On May 29th at 5:00 PM my wife and I had to let Jake go at 16 years, four and one-half months of life. He was a black Labrador, adopted from the Dane County Humane Society as a spunky, or should I say “crazy” two year old. His youth was spent in typical Labbie enthusiasm which was displayed in joyful pursuit of Frisbees, tossed balls, splashing in pools of water, and running off whenever he escaped his leash. One winter he chased a snowmobile for a quarter-mile down the trail, on another occasion he romped around neighboring farms chasing deer. Jake would not come when called and seemed to delight all the more when I chased after him, waving my arms like a monkey chasing the other monkey who had just stolen his banana. What was I to do with this dog?
Then there were the various accidents and injuries, as when Jake walked across the path of our 1,100 pound horse as she passed through a gate and stepped on him, sending him sprawling; twice. On another occasion while I cleaned the horse stall and turned around to dump the rake, Jake scooted into the stall to salvage the rest of the horse apples before I could hog them all…and was kicked in the head. Thanks to Jake, the veterinarian and I became closely acquainted. “My gosh, how long can this crazy dog live?” I wondered.
Oh sure, we took him to several training courses, like the simple “obedience” classes that left us with all of our original problems and frustrations. Then there was the agility class in which he kept getting into arguments with other doggie classmates; Jake and two others were kicked after their third fight. At times we were quite sure he was beyond training and I scratched my head wondering “What can I teach this crazy little guy?” The real question was what would he teach me?
As he aged, and as I learned more about dogs, he settled into a calm snuggle bunny, still eager to play but slowing in step, and no longer inclined to pursue adventures off of our rural property. In his final minutes he settled against my leg as I sat with him on the floor at the vet clinic, his head resting in my hands as we exchanged glances and shared long heartfelt embraces. I gently stroked his gray face and serenaded him with loving words, softly spoken as I massaged him into a relaxed and peaceful state. I held his cloudy brown eyes in mine as he slipped away, knowing I was there to care for him until his last breath, which came quietly as his eyes closed one last time. I showered him with tears and washed away all lingering doubt and fear. Jake knew he was well-loved and that I would take care of him to the final breath, whether his or mine.
In that moment Jake found a lasting safe haven in my heart, away from all want and pain, secure in my love. I took away the pain that had so sadly debilitated him, and now I carry that burden for him. It was my privilege…and my enduring sorrow to perform a final duty for such a loving soul who taught me much about patience, empathy and compassion. More than that, he taught me how to love, and how to lose those I love.
Ultimately we must each return to Mother Earth but our comprehension of mortality can make it a frightening journey. We Americans don’t seem to deal well with death and loss. In retrospect our dogs have always been there to help us by joyfully living in the moment, and comforting us as we lost parents, siblings and friends over the years. They were showing us the way, but being human, it was hard for us to just stop what we were doing and pay attention.
Dogs have lived with Humans for 30,000 years or more. I prefer to believe they came to us to teach us the most valuable lesson in life: How to become Human Beings. Please honor your dogs; they have earned it.