Just a Dog
When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, my wife, Tina, called me into the hallway where she was kneeling 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 earlier, when it was just me and Tina, Tucker had gone everywhere with us. They knew his name at our beach. He walked the streets of St. Augustine like the mayor. He was a constant companion and positive distraction for us the year my wife worked two jobs to put me through three colleges at once so that I could graduate and we could “get on with our lives.” When we moved from Florida to Charlotte, Tucker sat shotgun in the moving truck. When Tina and I bought our first home together, we selected one with a big backyard for dogs and kids. When daughter one was born, her first word was “puppy,” in large part due to Tucker’s watchful gaze. He was also a good shepherd in raising daughter two. Over the years Tucker helped shape a pack that has seen three other dogs join it. And since we moved, he’s been a daily companion for me as I sit at my desk and write.
Thirteen years. They say that’s ninety-one in dog years. But it’s still thirteen in mine. Thirteen of my possible what, eighty? Probably at least 16 percent 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’d expected. I’d been privy to his sharp physical decline over the past several years, and 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’d 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. 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 to delay the inevitable, it was just me and him spending a few minutes alone together like we had so often for so many years. I carried him out into the field and placed him down. He collapsed. I stood him up, holding his rear legs, but he couldn’t find his balance and collapsed 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 set 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 picked up a king-size 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. 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, “Everything is 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.
Note from Laurie: This story, which Jim wrote in 2010 about one of the toughest days of his life, was the inspiration for the book. To share a tribute to your Gone Dog, visit our Tributes page.