Yesterday I did something I hadn’t done in five years. I was pouring a bowl of cereal and a piece fell on the kitchen floor and I had to pick it up myself. Because, suddenly, I find myself bereft of the opportunistic canine who always helped keep the kitchen floor clean.
In the first week of April, the Saturday after Easter actually, my sweet dog Fritz was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died two weeks ago, less than two months later. It’s been a rough time. In the five years since I adopted him from my brother’s friend, he’s been my constant companion, my sidekick through the ups and downs of life in Grand Rapids, Boston, and now Nashville. And I know I’m biased, but he really was an awesome dog, the kind of dog loved even by people who don’t like dogs. One of those calm, wise souls. He was a creature who truly never misbehaved and was always ready for the next adventure. I miss him dearly, and I miss seeing the way he brought smiles and delight to other people--who could resist grinning upon pulling up at a stoplight next to this face?
Here I pause to answer the questions I always got: He was a Shar-Pei and Greyhound mix. 65 pounds. 11 years old, but had a perpetual youthful energy and enthusiasm about him.
I could go on with endless anecdotes about the joy and comfort he’s brought me, how he effortlessly and continually reminded me that there really is such a thing as unconditional love. But for now I just want to tell you about his last few hours on this earth. It was two Sunday nights ago, and he’d been getting rapidly worse all weekend, ever since I had returned home from the trip out West I had fretted over whether to take at all. His decline started as soon as I got home; he stopped eating and started having more trouble breathing, and was getting weaker and more unsteady on his feet by the hour. By early Sunday evening I decided to let another chaplain take over the hospital pager I was supposed to be carrying overnight, and as soon as I got off the phone, I noticed that Fritz, instead of coming back inside after peeing, was ever so slowly ambling west, into the field next to my house, past the trees, until he reached a clearing where he wobbled his way to a flat patch to lie down. It was the furthest I’d seen him walk in three days, and it seemed so purposeful, especially since he’d never seemed to go out that far, especially not to lie down in the sweltering summer heat. Silently, I followed behind him, and then sat in the grass beside him, looking at what he was looking at: the horizon, with a beautiful sunset brewing, and the light already at that wonderfully low evening angle. Fritz’s breathing became very calm, and he just laid there, content as could be, for over an hour, feeling the sun on his soft furry face and the grass on his belly, sniffing the breeze, watching birds fly past and a couple other dogs run by.
Here’s an 11 second glimpse:
He seemed so utterly himself, so content. I had agonized over whether and how I’d know what was the next right thing to do for him, how I could minimize his suffering and maximize his quality of life for whatever time he had left. Gradually it sunk in that this was it. I had been on the phone with a hospice veterinarian that afternoon, discussing symptoms and next steps, and trying to imagine how I could possibly make that final trip to the vet. The longer I sat with Fritz and watered the grass with my tears, the more I realized beyond a doubt that Fritz had come out here to watch the fading of the light on the last day of his life. He just knew. It was so clear. I didn’t have to fret over how I’d know when it was the right time--sure enough, he was showing me, just as I’d been assured he would by friends who have been through the end-of-life experience with their own pets.
I really can’t describe how profound it was, not only to feel freed from the question of “what to do next,” but also to simply accept Fritz’s wordless invitation to sit and stay awhile and watch the sunset with him. When is the last time I sat still for over an hour and watched a sunset, let alone in my own backyard? What a gift.
Every evening since, as I look out at the field and the sunset, I remember how peaceful Fritz was, and how peaceful he stayed right up until about midnight when a friend and I took him to the vet’s office, where I held his head in the crook of my arm for the last time and just couldn’t stop saying thank you, thank you Fritz, thank you God for giving me this buddy for five years, thank you for a sunset I will never forget, thank you for the reminder to sit still and breathe and cry and lay my worries down for a bit, thank you for the promise of a sunrise and even for the sunset that I can count on tomorrow, when I will be beside myself with grief, the dog food still in the bowl, the apartment way too quiet. Fritz, you dearly departed dog you, thank you.