By Brian McGrory,
Boston Globe Columnist
August 31, 2004
They should come
with a warning label, these creatures. They should come with a label
that says you're going to fall hopelessly in love, only to have your
heart shattered before you could ever possibly prepare. And then you
face one of life's truly wrenching decisions.
Which is where I am now. Specifically, as I type these words I am on
the back deck of a rented house in Maine surrounded by fields and
forest, watching a sleeping golden retriever named Harry drift
another day closer to death.
He is gorgeous, this dog, with a gray face that shows the wisdom
gained from his 10 years on Earth and brown eyes that are the most
thoughtful I've ever seen. He is sprawled out on the wood, his blond
fur damp from his morning swim and his breathing labored from his
disease. And I ponder the question that has dominated my thoughts
for weeks: How will I know when the time is right?
He arrived in my life nearly a decade ago on one of those storybook
Christmas season nights that is too good to ever forget. He was a
gift to my wife, and when she opened the box the tears that spilled
down her face
were those of joy. Women, of course, come and go, but dogs are
forever, so when the marriage ended, Harry stayed with me. Since
then, we've moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., and back again,
fetched maybe a
quarter of a million throws, walked, I would wager, over 10,000
miles together. He carried a tennis ball in his mouth for most of
them, convinced that anyone who saw him would be duly impressed.
And, judging by their reactions, he's right.
Throughout, he has shown me sunrises and sunsets that I wouldn't
otherwise have seen. He has taught me that snow is a gift, that the
ocean is there for swimming, that the coldest winter mornings and
summer days are never as bad as people say.
He has introduced me to people, kind people, whom I otherwise
wouldn't have met. He has forced me to take time every morning to
contemplate the day ahead. With his tail-swishing swagger, he has
taught me to slow down, to pause in an Esplanade field or on a
Public Garden bench, the journey being as good as the destination.
The big ruse, which I think he figured out
years ago, was that all these walks were meant for him.
He has been an anchor in bad times, a ballast amid occasional
uncertainty, a dose of humility when things might be going a little
too well. He has been a sanctuary, a confidant, and an occasional
excuse. He regards it as his personal mission to make me laugh,
whether by a ritualistic dance over a pig's ear or a gushing lick to
my face. He's never once said the wrong thing,
and it's impossible to be in a bad mood around him.
All along, he lives by one simple mantra: Count me in. Anything I'm
doing, he wants to do as well, no leash or nagging required. At
home, he prefers to lie on the stoop of our condominium building,
presiding over the world around him.
His time, though, is fleeting, a fact that he's starting to
understand. In April, his lifelong veterinarian, Pam Bendock,
blinked back tears as she informed me that his stomach pains were
caused by lymphoma. Several
rounds of chemotherapy failed to do what was hoped. Two weeks ago, I
stopped his treatments.
These days, he has lost 10 pounds or more and can't keep food
inside. He often wakes in the dark before dawn moaning softly in
pain. But by daybreak, he is urging me toward the beach or guiding
me on another
walk, ball in mouth, ready to fetch, albeit slowly.
Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit that a dog can change a man,
but I'm not. So as the clock winds out on a life well lived, I look
back at the lessons learned from this calm and dignified creature,
lessons of temperance, patience, and compassion that will guide us
to the end. And I look into those handsome brown eyes for the sign
that the time has come. He'll give it to me, when he's ready. And
hard as it will be, we'll both know the journey was better than we
could have ever possibly hoped.