The shrill yelp wound up the stars and woke me. My eyes popped open and I lay there, breathing quietly in the still air of my bedroom, waiting for another sound. A quick yip followed. My fingers fumbled for my glasses and I padded as quietly as I could down the stairs. The creak of the wood floor announced me to Shadow, who stood in front of the back door. His large eyes glistened in the moonlight that filtered through the glass panes.
"You need to go out buddy?" I asked him. He snorted in reply.
After I shut the door, I lowered myself into the recliner and placed my head against the back of the chair. It was too early to be up. Even though I'm a morning person, 3:46 a.m. is categorized as too early even for me. A yawn escaped my mouth. I rubbed at my eyes and craned my neck to see if Shadow was at the door yet. I didn't see my friend, and I knew that he was probably hanging a few feet beyond the door, laying on the patio in his classic pose. I imagined his back legs spread out behind him as he enjoyed the calm darkness of the early morning and the coolness of the concrete patio beneath his belly.
No sooner did I close my eyes when a sharp bark alerted me to his presence at the door. I twisted the door knob and pulled the door toward me. He hesitated and then trotted inside before looking up at me, the skin of his face wrinkled, his eyes, so tired looking. That face said everything: "Where are you going?" When I walked up the two stairs to the living room, he yelped again. Turning back toward him, I looked another time into those friendly dark eyes."Stay with me," they said. So, I did.
We both settled in: Shadow on the floor and me on the couch. I pulled my grandmother's afghan around my shoulders and curled my knees up toward my chest. I leaned into the cushions, hoping to find warmth and comfort. But the couch had stood empty for hours and I gained nothing from the soft fabric beneath my body. I heard a large sigh come from below me and I listened to the steady thrum of Shadow's breathing. I buried my face into the scratchy yarn of the afghan and covered my eyes, hoping to control the tears that wouldn't stop spilling across my cheeks.
When it first became apparent that something was wrong with Shadow, it wasn't because he voiced his discomfort. A trip to the veterinarian came on the tail end of GI issues. But no matter what Shadow felt--and it couldn't have been good--he never complained. In fact, since the time we were graced with his presence in the summer of 2007, we've had many a malady, but never a true way to know that something was the matter.
"Goldens are like that, " Dr. B always said. "You can't tell that something is wrong sometimes until it's too late."
As I revealed two months ago, it was too late (and nearly impossible) to do anything about Shadow's liver problems. But as of two weeks ago, Dr. B diagnosed him with an unidentified ear mass, too. It had grown so large that the beast stuck out of his right ear and had rendered Shadow deaf on that side. The doctor wasn't sure what the mass actually was, but based on it's odor and leaky discharge (and the inability of an antibiotic to cure it), it was clear that something was amiss. Putting the dog under to resect the ear canal made no sense, considering his age and liver diagnosis.
"If he didn't also have those liver masses, we could do something," Dr. B said. "So give me a call if you need something, but let's just try to keep him comfortable."
Maintenance of his comfort level had been my goal every day since the liver diagnosis back in August, when the doctor told me to take stock of good days and bad days.
"When the bad days outnumber the good days, you'll know it's time. Just keep him comfortable in the meantime," the vet had said.
So it wasn't hard to adjust to that demand two weeks ago because I'd been doing it since August. And if I think about our time back to August, it's clear that I've done my job. I've tried, every day, to take stock of Shadow's appetite, activity level, and behavior. I've scurried home from work to make sure he gets outside on time. I've roasted chickens and ditched the regular dog food. I made cheese sandwiches and waffles and PB and J for him and snuck him bites of pizza crust and leftover ravioli. Each day, I looked at him and thought, Has it been a good day? Or Was this one of the bad days? Sometimes, it wasn't so easy to tell, but over the last three weeks or so, I had a nagging feeling that Shadow's hourglass of sand was almost empty.
But Shadow and I had a deal. Right after we'd come home from the vet and he had been diagnosed with that ambiguous ear mass, we were in the kitchen--I had been doing some cooking and Shadow had been lounging across the floor--both of us listening to Vance Joy on Google Play. I turned toward him and started talking, to him of course. His ears perked up (the left more so than his right), he opened his lazy eyelids, and he blinked at me a few times. He knew I was talking to him, of that I'm sure.
"You have to let me know, Shadow," I said, my wooden spoon in hand."You have to let me know when it's time." I knelt in front of him so our faces stood level. "I can't read your mind and I'm not going to want to let go of you. You have to find a way to let me know." The fingers of my free hand trailed through the fur across his back. I ruffled the edges, still soft and smooth even at 12 years old, and moved my hand up toward his head. As I traced the outline of his skull, he leaned into my palm, stayed there a moment, and then moved away.
I took Shadow's response as affirmation that he'd let me know when it was time to say goodbye. And while I didn't want to notice it when it happened, the morning after I slept on the couch, when I opened my eyes against the grit of not enough sleep and too many tears, I realized what had happened.
"Stay with me," was Shadow's way of saying, "It's time to let go."
If you knew that you were sending someone somewhere they'd never return from, would you do it? My head--most of the time grounded in common sense and logic--scrambled and fought with the mournful note that sang within my heart. But in the end, I made the call. The time was set. Dr. B could be there Tuesday evening, and so could we.
I found myself struggling to get through the day. My patience for students and children and colleagues wore thin and I simply wanted to run home and spend the last few hours of Shadow's life with him. I knew that even though my shaggy friend waited for me--probably under the dining table or laying next to Tim, who had taken the day off to be with Shadow--only silence would greet me when I walked in the door. It had been weeks since Shadow had barked a welcome upon hearing the lift of the garage door. But the stillness from that day would be nothing compared to the heavy quietude of the next day and the next and the next. I needed to gather as much peace and strength from this faithful, strong soul as I could, before he visited Dr. B for the last time.
The afternoon trudged on. I sat outside, ate my lunch, and graded papers as Shadow and I basked in the fall sun, the rays warming our skin. After I'd gone inside, I put away dishes and performed other mundane tasks around the house. I couldn't concentrate on lecture notes or editing tasks because Shadow was outside and preferred to be there. It was as if he knew this was his last chance to be in his own backyard, on the patio, in a place he'd always seemed to cherish. From time to time, I went outside, stuck my foot out, and ran it across his side as he lay on the concrete. The warmth of his body assured me he was still with me, at least for a little while. I knew that within the span of five hours, that statement would no longer hold true. And yet, somehow, I couldn't see it. I didn't want to see it. I refused to see it.
The minutes crept by. Melina came home. I told her to begin on homework while I rubbed Shadow's belly. I picked the girls up from school and dropped them off at viola lessons. I gathered Aaron from school and asked him to do whatever he had to do. I rubbed Shadow's belly. I began our dinner, rubbed his belly again, and then went to get the girls from their lessons. The clock on the dashboard read 4:45 p.m. Shadow had just under an hour left of the wondrous life he had led. He deserved so much more than I could give him, didn't he? But the only thing I had to give was a belly rub. This time, the belly rub turned into an enormous hug. I held onto him for as long as I could, until the fur of his back was saturated with my tears.
My alarm didn't sound this morning. Instead, like I'm sometimes wont to do, a random noise awoke me well before I needed to arise. Unable to go back to sleep, I crept down the stairs. Rectangles of light illuminated the foyer floor, the spot where, on most mornings, I'd see a sleepy Shadow stretched across the uniform squares. The emptiness of the tile mocked me, and I slumped onto the carpeted steps. The thud of my weight echoed across the foyer. Breathing in and out slowly, I timed my breaths with the whir of the refrigerator, knowing that concentrating on something concrete would help the abstract thoughts in my head dissolve. But once I made it to the kitchen, where the dog bowls sat and Shadow's blue leash hung, limp and alone, I crumbled against the cabinets.
I know with time, I'll no longer miss the click-clack of his nails against the hardwood floors and that I'll stop hearing the ghostly echo of his hearty bark at the back door. My inclination to dash home to let him out will wane within weeks, because he won't be there, needing to go outside. But over the last nine years, I've developed muscle memory with respect to this dog. My guess is that I'll call out when I walk in the door, talk to a being who no longer lounges on the floor when I cook, and look forward to the gentle bump of his nose on my knee as he rises from under the table.
I'm sure this morning the dried tears will stand out against the stark paleness of my face. The skin around my eyes, puffed from too much crying, will tell the story of what we did yesterday. My throat, irritated by the myriad salty tears, isn't up for lecturing or leading a lab session, but such is life. Shadow moved on, no matter what the obstacle, and so must I.
Peace be with you, Shadow, and much love and happiness to you.