I took my dog Harley on his last walk this morning. How anticlimactic: we went only to the corner, just a few houses away, where he deposited a single marble-sized poop and immediately wanted to go back inside. How unfair, that after fourteen years of walks, his last walk was so brief, with so little amusement. But he didn’t want to stay out, and no wonder: it is a miserable day today. The rain is pissing down in cold streams, and freezing as it hits the pavement; the wind is blowing right through the walls. If it had been a pretty day, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do it: to call the vet into my house, and say that yes, please do what you have to do. It’s time.
Harley died with his head in my hands, and his paw in my husband’s hand, and his eyes closed in sleep from the tranquilizer the vet gave him first, before the lethal dose. His once-black face was entirely white, and his fur was a soft as velvet as we stroked him. He didn’t get up to greet the vet, but merely swiveled his head to watch her come in. In better days – even ten days ago – he’d have clambered to his feet and gone straight to greet her, tail wagging. But he’s been failing every day for a week now. We had bought a special harness to help him get to his feet, hauling him around like so much Samsonite. Once standing, he was okay, and could walk and sometimes even trot. Until a week ago, that is. Then he could hardly walk at all.
That it was his time doesn’t make it easier to say goodbye. The grief over losing not only the dog he was recently but the dog he once was – it’s pretty crippling. Just now I thought I heard him bark downstairs (recently he’s been calling for us with a strange, wheezing bark), and the blow to my heart when I realized it was just John coughing, or the wind scraping a tree branch on the windowpane, was physical. And moments later, I thought I heard his toenails outside my door. He hasn’t been here to my upstairs office in two months (couldn’t do stairs anymore), but for years he would scratch at the door if I was in here writing. I can’t stop thinking he’s out there, on the landing, waiting.
Harley hadn’t been a truly healthy dog for a few years, but he’d still been able to swim, run, and chase my horse around, right up until he was going on 13. Then, starting last summer, he developed a number of serious health problems which – although temporary – turned him from an active older dog to a truly geriatric one. Still, up until this week, he’d been happy. There’d been no chance of him recovering his ability to run or even walk a long distance – Cushing’s disease had wasted his muscles, he was deaf, and he had arthritis – but even as recently as two weeks ago, he was still able, on Saturday mornings, to walk a mile to the park and back. It was a Saturday ritual from the days we came to this neighbourhood six years ago. We’d take him to the dog park and let him loose with the canine mob. It’s hard to believe he was eight years old when we got here – still a young dog. Last time we took him there, three weeks ago, he had a great time, breaking into brief bursts of trotting as he attempted to keep up with the other dogs. When he couldn’t keep up – which was pretty much all the time – he’d bark furiously at the whirling, wheeling pack, as if telling them knock it off you damn kids. Then he’d go from human to human, walking slowly and stiffly, begging for pats. Everyone knew Harley, and everyone looked at that grey face and said, “How old is he now?” We’d tell them: 14, we think, maybe 15, and they’d say, “Wow. He’s doing great.”
And he was. He was still having enough fun – when he was awake – that I thought maybe he was going to be one of those canine Methuselahs that make it to 19 or 20. But last week, things began to change. He had trouble sleeping; his pain meds weren’t working. He lay on his side and barked for help, in that strangled rasping wheeze of a bark that I keep thinking I still hear. We took him to the vet; they upped his meds and prescribed antidepressants. We started talking about it being time.
We clung to hope. He’d bounced back from medical problems before (Harley was always a walking vet bill). Then he slept three nights in a row, we thought, well, he’s fine again. But then he would wake up and bark all day, and this was a dog who was never a barker. Now he seemed to be asking for help. “What it is, boy?” we’d say. “What do you need?” We’d bring him food, water; we’d help him onto the sofa and give him a rubdown. He’d settle in and sleep for a while. Then he’d wake up again. Bark. Bark. Baaaark.
We had Harley ten years. We got him from a rescue agency, which had brought him up from an Ohio kill pound. They said he was “about two.” He was at least four. He was, they guessed, a border collie/flatcoat mix. They guessed wrong: we splurged on a DNA test and discovered that he was such a mutt that there were only traces of two identifiable breeds in his makeup – golden retriever and Scottie Dog. This might explain why he was such a goof of a dog: when he ran, it was like he was made of the parts of several dogs all trying to run different directions. His spine would curve, his front legs would prance, his back legs would trot, he would look back over his shoulder (and, consequently, often fall over). He loved to roll in the snow (delightful!) and in week-old road kill (considerably less so). He loved little dogs – the smaller the better – and would gallop up to them (all 65 pounds of him), launching at some teacup-sized thing with alarming gusto. He got nipped on the nose a lot. He had a strange coat – black and silky and short up top, but with long curtains of hair descending from his shoulderblades to his hip bones – and paws so furry that they looked like string mops. He would never have won Best In Show.
He was such a character. He had zero small-animal prey drive, and at the cottage, he would lie on the deck while chipmunks and squirrels ran over his paws to get to the peanuts we scattered around. He was excellent with my horse, understanding right away how horses work, and keeping a healthy distance from the back feet. He and my horse were good friends, and would share the baby carrots I’d bring on rides. One for the horse and one for the dog, I’d say, and the two of them would crunch away on either side of me, in a contented animal chorus. He’d follow along on the rides down to the river, and lie in the cool water while the horse grazed on the long riverside grass. “Time to go, Harl,” I’d say, and he’d leap up and follow.
I wish I could write a eulogy for him that matches what he was. I know everyone feels this way when their dog goes, and I know that people take comfort from hearing other people’s stories of loss. Even this morning, friends were soothing me with their own stories. This grief-sharing is necessary – and so helpful – when a beloved pet dies. After the vet carried his body to her car, to take him away for cremation, I told John I needed to write something for him, to let the world know what a wonderful dog he was, to share his life and his time on earth. I feel like shouting him to the sky; I feel there should be candles lit and trumpets blowing. I feel we should all be saying his name and saying what a good dog, what a special dog, what a beautiful dog he was!
Harley, my good dog, my special dog, my beautiful Little Buddy. Ten years was not enough time. Next time I see you, we’ll go for a really long walk, not just some disappointing struggle to the corner. It’ll be a sunny day. We’ll go to the river together. We’ll swim. I’ll climb on my horse and look down, and you’ll be there. I’ll call to you, and you’ll look up, your hearing restored. You’ll come galloping over, all your parts flying, your tail in the air. You’ll look up at me, ready for adventure.
And I will tell you: come on, boy. Time to go.