We're in that bittersweet phase of pet ownership now -- the phase where the old dog's end times are at hand and her human family gets its heart broken each day in little ways. And then one day in the big, final way. But not quite yet.
Daisy was a TV star before we met her. She'd been the local "Pet of the Week" representing the Providence city shelter in January 2000. I missed that news show and assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that the city pound would have only the least adoptable and suitable of dogs. I'd been haunting the private animal rescue leagues in the area, looking for our first dog in eight years, with a list of specs that proved harder to meet than I'd expected: medium size, female, short fur, old enough to have been housebroken already, no older than 3.
Then, one night at the end of January, I saw a link online to the pet of the week. And there was a sweet, tricolor beagle-ish-looking dog in profile, stretching her head forward for a treat or a pat, ears back and looking winsome. The next day I went to the pound on my lunch hour. Amid runs holding large, fearsome barking dogs cowered Our Dog, the one that met all my specs. The 42-pound mutt shivered in her run, then sidled up to the chainlink fence so I could stroke her fur.
Part beagle, part pitbull, possibly small parts shepherd and boxer, Daisy was the perfect pet for our children -- people-centric, submissive in the house, lively outdoors, gentle with babies, protective of the household when we were out.
I know not everyone likes dogs, "gets" dogs, or wants the work and expense of having a dog. And make no mistake, it's a lot of work and extremely expensive. Think of it as having a small, furry child with all the obligations and doctor's visits that implies. No one who isn't up for that commitment should consider adopting a dog.
But I'm a firm believer in bringing a dog or two into the household when kids are young. Children learn to be gentle with living creatures. They learn to be responsible. They always have a playmate around the house. And they get that unconditional, worshipful love that only a dog can give. Especially in adolescence, kids need that love -- love without judgment or qualification.
Both our sons in turn were Daisy's walkers and playmates. She was stuck like glue first to Andrés and then to Kevin as the years went by. Melinda, meanwhile, was Daisy's spine-scratching slave. Scritch-scritch-scritch just above the tail at the end of Daisy's back. Ahhhh, doggy bliss.
But you know what they say -- rescued pets seem to know who their savior was. Maybe I'm vain, but I believe Daisy always knew that about me. I was, and am, the one she follows from room to room. The one she looks for first when she comes down the stairs into the living room. She sees me and her ears lie back a bit, her tail wags slowly from side to side, and she visibly relaxes and comes over for a pat. (She is not a kisser. That would be Yogi, our sloppy lover of a pitbull.)
Daisy is at least 13.5 years old now; we're not sure of her exact age, but we've had her 12.5 years and she was at least 1 when we brought her home. She's had silly looking fatty tumors -- big lumps -- under her skin for several years, but they have been consistently benign. The past month or two, though, I've noticed her breathing is more labored on our walks. She appears unsteady and confused at times, and going up or down stairs, sometimes her hind legs splay out and she tumbles. She wants to romp with Yogi on the beach, but after a few springy bounds she stops and walks slowly, tongue out, panting.
One day last week as I drove home from work, Melinda called my cell to report that Daisy had been whining off and on all day. A vet visit, aspirations of cells from fatty tumors and a swollen lymph node, and a chest x-ray seemed to indicate something was amiss. More lab work -- blood tests, more analysis of lymph fluid, and today, two more x-rays -- rendered the dreaded verdict: Our lovely old dog has some form of cancer, possibly sarcoma, possibly liver.
We are not going to poke or prod or stick her any more to find out. Whatever it is, the cancer is spreading and surgery isn't a cure. We're going to keep her comfortable with medication until she tells us her time has come. We're going to love her and, probably, spoil her a bit.
Today in the car, driving to the vet for the second set of x-rays with Daisy, I cried for the first time about this. Yogi has been a goofy, wonderful distraction from his "sister's" aging. Busy with training him and integrating the two into a dog-family, I've been able to whistle past the graveyard and pretend all is fine. Now, I know it's not.
This won't be the first time Michael and I have ushered a beloved dog into the peaceful place where pain can't get them. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Heidi, Bonnie and Kelly one by one relaxed and expired on the vet's table as we held and talked to them. It was terribly sad but also peaceful.
I always say that deciding when it's time to free your pet from suffering is the hardest, most loving thing you will ever do for him or her. I truly believe it.
So I'm bracing myself, getting ready to step up again for Daisy when she is ready for that passage. It's the ultimate form of rescue, really.
Only... I'll miss her so very much, dear old girl.