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As soon as the weather turned, he started to decline. I watched the old guy stop enjoying his life, right in front of my eyes. The stairs were too steep, and despite the thick sweaters we wrapped around his bony frame, he shivered in the morning air, desperate to scurry back inside. He stopped eating and began sleeping more. I decorated the house in preparation for everyone coming for the holidays. Where once he would be sniffing the boxes, getting underfoot and occasionally snagging a stuffed elf to bring back to his bed, he showed no interest in the activities. Not even when I pulled out his stocking and reminded him of all the treats he’d uncovered in it over the years.
When he was young, the list of things he loved was endless. Cheese, squirrels, all of us, all of our friends, all of their friends, the mailman, the garbage man, waves, sand, trees, grass, chicken, steak, hamburger, Happy Meals, rain, snow, sun, Halloween, Christmas, and on and on and on.
But now there was nothing left on his list. When he turned his face away from the cheese and refused to come downstairs to hang out with the visiting family, I knew it was time. More than his restless sleep or his staggering, unsteady gait, it was the moment we were all gathered in a room and he stayed upstairs, in his bed. That was his answer to my tormented question: Is it time?
My youngest daughter, who was 5 years old when he came into our lives, held him in her arms when he got the injection that ended his life. Before he took his last breath, he gave her hand a lick and then let out a sigh. Such a good fellow he was.
I don’t know what to do now. I feel like a ghost with a phantom dog walking next to me. All the people who stopped to talk and exclaim over such a spry old man now hurry about, going wherever people rush to go.
The local dog walking company let me bring his bedding and supplies to donate to a nearby shelter. I filled out an application to foster shelter dogs. But the grief feels like I’m limping around with a piece of glass in my foot, and I am bereft with the missing of him.
The deep, bone-hurting ache is one that resonates with other animal lovers. Nobody has yet to tell me they made their own pet’s final decision too soon. Some hang their head with unresolved regrets about how they handled their responsibility.
“How do you know for sure?” asked a friend with an elderly dog, as if I know the secret formula now. I don’t.All I can say is that I believe he waited for the family to arrive for Christmas. I believe he was comforted by their presence, that he knew we would all need each other. But I also know, in my heart, that he was a dignified fellow. He was never one to show too much exuberance, seldom impulsive, gentle but determined in his quiet way. He didn’t demand a lot of fuss and preferred to sit next to you, not on you; to sleep near you, not with you; to get treats, not for a performance but randomly just for the love of it.
He gave us so much that at the end, I felt like it was the least we could do to hold him close, and let him go.
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