A Tribute To SAMPSON
He was the part of me that few readers ever saw, but he influenced my columns about golf more than I realized. Best of all, he loved everything I wrote, unconditionally.
He was my biggest fan, and I was his. For 10 fun-filled years, we were a happy-go-lucky team. I would write the columns, fuss over them, and rewrite them. All the while, Sampson, my big, black Lab, lay faithfully under my desk, nuzzling my feet as I talked to myself. I’m sure my socks didn’t always smell that great, and sometimes the hours would drag on endlessly, but he never seemed to mind.
Complaining wasn’t part of Sampson’s game. In fact, he was perhaps the most gracious, trusting, contented, loyal dog a man could ever know, his tail constantly wagging or pounding the floor. We used to joke that we should have named him “Thumper’’ because that tail just never stopped.
But last week, cancer took “My Boy,’’ and I haven’t been able to write a word about golf since. It wasn’t like we were unprepared; he was diagnosed with the illness back in March.
I suppose such stinging sadness isn’t that unexpected, when you consider Sampson’s most amazing attribute was that he could make me happy, instantly – and I’m not exactly an easy guy to make happy.
But all he had to do was cock his head off to the side, as if to say, “What’s going on, Bill?’’ Then he would simply explode with excitement after deciphering our code of “walk’’ or “ball’’ or “park.’’ By the time he would finally quit bucking like a bronco and barking like a lunatic (Sampson was louder than Lassie!) my mind was miles away from what had consumed me for most of the day.
He could do that – get me out of a funk quickly — and he did it often. That’s why I’d always miss “Sampy’’ almost as much as he missed me when I’d go off on week-long trips to, say, the Masters or a U.S. Open or a golf event of some kind. He hated it when I was gone even though we’d talk by phone – my kids would put the receiver up to Sampson’s ear, and he’d jump back and stare at it in disbelief. My homecoming was always the best of times for both of us.
Change of Heart
It was a relationship that almost didn’t happen. I remember that in the late ’90s, I had decided I’d had enough dogs for a lifetime. We had owned three great ones – Kota, Xena and Annie – and in the span of a year, two had died of illness and the other was stolen from our backyard. So when my son called one day from a farm in Chandler, telling me he had found “the most precious Lab puppy in the world,’’ I told him to forget it.
“You’ve got to come see this pup. He looks just like ‘Bone’ — big head, beautiful eyes, jet-black fur,’’ my son pleaded, comparing the pup to my cousin’s one-of-a-kind hunting dog in Iowa named Bone.
I told him, “No, absolutely, not.” But by the second (or third?) call, I agreed to come check out the pup. As you probably guessed, it took about five seconds for me to say, “Sure.’’ After much debate, we named him Sampson Bonaparte II in honor of Bone, and that was the beginning of our story.
Not that Sampson was the perfect pup; he chewed up his share of garden hoses and plants/flowers. But through the years, as the kids set out on their own, Sampson and I grew closer and closer until we were absolutely each other’s best friend. “Ball’’ was our favorite game – especially the version we played in the pool — and most every day ended with “walk.’’
Naturally, there was nothing Sampson and I liked better than taking our annual trip to Whitefish, Montana, where we have a second home. It’s true that I enjoy playing golf at Whitefish Lake Golf Club more than any place on Earth. Sampson’s thing was the 1,200-mile journey in the SUV through Arizona, Utah, Idaho and, finally, Big Sky Country. However, the biggest deal about Whitefish was — hands down! – Sampson and I were “gone’’ together.
That unbreakable bond we built over those years is why it came as such a crushing blow when Sampson was diagnosed three months ago with hemangiosarcoma, a rapidly growing cancer that involves the cells that line blood vessels. His illness came out of nowhere. One day he simply didn’t bark like a lunatic or buck like a bronco at dinnertime. Instead, he rested that big head on my leg and refused to eat, his sad eyes telling me that something was really, really wrong.
As it turned out, my veterinarian determined that Sampson, who had always been very healthy and fit, had a tumor on his spleen. The good news was the tumor could be removed. The bad news came shortly after taking out the spleen — the tumor was malignant.
Even though one-third of those tumors are benign, Sampson wasn’t that lucky. What I didn’t know was that one in every three dogs develops some form of cancer, and more than half of those dogs die. Worse: The cancer rate is higher in Labradors.
Suddenly, I couldn’t write or do much of anything as I tried to figure out our options. Even though my vet advised me against chemotherapy for Sampson – “most dogs don’t live past two months’’ — he gave me the card of an oncologist at Arizona Veterinary Specialists in Gilbert.
Leap of Faith
I’ll admit, initially I wasn’t going to put Sampson through it. Chemo is hard enough on people, so I figured it would be too much for a dog. But Dr. Lynn Beaver, who has lots of love for her patients, convinced me otherwise. She cited facts, like many dogs with Sampson’s type of cancer can live an additional five to seven months or even longer IF you catch it early enough.
It was a huge leap of faith for me, not wanting to make things worse for Sampson. I was just hoping that I could get him another six months or so.
The risky part was that Sampson’s spleen wasn’t the only organ the cancer had touched; the liver also was involved. The gamble was that the little nodule of cancer on the liver that also had been cut out during surgery wouldn’t come back to haunt us. It was a tough call, but since we’d already lost once on Sampson’s health, we were crossing our fingers that maybe we’d get lucky this time around.
So in mid-March, Sampson and I began the chemo, five sessions spaced three weeks apart and lasting into June. Fortunately, Sampson was a whole lot braver than his “Dad.’’ Each session lasted about two hours, with Sampson getting stuck with needle after needle and me pacing nervously in the parking lot.
Dog lovers understand this slightly altered yet well-known quotation: “To err is human, to forgive canine.’’ We also know that without a doubt, dogs are “man’s best friend.’’ And most of us have seen the movie or read the book “Marley and Me’’ and cried like babies, because if you are a dog lover, there is no in between.
All of these crazy thoughts and more were swirling in my head when I was trying to make the right choice for Sampson. So what happened next — right in the middle of all this life-changing turmoil – just might have been the biggest shocker of all.
Knowing that our time together was growing short, and wanting to get everything I could out of each day, I quit drinking. That’s right, a guy who consumed a couple of glasses of wine almost on a daily basis gave it up to be with his dog as we traveled down this unknown road together.
The results, my results, were astonishing. Instead of one walk to the park every day, we began to take two, then three, and then four walks daily. We even expanded our routes throughout Tempe to include the ASU Research Park. Sampson adored the park’s lake-laden landscape and would signal our arrival every time — even when his booming bark began to fade from the treatments.
For 72 straight days, we walked and talked about life – Sampson, me and my other dog, China, an American Bulldog-mix who was Sampson’s lifelong companion. And almost every day we discovered something new, as we stopped to smell the roses – Sampson and China being more into the smell part while I did most of the discovering.
Just as hard to believe, we got up earlier and earlier, until this past month we had been rising at the crack of dawn. Believe it or not, the sun comes up in Arizona at 5 a.m. sharp. I just never knew it, as my old routine didn’t really get going until 8 a.m. or later.
Food for Thought
Meanwhile, Sampson endured the chemo like a champion. Even though he became badly nauseated after each of the first three sessions (at least for a day or two), he always bounced back. What was unexpected was he quit eating meat in any form, replacing that one-time staple of his diet with carrots, apples, raspberry scones and a nightly ice cream sandwich. As Dr. Beaver put it: “Let him eat whatever he wants,’’ and that’s exactly what we did.
At the same time, I constantly wrestled with the dilemma of whether or not Sampson physically could handle another chemo session, and was this awful stuff we were putting in his body really making a difference? I also was bothered by his on-and-off cough, which Sampson usually dismissed with a wag of his tail.
But we kept moving forward, trying to be as brave as possible because I wanted so much for Sampson to rally so we could go to Montana for one last summer. And the truth was, he still looked great after three sessions. Even though his whiskers were turning gray, his body seemed to be holding up, and he still pranced – his favorite form of walking – all the way to the park and back, even on his bad days.
Then last Thursday something happened in the middle of the night. I awoke to find him panting, which was not a good sign. When I let him outside, he immediately lay on the grass and wouldn’t come back into the house. When I finally coaxed him inside, he bee-lined for the bathroom, where he started drinking from the “dog pond’’ rather than his bowl filled with water. That’s really strange, I thought.
The following morning, he was still in the bathroom, which was very odd for a dog that often slept in my bed, or at least at the foot of my bed. It was if he was trying to get away or hide from me. One look into his eyes as I rounded the corner sent me into a panic.
Fortunately, Sampson remained calm as his master was falling apart. Even though the big guy could hardly walk to the car for the trip to the vet, and even though we had to use a gurney to transport him from the car into the clinic, Sampson never lost his cool. I wish I could have said the same, just for his sake.
According to Dr. Beaver, more tumors had grown on Sampson’s liver, and he was bleeding internally. There was a chance the bleeding would stop, she told me, “but it will come back.’’
That’s when I had to make the most difficult decision of my life, and truthfully, it hurt like hell. But it must have been the right one, because shortly before he departed this world, Sampson turned to me and gave me two sloppy kisses right on the mug. And then he very gently put his head between his paws like the dignified companion he’d always been and left me here alone, trying to figure it all out.
I’m still trying. I guess if we had to do it all over again, we would still fight the fight with everything we could muster. Yes, the chemo didn’t work, but the experience brought us even closer, and considering that inseparable connection that already existed, that was truly remarkable.
To be honest, I’m not sure about anything else just yet. But given the circumstances, I’ll probably always look back on our great adventure with the Big C as more of life-changing experience for me than anything I was able to do for Sampson.
That’s why I decided to write this tribute to my best friend, “My Boy’ who used to snuggle at my feet while I kept writing about golf. I know Sampy would have enjoyed it, simply because he loved everything I wrote. Unconditionally.