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Buckley was our first dog. (We named him after a little hound dog from The Royal Tenenbaums.) About ten years ago, my wife and I rescued him from a shelter in Conshohocken, PA. As we walked under the yellow lights, among the corridors where they kept their dogs — a motley crew of pit bulls, mutts, and a very sickly Bernese mountain dog — the musty smell of wet canines clung to every air particle. We’d seen almost all of the dogs by this point. “We’re not going to find one today,” I thought.
And then a little rat terrier-beagle jumped up on the fencing as we came around the last corner, whipping his tail back and forth with excited desperation. Without so much as a forethought, I nudged my wife and said, “I want that one!” I must have sounded like a kid. We took him home the next day, despite protests that he should be put down because of a collapsed trachea — a minor condition that lead him to sometimes honk like a goose so that he could clear his airway. He was quirky like that . . . like us.
Buckley quickly put down his roots in our lives, growing into our habits: my stillness in reading a book on the couch or typing on the computer, my wife’s late-night labors on her website, and my regular attempts to rile him up so that he would sprint back and forth between the dining room and the office, picking up whatever kids’ toy was on the floor and bringing it to his under-the-table hideaway: a shrine to broken crayons, bits of food, and anything else his teeth could tear into.
Good dogs, you see, grow into you. But they don’t do this through words; they do it through mirroring. Your joy becomes their joy; your passion, their passion; your sorrow, their sorrow. Dogs are sharers. They don’t need words to do this. In fact, that might be the thing that makes them all the better at sympathizing with our emotions. Their articulation comes through eyes and posture. Theirs is a silent language, a language of stares. And while we sometimes wish they could speak, we also know that if they could, we’d be somehow disappointed. Why? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because we know that the best form of sympathy is silence.
We had years of these sympathetic silences with Buckley, years of him making every effort throughout the day to be closer to us, to watch our movements, to pray for his portion from the table to fall down by the power of his stare. Years of tiny moments . . .
Ready To Leave
Just the other week, ten years after we’d taken him home, Buckley stopped eating and drinking. We thought maybe he’d just gotten into something he shouldn’t have (which has happened more than once). So, we loaded him into the family van with us as we left for vacation in Cape May, New Jersey. But a few days into the vacation, he still wasn’t eating or drinking. He stayed in a screened-in porch, laying on a pillow. Something was off. We knew it was serious the moment we offered him chicken, his favorite food, and he turned his head away. So, fearing the worst, I called a vet and went to a clinic that was open on the weekend. I drove him there, and the two of us had one last silent car ride. The vet was kind and consoling. After examining him, she said he seemed to have a tumor in his stomach that had grown very large. At his age, he wouldn’t be a candidate for exploratory surgery. She suggested what I thought she would: putting him down would be the most humane at this point.
As they gave him a sedation shot, I cupped his tiny head in my hands and looked into his little black eyes. “Peace,” I said. “Peace is coming, okay?” Then they gave him his final shot. He didn’t wince at all. I held his head and kept staring into his eyes. “You’re a good dog, Buck. A good dog.” A few moments passed. The vet checked his heart and said quietly, “He’s gone now.” I had held back tears until those words met the air. A tiny creature I loved, who seemed to learn my personality and the meanings of my words, had left me, had left us. And on vacation! It was a big loss for our little family.
Buckley isn’t the first dog I’ve lost, but there’s always something striking, something unique about the loss of a good dog. I think back on the words I uttered to comfort him during those last few moments: “Peace is coming.” As I spoke them, my chest felt heavy with the weight of mortality. I knew that one day I would be in Buckley’s position — tired, sick, and spent . . . ready to leave.
It wasn’t until a week later that I thought about how we all make choices on a regular basis as to what direction in which we’ll live. We can live backwards, straining after the past, dwelling on distant glories, mourning the loss of time, fearing death like a dragon. Or we can live forwards, striving after the eternal future, ruminating on glory to come, celebrating the passing of time and our spiritual strengthening, looking at death as a door.
I watched my father die when he was only 47. On the night he died, the same choice was before him: to lean forwards or backwards. I’m sure there’s hesitation and wracked nerves for many of us in that moment. But the choice, the choice will always be there.
I’m trying to get more intentional about living forwards. And while losing Buckley has hurt (I keep looking for him when I walk in the door), it’s also pushed me to focus again on finality, to pour my faith into the truth that what lies ahead is not dread; it’s divine destiny. Our weakness and fear are pathways to strength and joy. Our Christ conformity leads to Christ communion. With every day that passes, my body grows older, but my soul grows younger, drawing ever closer to the God with whom I’ll commune for an endless day.
I guess all I’m saying is that when a good dog goes, it gives us a chance to think about what it’s like when a good person goes . . . when we go. There’s a finish for us, my friends. And it’s not to be run from; it’s to be chased after. And a good dog always reminds you that life is worth chasing.