(This might appear self-indulgent, but it is something I need to do.)
Alfred the dog, our companion for twelve years, reached the end of the line yesterday. He was a mix of terrier, bouvier and god knows what else, rescued from a shelter as a pup. He was having increasing difficulty using his hind legs to get up and did not seem to be enjoying life anymore, so we allowed him to leave us gently, falling into a sleep from which he would never wake. Fortunately, he did not have to suffer, as we compel humans to do. His ashes will be placed by a tree planted for him. (This is not at all easy to write this.)
People who have no pets cannot understand how dear a cat and dog will become. They are not “just animals,” but rather members of the family, especially for those whose children have grown up and moved away. They offer unquestioning love, yes, even the cats, who will respond to attention and affection no less than the more domesticated dog. And time and again dogs, albeit unknowingly, have risked or sacrificed their lives to rescue an endangered family member.
Death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth, but it is very difficult to entertain that thought when actually confronted with it. We keep telling ourselves that Alfred lived a very long life (a dozen years is ancient for a dog of some eighty pounds) in a wonderful home, playing with his life-long comrade, Lucy the dog, but it hardly helps. The grief is still just as real and no less crushing than had a human family member died. And we know that little things – his favorite spot empty, the extra leash, only one food bowl at dinner time – will sustain that grief for a considerable time. Distraction eases the pain, but you suddenly remember and feel guilty that you are doing something other than grieving. In the quiet moment you remember and try to fight replaying the whole event over in your mind. But we also know from experience that in time the grief will subside, replaced by a sweet memory, tinged with sadness.
We have buried a dozen cats in the last forty years, and every death was a blow, especially since virtually all lived into their middle and late teens. But Alfred was our first dog, and his death has hit particularly hard. Cats can be very affectionate, but they are independent creatures, whereas a dog is completely and absolutely devoted, and the loss is consequently greater.
We knew this was coming, but it was only yesterday that we had to face it and make the dreadful decision, when it was clear that Alfred had crossed a line in the night and was no longer comfortable. But the day before he was still in good enough shape to have one last walk and enjoy reading the doggy pee-mail and sniffing a neighbor dog with Lucy. We have a vet who makes house calls, so Alfred could quietly expire in his home, surrounded by his family, including the cats. Lucy could not of course understand what was happening, but she certainly sensed something was wrong.
Lucy is also an old big dog, perhaps even older than Alfred, and she is arthritic and walks with some difficulty. But with pain medication and shorter walks she is obviously enjoying life, even if it is more limited. Her time is also growing short, and we will have to face this unpleasantness again, but the grief is a small price to pay for years of joy and unquestioning, undying love.
Alfred lives on in our memory, and that memory will last as long as Denise and I live.