Sandy was my family’s dog. We got her from the pound back when I was in college, and have had her ever since. She’s a mutt, some combination of terrier and lab. I always thought she looked like a Muppet snow monster.
We had to have her put to sleep today. She was sixteen or seventeen – when you get a dog from the pound, their age is always sort of vague. She had rheumatoid arthritis in her back legs and a dense, growing mass in the bone of her right front leg. Her right front paw has touched the ground about fifteen times since Thanksgiving. She was deaf and starting to lose her eyesight, and my parents have had to give her morphine to keep the pain back for the last week or so. It was time.
That doesn’t mean this doesn’t completely suck, though.
When we got her from the pound, they told us that she had likely been abused in her previous home, but she didn’t have any behavior problems that they could see. She just cringed when she heard people yelling and got a little weird about dinnertime. When we took her into the isolation pen to sort of test her out or whatever, she climbed into my lap and whimpered and licked my hand. How can you ignore something like that?
Her name on her cage at the pound was Sandy, which is also my mom’s first name. We asked my mom if she wanted us to change the dog’s name, and she knelt to pet her and rub her ears for a minute, looking into her huge brown eyes. Then she stood up and said “you know, I really think she’s been through enough. And if you all talk to me in the same tone of voice you’d talk to a dog, and I can’t tell the difference, we have at least two other problems that are much more important.”
Every single time I entered my parents’ house after that, Sandy exploded all over me like a furry avalanche, thumping her tail and emitting this high-pitched whiny squeal. Her tail would bang into the banister and hit the floor hard enough to hurt, but it never seemed to bother her when I came home. I took her running in the field by my folks’ house, and she kept up with me on the sprints for many years, her face split in a massive dog grin. When we got home she’d drink her entire water bowl, maybe knock back an inch or two of toilet water and then pass out in front of the air conditioner.
Then at night, when I’d finally go to bed, I’d find her lying on whatever bed I was supposed to be staying on. She slept next to me every chance she got. Here she is, last Christmas. She slipped away while Maggie and I were hanging out with my parents by the tree, and helped herself to the end of my bed on the floor of my sister’s old room:
My dad’s eyesight has faded a lot in the last several years, and he can’t drive anymore. He’s in good shape around the house, but outside of that, it can be touch-and-go. Over the last several years, when my mom’s been out running errands, taking care of my grandmother, going to church or whatever else, my dad’s largely been at home in a darkened room.
By choice, but still. Sandy always stayed with him and kept him company, and they got really, really close.
He’s taking this pretty hard.
My dad and I watch a lot of movies together when I’m home. It’s all strictly classic badass canon: Eastwood Westerns, certain Coen Brothers movies like True Grit and No Country for Old Men. Sometimes we would just watch the part in “Witness” where Harrison Ford is dressed like an Amish guy and whips some bullying tourist ass over and over again.
You know the drill. Sandy always joined us. Here’s a photo of a couple of old dogs watching rough frontier justice in what I believe was “The Outlaw Josey Wales”:
Apart from greeting me at the door, hanging out with my Dad and going for walks with my parents, one of Sandy’s other favorite things was to eat fresh corn on the cob:
When I came home for Christmas this year, she still managed to leap up and speed-hobble to the door, whining and thwacking her tail around. She nearly slipped and fell on her face, but she squealed and whined and for a minute there, I thought her legs weren’t so bad. “That’s the fastest she’s moved in months,” my mom said. “She always does this for you, though.”
Sandy never forgot to call us back, forgot anyone’s birthday or showed up half-drunk to a party and perpetrated some bullshit drama she should have outgrown back in college. We never had to make excuses for her, never got disappointed by her, never had to put up with her stupid boyfriends or low self-esteem or periodic flakeouts. She was never late to anything important and never found a cooler group of friends to go hang out with instead of us lame-os who had always been around.
All Sandy asked for was regular exercise, regular food, a chew-bone in the morning and regular patting and belly scratches. And in exchange she gave us her whole life, a tremendous amount of love, loyalty and affection that never diminished and never even flickered for a second. Everything she did, she did consistently, with the same amount of feeling. She gave me that same greeting every time I walked in the door whether I’d been gone for one day or nine months. She never held anything against me. And she couldn’t even tell when I was leaving.
Whenever I left my parents’ place I’d gather my luggage by the front door and get my coat handy before going to the airport. Then I’d find her and get down on the floor to give her a long hug and kiss her just behind her ears. I’ll never forget that scent, or the feeling of that soft angel-white hair against my nose, upper lip and chin.
I’d stroke her ears and beard and say goodbye, and she never had any idea. Not the first time I left, and not the last time I left, right after Christmas, even though I laid there with her for half an hour, until I could finally stop sobbing. I knew this was close for her, and I knew that was it. We don’t always get to say goodbye to the people or animals we love the most.
But that doesn’t make it suck any less when we get a chance to do it, either.
Friends kind of drift as you get older. A lot of my best friends have small kids now, and they’re (understandably) not available like they used to be. Other friends carry their own baggage that gets increasingly more difficult to tolerate. And as time passes, you start to realize that all you have in common with some people is a shared past, and have very, very different ideas of what a good future looks like.
Today, my family did the right thing by the most solid family friend we’ve got – my parents steeled themselves and ended Sandy’s severe suffering. But we lost someone who loved us all for the greatest reasons of all: because we were good to her, and we were simply there and available to receive her considerable love.
Whenever I remember Sandy, I’ll always remember all of this, and one more thing. When she was younger, she used to love to go out into the yard in the evening and look out at the neighborhood. She’d stand on her back legs and balance on her elbows, lifting her nose to smell the delicate scents of the night waking up.
The air would be full of honeysuckle and moonflowers, and she’d catch notes of opossums, neighbor dogs, atoms of who knows what else swirling through the air. Her tail would quiver and she’d just drink in this huge, swirling invisible tapestry, and sometimes let out a few barks just to let that coming darkness know she was there, and she wasn’t scared of anything.
I’ll always remember that about her — curious and alive, standing up against the night. She was fearless and in love with the smells of whatever was coming, and totally at peace with the advancing darkness settling all around her.