Mistress of the Mix: Casper Sparky Woofgang

“Mama?”

My daughter stood at the foot of my bed, calling out to me in the dark in a fragile, worried voice I haven’t heard from Sophia since she was a little girl.

“Mama, I think there’s something wrong with Casper.”

A few days earlier, I had finally experienced one of the rare, bright and hopeful moments of an otherwise pretty gloomy 2019. My 22 year old daughter had just come back home to live with us for a few months after landing a job working on a feature film that’s shooting in the area. The job came suddenly, with only a few days notice. She flew back to Portland from the Bay Area where she’d been visiting her boyfriend’s family Sunday morning, went to her apartment long enough to pack another bag, then got on I-5 and headed south again. She arrived that evening, still in her pajamas.

It’s been four years since Sophia flew off to college, so we were filled with joy to have our grown up girl back in the home, and she was especially happy to be able to cuddle her dogs again. A few days later, she asked if it was okay for Casper or Olive to spend the night in her bedroom. I told her to take Casper. He’s her dog, after all.

A girl and her dog, back in the day.

Casper was a birthday present for Sophia’s 7th birthday, more than fifteen years ago. The breeder told us, “Westies are indestructible. A dog like this will still be around to head off to college with your daughter.” And although he stayed at home with me when she went off to get that higher education, he was still around after she graduated, and slowing down but still wagging his tail when she landed the career defining film job that brought her back, even if just for a while.

An old dog in his last days, in his mama’s arms.

But the very next morning at 5am, my daughter was on the verge of tears, telling me that Casper woke her up, whining and pawing at her in bed. She thought he was just letting her know that he needed help getting off the bed to go outside and pee, but his legs didn’t seem to be working, and he just fell over sideways. His whole right side wasn’t working. The vet confirmed that it was most likely a stroke. She gave us some meds, gave us some care instructions, and then said we’d just have to wait and see if he would regain the use of his limbs again.

Casper and Olive

The family rallied around him. Olive, our younger Westie, knew something was wrong with her big brother, and refused to leave his side. My husband came home from the coast. I called in sick to work. My daughter’s boyfriend Patrick came down from Portland, and the whole family spent the next few days caring for Casper like he was a newborn baby.  We took turns holding him, changing his diaper, helping him feed, and showering him with kisses. He gave us kisses back, and whined whenever he was left alone in the room. It bothered him immensely not to be able to follow me wherever I went in the house. There were so many times over the years that I’d almost step on Casper getting out of the shower if I left the bathroom door open. If I’d closed the door, I’d always open it to find him positioned right outside. My white shadow, my little ghost. Which reminds me. That’s how he got his name.

When we first introduced the idea of having a dog, we asked Sophia what would she name it…if it happened to be all white. The answer? Princess Snowball. And if it was a male dog? Prince S. Snowball. We all had suggestions. Her uncle Lorny offered the name Sparky. Her dad thought it would be funny to name him Mitch. I thought Woofgang would be a good name. But when he finally arrived, while he was definitely a little ball of fluff, and so friendly (even if he did accidentally poop on Sophia’s head the very first night), that she decided on a new name: Casper. Because he was white and friendly, just like Casper the friendly white ghost. And that’s how he became known as Casper Sparky Woofgang Mitch MacMiller, the dog formerly known as Prince S. Snowball.

Casper in our 2013 wedding

We potty trained him by singing the same song over and over again every time he pooped. We made up our own words to the Oscar Mayer baloney song. He graduated from puppy obedience school magna cum laude, and went to the radio station with me every day for a decade to keep me company in an otherwise pretty lonely environment. When I proposed to my husband, Casper was there. He even walked me down the aisle, wearing a blue bow tie that matched Eddie’s. He hopped like a bunny rabbit after a torn ligament that never really healed correctly, but it never stopped him. He could still run like the wind on sandy beaches, and when we went hiking, he always kept up. He had 4-wheel drive, that dog.

Casper’s headshot. Because of course he had to have one for his role in Annie. Photo by Scott Leak

Casper had spunk, and occasionally followed directions If you’re a fan of high school musicals, you might remember Casper from his one and only stage role starring as Sandy in U-Prep’s production of Annie back in 2011. But he was so much more than an actor. Sophia referred to him as her little brother. My mom introduced him as her granddog. He was definitely my husband’s best friend. He was my first dog, and I had to make the phone call to make arrangements to end his life. It was the most difficult and gut wrenching decision of my life.

Eddie and Casper gaze into each other’s eyes on his last day. There’s so much love there.

The veterinarian was a kind, compassionate and gentle woman. She told us to spend this last day with him, and then she would come to our home so that Casper would be in a familiar, relaxing environment in his last moments. That afternoon Eddie wrapped Casper in a blanket, and carried him up the hill to say goodbye to my parents, who were responsible for finding Casper for us and bringing him into the family in 2004 when he was a brand new soul. When I got home from work at 4, Eddie was shirtless, holding Casper the way a father would a new baby. The two of them were just gazing into each other’s eyes, which took my breath away. He held Casper out to me and I took over, snuggling him for the next few hours. Then Sophia came home from work, and I offered him to her.

My daughter was still cradling Casper in her arms when the vet knocked on the door, and that’s where he stayed, until his last breath. We had some calming music playing in the room that will now always remind us of Casper’s final moments. Eddie couldn’t handle being present for the end, so he took Olive into the bedroom. I sat on one side of Sophia, Patrick sat on the other, all of us holding each other as the vet gave our dog a sedative shot to help him sleep, and then finally another so that he would never wake up from this final nap.

Patrick & Sophia

Eventually the vet gently took Casper from Sophia’s arms, and swaddled him just like a newborn baby in a blanket she had brought along, and then she took him with her out into the night, to her car. We sat silently for a few minutes, taking in what had just happened. Then the three of us went into the bedroom and joined Eddie and Olive on the bed, in a big family hug and we cried together for a good, long time.

I’m not over it. It’s taken me a full month to write about the experience. More than a month. And every time I sit down to write another paragraph I end up a blubbering mess and have to stop writing. I always read my columns out loud to my husband before sending them off for publication – for me its the closest thing to a copy editor I’ve got – but I can’t get through reading this out loud. I can’t get past that first paragraph without tears streaming down my cheeks.

I was fully aware that dogs do not live forever and that some day Casper was going to leave us, but I am devastated that he is not in my life anymore. I am ugly crying right now as I write this, 34 days after his death. I am not over it now, and I don’t know when I will reach the point that I don’t tear up thinking about him or his last day on Earth. But I am richer for having him in my life for 15 years, and comforted beyond measure for our entire family having the experience of being together with Casper for his last moments, each of us able to say goodbye in our own special, private way.

The Book of Casper

Casper’s ashes now sit on a shelf in the living room next to his head shot and a book of Casper’s life captured in photos that Sophia made. We look at it all the time, and wonder if we will ever have the strength to get another dog. Olive’s loneliness without her canine companion is obvious, but I know that welcoming another pet into our family will mean that some day, maybe fifteen years down the road, we will have to go through this grief once again.

Pardon me for seeming like I’m going off the trail for a moment, but I wanted to to say that I feel there are certain moments, events, and people that I have encountered during my life that throw me for a loop. Specifically, difficult situations and difficult personalities that leave me frustrated and wondering what I did to piss off the almighty unseen spirit that rules the universe?

And then a little time passes, and I realize that the difficult situation I weathered was just preparing for what was to come next.

For example, my dad has a very strong, stubborn personality. I know. I’m so much like him. So we knock heads all the time, and have for 53 years. Even now, in hospice, my dad is filled with fire like he’s always been. I’m here to help him, but sometimes it’s difficult. But having a relationship with him is important to me. So many times I have expressed my frustration over having to endure my dad, but I love him.  He’s my dad. And then Eddie came into my life, and I realized that all those years I was learning how to live with someone so much like me and not giving up in frustration was just preparing me for Eddie.

I can’t help but think that going through this process of losing Casper is another one of those loop throwing moments that is actually preparing me for what I already know is coming next: the loss of my dad.

Today’s Casper Sparky Woofgang playlist is short but sweet. But it’s got a few songs that I relate to regarding Casper, his place in the family, and losing him, including “You Wish,” which was playing during Casper’s final moments and will always fondly remind us of him.

I know pretty much everyone reading this has also gone through the sad experience of losing a beloved pet, and if you have your own story to share, or a song that you think should be included on the playlist, you’re invited to comment below.

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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