Bowie ate everything. Poop. Wallets with the money still inside. Contact lenses. So when he refused to eat the steak dinner we set out for him, we knew it was the sign we needed. He was ready to go, even though we wanted so badly for him to stay. Our 11-year-old beagle’s cancer spread despite our best efforts to stop it. It was time; it was his time. My husband and I always agreed that if he were suffering, we would help him out of his misery.
This dog was naturally funny, even witty. He was the master of giving a perfectly timed eye roll. He would audibly sigh when one of our dinner party guests launched into a long story. He once lifted his leg and peed against a Wet Floor sign.
He was above dying without dignity. If he was going to pee on the floor it was out of defiance, not desperation.
“We’ll be giving him two shots,” the doctor tells us. “The first is just a pain-killer that will help him relax and rest. The second is the one that will end his life.”
My husband and I nod. It’s the right thing to do, I re-tell myself, and the least I could do for him in return for over a decade of unconditional love. For eleven years, he was mine. So why doesn’t that make this any easier? Shouldn’t saying goodbye to our beloved pup hurt even slightly less knowing that it is time and he is ready to go?
Our vet had referred us to a service that comes to your home so the pet doesn’t experience the stress of going to a doctor’s office. After we settled our young daughters to bed upstairs, we dimmed the lights in our living room. Bowie rested on the back of the couch—his favorite spot, his perch. He barely registered the vet’s, the stranger’s, presence.
I can tell my husband, Stephen, is trying to keep it together for my sake. This dog and I, we’re attached at the heart, in ways that might have made a less secure man jealous.
I could barely look at the doctor. She had a soft, soothing voice which the three of us appreciated. She gave Bowie the first shot.
For a couple of minutes he is magically restored to his best health. He sits up suddenly, there is no more pain. His eyes are wide, his tail is wagging. His ears are back, as if he is giddy about the relief he suddenly feels. I let him lick the tears off my face. “Oh thank you, thank you,” I keep saying to him. I wonder aloud if he could live another few weeks or months comfortably on this drug? The doctor chuckles a little, as if I must be joking. Bowie continues to kiss me, and wag, for two whole minutes. And two minutes feels like a lifetime, our lifetime.
In a flash, he is a puppy again, and it is a snowy day 11 years ago, early 2005, in the San Gabriel mountains. I am 27 and he is six weeks old, a tiny tricolored head peeking out of an empty, plastic kids’ pool. He rests on my chest, no bigger than a baked potato. He bites the zipper of my hoodie and pulls it open. My husband and I are newlyweds, still tan from our honeymoon. Even our car is new, smells of fresh leather. Stephen carefully winds down the mountains. We play classical music because I had read that would help the puppy stay calm. He drives the three of us home. We are a family.
So began our internship in parenthood, our first tastes of dealing with another’s will. There were futile attempts at potty training during the rainy season in our yard-turned-mud pit. Bowie would stand in his ridiculous rain slicker, with a look of loathing, as if to say: “This jacket is a hate crime.”
Even then, in those early days, I was aware he wouldn’t live forever. I knew we’d entered into a heartbreaking contract. This creature was inserting himself into our hearts, as he was also wiggling between us in our bed.
We didn’t help matters by anthropomorphizing him. From the first few days we got him, his voice came out. Or rather, his voice as we imagined it: a sarcastic beagle with a one-sided rivalry with Snoopy, and general disgust with his own surroundings. My husband and I are both writers, so we translated for him. “Hey. Mommy and Daddy,” he would say as he pawed us awake at 5:30 in the morning. “Hey. Couple of notes on my first few weeks here. 1. More food. 2. Less ear cleaning. And spoiler alert: I have Mange.”
Over the years he became my companion, my shadow. He would rest on my shoulders like a neck wrap through football seasons, both winning and losing, and he was as invested in the Green Bay Packers as he was in certain Real Housewives franchises. This dog, who we often called simply, “Beagle,” would wag wildly at any mention on TV of a word even close to his breed: “Jeff Feagle for the punt” (wag wag wag); “the BC Eagles have scored again!” (wag wag wag); “And the Philadelphia Eagles have won it.” His tail would thump on the pillow.
He was also my comfort. After I miscarried a few years into his life, he draped himself like a hot water bottle across my stomach as if he knew.
Now, he is the one in pain, and I lay my body over him. The pep from his first shot fades into fatigue. The doctor helps me ease him onto the couch. She asks if we’re ready for the final shot. I look at my husband, his face is slick with tears, chest heaving. “No,” he says and leans into Bowie’s face, as if telling him a secret.
“You are the best boy,” my husband says into Bowie’s fur. “No matter what I’ve said. The best.”
Their relationship was contentious at best. Even though Stephen loved him, fed him, and walked him every day for 11 years, Bowie regarded him as a bigger dog in our home also vying for my love and attention. As an unruly adolescent, Bowie stared Stephen in the eye as he defiantly pooped in the kitchen. He took over the center of our bed in his Oedipal battle for my love, showed blatant disrespect over the years, sometimes using Stephen’s face as a pillow. And yet, Stephen loved him.
“Still not buying what you’re selling, Man,” I manage to say now, in the voice we’d cultivated for Bowie . Stephen’s cries turn to laughter for a second, and I feel momentarily triumphant.
I cradle the dog’s head, heavy in my hands, pet the swirl of white fur on his chest. He blinks and looks at me with such love, trust. No person or thing has ever loved me as much as this hound. I only hope he has felt as loved by us. “Do you know how much we love you?” I would sing to him when he was a pup.
We nod and the doctor gives him the second shot.
Puppies grow up. We moved houses, switched jobs, endured the ups and downs of marriage. Bowie was there, the constant. During the years of my fertility treatments, he went from being our internship in parenting, to fully standing in for the role of child to us, a couple desperate for offspring.
“The heart speeds up right before it stops,” the doctor tells us now. On cue, Bowie starts to breathe faster.
Is this when life flashes before one’s eyes? A flurry of memories? What defines a life? What moments stick with him? Are they the same ones that stick with us? Does he remember the bones he buried in the yard and where, or the fastest he ever disemboweled a squeaky toy, points of pride? Does he remember the first baby we brought home from the hospital, then the second a year later? Did he feel demoted? Rejected? Or did he relish the company, and love their food scraps and sticky, lickable faces? Did he feel how much our children loved him, too?
He guarded both kids, yet deftly avoided their careening wheeled baby walkers. Our daughters grew up loving him as a sibling: “I have a furry brother,” our oldest announced to her preschool class last year. “He’s older than me, but not as tall.”
Every night, he would listen for the last child to climb into bed or be placed in her crib, a distinct combination of floor creaks and bedsprings, and he would come upstairs, knowing I was finally available. He would cuddle next to me on our bed, armrest while I returned emails or watched TV. He was always aware of what room I was in, whether I was eating or not, happy or not. He always knew where I was. He knew me.
I rub the silk of his ears for the last time. I bury my head in his neck, inhale his salty corn chip smell. I remember the time when he was a puppy, when I sewed him a small cape with a B in the center. He wore it to the park and I swear he showed if off to the much bigger dogs, the corners of his mouth upturned in a dog-smile.
His heart stops, and so does mine. What will life look like without him? What is a day without petting him and kissing his head? Being followed, and following? Our daughters will wake up to a house without him. The mailman will ask where he is. My husband will keep filling his water bowl, out of habit. I will keep reaching for his soft neck, his wet nose.
He looks like he is sleeping, but he is gone. His eyes are closed and body still, but I see him — my pup, my boy — in a faraway park: mouth wide open, tongue out, his cape flying behind him like a sail.
STORY IMAGE: Courtesy the author.