I took my old friend to the vet yesterday and had him put to sleep. The staff of the clinic must all have been alerted by my wife, because the receptionist
recognized my name or his on the sign-in sheet and said, "Oh," with a significance that made my heart turn over, and she showed me immediately into one of the little rooms. Examining rooms. Rooms of healing, rooms of death, which is sometimes, ultimately, the only possible healing left us. Almost instantly a new and unknown vet, improbably young, came in with an assistant. They asked me to have Max lie down.
"Sit, old man," I said. In a final irony, the failing hips, which were one of the primary reasons for this fatal trip, worked perfectly.
"Lie down," I said, and he lay down as he had always lain, at my feet, panting slightly
from nerves. He was always nervous at the vet's. I should have had them come out to the house.
The child vet took the prepared syringe she had brought in, felt quickly and expertly
for the vein in Max's leg, and administered the shot. As the syringe emptied, he stopped panting and gently lowered his nose forward onto the ground just outside his leg, as he was wont to do, and slept for the last time.
something as momentous as the dark magnitude of death must give us some kind of epiphany, reward us at least with a moment of transcendent understanding of life - of what it means to be not just a human but any living thing on this shared earth - provide us some insight into the relationship between man and his kindly mentor and willing servant. Surely it should give me words to express these acute insights and so ease my pain and make his quiet sleep worthwhile. But all that came out of my mouth as I stroked the thick soft still-warm ears - so much heavier than just a moment ago - was, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Sorry that I
had neither skill enough nor prayers strong enough to fix the degenerated hips, the uncertain bowels - to prolong, pain-free - and dignity intact, the life that had given me such pleasure. But when that pale and unrelenting trainer blows his silent whistle for us we must go, skill nor prayers notwithstanding.
What I wept for, selfishly, was not just a dog, though there is no such thing as "just a dog" anymore than there is "just a child" or "just a
wife" or "just a father". But rather I wept for an irretrievable part of my heart, for 12 years of my life that were immeasurably enriched by his presence and
ultimately for the godlike forgiveness of sins, oh so many sins, washed away by a rough pink tongue, absolved by the drumming of a loving tail.
How ironic, how incredible, that in the relationship between man and dog we should be given the role of God, for we are so woefully miscast.
In the end what you're left with is doubt and pain. Doubt of your own judgment, your own
motives. Was the discomfort of his deteriorating hips great enough to justify this? Was it an act of kindness or a selfish reaction to the inconvenience of incontinence? Could I have done more? Should I have tried something else? And pain - exquisite, excruciating pain. If life is a system of balances, of yin and yang, birth and death, light and dark. then the proof of the great pleasures he gave me lies in the quantity of pain his passing has caused. For 12 years he was my friend, my true and constant companion, my mentor, for God knows I learned more about hunting from him than he learned about retrieving from me.
triumph. The grouse he found where I knew there would be no grouse, could be no grouse because I had read the books and he hadn't. The impossible retrieve against insuperable life-threatening odds in a fast-flowing river where I had misjudged the current, a retrieve I should never have asked for. The pheasants found, bird after bird after bird, flushed and retrieved in a field previously picked clean by other hunters, other dogs, and him on already weakening 10-year-old legs. And then as we walked back triumphant, exultant, limited out, we found an old cemetery hidden and overgrown on the edge of a slough and, as I stopped to read the headstones, for the first time in his great-hearted life he sank slowly to the ground and could not go on. I thought then my heart would break. Other moments, equally memorable, if not so eminent. The High Sierra lake where I took my children, my handicapped daughter using his thick, powerful tail as a towrope while he churned happily through the water, hours on end, like the lifeguard he was. The end of a long day's grouse hunting as we dragged our weary bodies back to my brand-new station wagon and Max decided, for the only time in his life, to roll in a dead animal, but made up for all other abstinences by choosing to roll in a dead skunk. We walked the seven miles home.
And a thousand
other memories common to all hunters and all who love Dogs - nothing unique, nothing extraordinary. And yet, and yet. And yet there will always be galloping toward me a joyous brown dog with eyes the color of a good single malt whisky, with a goose pheasant or quail in his mouth - bringing the bird to me, giving me always far more than I could ever have given him.
Jameson Parker, the host of The Outdoor World of Ducks Unlimited television show, is an avid outdoorsman. He and his wife now share their lives with a young
Gordon setter, Daisey, and a black Lab puppy, Charlie.