This is a story that needed to wait until I was ready to tell it. But time has passed, and with it, the deep grief I felt. That is not to say I won’t drip some tears in the telling, but it is time for me to tell the story before I forget it. We must all remember that sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest.
Barney had been coughing up phlegm for a couple weeks — congestive heart failure, most likely. Sometimes, he coughed hard enough to lose his kibble, but mostly it was just watery, slimy phlegm. Bubba, who was not his real dad, but his adopted dad, cleaned it up, led him outside, patted his back, and at least once caught it in his hand as if he was his real dad. I know Bubba worried about me, who had loved Barney for twelve of his thirteen years, but he waited patiently for me to decide when the old guy had had enough.
As a pup, he was picked up at a local no-kill animal shelter. He had a previously injured toe, and an ear that stood up more than the other. He could run like the wind, and played hard. While mannerly at mealtime, never begging or asking for attention, abandoned food was his for the taking. He once ate an entire week’s raw meat out of grocery bags while I ran in to get a few copies made at the printer, and was in his seat looking innocent by the time I got back to the car!
It seems like he was with us such a short time, and yet forever. When we knew it was almost time — he was getting skinnier and more lethargic every day — I texted the kids to come see him if they needed to. The girls came and brushed him, the balls of fluff laying in the yard as evidence to their act of love. One son lay on the carpet with him, breathing in his essence and remembering better times, tears streaming from his eyes.
Once I knew they had all seen him that week, there was one more thing to do. We took him out to the dog park one last time. We waited for him to walk our route, stopping for him to catch up, never letting him feel rushed. He waded in the pools and drank from the muddy water. His coat had become dull. He laid down when we stopped. He had become a spectator of the dog-sports he had previously participated in so passionately.
His appetite was almost nonexistent. I boiled a chicken just for him. That night he ate a piece and threw it up. The next day he refused the chicken. I think that’s when I realized there was nothing left for him. During my lunch break, I called the vet and made his last appointment. When I got home from work, we coaxed him to the car and lifted him in.
I chose a different vet this time. The one my daughter had taken the rabbit to when she rescued it. The one who told my daughter she saved a bunny’s life, and told me I should be proud. The one with the old paneled office, and curtains on the windows, and gold linoleum on the floor. We had trouble finding it, and passed the road a few times before we got it right.
It was a quiet ride. Barney didn’t put his head out the window, or bark at the dogs on leashes as we passed.
When we pulled up, a couple holding a dog on a leash motioned us over, but they had the wrong idea. They thought we were looking for the entrance to another building, and quickly redirected us next door. Their young, strong Staffordshire Bull Terrier saw Barney and stood alert. He pulled, and the man holding the leash was rendered off-balance. The dog pulled harder, and the man fell, still holding the leash. The woman commanded their dog to stop, but he didn’t, and the man was in danger of losing the leash.
Barney, in his last act of defiance, pulled at the leash I held. I was surprised by how much strength was still left in him. His ears propped up, and the hair on his back stood erect. The stark difference between the two dogs in stature was alarming. And so, Bubba, not his real dad, but his adopted dad, stood between the dog and Barney. He put his hands on his hips and poised himself authoritatively and stared the dog down. It was a loving act from a man to his dog.
Then I led Barney into the paneled office through the screen door with the homemade sign on it. We were directed to a room with a gold privacy curtain. Barney lay down on his side and watched the feet of people passing under the curtain. There were decisions to make, and we made them all, and signed the papers. Did we want cremation? Yes. Did we want his ashes? Yes. Did we want a clay paw print? Yes. In between each question, I asked Bubba, “Do we?”
Barney was hoisted onto a table. Despite our encouragement, he would not lay down, so they let him stand. A tourniquet was placed on his front leg. I looked him in the eye and told him what a good boy he was. It was the last thing I wanted him to hear. “You’re a good boy, Barney.”
He always hated it when I cried. While some dogs snuggle up to their humans, trying to comfort them, Barney would head downstairs to his den to wait out the tears. It was so important I did’t cry at this time. Breathe. Silent tears felt down my cheeks. “Good boy.”
The needle was pressed and inserted on a bulging vein on his leg. “Good boy, Barney.” His rear legs slowly sank to a sit. “Good, good boy, Barney. You’re a good boy.” Slowly his front legs slid down the stainless steel table, and his head drooped low, finally resting on his paws. “Good boy, Barney.”
The life left his eyes, and the vet listened to his chest. “He is gone now.”
We stayed with him and petted him a few last times. We thanked them. They said they were sorry. And we drove away.
What do you do after you have released one you love from his misery? Bubba drove us to the meat store and we picked out the biggest, juiciest t-bones in honor of Barney, and grilled them up for dinner. We cried a bit, and cried a bit less the next day, and less yet the day after that. We cried again at the dog park, his favorite place on earth. How lucky we are to have had a companion such as Barney . . .
Guardian of the Mailbox, Chaser of Frogs, Best Friend of Man.
Peace . . .