I don’t feel like I’m much of a writer anymore. Not enough to do justice to the dog. We put him down in a light snow, on a beautiful mountain morning, beneath a ponderosa near the garden. He’d been having seizures non-stop. Worse than they’d ever been. Eight in a row. Maybe more. I stopped keeping track at some point.
He wandered the yard between them – a luxury he doesn’t usually have since the seizures often happen in the middle of the night and I keep him locked on the west deck so I can watch him. I’m glad he was able to be outside this time, with the soft ground to catch him when he fell, the snow to cool him, the open air, the trees and calling crows to greet him when he came to.
I tried to stay close as he had them, shoveling the decks and walks, splitting wood. I went about my tasks until I saw him draw rigid. Then I’d go to his side. I watched him fight the storm in his brain, clawing to stay upright, raising his chin like an exhausted swimmer as his legs gave way. Sometimes he lurched a few steps like he might walk it off, but each time the seizure overtook him, threw him on his side, pried his mouth open, tightened his muscles so that his bladder emptied and his body shook. After 30 seconds or so the thing lost steam and he began to paddle his legs, running and running and running from something he could never escape.
I made the decision to put him down because it seemed humane. But also because it was easy, comparatively. After eight seizures he was no longer there. His beautiful haws, those leathery third eyelids he employed so deftly to guard his emotional space, had risen over his soft, brown eyes, closing him off from the world.
Shadow died on a soft bed of pine needles with his family beside him, on his land. Even so, I felt the same impossible pain of finality I did with Blender. No bargaining. No solving. Nothing left to try.
Once it was done I cried hard for the critter I loved. Shadow had been abandoned by three different owners in his four short years (they ditched him because of his size; he hadn’t had seizures until he’d been with us for a year.) From day one with us he knew where home was and never wandered. He’d charge through the forest after deer or foxes, and we’d find him later sprawled in the sun by the woodpile. He knew his family. He was ecstatic when we came home. He gnawed his bone next to us during dinner. He slept in the bedroom.
He and I had really just started to bond in those last days. The medicine and seizures affected his memory. In the week after a bad round of seizures he sometimes didn’t recognize me, or simply didn’t know I was there. He’d forget his commands, which made it hard to go for walks. After the last round of seizures, on Christmas day, I started training him in earnest. We walked for miles every day, practicing come, heel, stay, while also giving him the freedom to run and “be the dog,” as I told him.
In response he grew sweeter. He sat by my side when I stopped. He lay down next to me when I sat down. If I left the tailgate down I’d find him in the back of the truck, waiting to go somewhere. He loved to sit between my legs and turn his head up so that it rested against my pelvis, his snout pressed against my belly. He loved to fall asleep touching me, and preferred to stay up on nights when I worked late, snoring in the office instead of heading down to his bed.
More than anything I’ll remember Shadow for his closeness. That was the origin of his name, of course, but his was more than a man’s-best-friend, always-by-my-side thing. He wanted a relationship in a very intimate sense, and he made that very clear. I think if we’d had time we’d have crossed a boundary few people and dogs do. Maybe this is what makes me saddest. The family he wanted, the pack, is the one thing life denied him.
I’m glad he lived his last year with us, so happy and free. I’m glad we spent his final afternoon following trails in the sun, slipping through meadows high on the ridge. I’m glad I gave him my pork chop bone the night before he died. But I’ll always mourn the relationship we weren’t able to have. I’ll mourn what should have been, for him and for me, and for our little family. RIP, big guy. Wish I could have figured it out for you.