When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, my wife Tina called me into the hallway where she was kneeling down next to our thirteen-year-old Australian Shepherd, Tucker. “It’s time,” she said. He appeared to have suffered a stroke during the night. He couldn’t control his facial muscles, couldn’t see and couldn’t stand. But before I knew any of this, I knew it was time because my wife said it was.
We called the vet and told them we were coming by, and why. Our daughters said tearful farewells and my wife drove them to school. I took my time getting ready that morning. It felt as though my heart was a knotted fist punching down onto my stomach.
Thirteen years. They say that’s ninety-one in dog years. But it’s still thirteen in mine. Thirteen of my possible what, eighty? Or basically 16% of my own life when I’m done. Other than my mother, and now my wife, I haven’t been around another soul on this earth on a daily basis as much as I was with Tucker.
Tuesday was hard. Harder than I expected. Being privy to his sharp physical decline over the past several years as a result of bad hips (and questionable breeding), I had tried to prepare myself for the day we’d eventually have to put him down. My wife kept hoping for a My Dog Skip ending, but I was convinced that his body would break before his spirit. He had been on anti-inflammatory medications for three years. He lost his hearing. I had to carry him down the back steps at night. Our measuring stick had become whether he was still smiling or not. But he did. He always did. Even right up to the morning of his death.
Instead of going directly to the vet, I drove to the park one last time. It wasn’t an attempt to see whether he was getting any better, or as a way to delay the inevitable, it was just me and him spending a few minutes alone together like we did so often so many years before. I carried him out into the field and placed him down. He crumbled. I stood him up, holding his rear legs, but he couldn’t find his balance and crumbled again. Despite this, he frustratingly tried to stand using only his front legs. That’s not how I wanted to remember his last few moments, so I carried him back to the truck and placed him on the rear seat. Then, as his blind eyes caught me standing in front of him, he smiled. And at that moment, I knew that he knew it was time too.
On the way to the vet, I stopped and got him a king-sized Butterfinger then sat sobbing in the vet’s parking lot until my wife arrived. They placed a blanket on the floor of an examining room and that’s where we said our goodbyes. I held him tightly and rubbed his ears as they placed the catheter into his vein. Then the doctor left us alone for a while longer. We kissed and hugged him and washed him with our tears. Then we gathered our strength as the doctor returned. Before she inserted the needle, I pulled out the Butterfinger. The way I figured it, God played a trick on dogs by making it deadly for them to eat chocolate. Letting Tucker indulge at this point was my way of getting God back for playing His trick on people – giving dogs such short lives.
As the vet pressed down on the plunger of the syringe, I wrapped my arms under his chest, pressed my face against his ear and whispered that everything was going to be all right. Then I shut my eyes tight, and waited. His breathing slowed and a moment later, his body went limp in my arms. And my loyal friend for so many years, was gone. But at peace.
It’s impossible to describe how this feels. I haven’t been able to focus since Tuesday. I didn’t even grieve this way when my father died. And while Tucker’s death wasn’t a shock because we saw it coming, it does represent a significant passing. A passing of a great friend, and a passing of time.