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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA

In memoriam, Pago

I had the opportunity to walk the earth with another being that gave me such incredible love and fierce grace across the course of almost 12 years. I am now saying goodbye to him, in the only way that I know how, which is by writing about our life together. As someone once told me, "write to make it all real."

What follows is his story. If you have lost a dog it may give you solace or it may cause to reflect on your sadness. I am a writer first, and all other things second, so this is what I do for my process. If this helps you on your own journey then peace be with you.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

gone, gone, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening beyond

Pago Santí was born in the streets of Saint Louis to a mom that left he and his sister in an alley. He was found by some nice folks who took him to the Webster Groves Animal Hospital in Missouri. Pago caught the eye of Leslie Sanazaro (then Leslie Santi) who mentioned that “if you are ready to be a dog dad, then there is a really cute dog at the animal hospital.” My first interactions were watching him run around on the floor by my feet. He wouldn't hold still and as soon as I reached down he would turn on his back for a second and then run away again. He never would hold still long enough for me to pick him up. I caught a sort of energy, a jolt of playfulness and love energy that was unshakeable. Leslie and I adopted the dog at 8 weeks old and were told we needed to wait another 2 weeks before we could pick him up.

Pago, who was originally called "Misto" which is cool in Romanian. He got his name after we figured his birthday fell close to the tax day in the United States. Since Leslie and I often feared Tax day coming, we called him "Pago" or "I pay" in Spanish. It stuck and he loved it. The training of Pago was hard at first, he was fiercely stubborn and required intense attention and devotion. At times, I felt as if the test of dog ownership was beyond what I was capable of. Further, Pago needed hours of play and walks. He was always horrible on a leash but he loved to run. It was in Saint Louis where I first began to bike with him while he was running. More than a few times I fell to the ground after he caught sight of a squirrel. Another strategy to wear him out was to kick a soccer ball up a 15 foot hill. Pago would sprint up and then run down. He did this for dozens of times and was not tired still when walking home.

Training was slow with Pago at first but he began to unwind with love and kindness. He loved spending time on the couch and I believe his couch kill score was 3 couches, both in chewing and licking leather. One night when Leslie was at a show, I remember he continued to growl and bite at me when he was on the couch. I put in him the corner with his bed with all his toys. Over the next 30 minutes, while he continued to growl, I took one toy away at a time and put them in the bathroom and returned him to the corner. Finally, it was just his bed. He began to tear at the bed and growl at me. I took the bed away and then put him in the corner again and he sat and stared at me. Finally, he was calm, I think we really understood one another from that point on.

Pago had a certain toughness which came from his demeanor and breeding. It would not surprise me that he was descended from fighting dogs. With people though he was the sweetest and most friendly animal around. Ever interested in playing and a joy to play with. Despite this sweetness he did not make many dog friends. I wish I could say Pago was good with other dogs but early on he had a tussle with a much older dog which I think shocked him. Ever since then, Pago was unpredictable at best when another dog came around. This severely limited our hangout time with other people with dogs. He was responsible for ending at least one romantic relationship early over a dog fight and I had to ask more than one friend for forgiveness. It was hard with some of my best of friends. As time went on, Pago and I traveled across the country together. He lived in Missouri and NY and took trips with me across eleven states. He loved visiting Maine on a particularly brutal winter weekend. He never cared for playing fetch with a ball for too long, he'd simply get bored. Sticks were also interesting to a point and then he'd simply chew them.

Our favorite activity was going for long walks together. I would get lost and he would get lost and we would find one another. I would often be writing a poem in the woods or taking a photograph and then he would wander off and chase something. I would then whistle to him and he would eventually return to my side.

He was a handsome dog. I liked to say he was born in a tuxedo, as he had a large white patch that went from his neck all the way down his belly. He turned into quite a handsome and stoic dog. Lean and quite muscular he weighed 70 pounds and came up to my side. He knew all the usual commands but he was especially fond of "side" which put him on his side to show submission, it was one of the earliest tricks I gave him. Finally though, Pago was a great yoga dog. I developed a regular practice with Pago when he was a puppy and he learned early that he would need to wait for me to have a shavasana for him to get a kiss. A frequent attender of my yoga classes at CrossFit Pallas, he welcomed students to my classes and would come over and kiss students that needed extra love. Later, it became his ritual when I would close to come to me when I was done and then kiss everyone in the class. He became so richly aware of everyone and everything--he developed this emotional support and began to exude a deeper love for everyone.

Over the years, Pago and I stopped running and biking together, mostly because it got harder to keep up with it in the winter. Also, I got tired of taking spills off the bike. During the cold season in NY, I trained him to use a treadmill before he ate his morning food. This kept him going for 20 minutes or so of intense jogging. He was smart and fun to be around and loved to be cuddled and kissed. He was driven by food and this had long been my method of working with him, and as he grew older we celebrated his birthdays by cooking him steak. Yes, a full steak would be his birthday present. We loved swimming together, more than a few people reading this, met us when I took him to East Shore park. We would get in the water, he with an extend-leash and I would swim out and he would follow. Pago loved the water. ​

I loved having a big dog. A dog that I could lay on top of, and tease and roll around with. I would just lay my body on top of his (making sure he wasn't in pain of course) and just give him a big kiss. As a child, two out of the three dogs had been hit by cars on a busy road, the third was taken to the SPCA. I was also bit by a dog when I was a child and I had one particular childhood memory which entailed a chihuhua that barked at me at 5 years old and scared me so much I ended up on a strangers dining room table trying to get away from it. Pago was my responsibility for most of his life and taking care of him and being close to him was a constant joy in being connected.

If you have never "had" a dog or been their caregiver then I urge you to do so. It is a rewarding and powerful experience. I find myself now working through thoughts in nearly every moment of how my life now needs to be edited. I look for him by my side and the instincts to find a comfortable place for him to lay on the floor is now gone. When I am in the kitchen, or walking through the living room I am aware that each step is in relation to where his body may be. When I am preparing food and something falls to the floor, I am so used to being too slow to stop Pago from eating it off the floor. The list goes on and on, having a dog is like this. "Should I let him outside while I take the garbage out?" or "I'm walking by his water bowl does he have enough?" A dog gets into your mind and you adapt to them quickly and quietly over the years. In the same way he adapted to my life. It is this which I believe causes us to fall so intensely in love with dogs and creates such a bond. We take on one another's habits and engage the world in a shared unity. They say the alliance of homosapiens and dogs may have been the death toll of the neanderthals and I can see why--a dog finds a way to integrate themselves in your life--and the degree of which they do is based entirely on the love you have for them. The more love, the deeper the integration. This is why losing a dog feels like a certain madness overtaking you.

There were many times I found him intuitively caring for me, there were dark days together. He would lay his head at my side or lick my face. I found in him a companion and a friend at all times. He was patient and kind with me. Emily Dickinson said of dogs, "They always know but never judge."

In the 5th year of life, Pago found himself with 5 acres of land to roam and he began his years of having the thrill of the outdoors regularly. He may have been born in the streets of Saint Louis but Pago loved being in the land in Trumansburg. On any given day, he would go outside and 6-7 times. When it was sunny we would spend time outdoors together, he would lay on the porch and me in my hammock. We went for daily walks and found time to ease the comfort of solitude of being alone together. We grilled food when it was warm and I found myself sleeping next to him on the coldest of nights.During the winter he was not a fan of the cold, especially as the years would go on and he would find himself cozy by the wood stove otherwise.

This last year of his life Pago was adopted a second time. Shona Craig and I moved in with one another in November of 2019 and Pago quickly grew fascinated by having another dog mom. He loved being close to her and laying in her office while she talked to clients. Her touch, which is one of a healer, was one Pago needed in his life. He was 10 years old when she moved in and he had begun to slow down. An injury of a hyperextended hind leg had caused him to yelp in pain in 2017 and he would occasionally limp. The doctors all said he would have to stop running and be on a leash on walks. This quickly grew impossible though, as Pago was never one to be on a leash for too long but he did stop running so ferociously. Shona's touch and continued connection to him helped him a lot over the last two years.

This past year was such an incredible year in this household. Both Shona and I worked mostly from home and Pago come this past March of 2020 was amazed to find himself with two full-time parents. He never lacked for fun and support daily. He would perpetually beg us for walks, giving a classic grunt and tail wag. His diet was healthy and he was quite a charmer to all visitors. In running Camp SkyTent in 2020 the campers always were thrilled to be greeted by a big black dog coming towards them--well, those who were dog people I guess. Ha!

About three months ago after a 2 hour hike in the woods to get ourselves out of the covid winter blues funk, Pago's leg seemed noticeably more in pain. Gone was the slight limp. Pago began full-on hopping on one hind leg. We inquired with the vet shortly after and the doctor found a lump in his right hind leg, the same leg that years before had been injured. Whether the constant inflammation had caused the tumor or the small tumor had simply gone unnoticed because of the injury, we'll never know. As a dog owner, as their caregiver you want to do more always at this point in the story. Was there a way to have prevented it? Could have I done more regular checkups? Should have I undergone chemo on an 11 1/2 year old dog with arthritis in both hips and knees? The subtlety of a dog's life is something that I wish I had only noticed earlier. I will live with wondering but I don't think Pago would want me to keep suffering as well. His life was a testament to unconditional love and mine to him unconditional love.

After running a biopsy, the lump on the hind leg proved to be the dreaded C word. We brought him home with a diagnosis which was terminal and to keep him medicated and to spoil him rotten. We did not know whether he would last a year or months. I was determined to keep him comfortable and so was Shona.

The decline was rapid and startling. It was as if he knew it was his time. Within two weeks of coming home he began to lose his appetite. We tried coaxing him with 5 different types of dog food in the following weeks. He had to be hand fed. His water bowl would come to his bed. It was frustrating and painful to watch--on more than one occasion I wondered out loud if it was psychological. Being a therapist for this amount of time in crisis will do that to you, I guess.This dog who would do anything for food before, now sat in bed and refused all meals. We gave him pain medications which made him sleep all day.

This past Monday on a walk he stopped walking half way through the woods. We got to the meadow and he couldn't keep moving. I picked him up and carried him 10 or so paces and then set him down. He moved two feet or so and then stopped. This continued until he got to the porch. He couldn't make it to his bed and I carried him there.

This grew much worse over the next number of days. His right hind leg grew swollen with lymphedema and he grew sullen. That Monday was the last day he also had use of his left leg. Shona and I looked at one another this past week and couldn't frankly believe it was happening. This warrior, this prince of Perry City, was now declining so quickly it was as if he was now an angel falling to the sky. Without any way to get him inside and outside we tied towels and then later athletic bands together. I put one around his rear and the other around my shoulders. Like this we walked like a team. He peed the bed. He peed all over the house when I would get him outside. He was listless, my time with Pago was coming to a close. The house was filled with grief and dread.

Shona and I follow a spiritual path that is probably closest to Hinduism but has touches of Buddhism and Native American faith. It is fair to say we're trying to be the most spiritual we can be in all situations. We're in process. We decided that to relieve the suffering of our charge, it meant to give him one last party.

Friday a select group of friends and family gathered. Pago was in an exceptional mood. He had not taken his pain medication and had refused all food. He was sitting up and engaging with everyone at the party who would sit by his side. The warrior had become a sage and his life and spirits were uplifted seeing everyone. This is how dogs are, they live for us and our life together with them. I cooked him a filet mignon and despite having refused food all morning, Pago ate an entire steak. I write that and it gives me joy and intense sadness, as if that is a way my mind can rationalize a different ending than what comes next. You see, I want to use that fact as a reason to have kept him alive--he was on the mend! He could have made it! My brain shouts these things and I know this is not true. His leg had swollen to twice the size. His pads on his bed needed to be changed hourly. When I fed him the steak, he could not bend down to get the pieces on the far side of the plate. It was his last meal.

Earlier that day, I had built a funeral pyre with my good friend Devon Van Noble, he and I constructed it with three levels to provide a send off to send his ashes into the air with God. Shona and I had ruled out giving him a burial as it doesn't suit our spiritual tradition. After his meal we drove to the vet and entered into the room alone with him. He was calm at first, until the vet tried to find a vein. It took two anesthesia shots before Pago began to calm down. He licked my face and Shona's. We whispered prayers to him and said it was ok to go. His beautiful brown eyes laid on us and then he was gone. His spirit had left his body. The spirit that I knew as Pago left his body Friday, March 19th at 6:45pm.

We took Pago to a house awaiting with family. We shared hugs and began our final preparations. I took Pago's body to the porch with Devon and I then proceeded to wash his body. I soaped every crevice and chanted ram in my head. We then wrapped him in his favorite blanket and covered him with flowers. I took his collar and put it next to him. I left the prayer beads on his neck that he had worn for the past month.

We carried him to his final tomb and encased him. We lit the fire and we played music while we let the fire raise into the night.

I wish I could have the space a month or a year later to write this--as I know reflection would be useful in the space that could intervene with distance. However, I don't want distance. I feel destroyed and robbed of my best friend. Pago taught me a certain toughness about the world and carried me through some of my darkest. He was always there, feeling what was going on with me and our time alone from 2012-2019, those almost seven years were impossible to describe. We became soul mates in the world and had a connection that was hard to shake. Shona often remarked "you know, you two actually look a lot alike." It is true. the salt and pepper beards and faces that have known endurance. We were also a lot alike personally: we intensely love those around us and at the same time we are leery of just anyone wandering into our lives. We are wanderers and givers and our life together was one of deep devotion.

I had a dream the night he stopped walking. I was in a room with another man, he laid his head before me on my lap. He knew that I was there to end his life. I stroked his hair and he touched my hand with affection and love. I then ended his life with a blade. When I woke up, I was crying and felt physically sick. At breakfast, I talked to Shona about my dream, Pago was on his bed and had not eaten anything and perked up a little as I was talking. I then gasped looking at Pago, "I think the dream was about me and him," I said to Shona. I am not saying that Pago and I were in a previous life together in such drastic of pains, however, it was my honor and duty to serve him and when the time came, letting him pass into the other world was what we had to finish the life together. If we were in that previous life together, then this too makes sense as my karma was at work and he his own.

I hold dog ownership as one of the great spiritual practices one can take as a pedestrian to a spiritual path. You begin with a sort of desire for the connection to something else--and then you begin to unfold your own attachments and pain. The dog feels that and helps you work on it. My own previous pain at having lost animals and fear of dogs Pago felt. Working on yourself with a dog is beautiful and deep sadhana. You will, likely, outlive them--whether your time with them is one year or 12, every day is an opportunity to work on yourself with another being. Get a dog, get any pet for that matter, I'm not sure the ashram is for everyone anyway. Here, in your own home, you have the opportunity to fulfill karma and to work on your dharma by being one with an animal. To care for them. To be with them present. To experience joy and suffering.

I believe that suffering at the end of Pago's life was one which I could be open to and even the smell of the urine grew on me. Caring for him, giving him food by hand. By attending to his every need is the work of life. I will never forget the moments of washing his body, of keeping him close to me, to hear his labored last breaths. He was, and will ever be, one of my greatest teachers.

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