When I first saw the being who would become one of my best friends and companion.
When you visit a shelter, you get a variety of responses from the dogs who could become one of your best friends. Most will get as close to you as possible, some rubbing right against the bars, some standing and reaching out with their front paws, most barking with enthusiasm. Some woof in fear, a few even slip away to the outside of their kennels. But few act the way Sweetie did. She was lying curled up in the corner of her cage.
Dogs often seem to come with names, but no moniker would stick to this Corgi-shepherd mix. We called her Sweetie because she was so loving and enthusiastic (once she was out of the shelter), but it seemed more like a nickname. We tried many other names – Otter because she flowed off couches and benches so gracefully, and Simba because her fur was tawny, her paws big, and she grunted like a lion when we looked into her face and spoke to her. We considered Happy because her floppy ears bounced up and down when she ran, her mouth opening in a wide grin, and even Harpo because she liked to carry a squeaky toy in her mouth and make it honk. But only Sweetie fit, augmented through the years by a few extra letters (Sweetness) or words (Sweet Girl).
Always by my side
With Sweetie, I only needed a leash as a safeguard against traffic because she would never stray far from my side. Whenever a little distance crept between us best friends, she would look up and run back to me. I never had to train her. She would just come when I called, and whenever I said her name, she would look at me with great intensity, even though most of the time I was just saying hello. My wife joked that Sweetie would never allow death to take her from my side.
But despite Sweetie’s love for me, death started to approach in her thirteenth year in the form of dementia. She began straying further away from me during walks, and stopped answering my calls. We thought she was just losing her hearing, maybe her eyesight, but as she got older she began walking in circles, especially in the house, and hooting in anxiety.
She also began to limp, and despite vitamins, glucosamine shots and medications for pain and anxiety, she seemed to drift away, leaving a broken old dog that needed to be held up when she peed. Dementia stole our connection, that elusive bond best described by the word “love” but which is really more complex than that – a deep, moving dream river of both darkness and light. Three days before her passing, Sweetie shifted into a worse state. She paced all night long, was losing strength in her back legs, and was even showing less interest in food (that terrible warning). I knew it was time to let her go. I called our veterinarian and set up an appointment for a home visit since Sweetie was terrified of riding in the car, especially to the vet’s.
Her final day
That last day, I watched the clock, ticking off Sweetie’s remaining hours. But a funny thing happened. Sweetie slept peacefully most of the afternoon. She didn’t walk in a single circle, didn’t hoot once. During her last two hours, I took her out to the backyard with my other two dogs, Belle and Holly, and stayed with her. As the sun shone and the breezes played, Sweetie licked my hand repeatedly, and I stroked her thick coat, pulling out the little clumps because I wanted her to look her best, and because I had been grooming her that way for over 15 years.
When the vet and her assistant came and performed their task, I put my face right into Sweetie’s, so close that I could see my head reflected in her eyes. I stayed that way during the whole procedure, as the sedative slowed her down and the darker drug eased her away. Over and over, I told her she was beautiful.
Early the next morning, when I took my two remaining dogs to the backyard, I found tufts of Sweetie’s hair still strewn about – most bird nests in the vicinity were softened by a coating of my friends brown and white hair. I settled on one of our benches and sipped my coffee. Robins were hopping and bobbing on one corner of the lawn, sparrows landed to inspect and pick up Sweetie’s hair, and automobiles rumbled in the distance, changing gears. Life flexing its limbs.
A character from a PBS show called Lark Rise to Candleford responds to the death of a neighbor’s child by telling her husband, “To love is to lay oneself open to loss, and that is the bargain we make with ourselves because it is worth it.” Despite my grief, I had to agree, as I sat peacefully on my bench and watched Belle and Holly ambling about as the sparrows carried Sweetie to the sky.