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Goodbye, Old Friend

My dog went to Heaven, he went there today
I’m not quite sure how, but he knew the way.
Each day it was harder to run and to climb
And I guess in his heart, he knew it was time.

The first stanza of “Losing Decker” came to me a few years ago, when we first learned the extent of my dog’s arthritis. While my daughter was too young to comprehend, I wanted to give my 5-year-old son a tool to help him through his grief. I wanted him to have some sense of understanding of our responsibility to our pet, of why we would probably have to put him to sleep. So I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

That was three years ago. In the meantime my poem was bought by Journey Stone, a publishing company, to be turned into a picture book, and Decker rebounded. We did everything possible to stave off his pain and stiffness, and to keep him happy. He repaid us by being there every morning to put the kids on the bus and every afternoon to get them off it.

Now Decker is gone, and the bus stop is heartbreakingly empty.

To some he was just a dog, a spoiled golden retriever with bad hips who could understand when we said “W-A-L-K” but couldn’t seem to grasp “Stop barking!” To our family, he was a child, a grandchild and a brother. I used to brag that I’d had my dog longer than I’d had my husband, and my husband would laughingly agree that he knew his place in the pack. It was partly funny, partly true.

When my husband and I were dating and going through a breakup, Decker sat on my bed with me while I sobbed, licking my face and my hair and my hands—anyplace there were tears. The only other time I’ve ever cried like that was the night before we put him to sleep. But this time, I was crying for him, for his pain, for how much I loved him. When he couldn’t get up to kiss my tears again, I knew it was time.

Knowing it was the right thing to do, though, does nothing to ease the pain.

The day after he died a friend sent me a quote by the owners of Barbaro, the famously brave race horse who was put to sleep around the same time: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” When I first read it, I began crying, again, angrily telling myself that it’s too high a price. Love can’t possibly be worth what I’m feeling right now, what my family is feeling right now.

After all, how can I convince my children that Decker’s better off, when I am reeling so much from his loss that I can barely think straight? How do I convince them that now he can do crazy circles and chase squirrels and run through the house without pain, when every time I pass the space where his food and water dish used to be or glance at his collar, I break down in tears?

And then I think of what life would have been without him, and I realize that, yes, he is worth this grief, and more. For 12 years this dog was at my side, through good times and bad, through dating, marriage, kids. He watched me—and helped me—grow up, and was living proof that I was capable of taking care of something other than myself.

He made me feel safe and comfortable when I was living alone all those years ago, and again when I was feeding a baby in the darkness. His was a presence that could not be contained: proud and stubborn and barking one moment, whimpering over fear of thunder the next. He was gentle, and sensitive, and fiercely protective of the kids, whom he guarded as if they were his own. Which, in a way, they were.

If his presence in our life was sometimes noisy, his absence from it is deafening. I keep listening for the jingle of the tags on his collar, the “harrumph” he made when he lay in his bed, the slurping sound when he would drink. Every time I walk into the house I have to remember all over again that he won’t be coming around the corner to greet me. And when I turn off the lights and go to bed, it is with the ache of knowing he won’t be following me upstairs.

Then, of course, there’s the bus stop, where the kids talk about him and remember him and how sad it was to lose him. It’s also where they are beginning to speak of future pets, future dogs, future love. And that’s how it should be—the burning pain turning to a dull ache buffered by happy memories—because it means they’re beginning to truly understand what it means to love, and are not afraid of the price.

My Decker’s in Heaven, where he  
    can romp, run and play
Where he’ll be happy and healthy
    every day.
So I guess I’ll be glad he was here
    for awhile
To love me and lick me and just
    make me smile. 

Maggie Simone is an award-winning writer and mother of two living in Baldwinsville. Reach her at msimone@twcny.rr.com.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York