Today is a day filled with many tears and much heartache: a loved one has passed on.
The call came late in the day. Lucy, our 13 year old chow, had been showing her age, but still seemed in good health, generally happy and active. Over the past few weeks, however, she had had some days of pronounced lethargy, and had been eating very little and losing weight. Nevertheless, she seemed herself most days — until today. She refused to eat, was unable to stand, and was taken to the vet. The news was grim: she had widely metastatic cancer, and was in her last days. The choice was difficult, but we knew it was the best for her, and after saying our goodbyes, she was gently put to sleep in my wife’s arms.
I stayed late at work, doing nothing either urgent or important, but simply passing time, not wanting to go home. My family was together at my wife’s mother’s house, and I knew our home would be empty. I drove up to the house, dreading my destination. No raucus barking proclaiming my arrival. No smiling face at the back door, no gently wagging spitz-curl tail, no pinned back ears joyful at this reunion, no vocal squeals nor licks on legs.
There was only, silence.
I walked around the house, knowing she was gone, but still in some irrational hope thinking I might see her. Her spot by the window, where she spent endless hours watching the neighborhood, stood empty. Her food dish, barely touched, sat where final attempts to give her nourishment had failed. The fire in my heart burned hot, its acrid smoke tightening my throat, and tears flowed freely.
She had been a fine dog, noble, reserved, deeply affectionate with her family, loyal to a fault. She was strong of will, and needed a firm hand at times, but always came around. You could always get her to lie down — even against her will — but you’d better expect some sassy backtalk when she hit the ground. She had her idiosyncrasies, as most pets do: a passionate love for Kleenex, cookie dough, marshmellows–and toilet paper. If you left the bathroom door open, you could always find Lucy: just follow the paper trail, carefully unraveled–and there she’d be at the end, happy as a clam, munching on her paper snack. Her sweet spot sat beneath her curled tail — an area which you simply could not scratch enough. We used to joke that you could go for days without seeing Lucy’s face: she would butt her hind end right up to you like a trucker at a loading dock, demanding that you scratch her back. “No” was not an acceptable answer, as she snapped her head around and sassed you until you complied. Give her a new bone, and she would trot in circles around the house, proudly parading the spoils of her most recent kill, until finally, in sheer exhaustion, she lay down to savor her repast. She was inconsolable when any one of her pack left the house: whimpering, crying, pacing from door to window, desperately hoping to see you. It mattered not one whit that everyone else in the family was still inside with her: she only wanted to be with the one who had just left.
There are some who will not own a pet, because they cannot bear the thought of losing it. The pain of loss can be so great as to overshadow the joy of their companionship. But the years of friendship, humor, affection, — and yes, maddening frustration — cannot be replaced at any price — even at the price of so great a loss. Our animals bring out the best, and sometimes the worst in us, drawing forth our love and affection in almost boundless measure, even while testing our sanity and patience — and always crushing our hearts and breaking our spirits when they leave us.
The death of an animal is the death of its spirit: so say the philosophers and pundits. But they are wrong. Our animals are redeemed by the passion of love which we pour out upon them — a passion which enlivens their spirit throughout eternity, as they live in our hearts, and in our memories, and in the richness they have brought to our lives. I have no doubt that this fine animal is now at peace, and that our spirits will never be separated from her throughout eternity.
UPDATE: Thank each of you from the bottom of my heart for your thoughts and expressions of sympathy. Frank Porretto, of the always-excellent Eternity Road, has also written about his loss earlier this year of Bruno, his Newfie, in prose far more moving and powerful than my simple words. If you have ever lost a beloved pet, read this, for you will understand–and weep.