A Dog’s Life

"We had to say goodbye to our beautiful Magical boy today. He was strong and fearless, fiercely protective of his people, loyal and loving to each one of us, including his sister Molly. Age and infirmity had taken its toll on his spirit, his senses, and his ability to enjoy life. He was tired and in pain, and ready to rest. But he will live in our hearts forever and always, The Best Boy in the Whole Wide World.”  -July 13, 2017

 Magic - September 30, 2002-July 13, 2017

Magic - September 30, 2002-July 13, 2017

I hadn’t given much thought to having a dog when my friend Leigh offered me a puppy from the litter her dog sired in the fall of 2002. Nor did I know much about Shih Tzu’s as a breed, except for how cute they were. It had been almost 15 years since our cocker spaniel died, and we were accustomed to the freedom that life without dogs (and children) affords. After much discussion with everyone in the family, including my mother who would be our backup caretaker, we decided to bring Magic home.

And that’s just what we did. We brought magic into our house. He was lively, and energetic, and cute, and cuddly. We laughed until tears streamed down our faces at his antics, and all of us purred contentedly when he curled up between us on the sofa or in bed at night. He was such a good puppy in all the important ways. He potty trained easily, never chewed anything that wasn’t meant to be chewed, never minded being left alone. In fact, he was such a good dog - the Best Boy in the Whole Wide World - that 18 months later we brought home a baby sister, Molly Mei. And if one Shih Tzu was magic, two of them were pure joy. 

But fast forward - and it is SO fast - almost 15 years and age had drained so much from our Magic. To paraphrase a lovely essay by Beth Levine, “all of his wonderful Magic-ness had disappeared.” He couldn’t see or hear, his appetite was all but gone, he had lost so much weight in the past three months that when I picked him up I could feel every bone in his body. Within the last month, it became clear that even his beloved walks were no longer a pleasure. 

In our house we’ve talked a lot about quality versus quantity of life. Having watched all four of our parents die we’ve seen several versions of the process. My father in law, at 92, was out working in his garden until just about a month before he died. Leukemia struck him fast and hard, and he was gone in a short time, in full possession of every faculty. But my mother in law languished for eight years, her mind and memory seeping away in a horrible death that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. My dad fought cancer tooth and nail, and at 86 would still have gone in a for another round of chemo if his doctors would let him. While my mother, in a manner similar to Magic, began to wither before our eyes, much as we see our flowers begin to fade as late summer progresses into fall. 

My husband has been adamant for years about his preference - quality of life is paramount for him. He has always asserted that if he can’t experience or enjoy the things he loves about life, if he is a burden on others, he has no interest staying alive. And while I might be willing to fight for time a little longer than he seems to, I have come to the realization that there are fates worse than death. 

Our dog’s life taught us that, and intellectually I know our decision to end his suffering, although not an easy one to make or carry out, was rightful. On that last morning, after a night of wandering the house in pain, his exhaustion with life itself was plain to see. He looked at me with nearly sightless eyes, and I knew I could no longer ask him to keep on dragging himself through life just to protect me from carrying out this awful decision.

Though I know it was the right thing to do, it haunts me. It wakes me up at night as much as the cold spot in the bed next to me where he always lay. Along with the trauma of losing his doggy presence, lives the trauma of being the one to bring that loss about. It’s antithetic to everything I’ve done to nurture him over the past 15 years, this little life that was entrusted to me. Although people say it’s our “last gift” to our pets, right now I feel like that statement is just pablum to assuage my guilt and make me feel better. And it doesn’t. Not in the least.

“Dogs die so soon,” writes the poet Mary Oliver. “It is exceedingly short, his galloping life. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old - or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."

I grieve for my Magic, and for all the magic he brought to us. For so many years, I have been MagicandMolly’s mom - there were a conjoined pair. I grieve when I take only one dog bowl out of the dishwasher, fill one bowl with water. I grieve when I take only one leash off the hook, and walk only one dog down the street. Neighbors stop when they see Molly and I alone. “Where is Magic?” they say with an almost panicked tone to their voice, and my own tear filled eyes are the only answer they need. And while I love Molly dearly, she holds a different place in our lives. One of my friends put it perfectly. “Molly is very sweet and cute,” she said, “but Magic has so much character!"

But I couldn’t keep him young, couldn’t keep that magical spark alive. Never again would he run the length of my mom’s yard, a flat out blur as he raced down the fence line following my car as I left for work. Never again would he go prancing down the street with his plumed tail held high. Never again would he jump and swivel to catch a ball in mid-air. Never again would he run squirrels up a tree, or roll over on his back for morning belly rubs. Yes, I would have done anything, paid any money, to keep him from growing old. But it was the gift I couldn’t give, a failure I couldn’t rectify. 

In time, I know Magic will take his place in that corner of my heart where the memories of all my most beloveds dwell. In time, I will remember more of the strong little dog he was in his glory days, the “lean, mean machine,” as my vet called him, rather than the thin, infirm old man he had become. In time, these intense feelings of grief and guilt will soften and fade, and I will smile at the thought of him instead of cry. 

As we age, it seems inevitable that our memories become filled with a long roster of loss, each one painful in different ways. Accompanying each one is a heightened awareness of the grace in each moment we have with the people and things we love, and a deeper understanding of what makes life worth living. 

Life goes on. And we go with it.