I sat beside Duke, leaning against the exam room wall, as he lay on a blanket the vet provided, ready to give up. He rested his head on my leg and I stroked the downy soft fur behind his head, his silky ears. His eyes weeped drainage, almost like tears, for the first time in weeks.
I placed my hand on his chest so I could feel his heart beat, and I held it there until it stopped.
Duke was the second dog I’ve had put to sleep. I was determined he would have a good death, that I would spare him as much suffering as possible. I think I did that. Since Saturday, three days ago, his tail stopped wagging. On Sunday he seemed disoriented, and too tired to even lie down. He just stood, mostly, on sprawled legs like a new calf, as if he were feeling his legs for the first time. In fact, he was, for the first time since a newborn, feeling unsteady on legs that used to zoom circles around other dogs. All these strange things as the end of his life grew closer.
We called the vet this morning and told her it was time. We made an appointment for 3:30. I knew the time my dog would die. It was both surreal and, because I’ve had almost five weeks since his diagnosis to come to grips with his death, reassuring. I knew the moment my dog would no longer suffer.
I’ve heard that people waste away when they’re sick with cancer. I saw it in Duke. I could feel his spine and his hips when I petted him. He labored to breathe, and, these past few days, he wobbled when tried walking down the steps of our porch. Duke was the most vibrant, alert, healthy dog I’d ever known. he was fast, curious, aware, but not obnoxious. He did tend to raise his snout in most people’s crotch, which usually made me smile.
Duke loved being in motion so much he couldn’t stand still while he pooped. He’d poop a little, then waddle forward and keep going until he was finished, which made picking up after him on walks a little annoying. When he wasn’t pooping he was peeing. How he held so much urine in his bladder always amazed me. No matter how many mailboxes we passed he had a little left over to mark his stop. This drove Trish nuts. she’d hit a good stride and Duke would stop to pee. She’d get going again, with the other two dogs in the lead, and Duke would pause to piss. There often was a small trail of urine across the sidewalk where she’d have to drag Duke away from someone’s flowers, and he’d still be peeing.
Duke chased birds. Not little flocks that would land in the yard, but big hawks and crows. He’d catch a shadow of a bird and chase it from one end of the yard to the other.
Duke had the best ears — one up, one down. One night, not long after Trish and I married and we blended her dog with my two boys, we were in the living room visiting with a friend when we heard a loud yelp. Our friend let Duke in the house and said, “he’s bleedging.” His up-ear had been, well, dog-eared. There was a nice little notch taken right out of the tip, about an inch and a half wide.
We never found the ear tip, but we suspected that the dogs had been wrestling playfully — they got along great together — and one of them held onto Duke’s ear while he jerked it away.
I asked him today, his head in my hands, who did it. He still wouldn’t say. I asked him if the guilty party would finally fess up. Nobody has, yet.
Duke was the bad boy, which means he wasn’t always trying to climb in someone’s lap, like Tiger, or begging to come inside, like Abby. He did his own thing, mostly. He was less tolerant of Ella’s pawing. He didn’t like the suggestion of being ridden, and he hated being led around the backyard on a leesh fashioned from one of my belts.
This made Ella love him more than the others. And that makes me worry that she’s going to either be attracted to the bad boy image or play the bad girl role, pulling some hapless boy around, making him bend to her will.
One of Duke’s favorite past times, shared with many dogs, was riding in the back of my 4-Runner. I’d crack the rear window a little and he’d stand there with his nose sniffing the air as we drove around Nashville, or he would crane his neck forward and look through the windows intently, as if waiting to see something familiar. We did that less often after Abby joined the brood, because she always whined loudly and jumped into the front seat.
Today Duke didn’t perk up much when I told him we were going for a ride. I lifted him into the back and he stood there a little shaky, unsure even in one of his favorite posts. I drove slowly around our small town roads and kept glancing back to see if he were enjoying himself. Finally, after several miles, he made his way to the corner of the window, stuck out his snout and took a loud whiff.
I think Duke died OK. I mean, if he had lingered beyond today he surely would have been miserable. I think the timing was right — for him, never for me. But Duke was never mine, and as I held him during his last breaths I thought about spirits, and how strong the desire can be to keep a the spirit of someone alive. I understand why people want to believe in reincarnation, why cultures believe a spirit is manifest in another living thing. I wanted to draw Duke’s spirit out, take it as he exhaled those last few times, and keep it alive, put it in one of those powerful birds that circles above our house, casting it shadow in our yard. In some ways, I think I can. I think I will do that.
I’ll miss you, Duke. You were the best.