I wasn’t ready to get you. We had recently lost our golden retriever Holly who we’d gotten as a young married couple. Holly was our first glimpse at “parenthood” – could we keep another living thing alive together? Holly was there as we had a baby and moved cross country, twice. Her illness was sudden, the decision to let her go made over the phone as Rick was traveling. I was terrified of being present for the euthanasia so I stayed away. I had let that decision haunt me. The thought of Holly dying surrounding by strangers, albeit caring ones, would bring on a surge of guilt that was almost suffocating. I vowed I would never do that again. That no matter how difficult it might be to make the decision to end an animal’s life and no matter how upsetting it might be, I owed it to this animal to be there. I am reminded of a line from a movie that tackles a much weightier decision, the one of ending a human being’s life. In “Steel Magnolia’s” Sally Field’s character tells her friends after witnessing her daughter’s death as she is removed from life support “I was there when that beautiful creature drifted into my life and I was when she drifted out and it was the most precious moment of my life.” I feel as if the moment of death is an intensely personal one, a passing onto whatever you believe may exist beyond us. It alternately fascinates me and scares the hell out of me. Losing Holly was still raw when we wandered into a pet store not far from our house after dinner one weekend night. In one of the larger cages was a litter of golden retriever puppies. My eyes welled with tears as I looked at my husband and daughter who were eager to fill the void in our lives. Henry was the runt of that litter, skinny with an impossibly small neck.
I picked him up, he snuggled into my chest, and yes, we began the journey again. He would become such an important part of our healing that we added a second dog to our brood a year later. He wasn’t tough. He wasn’t athletic. He had arthritis and skin issues and didn’t retrieve all that much. But he was just about the sweetest thing on four legs. Everyone loved Henry. Neighbors, friends, delivery men, the guys who wash our windows, our families, strangers, other dogs, CATS! He was gentle and loyal and patient beyond words. He followed me from room to room, he welcomed me home late at night, he sat at my feet while I read outside, he kept watch at the front door just in case I didn’t remember it was trash or lawn day. Mostly I remember him walking what seemed like 100 miles on those arthritic legs in the cold Ellijay River, catching tennis ball after tennis ball, following Lucy as she navigated around the rocks or swimming after me as I tubed down the shallow rapids, chasing his sister Sadie along the bank, chewing on sticks, eating marshmallows from our s’mores. He loved the river. So yesterday when it came time to say goodbye to Henry after a sudden illness and organ failure, I stayed with him the whole time, stroking his fur, holding his paw, telling him stories. And long after his wonderful heart stopped beating and his aching body stilled and the doctor left the room, I continued to talk to him about the river and that cool water and all those brightly colored tennis balls and how he was so loved.