April 2012- With neither bang nor whimper

It’s a special day for my dog.

I still believe Ike is the oldest yellow lab in the state of Wyoming, although I still can’t prove this. As near as can be determined, he’s now 15 years old.

That’s remarkably old for a yellow lab, for which 13 years is usually remarkably old. If the saying is to be believed, he’s 105 in human years. Annoyingly, he has more of his teeth left than I do.

But his age is showing in other ways. He’s badly crippled by arthritis and hip dysplasia, so much so that turning in place requires that he sit down first and pull himself around. Going around corners can offtimes lead to a fall, and drunken sailors stagger more easily to their feet than does he.

I’ve never been the kind of person that celebrates my pet’s birthdays; I’m really not the celebratorial type in general. About the closest I ever came was when we celebrated the birthday of my brother’s teddy bear when we were kids; but come on- he was four (my brother; not the bear. The bear would not give his age.) Exceptions can be made.

(Okay, there was that time in college when I had a birthday party for my cat. But I was bored. And there were many “that time in college”-s of which we will not speak.)

At his peak of health, Ike weighed 85 pounds. Today, if he weighs 70 the scales may be overly generous. Petting his sides is like running one’s hands across a xylophone. His appetite is still strong, but the food passes through him retaining much the same mass. Actually, I’m fairly certain that it is somehow gaining mass, considering the, erm, masses he is producing. Usually right where I step.

And in the last few months, he’s started to leak. The doggy diaper I bought does not amuse him nearly as much as it amuses me when he wears it, however.

We won’t even discuss his breath.

For the most part, Ike sleeps these days. Mainly because it takes all of his energy to hobble around the house from bed to bed while not digesting his food. It’s okay though, because he is really cute when he sleeps, especially when he’s dreaming.

As far as dogs go, it takes a lot of care to get Ike through his day these days. Even special days. His heart is as big as ever and his coat is still huggably soft, but his body is really wearing down. There’s only so much that pills can do, and his vet and I have tried a lot of different pills. Still, even at fifteen, he hasn’t given up, even if the joyful bounces he used to do when I arrived home have become simple bobs of his head. And because of the type of dog he is, I know he’s never going to give up.

For people who don’t get it in the first place, it’s difficult to explain the strength of the bond that can form between a person and a dog. Ike and I have been together for eight years, and the level of devotion that has grown between us surpasses many of the friendships I’ve had with humans. Granted, this probably says far more about my level of acceptance than that of a canine’s. Regardless, there’s a reason dogs are called “man’s best friend.”

Because for all that a dog’s master will be called upon to do- for all the walks taken, for all the balls thrown, for all the food purchased, for all the vet visits, for all the pills given and messes cleaned- for all the effort put into owning a dog, it will all seem to be so much less than that which the dog returns. No matter how much you love your dog, it will not be nearly as great as the love your dog has for you. Ike is my dog; but I am his everything.

For Ike’s special day today, he gets raw hamburger instead of dog food for his meals. And I get a big bottle of whiskey for mine.

See, when you chose to have a dog, you’ll choose what food they eat; where they sleep; what color bandana they wear.

And sometimes, you choose when they have to die.

You will question your choice. And you will agonize over it, because it’s not always an easy one. And you will change your mind, back and forth, always wondering if you’re doing the right thing. And you will lose your composure when you try and discuss your decision with your vet, and you can only hope that the people who notice will be polite enough not to mention it. And you’ll put off your decision as long as you can, hoping that something or someone will make it for you.

And finally, you’ll be reminded of the cruel irony of adulthood, in that doing the right thing frequently feels wrong. And for all the love you feel for your dog, you will hate yourself all that much more.

Not that he will care. He loves just being with you. That’s all it takes to make his day special.

You may feed your dog raw hamburger on his final day. You may spend the day on the couch with him, watching tv while he sleeps with his head in your lap, kicking feebly while he dreams, happy to be by your side, not questioning why his favorite blanket is on the couch or why you’re spending so much time with him; not wondering why the day is so special. You’ll try not to feel like you’ve given up on him before he’s given up on himself. You’ll try not to be sad.

You’ll fail.

And in the evening when the vet comes, when in his excitement your dog shows more life than he has in days, you’ll seriously question yourself once more, and you’ll want to change your mind.

But you won’t say anything, because you can’t talk. You won’t want to be there, but you won’t let your dog go through this alone. You won’t look at anyone else, because you’ll find out that vets cry, too.

You’ll do the only thing you can do.

You’ll just pet your dog gently.

You’ll say goodbye.

And his special day will end.

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