Last Friday, Joel called me while I was working from the vet clinic in Montana. He was desperately worried that when he’d come home from lunch, he’d found Reba, our German Shepherd, on the floor. She’d been sick, and her legs looked like they’d slid out from under her. He didn’t know what had happened, and neither did I. Several phone calls between my father and brother later, they deduced that just like my father, Reba had had a stroke.
Matt talked to a small-animal vet or two, and since Reba wasn’t in pain, we decided to give her a few days to see if the stroke would clear.
She’s lost control of her hind legs, she cannot stand, and I’m pretty certain that she’s blind in her left eye. She knows my voice though, and she likes it when I talk to her and scratch behind her ears. She’s up on her elbows, and I tell myself that she enjoys the view of the sun and my roses and that damn squirrel that is burying something in the backyard.
The English novelist Julian Barnes described his late wife, Pat Kavanagh, as “the heart of my life, the life of my heart,” and while this may seem an overly dramatic quote when describing one’s dog, that’s what I feel. Muddy was the froth, the effervescence, the unadulterated joy of living, but Reba is the foundation, the silent love, the unconditional devotion. She’s the dog that I nap with, the dog that sighs when I do, the dog that watched and waited for my return and always met me at the door. We’re a bonded pair.
After much consideration, I’ve made the decision that the kindest thing to do is to put her to sleep, to let her go and join Muddy. I wish beyond anything that I’d given her one perfect dog day that Jon Katz describes, but I did not. And now I cannot. Instead it’s quiet words, scratching her chest, pulling her ears, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve told her that I love her. I’m okay with this decision, although that doesn’t mean that it hurts any less. I’ve spent a large portion of this day laying waste to boxes of Kleenex, sobbing so much that I forget to breathe.
Our friend Oscar took a series of photos of me and Joel and the dogs in 2011, not long after Muddy had been diagnosed with cancer. We were extraordinarily lucky (and Oscar is just that talented) in that he was not only able to capture us as a family, but individual photos of dogs that showed others what I already saw in them. I love this particular photo of Reba because she’s looking back, checking that I’m there, letting me know that she is always waiting for me. Reba is love looking back.
One day, I’ll be with her again. And she won’t have to look back to tell me that she loves me because I’ll be right beside her, pulling her ears. But until then, I hope she manages to keep Muddy out of trouble. I still expect to open my inbox one day and find complaint tickets from heaven, telling me that Muddy snagged the bacon. Again.