SAYING GOODBYE TO MY BIG BEAUTIFUL BOY
We had left our ageing bird dog Joey in the care of Jennifer, an accomplished attendant, while we supported an overnight fund-raiser in San Francisco. As we were leaving the Westin St. Francis, a text message chimed: "Joey ate his breakfast and was pacing around the living room in his boots and pants when I left this morning." We arrived home to find him sprawled on the living room floor, inert but breathing normally. On the trip to the back yard his back legs buckled--signs of a mild stroke. I carried him into the house and laid him on his favorite "Sherpa" futon. Washed by waning sunlight, he passed the afternoon quietly. After dinner, I carried him upstairs to the guest room so we could spend his last night together.
I laid awake for some time reflecting on his rough start in life; at the age of three, his abusive owners dumped him at a pound where staff soon determined he was dangerous and should be euthanized. A national rescue organization sprang him at the last moment, giving us the opportunity to adopt him. Our rehabilitation regimen of exercise, discipline, and affection, soon molded him into a treasured member of the family.
I was determined to make his last hours as comfortable as possible by caressing his bony head, monitoring his breathing, and occasionally offering water from my cupped hand. Although sleep was elusive for me, Joey seemed to be reliving his long and fortunate life with us. Once I woke to a thrashing sound I soon realized was his rear legs cycling against bedding as dreams propelled him across some field only he could see; or maybe it was the night after we adopted him when he panicked and disappeared into the darkening hills; or perhaps it was a romping play session with his new buddy Little Brady who joined us after Blazer's death left Joey alone in a debilitating depression; maybe he was driving hard up a fire road harnessed shoulder to shoulder with Little Brady towing me on my mountain bike; or it could have been when the herd on Horse Hill cantered by at night scaring the dickens out him and, in his mind, conspiring to kill him; or the morning Stella, a coyote bitch, chased him all the way down the hill, ripping a nail, or when Rhonda, the overweight Golden Retriever, attacked him and Brady and they both thrashed her soundly; then again it could have been echoes of a brisk December day at Blackpoint Hunt Club when a fat pheasant sailed into some cattails beyond an irrigation ditch and he and Little Brady forged a way across and held the bird on point for fifteen minutes in a cold wind while Joe worked his way to them and took care of business; or, wearing a special harness and attached to Little Brady by a collar strap, he pulled me on skis across snowy meadows near Carson Pass; or any number of adventures too vivid to fade.
The gibbous moon cast a delicate filigree of poplar branches across the far wall. Although I tried to come to terms with this inevitable phase of Big Joey's life, it was excruciating to let go of such a devoted, accomplished, and affectionate partner. I never complained about the extra time it took for bathroom breaks to the side yard, preparing special meals, changing his pants, dealing with the slower pace on "walkies," and a fickle appetite that sometimes required spoon feeding just to insure he ingested all his meds. While I was at work, Claire filled in with exemplary dedication, enduring with few complaints the demands of a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old dog. She treated his ailments, cleaned him up after accidents, changed his pants, and tolerated constant pacing and occasional air bites.
Dawn arrived as a portent of finality. After breakfast, I carried Big Joey to the car and laid him on a blanket in the back seat with Little Brady for his last trip to the vet. At the Animal Wellness Center, I carried him into the examining room and placed him gently on a blanket where Stan greeted "Handsome"--the nickname he had given him over the years. After he administered the potion that carried Big Joey to wherever it is these dogs go after a lifetime of love and devotion to their human partners and canine companions, Claire and I kissed him on the head and gently closed his eyes. Then we walked out into an overcast Monday, leaving him in the care of folks who loved him almost as much as we do.
In some weeks, when Pacific storms relent, we will spread his ashes on a knoll with a commanding view of the Marin Headlands to the south and Mt. Tamalpais to the west. There he will have the company of coyote "frienemies," red tailed hawks, owls, ravens, quails, the horses that conspired to kill him, stars, planets, and the Milky Way at night, and the coming up of the sun in the morning and going down at night. Little Brady and I will visit during our twice-weekly hikes across those meadows. We will remember him always and mark his exemplary life with a personal version of Robert C. Williams' 1986 poem:
Mark Well My Flight...
I hung my coat upon the peg
A feather fell
So did a tear.
He was there
To mark their fall,
My loved and loving Brit.
Mon Beaux Fils Joey,
A puppy yet in many ways,
Has found another field to hunt.
At times, he'd range afar
Just, I think, to prove
That he still could.
But, oh, the tingling joy he gave
With looping cast
And head-high point,
With quick retrieve
Then on to find another bird.
Hear this Big Joey;
Mark well my flight,
For we shall hunt again
As one someday.
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