Abandoned for no good reason, he found himself in a foster home awaiting adoption. Erin and I had just recently purchased a home in Sugarhouse and were finishing the last stages of unpacking the boxes. We talked incessantly about getting a dog and putting the explanation point on the latest stage of our lives. She wanted an older dog while I fought for a puppy. In the end, as with all of our fights, she won.
A friend of hers was fostering a dog and they were looking for a home for him. We drove up to the house and before we were 10-feet into the backyard, Erin had already made up her mind. I like to think she had love for me at first sight but I know she fell in love with him the first time she laid eyes upon him. He was under-sized but had the classic markings of a German shepherd. He had a soft smiling face. I know that dogs don’t smile but this one did. He was a little overweight but looked like a really healthy guy. He wasn’t scary—quite the opposite, he looked welcoming. He was very friendly but on that first encounter, he looked annoyed that he was in a foster house. He looked like he wanted to go home and I knew within in moments that he was coming with us.
His name was Samson and he became the greatest decision we ever made.
Samson or Sam or Sammy or the Beaver Goat became an instant feature in our home. There was very little transition for him becoming the guardian of the house. He was standoffish with me initially but instantly bonded with Erin. They became quick companions with Sammy following Erin around the house and insisting on sleeping along her side of the bed. He eventually warmed up to me when he learned that I was the giver of treats and of human food. It bothered Erin to no end how I would share a hot dog from Costco with him, sometimes to my disadvantage. I used to let him take a bite of my sausage and he often pulled the meat right out from the bun straight into his belly.
Samson became the man of the house. His big heart and can-do attitude made him indispensable on hikes along the Wasatch Front, foot-warmer while watching TV and dining partner at night. Samson became a part of the ebbs and flows of our home and best of all, the first face I would see when I got home late from work at night. The only downside to Sammy was that he was an older pup and had some health problems. I’ll never forget Erin and I blankly staring at each other when after getting his teeth cleaned, the vet bill given to us was over a $1,000. We could have rationalized not performing the procedure but didn’t. He was family and we were going to do anything necessary to keep him healthy.
His nickname was the Beaver Goat. I’d like to think it is because he is as busy as a beaver and as tough as a goat. If only it was that simple. He acquired the name when he was sent on one of his many trips to the vet for any numerous reasons. As we were sitting in the examination room waiting for the doctor to come in and take a look at Samson, the vet came in and said very surprised, “Well, you’re no cat!” I haven’t had very much extensive veterinarian training but clearly Sammy isn’t a cat.
He had to get X-rays and wouldn’t be ready to leave for 30-minutes, so Erin and I took a walk around the block waiting to take his home. As we walked, we laughed at the blatant oversight from the doctor and started role playing a variety of scenarios.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Raskin, but you have a very sick giraffe.”
“But he’s a dog.”
“Oh, in that case, he’s fine.”
We went through a baker’s dozen of animals before we kept repeating beaver and goat. Somehow before we got home, Samson picked up a new moniker and it was the Beaver Goat. It fit him in some weird way. It became one of numerous inside jokes that we’d play in the house and Sammy became the Beaver Goat. We would tease strangers when they asked what kind of dog he was, I would say he is a pure-bred Beaver Goat. With the exception of one hike up Millcreek Canyon, no one ever called me on my BS.
I am not a good-looking man. This is not a self-deprecating remark but rather an admission that I am a very plain looking fellow with thick glasses and an even thicker midsection. I am prone to wearing old baseball caps, snap button farm shirts and dirty jeans. But there was something about this dog that changed all of that around. With Sammy riding shotgun in my beat-up pickup truck, his head sticking out the window and tongue wagging, the two of us became the hottest tickets in town. Girls would look at me and Sam and giggle, guys would give us a wide-breathe and children would wave. I swear on everything that is good and holy that kids would actually wave at us as we drove throughout SLC on our errands. Samson had a presence about him that caused joy in other people. He acted like a local celebrity and was incredibly gracious with all of his fans. People genuinely loved Samson upon first encounter. It was the damndest thing.
He was also the most stubborn SOB that ever lived. I know I am projecting but if Sammy didn’t want to do something, short of Hell or high water, there was no way he was going to do it. When we adopted two other older dogs, Shelly Belly and Foxy Roxy, Samson shook his head in disbelief and went about his business. For a dog that never had a job, Sammy was all about taking care of business. He guarded the family and the house and even reluctantly became the protector of the other dogs. He was the alpha dog in a way that never needed to be settled. I’d like to think the three dogs had a Geneva Convention to determine pecking order in the house but I know Sammy would have none of it—he was in charge.
For families like mine that don’t have children, dogs fill that role. They become our kids, our responsibility and our joy. Sammy was our pride because he was so singularly special in his manners and personality. There was nothing better than Sam and I talking to each other before every meal. I would ask if he was hungry and he would bark his low baritone woof. I’d ask political questions and fill in the blank with his response all the while the three of us would be laughing uncontrollably. His bark was powerful and eager and so honest. Even when I took the conversation to something that Erin found distasteful, she would still smile big and beam about what a special dog we had.
Samson became a part of the folklore of our family. Anything grandiose or amazing had Sammy’s paw prints all over it. He was Uncle Sam’s favorite son and the star of Hollywood. Men wanted to be like him and women wanted to be with him. We dreamed of a series of special suits he would wear to drive a car, bake a soufflé or mow the lawn. He wasn’t the butt of our jokes but some co-conspirator that was in on it. It seems silly to talk about him as the third human in the house but our love of him promoted him to equal status with us. I am sure Erin would argue he even out-ranked me.
It was gradual and deliberate but it was still shocking to discover one day Samson wasn’t the same. He was slow to get up the stairs, phoned in his pre-dinner production and started making mistakes in the house. He has always been so proud that I knew that he was ashamed that he was becoming a shadow of his previous self. He slept more and fought off his walks around the block. Samson was getting old and it was more than the greying of his beard.
Hip dysplasia had taken hold of him and the other signs of geriatrics had set in. He was losing weight, not eating and sleeping the majority of the day. The funny thing is that even in his newly declining body Sammy never stopped loving Erin or me or stopped guarding the house. My last fondest memory of him is Samson struggling to get up to chew through the door when some stranger came a knocking while the other two dogs make a beeline out the backdoor. It didn’t matter that his hips were nothing more than bone-on-bone—Lord help the poor SOB that tried to come into the house with Samson on duty.
We wanted him to get better but we knew this was a fool’s wish. At 12-years old, he had already outlived most of his contemporaries. Shepherds live hard, fast lives dedicated to their human companions and Samson had performed admirably. He was sweet and kind and provided a foundation for our home. We talked about Shelly and Roxy but we gushed about Sam. He was the straw that stirred the drink in our house and became just as important as the plumbing and the roof. Samson made our house a home and the thought of not having him to meet us at the door was both insulting and cruel.
But we had the conversation. The conversation. It’s the one that was unimaginable 3-years ago but one now that we were forced to deal with. Sammy was in suffering pain doing even the simplest tasks and we were simply addressing his pain by shoving more pills down his neck. It was becoming a cycle of diminishing returns and it was becoming inhumane to put Samson through it. He was too proud to quietly pass in the middle of the night. He loved us and the house too much to simply slip away. Sam was always on duty but he needed to be relieved of the great pressure of protecting his family. It was time to say good-bye.
After agonizing on what to do with him, we decided that we needed to free Samson of the great pain he had been carrying for so long. Because it was Erin’s dog, she had to make the phone call to have a specialist to visit the house. We didn’t want to say good-bye to Sam in some clinic. He needed to pass at home with us and the other dogs. He might not have started his life with somebody else but it was important for him to end it with us. He has been too good of a friend and companion to leave us in any other place but at our home.
On his last night, I spent the late evening with him. I had come home from work early to find Erin asleep and the dogs restless. I gave all of them their treat and carried Samson outside for him to take one last walk throughout the backyard. He sniffed here and there and eventually settled under his favorite spot—the large apricot tree that for 6-years he has been faithfully guarding. He was in visible pain. His breathing was shallow and he looked like he ached. Somehow, he eventually settled in and got comfortable on the long, wet grass. He stared off into the dark reaches of the yard and dozed off. It was this point that I made peace with our decision. We have done right by this dog and he has done even better by us. It was going to be our last evening together and for a very brief moment all was right in the world. The sweet spot in life has been sharing it with those that I loved that didn’t know it.
The final moments with him are private. We said good-bye and let him off to sleep.
Thank you, Samson. Thank you for every single hike you went on even though you didn’t want to. Thank you for guarding the house, protecting the apricot tree and defending the property. Thank you for riding shotgun on all of those trips to the county dump. Thank you for brightening everyone’s day that came into contact with you. Thank you for looking after Mom on all of those nights that I was stuck behind the bar and not home with the family. Thank you for being brave and tough with the softest face anyone could ever imagine. Thank you for pushing your body to match your spirit with every endeavor. Most of all, Samson, thank you for being the best dog a guy could ever ask for.
The Pearly Gates just became a little more secure tonight with a diminutive, tough German shepherd mix planting himself on the other side. Samson has been restored to his top form. His hips are strong, his bark loud and his eyes kind. Samson has left a river of love temporarily dry in our house and he will be sorely missed. I knew that autumn day 6-years ago when we took him home that someday we’d have to say good-bye. I just never knew how hard it would hit me. We are born, we grew up and eventually pass. We make relations, friends and have experiences. There is a beginning and end to everything and I am torn to shreds knowing that Samson has come to his.
Sweet dreams, Beaver Goat. Rest without pain and know that there is a chunk of my heart that aches without you. A dog like you comes along once in a lifetime and your time spent with us enriched every day of our lives. Nothing will fill the gap left in your passing except the beautiful memories of you wandering the house with purpose, duty and love.
Erin said it every day you were with us and I believed it fully: “Sammy is the best.” Nothing can be added to this mantra. Samson Norskin has left us today but he will never be forgotten.
Sweet dreams, Beaver Goat, sweet dreams.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out his podcast, SLC PubCast, on iTunes. The Norskins are going to miss Sammy for a very long time.