I’m a dog person. That one short sentence says an awful lot about somebody, but it’s true. I’m a dog person through and through. Don’t get me wrong; I love all animals (even cats, only because I think somehow I’m commanded to), but dogs just melt my heart. They are everything that’s good, and nothing that’s bad, in our natures.
For several years now, we have had four dogs. As crazy as that sounds, I think we have a dog for every kid that grew up and left home. I love them all dearly, but there’s one – Chester - whom we had since he was about 6 weeks old. He became a part of our family nearly 14 years ago when a veterinarian friend of mine called me to say that I might want to meet the little guy. You see, we had recently lost our beloved Golden Retriever Maddie to wicked cancer when she was only 5 years old. Heartbroken, I couldn’t even think about adopting another dog. No one could replace Maddie.
At my friend’s urging, I went to meet this mangy, starved, worm-eaten little fur ball, telling myself the whole time that I was only going to appease my friend. I pulled into her driveway that afternoon, and I saw her holding what looked like a leash with nothing at the end of it. As I walked closer, however, I saw that there was, indeed, a little dog at the end of the leash. He had buff-colored fur and the biggest, blackest eyes I had ever seen. He looked like a sad, forlorn little snowman. I bent to pick him up but she warned, “Don’t touch him. He’s being treated for every kind of worm under the sun.”
I heard the words come out of my mouth before I realized I had said them. “He’s beautiful. I’ll take him.” After spending 2 weeks at the vet getting cured of every malady under the sun, the day finally came for Chester to come home and join our family. Now I can’t pretend to know a dog’s thoughts or capabilities, but the look on that sweet dog’s face registered one thing: JACKPOT. This house was full of kids, had a swimming pool and best of all, there was an endless supply of food. Chester’s fortune had changed, and he knew it.
Chester loved life. He loved people. He loved a party. Kids were his favorite, and the food was the absolute best thing on earth. At the height of his health, he tipped the scales at 82 lbs. I’ve never known a dog who loved a belly rub more than he did, and he had the best, most velvety ears just made for rubbing. If he got all that and could sit in your lap while you did it, he was happy.
The years ticked by, and our hyper-energetic Chester slowed down a bit. He quit eating electronics, batteries, lighters, shoes and sunglasses (all for the best, of course). He spent a little more time sleeping than he used to. He also acquired 3 sisters over the years; oddly, 2 of those 3 sisters are the same age, all about 14 years old. The third sister is a beautiful, smart, quirky Goldendoodle that we inherited from our daughter. Each in her own way, the 3 girls are rescues, too.
Last week, Chester began to pant uncontrollably. His countenance had changed, and he developed a cough like I’ve never heard before, at least not from him. I tried all my medication tricks (he’s one of the millions of dogs today who has allergies as badly as children do). Nothing seemed to help. With dread, I called our vet and asked her to take a look at him.
Without going into too much detail, my sweet boy was diagnosed with lymphoma. There was no hope of making him better. No hope of even making him more comfortable. The vet gave me some time with him, but I knew what I had to do. I’ve made the mistake before of trying to hold on too long, and in the long run, the dog just suffered longer than was necessary. I vowed years ago never to do that to another sweet dog.
I sat there in the floor of that examination room, his head in my lap, his sweet eyes imploring me to help him. I rubbed his soft ears, did my best to calm and comfort him, and with tears streaking my face, I summoned the vet.
The entire process of euthanasia takes very little time, but it can feel like years. I rubbed him and talked to him, kissed his big, wide head, and just like that, he was gone. I bent and whispered in his ear, “You run on up ahead, boy. I’ll catch up with you.” And I sat there like that for, well, I’m not sure how long. I sat there like that until I told the vet and her sweet assistant that I was ready to leave.
Every time I go through this, I ask myself why on earth I do it. The pain and sadness are indescribable, and my heart literally breaks. And then I remember, the sunny days and his lightning-fast runs. I remember his penchant for digging (I believe visiting China was on Chester’s bucket list). I remember how fast he could destroy one of those “indestructible” toys. But most of all, I remember the way he’d look at me with utter love and complete adoration. I remember how he’d sit beside me and lay his head in my lap. I remember how he’d fall asleep when I’d scratch his chest. And I knew why I put myself through it and someday, I know I will again.
I sat in our driveway that morning and tried to collect myself before walking in to greet our other sweet dogs after this terrible trip from which their brother didn’t return, and never will. I walked into the house, and there they were - tails wagging and “talking” up a storm. And as if on cue, all of them stopped wiggling and chattering and they began to sniff Chester’s collar, looking from me to the collar and back again. Of course, that triggered a new wave of tears, and when I opened the back door to let the girls outside, instead of running and playing, they each stood beside me, licking my hands and keeping in step with me. Our next oldest – Cassie – spent more time with Chester than any of the others. For days, she paced from room to room, looking for him, then looking at me. They grieve just as we do.
We’ve been giving them extra attention, being sure that they all eat and don’t behave too differently than before they lost their sweet brother. And perhaps sweetest of all, my husband (who could only tolerate the little 5 lb. Chihuahua in bed with us until we lost Chester), now allows them all on the bed with us. He even picks up Cassie, because her back legs are too arthritic to make the leap.
Why do I do it to myself? Why does any dog or cat (or any pet) lover put themselves through it? Because as painful as the end is – and it always is – all the years that precede it are blessed beyond measure with unconditional love, laughter, and all the best that any creature (including man – especially man) can offer.
So yes, my sweet boy. Run on ahead. I’ll catch up with you someday soon, and I’ll be bringing a lot of friends with me. And once we get caught up, you’ll lean into me and lay that good, sturdy head in my lap, and I’m going to rub those perfect ears. And it’ll be a pretty good bet that there’ll be a few treats in my shirt pocket.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. Her fourth book, BLOOD IN THE SOIL, was published in 2016. It is the true tale of a crime that took place in Gwinnett County nearly 40 years ago. Her previous three books are written with Southern humor. Carole often appears on network television talk and news shows, as well as on national true crime radio shows. Her books can be found in bookstores, on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and at www.caroletownsend.com. When she’s not writing, Carole travels throughout the southeast, talking to groups about women, writing, family and life in her beloved South.