Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Final Gift

After a sleepless night of listening to her bark and whine, I knew it was time. Katie, our almost 15 year-old Springer spaniel, was in her final stage of life. She had been declining health for months but when my oldest daughter left for a year studying in Germany, one of the last things she asked was to make sure Katie was still here when she came home. But that’s more than two months away and I knew she couldn’t live that long.

We picked Katie out of a litter one cold, grey day in December 1992 because she was the puppy that immediately rolled over for a belly scratch when we entered her kennel. She was a fluffy, mellow, black and white playmate for my two daughters (ages 8 and 4) who captured our hearts from the minute we loaded her into our car. Of course, that first night was a little rocky but we followed the dog-training directive and put her in a kennel right from the start. And I think I spent most of that first night with my fingers threaded through the wires of the kennel door resting on her head which seemed to be enough to reassure her that she was not alone.

The kennel quickly became her safe haven--the place she retreated to whenever she needed to flop down in exhaustion after running, fetching, and cuddling with her new human family. Soon we took to leaving the door to her kennel open, as she quickly understood the idea of housetraining.

Her Springer spaniel genes manifested themselves whenever water was involved. She loved to jump into the kids’ wading pool in the back yard and Yes, I admit it, I even bought a wading pool for the dog, long after the kids were too big to fit into it. She would jump into the water, scoop up the water, and bark, savoring the cool wetness as we watched and laughed at her performance. She loved water so much that all I had to do was say, it’s time for a bath and she would head up the steps of our two story house and hop in the tub, waiting impatiently for me to come turn on the water.

She was there through all the ups and downs for my two girls—an ever-present best friend. She was there for a game of tug or fetch. She was there to cuddle when they had a bad day. She was there to take to school for “show and tell”. And she was always ready for a belly scratch; her big brown eyes filling with love and appreciation for reaching that exact spot that made her hind leg scratch in unison with your fingers.

So yesterday, after a night of listening to her whine and helping her stand up and carrying her outside because she could no longer make it up and down the back steps, we knew it was time. Time to give her that final gift. Admitting that it was a difficult part of his work, our vet helped me through it, explaining the procedure, sedating her, and making it as painless as possible, respecting my need to grieve, and allowing us all to respect the gift of Katie’s long and loving life as a member of our family.

This morning, I caught myself glancing at her usual resting place and Tillie, our five year old terrier seemed surprised to have the bowl of dog food all to herself. And now I face the task of explaining to my daughter why her dog won’t meet her at the back door the day she returns. I can only hope that she can understand that Katie’s spirit is still with us—resting in the hole under the maple tree where she always liked to snooze, or drinking from the hose whenever I water the flowers, or sleeping on top of the empty tennis shoes at the foot of Makenzie’s empty bed. And that the best way to honor the loyalty of any dog as beloved as our Katie, is to give her the final gift of a good and painless death--my hand resting lightly on her head, reassuring her that she was not alone.

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