Friday, April 8, 2011

Your Favorite Places on Earth

The second-to-last time we lay down together to sleep - you were too sick to greet me at the door when I came home from work. So I got down on your bed with you and we cried for a while - for what we knew was coming. And even though you were the reason we were crying, and even though you were in pain -- you were still there to console me, your big paws reaching out to pull me closer, your big head gently lowering into my lap.

Your breathing slowed, your body slumped, and I said my goodbyes. I was amazed at how peaceful and perfect the scene was, but couldn't help wish that mommy also had a chance to say goodbye.

Then a burst of rain came crashing onto the roof as if spilled from a giant bucket, like God was splashing water on you to wake you back up. It startled you awake, pulled you from the soft embrace of passing on. And there you were again - alert and strong, still protecting, and still comforting.

You greeted mommy when she came home from work and then lay next to us as we ate, and later as we watched tv. And as always, you perked up as soon as you heard the tv shut off for the night, and you hobbled down the hallway, knowing that your cushion in the bedroom was warm and inviting - it was one of your favorite places on earth.

When I woke up the next morning, you were flat on your back, your head and neck arched to one side to brace the weight of your once powerful body. Your gangly legs were sticking up - folded over like a reindeer in mid flight. You must have seen me stirring before I awoke, and now you feigned sleeping in that awkward position - knowing that I couldn't resist but to jump down on top of you, bury my head into your neck, and coerce you into battle. You didn't have much battle left, but you never could resist a row, so out came the teeth and that rumbling Rottie growl.
You could use your aggression in such destructive ways, ways that I secretly admired for you showed no fear in the fight, full blast in, teeth blaring - and I wish I could approach the fights in my life with such abandon. We humans so civilized, and thoughtful, and fearful of outcomes. You could swallow my body parts whole, but you only gripped down enough so that I'd know that you could never cause me that kind of pain. Your playful restraint stirs a different kind of pain in me now - one of my teeth clenching and tears held back.

We brought you to Chapin beach for one last time. We had to carry you out of the Jeep and you didn't get too far down the beach. You laid there as the tide came in - I tried to build a dam of sand to protect you from the water, but the dam washed away in the incoming waves. But you didn't mind the cool water lapping up against you. The sand cushioned your aching joints and you were just happy to be at one of your favorite places on earth.

We took pictures to remind us of the day. Your head looks slightly droopy in them, like it pained you to hold it up. But you're still smiling, ears back, that wild and playful look in your eyes.

When the time came, I picked you up and placed you into the back of the Jeep, probably your favorite place on earth. You started the ride standing on uneasy legs, with your head out the window, your gums flapping in the breeze, and drool spinning down the side of the truck. But then you limped to the back, circled, and laid down - facing forward, watching us, just happy to be there even if you weren't smelling the parade of scents that rushed by the open window.

I helped you out of the Jeep and we made our way towards Dr. Tom's office - probably your least favorite place on earth, with its slippery floors and the man in the white coat prodding your painful tumors. Not the place you wanted to be on your final day, or any other day, so you limped to a comfortable spot in the grass on the front lawn, under the shady branches of a thick pine tree, and you laid down. I couldn't coax you further with your favorite treat, so we stayed there as mommy went to get the vet. Once again, you comforted me through my tears, and laid your big head in my lap.

The vet's needle pinch didn't phase you, but once the poison started to take hold you seized, your head arched up off my lap, and you stared at mommy. I can't fault you for being a little afraid. And I'm so, so, so sorry. We take on the role of God when we adopt animals, and sometimes it feels like all the happy times barely add up enough to offset the sadness we feel when cancer devastates our best friend and forces us to make the hardest of decisions.

You laid your head back down on my lap for the final time and gently passed. I buried my head into your fur, and when I smelled those puppy-scented ears of yours, I remember thinking "I hope I don't ever forget what your ears smell like." And I haven't. Haven't forgotten the puppy ear smell, the wet and coarse licks up the side of my face, or the way you would lean into me for hugs and pats, or roll on your back for "bellywubs."

When we walked away from you for the final time, I glanced back - squinting through the tears. You looked so content - fast asleep beneath the sheltering tree, a gentle breeze shaking the grass and lifting strands of your fur upwards. You were no longer struggling to hold your head up proudly through the pain. You were finally at peace.

Mommy and I left the vet's and started driving. There was no conversation - we each were lost deep in our own thoughts. We drove past our road and before we knew it, we were back at Chapin beach. We traced our usual path, and I pictured you trotting along beside us, that goofy look of utter joy on your face. We walked until what little energy we had left was spent. And then we finally spoke - the unavoidable subject of whether or not we did the right thing.

Despite what the vet said...despite what we knew in our hearts -- there was that flicker of doubt that more could have been done to help you. Had we exhausted all the medical options? Did the cost of your treatment - adding up so much over these months - play a part in our decision? I said I would pay anything to have you back and healthy - even for just one day. We walked slowly and spoke softly, our voices crackling under the weight of the sadness. If only we had a sign to tell us that we had done the right thing, made the right decision.

We found ourselves back at the spot where we had laid with you a few hours earlier. A crowd was gathering nearby. They all faced to the west. The sun was setting across Cape Cod bay, tucking down behind the white cliffs of Plymouth. The sky was streaked with intense pinks and purples - a lightshow of colors we had never seen before. People with various accents gushed and stared in awe as the sun finally dipped into darkness. And we sat with them, distracted from our grief if only for a few moments, but long enough to know that we had our answer.

It's been a few months now, and I miss you at the oddest times. Like I'll be driving on
Union St
under the Rt 6 overpass, and I'll wait for a wet lick on the ear, thanking me for the ride, and anxious to get back home to see if mommy's there. I miss you when I watch the Patriots, you getting up from your bed beside the couch and tip-toeing down to the bedroom to avoid the hoots and hollers. I miss seeing you stir when the morning alarm sounds, flipping onto your back to invite the bellywubs.

Moments when we could predict each other's movements, when our intentions became one. Those are some of my favorite memories of you...those are some of my favorite places on earth.

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