In the spring of 2013, my husband called me while I was up working at my dad’s 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, my brother who also just happens to be an equine veterinarian, 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 and for me to get back down to Austin from Montana.
It had not.
She’d lost control of her hind legs, she could not stand, and I’m pretty certain that she was blind in her left eye. She knew my voice though, and she liked it when I talked to her and scratched behind her ears. She’d get up on her elbows, and I told myself that she enjoys the view of the sun and my roses and that damn squirrel that was 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 felt. Muddy, our chocolate lab, was the froth, the effervescence, the unadulterated joy of living, but Reba was the foundation, the silent love, the unconditional devotion. She was the dog that I napped with, the dog that sighed when I did, the dog that watched and waited for my return and always met me at the door. We were a bonded pair.
After much consideration, I made the decision that the kindest thing to do was to put her to sleep, to let her go and join Muddy. I wished beyond anything that I’d given her one perfect dog day that Jon Katz describes, but I could not as I was too late. Instead it was quiet words, scratching her chest, pulling her ears, and I lost count of the times I told her that I loved her that day. I’m okay with the decision, although that doesn’t mean that it hurt any less. I spent a large portion of that day laying waste to boxes of Kleenex, sobbing so much that I forgot 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 was–and still 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.