Old Man Doug in Kitchen

Old Man Doug did not go quietly into some random night. Instead, he waited until the whole family was gathered for the holidays, and then, with much less ado than I would have chosen, he took his final bow at age 18. That he chose Dec. 25 confirms my belief that he wanted to assure his place in family history, and make sure it was timed so he didn’t have to be anywhere near the post-holiday decoration take-down he so despised.

His exit was dignified and sad beyond all words. And yet, the old fellow was always happiest when we were all together, in one room, even if we were sobbing into his furry neck as we said our goodbyes.

In fact, it was because he didn’t rouse himself from his bed to join all of us for the holiday festivities that I had to cross off the final criteria defining his quality of life. He already had ceased eating for pleasure, turned his old gray face away from his favorite treats, hated his walks and couldn’t get comfortable in his bed. I made little nests using his favorite blankets and comforters, and placed them all over the house to tempt him out of his restless slumber, to no avail.

Still, when it was clear he would not be planting his creaky, leaky self in the middle of family and friends and savory smells wafting from the oven, it seemed to be his final message. When he contracted a vicious intestinal virus, he was already so weak he never had a chance. The vet at the 24-hour emergency clinic joined us on the floor where we had practically sunk to our knees with the grief of it all. She talked in a calm, soothing voice where she may have listed options and discussed potential end-of-life treatments, but what I heard was that she was sending us home to come to a consensus while she kept him hydrated and sedated. It was Christmas Eve.

People say it’s hard to know the right time, or that your vet will guide you through the decision-making process. You are told to count his good days versus his bad days — and that’s where the whole thing falls apart, because we don’t know what a good day is for a dog. I know he did not make the adjustment from country dog to city dog very easily.

Old Man Doug Moves to Washington

Old Man Doug GIF

When we pulled up in front of our small townhouse in our new big city, Doug lifted his head from the back seat and gave me one of his looks that said, “Are you freaking kidding me?”

Doug never cared much for change. Throughout his long life, he grieved piteously when subjected to any disruption of his routines or loss of his loves. His greatest sorrow was the passage of each of his girls from their childhood home to college. And while he was wildly excited when they returned, he knew better than to get too attached again. A heart can break only so many times.

On the last day in Alabama, we made a painful journey through town, saying goodbye to all of his favorite haunts. We moseyed over to the lake where I reminded him of the boat trips and booze cruises we took over the years. He sniffed the trees at the University of Alabama quad where certainly there existed some squirrel grandchildren who knew him by his once fearsome reputation. It was most wrenching to leave the beautiful young women who grew up with Doug the Dog and their own beloved pets: Max, CiCi, Buddy, Millie, Harry, Gracie and Abby.

Old Man Doug Be Calm

Shortly after we moved in, Doug, both blind and deaf and occasionally daft, did an entirely unexpected thing. Frankly, I didn’t know he had it in him. It was a warm afternoon, and the cable guy was working on the TV when I came downstairs looking for my little sidekick. That’s when I saw he had left the back door ajar and Doug had sauntered on out. The little sneak.

I had only been in the new neighborhood for a few days, but that didn’t stop me from running, shrieking like a madwoman, down the street.

“Doug, Doug!” I shouted, and then, because this is a town where dogs are a big deal, people started coming out of their houses, cars pulled over, and suddenly, a group effort was mounted.

I didn’t even know my own way around yet, but motorists hung out the window, yelling things like, “Brown dog running toward Route One!”

I found him standing stock still in the middle of traffic. Cars screeched to a stop, and I dashed into the road and scooped him up. “Bad dog,” I yelled into his occluded ears, but he just snuggled into my arms and let out a big sigh.

It appeared he was headed south.

A week later he escaped for a second time. One sunny afternoon we loaded a bunch of boxes into our car and headed off to the recycling center. Seldom did I ever leave the house without kissing the old guy goodbye. This time I yelled up the stairs that I’d see him in a minute.

About an hour later, we saw a woman walking down the street with two dogs on a leash.

“Can you believe there’s another dog that looks so much like our fellow?” exclaimed my husband. He pulled the car over to get a better look.

Yes. It was Doug, and the Good Samaritan who found him trotting down the busy street was not amused. In fact, she stiffly told us that she had taken him to the local vet and discovered he was not microchipped. Again, he’d been headed south.

The next day, I took him and his 18 years of medical records to the local vet and had him chipped. The vet, who recognized what a fine dog Doug was (and acknowledged his handsomeness), reminded me that dogs have to adjust, just like their owners. But she felt like his waning appetite and increasing fragility was still minor compared with how spry he was for his age. And she did not accuse me of being a negligent owner at all.

“Everything takes time,” she said gently.

So really, I thought I had time.

Meanwhile, he was our instant connection to this new town. Everywhere I went, people with dogs or people who love dogs would stop and exclaim over my little guy. While most people are attracted to puppies, I was amazed at how many people truly appreciate the quality and dignity of a senior dog. His age created immediate rapport as people told me their own old dog stories. And even if the walks gradually became too much, I would bend down, scoop up all 19 pounds of him, and carry him home. Sometimes, those encounters were the only human ones I had all day. Doug was doing pretty well.

And then, it got cold.

Old Man Doug in Bed

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.

Making the Hardest Choice

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.

Old Man Doug

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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