The following two days/posts are going to be a bit different than usual. In 2020 we had to put down our dog, Doc and lost my Uncle Jeff to aggressive brain cancer. Of course, my Uncle’s death was felt far more deeply than Doc’s, but both events spurred the need to write, and strangely, they ended up being connected. Tomorrow it has been one year since my Uncle’s death, so today, I am posting my writing on Doc, and tomorrow I will remember my Uncle.
Doc was put down in March 2020, right before the pandemic started shutting the world down.
Doc was rescued from the winter streets of Chicago in 2013. Kate and I saw him on an animal hospital website and drove to meet him. He was a little crazy, but he sat when we told him to. That was enough for us. We agreed to adopt him. A few days later, we drove back to pick him up, and he had his first car ride with us. He loved car rides! Sitting in the back of our old Lexus sedan, sniffing the passing world out the window. Accidentally pushing the toggle button and cracking the window a bit more.
He was a classic Boston. An explosion of wiggles and excitement when you came home. A heat-seeking missile, finding every inch of sunlight in any season.
In the season of our lives before kids, Doc came with us everywhere we went. Going to Sunday dinner at Alan and Noel’s, Doc rides along. Heading to see my parents, Doc rides along. Always there, always content to be along for the ride. Even if he did frequently look like a persecuted, emotional prisoner – another Boston trait.
In 2015, on Memorial Day weekend, we walked back from Alan and Noel’s house across town when a loose German Shepard came out of nowhere and bit down hard on Doc’s side and wouldn’t let go. We yelled, pushed, and kicked at it. The experience was a total blur, but somehow in the commotion, it let go. I held Doc high in the air so he wouldn’t get bit again. The police came. Doc was in shock, barely moving.
I cradled him like a baby and walked the remaining quarter mile to our house. His blood covered my shirt as two big puncture wounds started to scab. I found an emergency vet and put him in the car’s passenger seat – off we rode together again. This time we needed to make sure he would live another day. They cleaned him, bandaged him, and gave him medication to help the swelling. The bite had missed anything significant. Doc was in complete shock for days. He barely moved, but time heals most wounds. Eventually, he was himself again.
Doc would be a great companion for another few years. Always treating our little Jane more sweetly than he would adults, something I always appreciated about him. He started to lose his sight a couple years ago. Next was his hearing. He began to have trouble standing and going up the steps here and there. Mixed into this was a loss of control to hold himself throughout the day. We made due. We changed where he slept and how often we took him outside. I still had to spend hours each week cleaning him up. Washing his beds.
The question eventually arises: is this the kind of life we would want to lead if we were him? After all, he is a dog and cannot choose. But we could. It is a heartbreaking choice to make. When pets answer the question for you and just go, it seems much more manageable. Both versions are painful. But having to choose was more difficult than I expected. After agonizing, buying extra weeks, and consulting others, we realized it was time.
We had one last weekend with him. We started to tell the kids he wouldn’t be with us soon. Jane cried. We were stoic. Fred wasn’t fully aware of what we were talking about.
Then, with the momentum of a giant steam engine coming to a stop, the time comes with a heavyweight and black cast iron rumble. You make a choice, but you still have to go and do. So you give your final pets. You snuggle one last time. You take a picture together, for the memory books. Then it comes. The final car ride.
He no longer can sit in the seat because he falls off, so I make a place for him on the floor. I tell him he has been a good boy because he has, but he can’t hear me. I carry him in and sign the papers. And I cry subtle tears breaking through slight smiles born from all the memories. I wear some memories more than others, like the scar on my cheek because I bit him on the ear one night, so he bit me right back. The countless wiggles and stupid, crazy fetch faces. The way he sandwiched between Kate and me on the couch, keeping us all close together.
Those same grins bring the hottest tears for the old times. For the decision you make early in your marriage to take care of something else living, hopeful for the kids you will one day welcome; for the magic of a world that God made where not all animals are wild. Some live with you, hang out with you, and want to be next to you.
You study the way the fur stick off his pointed ears while you wait and hold on to their warmth one last time. And you say goodbye. Two shots later, they are gone.
It is for the best. But it is hard.
Dogs are just animals, but they are part of our families. They can represent so much more. For us, it was that first choice from relative comfort and ease to taking care of the other. To take care of something you didn’t have to, but choose to.
This voice keeps whispering to me in these moments, wondering what hits so profoundly about the passing of a pet. It has started to dawn on me that Doc was a short, rickety bridge for Kate and me to step toward having a family. A dog could never fully prepare you for having kids, but it was helpful to have him as an anchor in our lives as a transition from carefree to caring. Now he is building another bridge. Just as rickety, but quite a bit longer, to coming face to face with death.
My Uncle has terminal brain cancer – and I am terrified of his dying. I am worried about if he knows Jesus. I am concerned about his family, our family. Doc is just a little dog; my Uncle Jeff means 100x more to me, and I am not ready. No one is. Still, that steam engine barrels down the tracks, coming to its destination. The rumble rages, low and sorrowful.
I want to feel the total weight of glory when one created “in the image of” moves out of this world and into the next. I want to be present for the rest of our family.
Most of all, I want to remember that life is a gift, and we’d better keep unwrapping it every day. Take with it all the joy and sorrow – the laughter and tears. The hope we are promised, and look up to the one who gave it all and say “thank you.”