The email from my daughter, Erin, came on the evening of January 16. It’s title was short and full of foreboding: “Thea’s gone.” A few hours earlier she had written that she and her husband had taken Thea to the “doggie hospice”.
She described how her big black lab mix, Thea, had to be put down because of the obvious pain she was in. I replied with a note of consolation. As if that would help. I thought of my daughters heartbreak, then I began to recall a similar feeling of the loss of a loved pet that I experienced nearly sixty years ago. I lost my dog, King.
Over the decades, I began to lose the memory of King and how, as a young boy of nine, I ran all over our back yard with him, played with him and laughed at him. I had unearthed a box of old photos a year ago. There was King, in the winter standing next to my igloo. There he was in the summer sun of the backyard. I remembered the time when he got into the garbage, somehow, and ended up with his snout stuck into an empty can of Campbells Tomato Soup. He panicked and ran all over our yard while me and my brothers tried to catch him and free him of the can on his snout. It took awhile before we cornered him by the garage removed the can. I thought of the time when King got lost in the tall weeds in another section of our yard. My brothers watched the path of moving brush and then, to get his bearings, he would leap straight up in the air and take a quick look around to locate us.
Now, with this sad news, I began to look for patterns and pitfalls of pet ownership. Erin’s experience with Thea and mine with King had similarities, but also major differences.
In my experience, when a child loses a pet, two outcomes can take place. Either the child cries, moves on and takes on a new pet…knowing now that there’ll be heartbreak somewhere down the road. Or, the child can chose not to experience that pain…and proceed through life without a pet. I chose the latter. My daughter chose the former. I have avoided these kinds of hurtful events (my heartbreak came in human form) for decades. Was I any better off? Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
Another major difference in these two events came to mind. Erin is an adult and she took full responsibility in caring for Thea up to the end. She was hoping she didn’t make the mistake of keeping Thea near her, hoping she would pass away quietly in her sleep instead of suffering. But, she made the decision to give Thea the pain-free end to a long and fun-filled life. My daughter got Thea from a dog pound when she (Thea) was about six or seven years old. That was around 2008. So, do the math. Thea was an old dog.
King, on the other hand wasn’t that old. His problems began when he was hit by a car. We began to keep him in an extra room on our first floor. His body functions were declining. His hearing was affected and he would howl like an arctic wolf whenever the train whistle blew. We lived about a block from the railroad and in the late ’50’s, the trains were frequent. King didn’t need a full moon to sound like Lon Chaney, Jr.
We talked about doing something for King…I knew what that “thing” was and I put a stop to any talk of the matter. King was, more or less, my dog. I would make the calls about him.
But I didn’t.
I know my parents loved me, but they did something that was to affect me for a life-time. I’ve only recently forgiven them. They thought they were doing the right thing.
I had the flu, or a really bad cold. I was bed ridden for about a week. I ran a fever for days. I was miserable.
When I was better after that hellish week, I was very busy trying to catch up in school. A family friend of our drove a school bus for the district. He saw me walking to class one morning so he broke the rules and stopped to give me a ride the few blocks.
“Sorry about your dog,” he said.
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“Your father took him down to Doc. Phelps and had him put to sleep several days ago”.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I rushed home at the end of the day and asked my mother. She said they decided to do it when I was sick and they didn’t want to upset me. So, the choice was taken from me and the truth was withheld.
I was angry because I had lost any control I had. My chance for a “grow up moment” had passed. I was a bystander. My daughter was just the opposite, making all the right choices.
Even today, I will stop on the streets of New York City or Saranac Lake and see a dog that looks just like King.
“Look,” I would say to my wife. “There’s King.”
Growing up, I had no vision of King except memories of soup cans. I avoided looking at the Vet’s office for years. King’s bones were buried in the back yard, not far from the railroad tracks that carried the trains that caused him the pain I could have freed him from.
My daughter knows that Thea is romping on a beach right now, cavorting with other dog friends.
I cried the other night. I cried for my daughter’s pain, for King and for Thea.
Erin reports that her cat, Guinness, won’t leave her side. I hope she never has to.