Old Dogs

My son called me early in the morning and told me that something was wrong with Rockwell. At 15 he was our oldest dog and my son had retired him from duty and let him move in with him in the cottage. Every morning the two of them would come out together to do chores and after that Rockwell would be allowed in the big house to lie in front of the window walls in the warm sunshine and either doze away the day or keep an eye out for visitors. He’d always been the most aggressive of all the dogs defending our home as if he’d been paid for his service. Over the years he’d taken quite a few beatings for it. Once he was torn to pieces by coyotes, killing two of them in the fight, yet he’d survived a touch and go recovery that stunned our vet and earned him a reputation with the coyotes who have never bothered us since. In his old age he’d mellowed a great deal, but every couple of weeks he’d still get into it with the older male Border Collie over some canine injustice we could never seem to sort out.

I dressed as quickly as I was able and strapped on the boot to my busted foot and headed out to meet him. He was carrying the dog in his arms and we placed him in the back of my son’s car and drove off to the vet. We take care of most animal health issues ourselves, in fact the only visits to the vet we make are for either serious injuries to the dogs or for and end of life treatment. I understood what we were going there for and my son did too. He’d gotten in the backseat with the dog and was petting him and talking to him in a soothing voice the entire way. We’d left before the rest of the children had come down for breakfast and we hadn’t told them where we were going, so my mind ran back and forth between what I should have done and what we were about to do. My son and I never spoke during the ride, each of us deep in our own thoughts, together but completely alone in our reflections. My son was just seven when I’d brought the puppy home. Most of his memories of childhood include his dog — the family dog in name, but in loyalty it was his closest companion, from the very first until the end. He’d always been a stand-offish type with visitors but that was because of his role as a guardian, not so much his nature. With us he had always been extremely gentle, hesitating to take so much as a treat from our hands unless we was being reassured softly. He rarely barked unless there was a present need and in the fights he’d had with predators he had always gone in with an intensity that no other dog we’ve ever had has demonstrated. He was fearless and now he was dying in my son’s arms.

Not long after I’d left the Army I was working a construction site in Philadelphia. I had to be there to let in the subs every morning, usually before dawn, and I stayed until whatever work was being done that day was completed, regardless of the hour. I came home every day worn out, wanting nothing more than a shower and some Chinese take-out before hitting the rack just after dark. One afternoon my mother called to ask a favor of me. She had a dog she’d discovered abandoned in Philadelphia one mid-winter evening while driving home from a meeting. He was a Rhodesian Ridgeback and by the looks of him when she brought him home he’d been horribly abused. He refused to come into her house, sleeping against the foundation behind the azalea bushes. Every night she’d sit all bundled up on the ground next to him offering choice little morsels she’d prepared for him as if her were a house guest. Over time he warmed to her, of course, and within months he became her constant shadow. Any form of discord or raised voice in the presence of my mother resulted in the quite baring of his teeth as if to remind anyone who didn’t immediately understand, this was his master and he was all in. I had come to love Fairmount, named after the park along the Schuylkill where she’d found him and as he got older I would stop by on my way home some days to take him for a run with me if my mother was away. She never really knew how old he was but my best guess was near 11 or 12 at the end. She spoke to me in a way I could sense was serious and when she asked me to have Fairmount put down, against my best judgement, I agreed. He’d been suffering from the same thing most dogs of his size eventually came down with, degenerative mylelopathy and as hard as it was to see her lose him, I knew it was a fair degree of suffering for the dog to live with and her decision was based on what was best for him. No one wants to hear their mother cry and as much as I felt awful accepting the responsibility, I didn’t want her to have to go through it herself. I agreed and told her I’d make arrangements with her vet and shoot after at the end of the day and take care of it for her. I didn’t even bother stopping off at my own place to shower before I went to pick him up. My mother had made arrangements to be gone and I had a key to her place and let myself in to get her dog. He came up to me and placed his big head against my leg and leaned in, still a massive dog even in his decline and I fastened a leash to his collar and took him to the vet. I don’t want to relive that day anymore than I have to. I took him in, waited while the vet administered the drugs, and stood in that antiseptic room with its white surfaces and dog smells, my hand gently stroking his head until he went still. I’m not an emotional person outwardly and I try to keep those displays private when they do happen, but I was not prepared for what went through me when I stood in that office next to that beautiful, loyal animal. I was filthy from a long day on a construction site, my work boots caked with mud, and I probably smelled awful. The vet stood there for a moment and sensing better than myself what was coming, she excused herself from the room telling me to take my time. I cried for a very long time for a lot of reasons, but the depth of despair I felt at having taken such a kind animal to its place of death, fully trusting me the entire time, overwhelmed me. After a while I collected myself and carried him in my arms back to my truck and drove him to my mother’s house. When I got there she was still away so I took a shovel from the garage and dug a grave for him near the big willow where he’d lie in the shade on hot days, watching the long driveway for signs of intruders. By the time I finished it was dark and I drove home feeling even darker, worn out, drained. When I walked into my place I noticed a light blinking red in the darkened apartment near the entrance to the kitchen. Back then I had an answering machine with a little cassette tape in it that would record any incoming calls for playback later. At the time I had virtually no social life and aside from the men I worked with on the job site and the staff at Peking Joe’s Duck House I rarely spoke to another human being. I wasn’t sure who’d be leaving me a message so I pushed the play button and stood there in the dark while my mother’s voice came across the speaker.

“I’ve changed my mind. I can’t go through with it. Call me.” That last part upbeat, lighthearted. “Love you!” followed by the sound of the phone, hanging up.

The vet took us in right away. She ushered the two of us into the back room, me on my crutches, my son cradling the dog in his arms. She set us up at the table and even though there was a little bit of discussion, most of what went down in there was communicated by just looking at each other. This vet put down my old road dog, Freeway, the year we first moved up here, and she’d been so sympathetic and understanding then without really knowing us or our dog. That dog had survived almost 17 years, most of it folded up behind the driver’s seat of my car, traveling from one comedy club to another, and eventually she landed up here in the end, laying out on the hillside looking out over the pastures and ponds, to the distant mountains beyond. And that’s where we buried her. The vet prepped us for what she was about to do and we gritted our teeth and looked away, both of us with our hands on his back, stroking him slowly, whispering our goodbyes. I stood there as the vet made her exit from the room, quietly patting each of us on the arm as she went. My son wept bitterly and buried his face in his dog’s neck while I stood there and tried not to cry myself. After a while he straightened up and like I had done so long ago with Fairmount, he carried his dog for the last time back out to the car. When we got home I asked him if he wanted to tell his brother and sister or if he wanted me to be the one to break it to them. Our dogs have always belonged to all of us, but there are always favorites going both ways. The children especially loved the old shepherd even though it made its home with our oldest for the last few years and my son said that he would tell them himself. I made my way back to the den and fell into my chair, exhausted, empty. I could hear the sound of his boots on the stairs and the light knock on their doors. Twice I could hear the sound of my children beginning to wail, each one breaking my heart further as the sound of their sadness filled the house.

My son dug a grave for Rockwell right beside the one we’d dug for Freeway, on the flat part of the hill overlooking everything. You could see it from anywhere in the house and more than a few times over the years I have looked out there and imagined I could see my old dog again, like when she was still with us, intelligent face tuned to the movement of the world, watching out for us for as long as we lived. I sat inside with my foot up and watched my son through the window, digging purposefully one shovel full at a time, a neat pile of soil mounding up beside the grave. Every so often he’d pause and I could see him wipe at his face, not from the effort, but from the loss. The kids went out with him when he finished and they all stood out there together talking to each other and looking off in the same direction for quite some time, the soft breezes of early spring tossing their hair around their faces. I am so sorry for what they feel right now, but this is life and coming to grips with the end of things isn’t something that gets easier no matter how long you live. There are few things as difficult in life as putting something you love in the ground forever. It does give us an opportunity to remember all the best things about our time together, to draw from the well of our memories the moments when as two different species we found a way to love each other, to look after and protect one another against the march of time. We provide for our dogs that is true, but they give themselves completely to us in return. And it would be hard to imagine a world without them, no matter the grieving that their end brings.

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