I could say one word to my siblings and my father, and they would immediately smile. Based in childhood memories, the single utterance would bring about an immediate flood of reminiscence from decades long ago, all centered around a dear family member who never sat at the table or attended school: our golden retriever, Buffy.
Buffy joined our family when I was five years old. Acquired from a breeder, she was the gentlest of souls from the day we met her. I can’t remember who came first, Buffy or Mousy, her male counterpart to whom she’d “married” in our young minds. Together, they produced loads of purebred golden retriever pups over their years, the patriarch and matriarch of our canine family! There would be loads of other dogs that would come and go over the years, but these two were the most special.
My memories of Buffy range from pure joy to utter disgust. There was the sight of her leaping like a kangaroo through the late summer cornfields, trying to locate the other dogs and children that were playing in the rows of ripened stalks. Then there was the infamous journey in our Griswald-like paneled station wagon from Maryland to Kansas, loaded down with kids and critters. She’d just had a litter of puppies, and was ill as we traveled. She sprawled across the laps of my brother and I, with me receiving her back end, naturally, as I was younger! Just as we pulled into some midpoint motel for the night, I felt my lap and right leg begin to warm just before I smelled the fresh diarrhea spilling across it. Perfect. She couldn’t help it, and no harm was done as we both took turns bathing in the hotel tub, my clothes discarded forever in the rear dumpster. And in between are the memories, book-ended by the aforementioned bustling cornfields and canine dysentery. She was the blonde retriever who wouldn’t give up the tennis ball until you chased her down, resulting in a game of tag she’d orchestrated entirely. Pure joy on her face and ours as we kids tried to catch her. She so unselfishly cared for litter after litter of pups, carrying them ever so gently in her mouth when they strayed too far from their milk supply. She hid when there was a thunderstorm, almost always under a bed, as many dogs will do. I’m sure my brothers and sister have memories that are unique to them, but these are the ones that we all share collectively.
She lived until I was in college. I don’t remember how she passed, but I remember getting the call from my mother. I felt like I’d been hit by a 2 X 4 as the news traveled through my phone and into my brain. Just months earlier, she and I took a road trip together from North Carolina to Ohio, my brother’s family being our destination. The first glimpse I had of her mortality occurred on that trip when she failed to climb the front steps of my brother’s bi-level without assistance. With the ring of the telephone, a lifelong friend was gone. My entire time on this earth, less five short years, took place with her participating in my world. A chapter closed in that moment, but my life went on.
As I type this, I’m looking across the room at my elderly dog, Bruce, as he snoozes away on his worn bed. He’s an American Staffordshire Terrier who joined us in 2001 as a yearling and when I was pregnant with my eldest child. We rescued him from Washington Animal Rescue League in Washington, DC. When he arrived, he had no self-confidence, and would immediately begin to tremble if you even looked him in the eyes. He wouldn’t walk out of a 4 X 4 imaginary square, the same size as his cage at the shelter. I remember carrying him around for the first two weeks until he got the confidence to walk away from his invisible safety zone. Slowly and daily, his confidence grew until he discovered the joy he felt when he was allowed to run freely across an open field. The pride I felt as I watched him discover himself cannot be described. His favorite toy was a baseball cap that he eventually shredded by shaking it to pieces. And every baseball cap after that was fair game if left within his reach. He adored off leash treks through the woods, but would never venture too far out of our sight, always returning to check on us. His life has been joyous, all in all.
Now, his eyes follow the action in the living room, his head feeling too heavy to lift from the dog bed. I see the glow of his developing cataracts as the sunlight catches them. He no longer fears thunderstorms because he can’t hear them, a secret relief for all of us! He’s had both of his back knees rebuilt from tearing the ligaments while running and jumping over the years. Arthritis has slowed him tremendously, and last week, I learned that he has malignancies growing within his liver. Yet while on a walk just two weeks ago, he broke into a labored gallop as the wind blew his ears back, and the sun warmed his withering body.
I’m torn today as I observe him. When do I know it’s time for Bruce to leave us? How do I make the decision to put him down? He’s still eating and drinking yet he cannot go up and down the stairs without help. Sometimes his back legs just go out from under him, and down, he goes. He looks so embarrassed when it happens. I just pick him up, pat him on the head, and try not to make a big deal out of it.
As a pet owner, I have such a responsibility for this creature that cannot communicate his pain to me. I see trusting eyes staring back at me, and I wonder what they’re saying. Or asking. However, I do know in my heart that the day when Bruce will go to sleep forever is very, very close. I also know that it will happen with the nod of my head, and I’m struggling with my conscience already. Perhaps I just need time to sit with the old boy and say my goodbyes to him without talking. Just stroke him into peacefulness as the cancer and arthritis simultaneously do the same. Maybe that’s what those big brown eyes are saying: “Just sit with me and be okay with letting me go.”. I’m afraid that the most caring thing I can do is to stop his pain and his frustration with a body that no longer does what he wants it to do. That last trip down the stairs and into the car will be so difficult for both of us. Maybe he’d like a nice, slow jaunt through the woods before we make that final trip to the veterinarian’s office. Or, maybe we’ll just go on a long car ride so he can hang his head out the window, allowing the wind to blow his ears back again.
I do hope I’ll know the exact moment. But for right now, he’s enjoying one of his favorite treats, an apple, on his bed. Soon, he’ll be outside walking along the tree line of my development, nose to the ground smelling everything and anything he’d like to sniff. Maybe he’ll roll around on the ground and scratch his back in the sunlight. What else does he have these days? Yes, the time is almost here, I’m afraid. And I will miss my dear friend for the rest of my life, just as I still miss Buffy. But my family and I will go on, and my children will have their Bruce to reflect upon as they grow older and have families of their own.
Oh…and the word, for my brothers, sister and father: “Priggle”.