Long Goodbye: Part 1

I wrote this series of essays two years ago, and I publish them here at the request of a friend who just lost her big dog. My sympathies, Anna. He was such a good, sweet boy.

I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. They are, I regret to admit out loud, in the same proportion in my heart. I do love them both. But the big one, the one who lives inside my soul; he is dying.

Tonight we did the last thing: a rescue protocol of chemotherapy used only as a last resort. The vet said there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would give him a few more weeks. But no chance that it would save him.

I listen to his breath. The blissful thing is that he doesn’t know. Among all the deficits and injustices and hard things of dog life, the one great blessing is not to know your mortality. So to him, a hard day is just a hard moment, maybe not an oppressive forever.

Golden retrievers are gentle creatures. They are born sweet. Their docility is not a lack of character, though, as Reggie has demonstrated. He is an artist. His summer days at the lake are not for lounging. They are for a determined and relentless search for the perfect shape, the perfect addition to his sculpture. Tail high and wagging, he scours the floor of the lake with his feet, treading back and forth in a deliberate grid, fully engrossed in his life’s work. When he finds what he needs, he pushes it into place with his feet, and dives down to retrieve it, emerging triumphant to the shore with a rock the size of maybe half a soccer ball. He places it on the lawn in his own pattern, discernible only to him. Every morning my husband picks up the rocks—including those stolen from the neighbor’s shoreline—and throws them back. But by the end of the day a new work of art—a kind of Reggie Stonehenge—has reappeared.

Struggling to straddle the good days and bad days, to balance his happiness and his pain is my job; watching the progression of the evil cancer, and desperately trying to weigh my needs against his. Trying not to think of my deepest wish—to have him forever—and only of his—not to suffer. That’s all. Just no suffering. No nights in the scary hospital, only nights at home with his people who love him. He doesn’t understand if we abandon him as we did for the surgery on his torn knee. He trembled uncontrollably when we returned to that place for a routine thing.

Among the blessings is the kindness of those who care for him. His vet who returned to the exam room while we waited for blood tests with a flowered quilt to lay on the floor for Reggie and for me; the lab tech who smuggles him extra treats; the oncologist who wraps her arms around him and kisses his face before she begins her work.

We cuddle. I let him lie on the white couch. I rub his tummy, he puts his head on my shoulder and we comfort one another, as we do. We feed him rotisserie chicken and imported sausage because he will eat it while healthier things go untouched. And who cares. It nourishes him, and he will eat it. It makes him happy. That’s all.

This big dog, my puppy dog, at 7 weeks used to put his whole self into my arms when he came back inside from his outdoor responsibilities. I would hold his small body in my arms. He slept on my pillow so I could carry him outside when he stirred. As he grew, he still remembered how to express love, and would lay his massive paws on my shoulders as I knelt next to him, his head towering over mine, and he would lay his enormous chin on my shoulders. I always held tight; but sometimes distractedly; sometimes hurriedly; sometimes without the same level and intensity of love he had to give me. I had other thoughts. But he always thought about loving me first.

The loss of this love, not human, but canine, may not seem important to everyone. But to me it is the intimate, personal and once in my life love of this soul; entrusted to me as a gift I did not deserve or fully appreciate. With all due humility about myself, I wonder if anyone could deserve this trust, this love, this kindness, this full and open heart. Anyone other than another soul like his.

I owe him the most reverent, beloved, happy and respectful days I can offer him. In his innocence he is both my king and conscience. He is better than me. And he was born to break my heart.

9 thoughts on “Long Goodbye: Part 1

    • He truly did. You must be a dog lover. This is my first day of blogging, and I haven’t sufficiently mastered the medium, so you read before I could point out that I posted these three essays in tribute to a friend’s loss, even though they are now almost two years old. Thanks for being my first reader!


      • My mistake… until I read further on your blog I thought the story was current. Either way, it was beautifully written and it both tugged at my heart and made me smile – all at the same time. And yes, I am the proud friend and companion of a magnificent, gentle, 16 month old Golden Retriever named Oliver.


    • Thanks. I’m lucky to live in a state as beautiful as Maine, and being relatively near the ocean feeds he soul. Oliver says hi back 🙂


  1. I remember when Charlie first read your letter on the air and I wept. I wasn’t going to listen because I had previously read your letter in print and I wept then. And I wasn’t going to read it again here because the tears would flow again. They did. For all of the goldens that have blessed my life, I am thankful. I know your book will be outstanding and I am grateful to you for helping to put words to my losses and love.


  2. I have a fourteen-year-old Black Lab. She is really showing her age this year…mostly her hips. She would follow me anywhere. We enjoy long walks, but they have become shorter now. I can’t help thinking about a future without her.
    I am preparing myself, but I know I will cry.
    Thank you for putting those emotions into words.


  3. Thank you so much!! I just lost my Lexiegirl yesterday. We were each other’s everything…..she was 2 when I rescued her and has been with me for the last 12 years. Your story made me feel a little better.


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