Thursday, December 18, 2008


Like all great apes, human beings can be cauldrons of bubbling emotions. Our feelings ebb and flow with great and small events in our lives, lending texture and depth to our existence.

As with most things, emotions are a blessing and a curse, bringing us sorrow as well as joy. And as death comes to all living things, we face some of our deepest emotional chasms when we lose a loved one...even if the loved one belongs to an entirely different species.

Callie came to us as a puppy—and for myself, she brought decidedly mixed feelings. We already had one dog—who had just passed out of her own puppyhood—and to me, one dog was plenty. From a new spate of bite marks on assorted bits of furniture, to the recurring wet spots in various places around the house, to the ever-increasing piles of unprocessed fertilizer left to adorn the backyard lawn, it seemed to me that we were now exceeding our doggie quota, and that as a result the Universe was careening into chaos:

Going on vacation? Now we have two dogs to unload on some unsuspecting doggiesitter.

Taking a walk? Now we have two impatient escorts—and their constantly tangling leashes—to deal with.

Mowing the lawn? Now we have twice as much crap to pick up (or mow around...or through, if I’m all by myself and anxious to get back inside to watch the ball game. Or nap, another favorite pastime that is underappreciated by some members of the household).

Yet in many ways, Callie—a golden retriever mix—was the dog I’d always wanted: our other dog—a beagle, like most of the other dogs we've had—was loud and stubborn, and apt to wander off if given half a chance. Callie was big—bigger than any dog I’d had—and loved to play fetch. But more than this, she was loving and attentive and eager to please.

We could walk her around the block...or down a hiking trail in the mountains...and she’d never wander farther than she could see us. And she always looked back to make sure we hadn’t gotten ourselves lost...though if we had, she would have been only too willing to come to our rescue.

She loved the water—at least, once she got over her terror at confronting her first waves. All three inches of them.

And she actually brought back sticks and balls...something no other pet of mine had ever done, no matter how much I tried to teach them. And she did it instinctively, laying it to rest (well, sometimes only after a wrestling match) at our feet, eager to bound out again for the next go-round.

For eleven years she’d been a faithful friend, and a loving member of the family. Never complaining, always eager for attention...and yet happy just to lie at our feet, content to share the ups and downs of our lives—never judging us, her heart filled with nothing but love.

But over the years her steps gradually slowed on her walks, and the fur on her face started showing the gray of age. And sometime this year, her behavior started to change: barely noticeable at first, we came to realize that rather than perking up with joy when someone returned home, she had taken to lying quietly, more and more often. And though mealtime was still the highlight of her day, she had little energy for much of anything—not even the scrapes and fusses she used to cause, whenever someone came too close to her food bowl.

It turned out that Callie had cancer. And slowly, the dog that seemed like she’d been a member of the family forever was beginning to fade.

By Monday night, Callie had grown quiet, and wasn’t moving very much. Nonie, my wife, decided that we needed to take her in the next day, and wanted to spend the night with the dog whose biggest joy in life was being by her side. Not wanting to disturb the fading dog’s routine any more than necessary, she gathered a blanket and her favorite pillow to spend the night downstairs. Her husband, not wanting to see his wife spending such a sad time all by herself, volunteered to sleep on the couch near both of them. (This actually worked quite well—up until Nonie woke me up from a sound sleep at 2 am, with complaints about how hard it was to sleep on the couch. I hadn’t noticed; of course, I take many of my best naps there, so it’s just one of the many things around the house that passes under my radar. We spent the rest of the night back upstairs in bed, with Callie on the floor).

Tuesday, I stayed home from work to be around for support. Callie had an enthusiastic breakfast, and we decided to take her for a last walk around the block. The walk was slow—they’ve been getting slower bit by bit over the last year—but by the time we got back home, the old dog was showing a bit more life. And through it all, we were wondering whether we were doing the right thing...whether we might not have more time with her. But we concluded that we were delaying things more for ourselves than for this fading member of our family, and Nonie called the vet to make an appointment...only to discover that the vet wasn’t in. A family emergency had the doctor out of the office this week. We took it as a sign that death was in no hurry, and decided to wait.

Wednesday, Callie again enjoyed her meals, and though she didn’t show much energy, she seemed content and untroubled for most of the day.

This morning, she greeted breakfast with her usual glee...only to stop, half-way through, no longer interested. For a golden retriever, this wasn’t a good sign.

Unfortunately, Nonie and I both had things to do today: she had family business that needed attention this morning, and I had a big court argument. By the time Nonie returned home, it was obvious that things had taken a turn for the worse; where once the return of a family member was the occasion of joy, this time Callie just moved reluctantly out of the way...and then she lay down on the kitchen floor, and wouldn’t move. That’s when we knew we couldn’t wait any longer.

I returned home, and after some sad goodbyes, we loaded her into the car for her last trip. We took her on a last ride around the neighborhood, along the pathway she traveled many times, ending at the nearby field where she’d often run to her heart’s content. And then we took her for one last drive, to the doctor, gently stroking her ears as we drove, and never stopping until she’d taken her final breath.

It’s hard to lose a family member. It’s especially tough around Christmas; I lost two grandparents at this time of year, and it casts a pall over the entire season. But in the end, the soreness in the heart will fade. It will be the happy times that live in our memories, rather than the sadness that comes with parting.

Still, it’s amazing how many lessons we never learn until it’s too late. But there was one family member, now gone, whose short time on Earth tried to teach us that the greatest joy in life could be greeting someone who’s just come home; that the greatest gift is simply being close by; and that the heart often sings its happiest songs when someone you love notices you...and gives you a scrap or two of attention, amid the clutter of busyness that tends to take up so much of our lives.

It’s a lesson that at least one fallible human being in our family is still trying to learn.

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