A family farewell

When I was faced with the difficult prospect of putting down my beloved old dog last spring, I wrote the following entry in my journal:

“My dog is dying, 15 years after I brought him home as a 5-pound ball of cuteness.  He was a character from the start, and I picked him out of a litter at the pound because of the mischievous look he gave me. I named him Bandit. He grew into a 75-pound, gorgeous animal, with touches of black husky, German shepherd and wolf.

“Bandit was playful and teasing and evolved in my heart as the child I never had. Now he has the qualities of a grouchy old man with a dry wit. He’s still teasing, even though he can barely walk. A week ago he pressed his front paws to the ground in a gesture of puppyhood and I almost broke down.

“Years ago he ran away in the woods when a trusted friend had him out for a walk, far from home in the mountains of Vermont. Hours later the search party began, and before we could organize he had found his way back to the driver’s seat of my car. He knew where home was even when I couldn’t always find it myself.

“We’ve represented ‘home’ to each other for years. I’ve moved several times and have had many relationships, long and short. We’ve witnessed joyous and difficult times and through them all have kept our 6 p.m. dinner and evening ‘lights out’ rituals. In all those years he barely [ever] woke me; in the morning he would watch me quietly until I opened my eyes, and there he would be, ready to take life in.

“I believed that coming to the decision to put Bandit down would be a clear one: When he stops enjoying life, I’ve thought, he’ll let me know. So many marks on my checklist of ‘he’s ready’ have been crossed off, and still I’m not sure. He can’t get up on his own anymore; he’s gone to the bathroom in the house on a number of occasions, and I clean it up with a tenderness that a mother must feel as she changes her baby’s diaper. He still loves food, walking and visits with neighbors. I no longer use a collar. There is no longer any ownership: He’s my companion.

“The spark is still there. It’s not time yet, but I’ll prepare my heart daily for that painful goodbye. He will die at home, in my arms, and I will bury him in my yard. He will always be close in that respect and can leave life with a quiet, safe and loving dignity. The vet will come to him.”

On June 8, 2007, the vet came to Bandit, and the goodbye I’d envisioned for so long became a reality. Like the passing of my father, it was one of the most painful and moving days of my life. I thought of the hospice nurses who cared for my father. Kind and comforting at a time when I could barely function from grief, they were like angels to me.

The vets from Best Friends Mobile Veterinary Clinic were like angels too. They entered my home with gentleness and an obvious love of animals. They examined Bandit and reassured me that my decision to euthanize him at that time was the humane choice. They explained the procedure and gave me time to process the decision.

After tranquilizing him, the vets stepped outside and allowed me ample time to say goodbye. I leaned close to Bandit and whispered thanks on behalf of all the friends and family who had enjoyed his personality during his life. He was relaxed and peaceful. When I called the vets back in, they told me they would start when I was ready. My boyfriend began playing “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” (Bandit was a true fan of the guitar, music and gatherings), and I nodded to the vets.

As I held Bandit’s neck and face, they injected him. I was amazed at how peaceful it was.  They checked his breathing and pulse and said, “He’s gone.” I wailed and they sat calmly until I was done. We wrapped him up in a bag and soft blanket, and the vets carried him to the back yard, where we had prepared his grave. I would never have thought I could be so grateful to two people for helping my dog to pass on. I looked at my watch and realized they’d been with us for an hour-and-a-half.

As the vets walked back to their van, I thought again of the hospice nurses, the special kinds of people who can be present for death and watch as life ebbs away, leaving a body still and silent. The kind of people who can witness others’ grief and not be shaken. The kind of people who know that pets—in the most profound sense—are family too.

[Asheville resident Amy Rowling teaches kindergarten and first grade at Maccabi Academy.  She’s also an artist, writer and photographer.]

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