January. He runs from room to room again like he did when he was a puppy, still begging for treats although he can’t sit pretty anymore, or even see his treats as well as he once did, but he gobbles them just like always.
And every night, one of us carries him upstairs to his favorite, safe place to sleep.
Reflect: Who – or what – represents perseverance to you? Why? What have you learned from this person or situation, and what have you learned about yourself?