Eulogy for a Dog
I woke up around 8:30 on Monday, July 31st, feeling a bit sick, and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. As I looked out the window over our sink and into the back yard, I noticed my twelve-year-old chocolate lab, Hazel, lying on the ground in the wood chips, near the shed.
On first glance, nothing seemed amiss. Hazel often lay around outside, sunbathing and collecting dirt she'd later bring inside. But on my second look, I noticed her head was twisted in a direction that failed to comport with her splayed legs. I though to myself, only dead things lie like that.
My mind filled with fog, and I began repeating, "Oh no, oh no." I went outside to look more closely. I touched her, and she didn't move. Her tongue was sticking out and her mouth was full of wood chips, as if she'd fallen over and bitten the ground in pain. Ants had begun to crawl on her face.
My First Dog
Hazel was my first dog, and I confess she often got on my nerves: barking at our guests; barking at strangers on the street; barking when other dogs barked; barking for no apparent reason; (Did I mention the barking?); leaving stinky surprises in the back yard; getting in my way when I worked around the house.
On one of our early walks together, Hazel had done her business next to a tree, and I'd stopped to put it in a plastic bag. As I reached for the pile with my right hand and held the leash loose in my left, two squirrels chased each other down the trunk of the tree, across the street, and up a tree on the other side. Hazel bolted after them, jerking the leash awkwardly from my hand and fracturing my ring finger in a nasty spiral pattern. For the next few months, I had two pins stuck through my finger, and I used dictation software at work. (Angela, my wife, lovingly called it my "Franken-finger," after the bolts sticking out of Frankenstein's neck.)
But Hazel was also incredibly sweet. Her love-language was play; most days, when I returned from work, she'd tempt me into a game of rope-tug or chase. She loved vegetables, especially raw carrots and zucchini, and she respected assiduously the boundary between the human food we sometimes offered her and off-limits human food—even if the latter was there for the taking. She loved to kiss my wife and daughters' faces (not really my thing...), and mostly, she just wanted to be around us, to make sure her pack was okay.
Caring for my Old Dog
In the months prior to her death, Hazel had been ailing. Skin at the edges of her fur, around her paws, mouth, and eyes, had developed sores; her hind legs had stiffened; and she went completely blind. She changed from a dog who craved walks to one who couldn't manage more than a block or two.
The vet couldn't identify the cause of Hazel's ailments without expensive tests. Which likely would have led to even more expensive treatment. For better or for worse, we aren't the kind of people who spend big money on a pet, so we ended up treating her symptoms with steroids. We understood there was something really wrong with Hazel, and that she was not long for this world.
The treatment mostly worked—the steroids cleared up the sores—but it made her extra-thirsty, which led to extra drinking, which led to less bladder control, which led to peeing in the house, often on herself. We developed a routine for cleaning her up and carried on.
The weekend before she died, my other family members went out of town, leaving me to care for Hazel alone. At first, I dreaded the idea. I typically spend Saturday working around the house and Sundays laying low. I imagined taking care of Hazel would be something like caring for a young child: you can't get anything else done, but you also don't get any rest.
However, I found I actually enjoyed it. I managed (uncharacteristically!) to let go of my non-Hazel expectations and purposed simply to be present to my sweet old girl. When Hazel had an accident, she'd make her way to wherever I was and stand in front of me until I saw she needed help. She'd patiently endure the humiliating clean-up—mini-sponge-baths for a dog who hated baths—then resume lying around or clumsily navigating the back yard by Braille. Her dependence on me reminded me of my own profound dependence on others—a fact I should keep in mind but usually overlook.
My compassion for our loyal, frail, stoic Hazel deepened. She was never much for physical affection—if you reached to pet her on the head, she'd typically shrink back a few inches—but several times that weekend, I'd stroke her belly while she rested on the rug and speak tenderly to her, and I noticed her exhales become more pronounced and timed with my touch, as if consciously absorbing my love.
Eulogy for My Dog
After examining Hazel where she lay, twisted in our yard, I went back inside, unable to think what to do. Despite my reluctance to touch something dead, I decided I should move her to the shade and wrap her in a sheet; it seemed undignified to leave her exposed, where she'd fallen. I laid out the shroud, picked her up, and carried her to the side yard. As I set down her fifty-five-pound body, my lower back clenched in a spasm. Though I didn't welcome the pain, it somehow seemed appropriate: a physical reminder of my loss. Irrationally, I both hoped my injury would heal quickly and that it would linger on a while.
Later that day, a young man with a stronger back came to pick up Hazel's body for cremation at the Pasadena Humane Society. I led him to the side yard. He gripped the shroud and hoisted her up. I followed as he carried her and slid her body into one of the locking compartments in the back of his truck. He closed the inner door, a steel grid with four-inch squares, and as it clicked shut, I was overcome by the fact I would never see Hazel again.
The young man with the strong back started doing paperwork. "Is it okay if I touch her?" I said. He nodded, and I slipped my hand through one of the openings in the grid, parted the shroud, and stroked the soft fur on her belly one last time. Tears welled. After a few seconds, I turned back to the young man. "I've got an old dog too," he said. "I'm not ready for this." I nodded. As he tore off my copy of the paperwork, my face crumpled in sadness. I joined my daughter on the front porch; we stood together and cried.
In the mornings, when I'm doing my exercises or getting on my bike to ride to work, Hazel's not there curled up on the couch, or poking her head through the doggy door, just to see me off. At midday, when I'm making my lunch, she's not there begging politely for a baby carrot or a piece of cucumber. At the end of my work day, she's not there to greet me with wagging tail and a rope in her mouth. At bedtime, she's not there to breathe into my soft words and tender touch. When the dogs next door bark, she isn't there to reply. And I can't remember why she ever got on my nerves.