“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
The day after Christmas, my husband Mike and I made one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make. In layman’s terms, we put down our old dog. The vet said we would know when it was time, and when he could no longer stand or hold in basic functions, we knew it was time.
Our old pup was named Charlie for the city of his birth. I remember the day we chose him from a litter of other fluffy back balls at an animal shelter in Charleston, WV. A friend of ours at the time was a veterinarian technician, and she schooled us in just how to choose a complacent pup. “Cradle the puppy like a baby. If he is content to stay in your arms like that, he will be easy. Oh, and try to get a female. They are SO much easier than males,” our friend told us.
Since the only female in the litter of black Labrador puppies was taken, Mike and I chose the only boy who would not be content to stay cradled in our arms. What this pup lacked in complacency, he made up for in personality. The spark in his light brown eyes said, “Pick me, and you won’t regret it.”
We had to wait a few days before we could bring him home, and the anticipation almost killed us. I can only imagine what adopted parents must feel like waiting to meet their new child for the first time. Not that I am equating the two, but Charlie WAS our first-born. He was our pre-kids pup. During the waiting period, we went through some rules and boundaries for the pup. No sitting on the furniture. No people food. No jumping on people. And, he would go to the best dog training school in the area. (We were so Yuppie at the time.)
The second that dog passed over our threshold Mike forgot all the rules. He pulled Charlie next to him on the couch to watch college football (“What? Just for a minute,” the man-child said), and when Charlie cried at night in the crate, Mike would rescue him and let Charlie snuggle between us in bed.
Yes, we became THOSE doggie parents. The ones who treated their dogs like humans. After all, he was our baby. We were in the pre-kid mode but wanting so badly to nurture something. And, I have to confess that Mike was not the only spoiler in the family. During the day, I was writing my dissertation, and this pup spent his first year sitting on my lap with his head on my wrist as I typed away. And, I took him with me to Massachusetts when I had to meet with my committee members. He was my puppy co-pilot on those long drives through the Appalachian and Alleghany Mountains. Charlie even survived a brutal Nor’easter storm that dropped two feet of snow in one night. When I took him outside to do his business, he would simply disappear in the snow for a minute and would suddenly pop his black puppy head out of a white crevice.
Charlie was an amazing animal. His fur was sleek and shiny, and he could run as if jet proposed. Charlie had so much energy those first few years, that Mike would take him for walks by riding his bike holding a leash. The neighbors would shake their heads in fascination. And, the neighborhood children would fight for his attention outside. “Can we pet him? Will he play fetch with me? Can he have my popsicle?” Yes, yes, yes.
When I was pregnant with my first child, Charlie starting acting strange. We would come home to find little puddles of pee in various spots in the house. Thinking this poor dog had a bladder infection, we took him to the vet. After a thorough exam, the doctor asked if I was pregnant. It was so early on, we had only told our parents, so I was taken aback. The vet said that Charlie knew this and was marking his territory. The doctor said that a dog’s sense of smell is so powerful, it is the equivalence of smelling one drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool. Charlie could smell the pregnancy hormone on me, and he didn’t like what was about to come.
As he aged and mellowed a bit, Charlie was the most beloved dog in all the kingdom. So many people would say to us, Charlie was the best dog they ever met, and if they could be guaranteed a dog like him, they would get one. When our friends did adopt a dog, they often admitted in a whispered aside that he or she was no Charlie.
Charlie loved kids (except ours at first because they knocked him down a few notches on the attention scale). He would let toddlers crawl all over him, pull on his fur with their chubby fingers, and not move a muscle. Every time we came home, he brought us a present, like a chew or a stuffed animal. In fact, we would leave him a chew when went to work, but Charlie would not touch it until we got home. In the morning when we were getting ready, we would find Charlie under the blankets with his head on the pillow just like a person. And, on more than one occasion I was convinced, that dog knew English. If we said the word “walk” even in casual conversation, Charlie would run over to where his leash hung and dance around until guilt propelled me to take him outside.
In some ways, Charlie was a therapy dog because when a child came over who was deathly afraid of dogs—and I mean climbing-onto-their-parent’s-head afraid—in time Charlie would somehow hypnotize them. But the end of the visit, the child would be laying across Charlie or typing bows in his hair. Everybody loved Charlie.
The day we took Charlie into the vet for the last time, we told our kids what we were doing. We had given them warning for about a month that their puppy brother was not doing well. They spent an hour or so hugging him and crying over him. It broke and rebroke my heart every time I heard them cry out his name.
Watching Charlie die was so heart wrenching for me. I had known death. I watched both my mother and father-in-law die. There are no words for that kind of loss. But, with Charlie I had a gnawing pang of guilt because Mike and I made the decision to end his life. That is an Atlas-like burden that I am still not over. But, it was peaceful. Charlie just stopped breathing as we petted his bear-like body. One second here, the next gone.
When we got home, the kids were still crying. I was crying. I soothed them the best way I knew how by saying, “Charlie is not in pain anymore.” But, that night when I was putting my 8-year-old to bed, he asked me if I thought Charlie was in heaven. I said I did. I don’t know why I believe that. I think I just can’t imagine a heaven without a Charlie. So, in my version of heaven Charlie young, arthritic-free, running side-by-side with the angels, and ever chasing (never catching) heavenly squirrels.