Requiem for a brown dog

Just over a week ago, I lost my very dear friend Kern to a truly evil case of liver cancer. 


Given the (astonishingly low) frequency with which I update my website, and the (astonishingly high) proportion of dog-oriented content that those updates comprise, I want to take a moment to eulogize this sweet, odd creature who had been my buddy, my henchman and, in some ways, my alter ego for almost 12 years.

For those of you who don’t feel like reading on as I wax sentimental, the rest is below the jump – as an alternative, perhaps you’d prefer Matt Inman’s very sweet ruminations on dog ownership over at The Oatmeal? The rest of you – follow me.

I adopted Kern back in 2000, while traveling through the barren wastes of central California. My ex and I had stopped in a town called Kernville (near the Kern River, in Kern County), where there was supposed to be kickass whitewater rafting. Since we were dumbasses and went at the end of a long drought season, the mighty Kern River was nought but a feeble, muddy trickle. So we went to a pet store run by bikers, where we were charmed by this tiny reddish-brown lump of fur who was on display in the shop window, being terrorized by a nasty parrot perched overhead. I HATE parrots. So of course, we had to rescue him.

In honor of Edward Kern, who apparently never missed the opportunity to slap his name on something, we named the pup Kern. And since these happened to be incredibly sweet bikers, they gave us this whole puppy ‘starter kit’ for a song, including a carrying case so I could stow the little bugger under the seat for the flight back to New York. He slept like a baby.

But that was the end of that. He quickly established a reputation as a hellion, earning the moniker ‘Kern-an the Destroyer’. He ate shoes, blankets, pillows, chairs, table legs, rugs – pretty much anything not made of metal or vulcanized rubber. As he grew older, he was less indiscriminate in his destruction, but still maintained an unhealthy fascination with the consumption of shoes and socks and underwear, which would persist until his final days.

Long after my ex and I parted ways, Kern and I remained inseparable, and he has been the one constant in my life as I’ve changed apartments, changed careers, changed cities, changed relationships. Kern became a litmus test by which I would judge people, especially prospective partners. He once peed on a girl I was dating the very first time I brought her home – and then she discovered that he’d also destroyed both her purse and shoes as a prelude to his ‘master stroke’ attack. I should have listened to his advice; she was completely insane, but it took me a year longer than him to figure that out.

Kern was moody and prone to outbursts of crankiness, much like me. But he was also very cuddly and sweet, and loved nothing more than to be used as a pillow or footrest. He had a bizarre and troubling foot fetish, and would lick any available toes or soles for endless minutes until  the inevitable gross-out reaction. He loved paper as well, and could find and ferret out the smallest scrap of napkin hidden in a pocket or purse without disturbing any other contents. He was an avid hiker and swimmer in early life, earning him the additional moniker ‘Action Dog’, but in later years his athletic career was limited to extended bouts of sniffing and chasing his tail (you’re never too old for that one), and he put on a bit of pudge that won him yet another nickname: ‘The Velvet Eggplant’.


He was also the cleanest dog in history, and licked himself like a cat whenever there was a spare moment – especially if no feet were available. He never lost the puppy smell from the top of his head, and his ears were always impossibly velvety.

And even though he never quite ‘got’ dogs, he always loved people and would strategically position himself in the optimal spot to be equidistant to the largest number of humans. He would occasionally howl like a banshee when he was left alone, making spectacularly mournful sounds that wouldn’t seem the least bit out of place on the English moors. He also tended to win over strangers very quickly, all of whom seem convinced that he must be some particular breed rather than all of them mixed together. I used to make up fake breeds, like the ‘Venezuelan Marmot-Hound’ or the ‘Lord Durnsberry Ruddy Terrier’, but really he was one of a kind.


He was diagnosed with a bump in his belly on the 4th of September that made our vet concerned. Within a week, the ultrasound confirmed it and he went in for a biopsy. He was still his usual waggy self, stunning all the vets and techs with his vigor, but by the time the biopsy results came back he was already starting to slow down and lose weight. The tumor appeared to be a hepatocellular carcinoma, and a great big motherf***er at that – when you looked at the abdominal incision, it completely eclipsed the liver, which is normally pretty hard to miss. You know, that huge reddish-brown thing.

Things crashed quickly after that. I scrambled to prepare something, anything he might want to eat – steamed chicken, rice and broth, grilled hamburger, mashed carrots… things that made my stomach grumble, and which he normally would have climbed onto a burning stove to steal. He barely wanted to look at them. Steroids, antibiotics, pepcid… nothing helped, and neither of us enjoyed the twice-daily wrestling match involved in getting medication down. He stopped eating for four, five, six days and finally couldn’t even reach the end of our very short block. By the time I realized we had reached the end of the line, after a week of fasting, the decision was both very easy and terribly hard. He was ready to go, and just sat peacefully in my arms from the moment we left the house and he stayed there long after the barbiturates had already kicked in.

It was 22 September, slightly less than three weeks after his diagnosis, and just two weeks short of his 12th anniversary in my home, which even now still seems impossibly empty. Things have gotten much better since those first few days, when it felt like I’d lost a limb. But I can’t say when the absence will really go away.

But he was a great dog that I loved a lot, and I like to think we did pretty well together during the time we had—Godspeed, Kernel.

fighting to stay awake

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