Pete Loses his Wingman-Part 2

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.

Pete woke up this morning an only dog. He is an animal with odd pockets of timidity, and has depended on Reggie’s cheerful steadiness for inspiration to leave the warmth of the house. Normally when we get up in the still dark mornings both dogs rush out together, but this morning Pete wouldn’t go. He doesn’t like the wind and he doesn’t like the rain. I put on his coat and told him there were squirrels. He wouldn’t go. There were no squirrels. Pete isn’t stupid, and Reggie wasn’t there to encourage him.

We had a rough night last night. Our kind vet and one of his techs came to the house while Pete was locked away upstairs with a very nice bone. We held Reggie and told him we loved him and used something I learned from the late Barbara Woodhouse, an old-school British dog trainer whose advice was of mixed value, but who said that the phrase “What a good dog” had an electrifying effect on dog morale. It was a term with meaning for Reggie, and we said it repeatedly, along with other endearments that are embarrassing for me to admit, but which Reggie seemed to like. He passed into a deep sleep and was gone. They carried him away. We cried.

Pete wouldn’t come down. Pete is our rescue dog. Part whippet, maybe; part pointer, maybe; part lab maybe. It’s a lot of maybe. We call him an Indiana Spotted Dog, because he came from a kill shelter in Indiana. We were told that he was abused, but he’s never said anything about it. His disposition is a curious mix of Eeyore and Eddie Haskill and he is extremely skillful at gaining love, even from strangers. But his courage—and he actually has a great deal—has always been supplemented by the knowledge that he had a larger, eager comrade who was never as fast, but always right behind him. Anyway, in the end, we went up and sat on the bed with Pete so he wouldn’t be alone.

This morning will be the first of many adjustments for Pete. All the bones that are scattered around the yard are his now. He gets both the squeaky squirrel toy and the squeaky frog. There will be no one to steal the thrown tennis ball from because he’s faster; the ball will be for him. He doesn’t have to nudge his nose in while someone else is being loved; he gets all the love to himself. He gets both windows when we go for a ride. He won’t have to hang around veterinarian waiting rooms to offer moral support. And the two months of gourmet foods: the sautéed chicken livers; the chicken breasts; the raw beef; the Italian sausage will suddenly cease. It will be back to health food, which is boring, as we all know, but important if you have a future.

We did the right thing. It was hard, but it had to be. I found myself thinking of my late father over the long last days, and remembering the agony he was forced to endure from this same disease.

Thank you to all of you who sent us so many words of kindness and support. You can never know how much it meant to Charlie and to me. Pete can’t write a thank you. But I think he would if he could. Maybe.

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.