Humans are entirely unworthy of our dogs
We hoped he’d die in his sleep, that we’d find him curled up in the bed in that old, familiar way, having slipped as comfortably and naturally from this dimension to the next as a river flows into the sea.
Then we hoped we’d just know, the way you sometimes do, the way we did with Walter, our beagle, who one day just couldn’t get up anymore, who looked at us with those eyes, telling us it was time.
Fifteen years is a good run for a pet, especially one that’s had cancer for half that time, especially one with football-sized tumors and a lightning-fork of scars from two previous surgeries.
It got bad with Frody. He became incontinent. He became deaf. Even though his body weight doubled with the cancer, he could still walk well enough, could still ascend and descend a ramp. If he was in pain, he never let on.
He played his favorite horn, a fuzzy snake with a squeaker inside. He wagged his tail when we came home. He played with the other dogs, tolerating their smothering love and obsessive licking of his face and eyes with equanimity and grace.
But there was intermittent trembling. More and more often, there was blood in his stool. Finally, we made the call, and five days later, two kind and solemn women appeared at our door with a plastic container carrying syringes for two shots.
How did we bear those hours between the call and their arrival? How could we comprehend his final night in our bed after 15 years of his tunneling into exactly the correct position, deep underneath the covers and into the nooks and crannies of our bodies, like puzzle pieces fitting together of their own accord?
One perfect thing in my life was the feeling of Frody settling in next to my left leg when I was in bed watching television at night, or in the living room listening to music and working away on my laptop in the recliner.
In his youth, he would make two quick leaps and stretch out on my shoulders, almost like an airplane pillow with ribs, where he could sleep for hours while I wrote or graded papers. Later on, as he thickened out some, he was more comfortable attached firmly to my side, clicking into place and settling with a heavy contented sigh.
That connection — the specific weight and shape of him, his measured breathing and fluttery heartbeat — was reassuring to me in a way that I cannot quite articulate. Contentment? Security? Love?
When I was a kid and my dad came home late at night after a long time on the road driving an eighteen-wheeler, I would be in bed just on the edge of sleep. When I could hear his key slide into the lock to open the door, I could allow myself to fall into the deep sleep that comes when you feel to your core that everything is OK, that everything is just as it should be, when the pieces have all fallen into the right place.
It felt like that, Frody’s body joined to mine. Everything was just as it should be. We could let go of everything else and be this one thing together. We could be safe. We could relax.
The love between a pet and its owner is not like anything else. Human beings are entirely unworthy of dogs, but unfortunately, we’re all they’ve got. When we’re smart enough to let one in, we are confronted with a love that is absolutely pure and uncomplicated.
Human relationships are fraught by comparison. Try as we may and proclaim as we will, our relations with one another are constantly threatened and complicated by all kinds of things. Envy. Jealousy. Irritation. Doubt. Frailty. Weakness. Too much compromise, or not enough. The feeling of some secret agenda, or some expected transaction.
Frody gave us everything he had, defying every prognosis and stubbornly clinging not just to life, but to the joy in it. We tried to give everything back, even when it got hard and, yes, expensive.
Tammy became his hospice nurse when the cancer got to a certain point and a lot of care and sacrifice became necessary. It was more intensive and emotionally draining than you can imagine. There were hard discussions, bad days, close calls.
We almost lost him once. He had a seizure, collapsed in the bed, became inert for nearly 15 minutes as we held him on either side, whispering our goodbyes, all of our hands on him. Just as we were letting go and moving toward acceptance, he suddenly bolted upright, eyes wide and alarmed as if he had seen a vision too horrible or wonderful to describe. In a few minutes, he sauntered down the ramp to get some water as we watched in utter disbelief.
Then he lived for 617 more days, which included two “farewell, Frody” beach vacations and two more Christmas celebrations. It included carriage rides and golf cart rides, spontaneous trips to Dairy Queen, gnawing on new bones, playing his horn, playing tug of war with chew toys, jockeying for position with his siblings for cheese slices in the kitchen, and countless more hours glued to our sides in perfect contentment.
Everything is different now. The women came and went. Then the other dogs came in to join us, as we all tried to comprehend his body and our lives and a future without him in it.
I think the love we have for our pets is about one ounce heavier than the pain of losing them. So we sign up willingly for pain that doubles us over, knowing that every love story ends in heartbreak.
That alone makes us barely worthy of our dogs.