God As A Dog

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Today was the last day of Kobe’s life. Kobe was my dog. One of eight that I’ve had in my life. He was a beautiful yellow lab with a heart of gold, and he lived nearly sixteen years. He’s gone, and my heart is heavy with his loss.

Longer-time readers may recall that I adopted Kobe a couple of summers ago, and I wrote a post about him called In Praise of Older Dogs.  (The post is worth checking out, if only to see a thirteen-year old dog tromp around in my fish pond or swim with my kids).

As the post relates, Kobe’s original owners, having had him for thirteen years, decided he’d lived long enough, so they brought him to the vet to be put to sleep. The vet wouldn’t hear of it, and he handed the dog over to the Northern California Lab Rescue, which posted his pictures on Facebook. Not many people want an elderly dog, but we didn’t mind. So he had a new home. I figured we could give him an extra month or two of a happy life.

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Well, it didn’t work out that way. Kobe, unknown to me, had nearly two more years ahead of him, although little by little, month by month, he would start to show signs of his age.

This really wasn’t clear to me until, a few months ago, I took him to the vet (I trip I made many times), and she informed me – – as an owner of a yellow lab herself – – that this particular breed is basically immortal. As she explained it, if cancer doesn’t get them by age eleven, their organs will keep going forever, but their legs will fail them. Over time, she explained, he will get worse and worse, and although his vital organs will still function, he’ll lose control of his bodily functions and get to the point where he’ll have to be put down. She had done precisely that just recently, and she told me to prepare myself.

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I would have none of that talk, however. I thanked her for her counsel, but I told her it would take an awful lot for me to reach a decision like that. After all, I had only “put down” a dog once in my life, and she was my wolf mix, quite elderly, who was in terribly pain. That was an easy decision. But I wasn’t going to put down a dog because he became a lot of work. No way.

As the weeks wore on, though, he got worse and worse. I can’t tell you how many times I got on my hands and knees to clean up poo and pee, but it was hundreds. (There was a time I was quite proud of these hardwood floors!) And there were so many times he got “stuck” somewhere, unable to move himself. It seemed incredible there was a time he could bound up the stairs to be with the kids in their bedrooms. Now he could barely walk, and that was with the aid of several forms of medication.

Night after night, I would hear him stumbling around the house, confused and alone. He might find himself outside, unable to get up the single brick step to the kitchen porch. Or he might be sitting on his haunches, unable to get himself on all fours, so he would call out for me. I have extraordinarily acute hearing for cries of distress, even when I’m fast asleep, so I would hustle downstairs and outside on a regular basis, typically at about 3 in the morning.

I surprised myself for how little all this bothered me. We cannot know the love we have in ourselves for those that we care about until we are challenged. But doubt began to creep in about how long I could keep this up.

One afternoon, I was speaking with an elderly Russian woman who has become a bit of a babushka for me, and she asked about my dogs. I related to her Kobe’s troubles, and she said her son had gone through the same thing. In a thick Soviet accent, she said, “You have a good heart, but what you are doing – – – this is not love.” She’s a tender-hearted woman, and she wanted to get across that the dog was in pain, and his quality of life wasn’t worth the suffering. I had to let him go. Somehow, her counsel made my decision easier.

Thus, one by one, we said our tearful good-byes. My young daughter who, like me, loves to write, also has a poet’s heart. She composed this for him, which she gave to me today:

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And, yes, she wrote that herself. And she’s really, really young. So I am awe of her feelings and ability to express them. She certainly did a much better job than I could have.

And all this affirms for me two things I believe deeply: first, that the only thing with any lasting merit in this lifetime is love. The warm feelings you have between a parent and child, a husband and wife, or a boy and his dog, are all as perennial as the grass. I’ve had a taste of wealth. Let me tell you, it’s boring. Think money buys happiness? Check in with Sheryl Sandberg this week, and see how cheerful her billion bucks are keeping her.

The second thing I believe, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, is that the memories and spirit that bind us all together are not confined to this earthly plane. I don’t have a vision of Kobe romping around in dog heaven somewhere. But I do feel that which made him what he is, and what gave him a connection to all of us, is perennial, and will be waiting for me in a way that I lack the capacity to fathom.

In my original post, cited earlier, I closed by writing, “In spite of his years, I hope he remains with us for a while longer, since I’m already worried about missing such a sweet soul after he’s gone.” Well, he did stay a while longer. And he’s gone. But I’m glad for the time he was here. And we’ll meet again, some sunny day.