Fourteen years old, my beautiful golden retriever mix, and I optimistically hope for another year or two or six. She's still jumping into the car. Then seven weeks ago, I reach down to pet her and feel lumps under her neck. I call the vet. Canine lymphoma. Prognosis four to six weeks.
Gather information. Weigh the options. Consider the dog. Consider our lifestyle. We decide to ease the symptoms with prednisone and make the best of our last days together.
Her appetite picks up. We walk, we walk, we walk. We visit every piece of running water within a twenty-mile radius. We plan and take our last road trip across Alaska, from Haines to Denali. She makes new friends in Tok from Homer, sees old friends in Fairbanks and Nenana, and makes new friends in Denali from Czechkoslavakia and from Japan.
The appetite changes and diminishes. Sleeping outside in the rain makes her shiver now. Sometimes we don't quite make it on the leap into the back of the car. It hurts to be lifted. We learn to use a ramp. We switch from big hills to flat terrain. From long walks to short drives to special places that have running water. I adjust my schedule, my photography plans, to Brandee time.
We make it back home. It's getting harder each day. She insists on sleeping outside. Spends a lot of time under the porch. Prefers being hand fed to anything in her dish. Relishes a good raw bone. Then doesn't. Ignores the water dish, but will drink with four paws in a river. Then sit right down, feet in the water, butt on the bank and stare into the great beyond. She'd stay there forever, if I didn't remind her to get up, walk a little, come back to the car.
For weeks, I ask myself, is this the day to let go? And she let's me know we just have to adjust to new ways, not give up just yet. More rest, less hills, different food, or no food. Crush the pred, dip my fingers in honey and the pred, and rub it on her teeth if she won't eat.
We treasure our time. Make the best of it all. Finally, I make the call. Come Wednesday at 2 PM. The hole is dug. I will build a memorial garden raised bed of flowers over it. The die is cast.
On the day, this day, she barely raises an eyelid in the morning, but accepts the love and pred and honey fingers on her teeth. Her breathing is labored. Her big heart pounds hugely. After a couple of hours, she allows me to coax her up the ramp into the car and we visit a new place on the river. Yes, a new adventure even on this her last day. She smiles at me once or twice in the rear view mirror, but mostly flops down for the fifteen mile ride up the highway. Doesn't touch a bite of either elk burger bits or pork chop bits. She drinks the river. Sits right down with her feet in the water. Walks a short way when coaxed out, step by painful step. Friends drive by and stop to visit. Give her last hugs.
We go to her favorite place, a little creek near town. She decides to stay in the car and rest. I gather some wildflowers to plant in the garden. We take a drive, stop a few times, check out the view. She smiles in the rear view mirror from time to time. We return to the favorite place. I coax her out. She slowly, painful step by painful step, makes her way to the creek where I lead her to drink.
I sit and watch. She wades, she drinks. She sits, butt on the bank, her feet in the water--smiling. Eventually, she lies down in water. If I let her, she would not ever leave this place or this position. I let her linger.
I coax her out. We walk back to the car and up the ramp. We go home. Enter the drive backwards toward the house. I open the back gate of the car. She chooses to stay in it. And rests. I sit on the porch and watch. I pet her. I tell her the whole business has been a great ride. I tell her I love her. I'm proud of her. She is excellent. She is perfect.
When the vet arrives an hour later, that's where she is still--in the back of the car. Prepared to fully accept my decision and the next phase of her being. Here's my paw. You can shave the hair and stick the needle in. She succumbs quickly and sweetly. I was expecting two shots, but it all happened with just one. Back to sleep. Dead actually. Hard to tell the difference at first. A perfect exit following 14 years of a perfect life.
We lay her directly in the earth--her preferred choice for sleeping--her little divets right in the ground. No blankets. No cushions.
This dog has been with me from Haines to Inuvik to Homer to Cordova to Albuquerque to Deadhorse to Denali and back home again. She's been everywhere.
Climb every mountain. Hike every trail. Swim in every body of water.
And when you can't do that, do what you can, embrace it all, and then let it go--slowly, gradually, finally--in peace, love, and acceptance.
Sometimes you led. Sometimes I led. We compromised. Worked it out. You have been my perfect companion. You were Alaskan through and through. Born here, died here, laid to rest with much love in your own backyard where you can still be part of the place, remembered, and cherished. A robin and a hairy woodpecker and a squirrel and some of your friends have been by already.
Thank you, girl, for the lessons, always, about what is important in life (play and walks and adventure and love) and in letting go when the time comes.