The Last Choice

“Blake and Du –“

I stopped, took a breath, tried again. “Blake! Do you want some food?”

Big Blake, our muscular English Labrador, bounded down the stairs to breakfast. As he did, I realized once again how hard this was going to be.

Duchess the Wonder Dog wasn’t there. She wasn’t going to be. Not in this world.

Strange how a small dog can leave such a big hole.

We had her for one more Christmas, the gift that Heather and I really wanted most, curious and loving and even cunning enough to steal part of Blake’s Christmas bone. But the cancer became too much. Piece by piece it was stealing her. Stairs had become terrifying for her, requiring us to lift her and hold her close. Her legs needed more and more help simply to stand. She’d lost any interest in dog food, though she still dived into people food with gusto.

Finally, 41 days after her diagnosis, it became time. Time for the kindest, hardest choice of all. Heather had already cried all her tears and held her close, comforting and reassuring. My own face grew wetter and wetter as I stroked and patted Duchess’s fur,  a stream of thank-yous and I-love-yous falling from my mouth.

We both had to be there. There was no question about that. We had been at her side since she was a three-year-old rescue dog and we weren’t going to leave now.

The time came. The eyes closed. The hearts broke.

I’ve never had to make this choice before.

Nearly 14 years old. That’s a long time for any dog. Too short for any heart.

But long enough to fill our hearts with memories.

There was our first meeting in Wichita when she was still timid and fearful from a little-known past. We greeted her, welcomed her, loaded her in the car – and 20 minutes later, our car was hit by a driver turning left against the light. I lifted a frozen Duchess to get her out of the busy intersection and she bit my arms in panic, the first and only time she would ever do so.

I still carry those faint marks on each arm. A memory made tangible.

The years since then could fill a book. They’ve certainly filled a lot of columns. Even in her most timid days, she loved children, letting them climb all over her. Our Kansas dog rejoiced to discover Colorado mountains, roaming far and wide until called close again by Heather’s voice. She charged through any fresh snowfall with glee, spinning through the back yard like a furry tornado, driving her snout deep into the whiteness until she earned the nickname “Snownose.”

Her timidity muted over the years – calmed by love, time, and pizza – but never entirely went away. (Right after a move, we learned that Duchess’s anxiety could become powerful enough to claw through a bedroom door.) But she had her own courage and awareness. A neighbor’s dog that jumped the fence and began barking at Heather soon found a black-and-white growling guardian in front of her. Our disabled ward Missy found that Duchess treated her with loving care … even if the cute doggy didn’t always linger long enough for a pat. A young friend of Missy’s named Hunter declared at a softball game that Duchess’s middle name was Hunter, too – and from that moment, it was.

On and on the stories go. Written in love, held by memory.

That same love made the choice to end her pain necessary … and darned near impossible.

How do you say good-bye to a hello that has lasted so long?

Maybe we never really do.

Maybe that’s how you know you loved and were loved.

My last photo of her was taken a few hours before the end. She had just wolfed down a Wendy’s cheeseburger, a gift that brought joy and excitement with it. As she licked up her lips and looked up with a smile, she seemed – just for a moment – to have become a puppy again. To shed the years and the pain and simply be Duchess.

A final gift. A welcome one.

Thank you, my good girl. Thank you so much.

You may never know it, but you rescued us, too.

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