Every morning for the past three weeks, he has woken me at 4am with his pacing. Collar jangling, looking for God knows what. He has been talking to ghosts lately. He wanders into corners, gets stuck, and lets out a hoarse “woof.” I rouse myself from bed to feed him. Sometimes he eats, sometimes he doesn’t. Under my breath, I curse the sleep he is costing me. But he is sixteen years old, and in my heart I can’t really be angry with him.
When we moved him across the country more than a year ago, we were sure Shadow only had a few months left. But I suspect he knew we still needed him. Every night in this new house, he implemented a rotating shift, sleeping next to each of the kids’ beds, then finally settling next to ours once he determined all was well.
I got the call from my wife around noon. He wouldn’t get up to go outside, and one of his eyes would not open. When I got home, he was still breathing, but barely. He was laying right where I knew he would be, in the fur-covered divot by my side of the bed. When I stretched out next to him, he barely stirred. Then, slowly and with great effort, he lifted his head and laid it on my arm. It was heavier than I ever remember it being. He opened his good eye, looked into mine, and let out a sigh.
“I’m done,” he told me. He had settled us into this new home and made sure we would be okay. He had checked every corner and stood watch every night. He was happy, knowing he had taken good care of this family for 16 years. But he was also tired, and in pain, and he was asking me to make this easier for him.
I know the difference between sorrow and tragedy. I have lost friends and family members, been to funerals for loved ones taken too soon. Putting down a pet is not a calamity. It is its own special kind of sorrow though, different from any I have felt before. My dog, my best friend, was asking me to take him on his last walk. He had given me everything he possibly could. And never asked for anything in return. Until today.
He sighed again, and there was something of an apology in it. “I am sorry you have to do this,” he told me. I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the vet. He said to come whenever I am ready. I said “a few hours,” to give the kids time for their goodbyes.
On the ride home from school, my wife explained to our children what was happening. They came in quietly and gathered around me and my dog. We ran our hands through his soft fur and told stories about his happier days. Like when he ate the whole fruitcake. Or crashed the wedding party at the beach. At one point, we all laughed. Beyond a doubt, I knew this is how Shadow would want to leave us. Everyone gave him one last squeeze. Lizzie laid a bouquet of flowers, plucked from the yard, by his nose. I cradled him in my arms and carried him to the car. I had not held him like that since he was a puppy.
I asked the vet if I could share one last story. He sat on the floor next to Shadow and me, as I explained about Afghanistan and how this dog helped settle me back home. I could not finish. Shadow laid in my lap, his breathing shallower than before. The doc put a reassuring hand on mine. “This is a dog in pain,” he said. “You’re doing the right thing.” He put in an IV. He flushed the vein. And then . . . .
I laid with Shadow for a long time afterwards, as his body slowly lost its warmth. I buried my head in the soft fur around his neck and let out one last cry. “Such a good dog,” was all I managed to say. When I went home, the kids hugged me and asked about heaven. I told them we would see Shadow there, but I was not really sure.
It is 4am now. I am haunting this house alone, desperate for the jangling of Shadow’s collar. He is the ghost now. Last night I dreamed I saw him across a wide river. He was wagging his tail and pacing happily, something he has not done in a long time. I wondered if he was trying to cross over to me. Then I saw his fur, already wet from a good swim. He wasn’t coming back. He was there waiting. If there is a heaven, our dogs are the ones who let us in.
This essay was reprinted by Fatherly.com on Oct. 1, 2015.