It had come to this. Abby, Daniel, and Luke lumbered into the van, heavy hearted and crying. Krista sat next to me on the passenger side with our dear and devoted 4-legged friend, Dexter, prostrate on her lap, ensconced in a brown towel. The cancerous tumor bulging from the left side of Dexter’s rear like some sort of grotesque Christmas tree ornament had finally perforated and blood seeped slowly from the open wound. Our canine companion who once would have walked in front of a speeding train for a dog treat had stopped eating. He was deaf, blind, disinterested in exercise and unable to control his bowels. He was also in pain, so we had a bitter-but-necessary appointment to keep.
We pulled into the parking lot and I heard a heavy, reflexive, collective sigh behind me. The amigos were already suffering and there was nothing Krista or I could do to prevent or mitigateit. For the first time in each of their lives Dexter would be painfully, conspicuously absent. When we returned home there would be a lonely food dish and empty bed to remind us of our loss. No more belly rubs or walks in the park. No more dressing up the long-suffering beagle mix in ridiculous outfits or caressing him on the couch. No more Frisbee catching or hoop jumping or balancing a milkbone on the nose or all the other clichéd (but impressive) tricks Krista had painstakingly taught him. Dexter was the valedictorian of his dog-training class, learning to sit and stay and wait with ease. More importantly, he had treated each of our children with a forbearance they didn’t deserve, enduring their instinctively rapacious toddler years with uncommon equanimity and kindness. In his youth he had been light on his feet and athletic, loving and cuddly, though perhaps a little stingy with kisses. (He licked my face regularly; Krista felt that was because he enjoyed the taste of my salty skin more than others’. I always chalked it up to a different kind of good taste). More “My Dog Skip” than “Marley & Me”, he had faithfully, lovingly accompanied us through the birth and early years of Abby, Daniel, and Luke, the traumatic birth and death of our son Samuel, three moves, a few job changes, a complete career shift, the arrival of another dog and a cat (whose exuberance he tolerated grudgingly), the passing of a human grandpa who adored him (and would surely be greeting him with open arms in the sweet hereafter), and countless family controversies, confabulations, and celebrations. Through it all he was steady, loyal and enthusiastic.
“Go on in with the kids,” Krista said as we disembarked. “I’m going to let him sniff and walk around one last time before we join you.” After the thousands of miles and hours they had traversed together over the years, they both deserved one final, private stroll.
Minutes later Dexter lay on the metal exam table, surrounded by five blubbering, grieving humans who each touched a different part of his broken body and muttered inadequate farewells. The veterinarian, who has doubtless presided over thousands of similarly wrenching episodes in his career, was genuinely empathetic and sensitive to the mixture of adoration and torment we displayed without embarrassment. He gently placed a muzzle on Dexter and administered the sedative. The amigos wept more, said goodbye, and left the room. Within a minute or so Dexter was overcome by the chemicals’ tranquilizing effect, and he dropped softly to his belly. The muzzle removed now, he licked his lips languidly and became so sleepy he couldn’t retract his tongue. We helped him lie down on his side, his tongue all-the-while protruding comically from the front of his mouth. The scene was not undignified, however. It was solemn and peaceful—altogether befitting the final moments of the fellow my father admiringly (and accurately) referred to as “a noble prince among dogs”. The veterinarian returned with a syringe filled with the dreaded pink cocktail and we assented. We were, to coin a phrase, as ready as we were ever going to be. So, too, was Dexter.
The doctor pushed the drugs and I looked into Dexter’s venerable and tender face, stroking his hoary head and scratching him in those grooves behind his earsthat so perfectly matched the size of my index fingers. He looked at me. I looked at him. And I whispered quietly the only words my brain could summon: “Thank you, Dexter. Thank you.”
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.