Last weekend I had to put my sixteen year old Light Golden Retriever to sleep, then find a final place to rest her body and bury her. I didn't tell many people about this because they would offer condolences, hugs, and extend sadness for my loss; it isn't that I wouldn't appreciate those things, but because I really wasn't sad at all. I was actually happy about it and brimming with joy.
I know what you may be thinking. What kind of person is happy about the passing of a dear friend who's only purpose in life is to be there for you, obey your every command, attentive to every voice inflection, sit tall, tail swishing the floor at play time, rest her nose in your lap pensively when you are feeling sad, protect you and live for you, only you? How heartless and cold can a person be to be happy when such a friend has left the world? It really isn't heartlessness at all. Indy was one of the greatest gifts in my life, even as I type this, I miss her dearly. But as you will see, I am happy she is gone.
I have been contemplating this day since the first moment I met Indiana. I thought was done with pets, from the first dog I buried who met her untimely end beneath the cars racing down Western Avenue in Los Angeles to the soft white rabbit that died in my mother's arms, I learned early that pets were a spiritual and emotional liability. The cute little fuckers always died and took a piece of me with them, and I hated that more than the bad-breath bullies who would beat me up in school. I would let them into my heart, share my love with them, and whether I liked it or not, they always left me. I always cried, I always mourned, and this was to be avoided at all costs. Life was hard enough, I didn't need to make it harder by inviting the eventual into my life. No more pets.
Then, you see, I had a child. A girl. A girl who's only desire was to grow up, understand the world, fit in, live a child's life, and at eleven, she'd already been denied a lot of that. Part of that was her mother's fault, but since she lived with me, most of it was probably mine. I had no clue what I was doing as a parent, but then who does, really? Day after day she asked and pleaded and begged, please Dad, please can we get a dog? I'll take care of it, I'll clean up the poop and feed it and love it, you don't have to do anything, please can we have a dog? I knew none of that would come to pass, I was a kid once and made all the same promises, but as you can imagine, that wasn't why I kept saying no. Eventually I realized my love for my daughter was far stronger than my selfishness, and I would have to break the promise I'd made to myself. Sometimes there are more important things in life and you just have to make the sacrifices, even though you know what they mean.
We drove out to the country on a sunny Saturday to an area appropriately named Sunny Valley, wound up the hillside over a dirt road and parked in the driveway next to braying sheep and neighing horses. The owner escorted us to a grassy yard where we first met the pup we would name Indiana. She was wrestling with her brother and sister, rolling around in the grass, and always came out on top of the tussle. "This one, Dad. This is the tough one! Your name will be Indy!" You can guess what movies were my daughter's favorites. She gathered her up in her arms and cradled Indy on her back, and a mixture of joy and sadness dropped over my heart at that moment. For all the love and happiness Indy brought into our lives, I knew how it had to end. I was determined not to spoil it, but I would always be mindful of what lay ahead.
As we drove away, Indy nosed out the window from the perch on my daughter's lap and began a mournful howl. She was experiencing her own loss as we left, she missed her mother and brother and sister. She spent her first night on a blanket on the floor, next to my bed, with a ticking watch wrapped in another blanket, but still she woke up several times in the night, made her way to the front room and howled for her mama. Each time I gathered her up and laid her back in her blanket, stroking her head until she relaxed. We never let her on furniture, and this was a training that stuck well. From the second night on she was perfectly happy to lay on the floor, under the bed, and when everyone was awake, usually napped in a big bean bag chair in the front room or flopped next to the space heater. She didn't care, as long as she was close. She adjusted well.
Goldens are the most gentle, sensitive, and loving dogs, full of energy, always willing to please, as she grew was a part of our lives everywhere we went. We rarely left her alone; I would take her to work with me in the back of the pickup, chained to the truck box, and she would excitedly sway from one side to another, barking welcomes to other dogs she would see on the road, then when we stopped she would sit anxiously waiting for me to unleash her from the chain so she could run circles. Aside from playing Tennis Ball, that was her favorite pastime, circles - with all the strength she could muster she would run full force in a circle, then change direction and run back the other way, around and around until she was panting with exhaustion. The two greatest things I ever learned from Indiana were how to love unconditionally and how to live life balls out, even though she didn't have any. Give it all you got because right now is all that matters.
At about age 10, she began to gray around her nose, and one eye began to fog up. A metastatic tumor began to form on her right shoulder, and for a couple years we would drain it regularly with a large syringe. The dark sadness I felt on the day we met welled again and again in my heart, Indy was getting old. I swore as long as she was happy, as long as she stretched each morning to greet me for the first pee of the day, sat pretty with her nose pointed in the direction of cooking dinners, as long as she rolled in the grass like a pup and I could see she was still living a good dog's life, I would do what I could to keep her well. I never failed in that quest.
At 12 she'd gone blind in the other eye, the tumor would no longer drain; at 14 it had grown large enough that I could see it was uncomfortable. We thought it was her time then, but I could tell she wasn't ready yet, she wanted to be there for us. We found a vet that removed her tumor, which left a scar from her lower shoulder to her backbone, but she got through it. Every time I scratched her scar, because I know how they itch, she would lean her nose against my leg as if to say thank you, that feels so good.
At almost sixteen years old, her daily walks up and down the porch steps grew slower and slower, she would hesitate longer and longer waiting for a guiding finger on her collar before taking a step up. She began to sleep more and more, and I sensed her clock was winding down. She was hanging on because it was her duty to be here for us, to give a hand a warm head to scratch, to sniff out danger in our territory, she was doing her job. Finally the last four days her interest in life just stopped. She stopped eating. She would go into the yard and just stand there, nose in the air, lost. She would eventually sniff her way over to me, find me, then lean full her full weight against my leg, and she told me: let me go Dad. I'm tired, and this shit sucks. I can't chase ball, I can't see your face any more, I can't run, I'm tired and would do anything for you, but it's time to let me go.
This was where the real sadness was. Not in letting her go, in watching her struggle every day just because it was what she thought we wanted. This was where all the pain lived. It was time to own the pain I knew would come since the first day I met her, and own it I would, from the sleep to the burial.
Indy would usually jump to her feet to greet any new voices that came through our door. The lady came to our house, and she barely lifted her head. I scootched in on Indy's bed and laid her head across my leg; she rubbed her nose up and down my leg twice as if to say thank you, I am ready, so ready. With the first shot she began to snore, her feet twitched as she began to dream, probably of the game of circles or Tennis Ball, or swimming in the lake. With the second, her breathing slowed, she took two more deep breaths and rested. I didn't cry, I didn't even feel sad. I felt thankful that the misery of the last few days of her life were over. There is no greater gift one can give to someone than to bring an end to their suffering. I do remember thinking I wish someone could do this for me when the time comes.
I bundled her in a blanket and taped it tight, laid her in the truck and started driving, determined to find a peaceful place for her to rest. She was gone, this part wasn't about her, it was about me, about paying respect to the creature that brought so much love and dedication into my life. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a place. I drove far out into the country, found farms and ranches, and most people just didn't want to be involved. I found one couple working in a field, and talked with the woman a bit, she said they were cleaning up their property to sell and didn't want to leave a buried dog on the property. She seemed sympathetic, and said there is a perfect place for her, you just need to let the Lord guide you to it.
The Lord. Yeah well . . . religion and I don't really see eye to eye. I do believe in a force, and it's power, and heard what she said in my own way. As I drove a private side-road caught my eye, and don't know why I decided to give it a try. I passed several posh country estates, obviously mountain getaways for the rich, which gave way to large horse and cattle fields and a small house on the left. I'm not even sure what told me to pull into the driveway but looking back on it, it was simple, I just opened and listened. I knocked on the door, was greeted by a man and a small white dog, which was a pretty good sign. I explained my task, and he said "yeah, I think I can help you with that, let me start up the tractor."
As it turns out, this man was a veterinarian himself, also a surfer, and had many pets on his property. The lady was right, there was a perfect place and I had been led right to it. I followed him to a spot beneath a grand old elm tree by a creek, and he dug a deep hole in the hard clay with his tractor. I laid her in, he said a prayer, and left me to cover Indy's body. I will remember every shovel of Earth I moved for a very long time.
I do miss her, and always will, but I am not sad for her. She told me it was time to go and I am thankful I had the strength to give her that final gift. Every morning I rise and she's not in the spot she used to lay, for a second I think someone left her outside. When we're done with a meal, there is no food dish to drop the last tasty bits into. Then I remember her body resting with horses and squirrels under an old elm by a creek; one of the best friends I ever had is free, and this is a cause for joy, not sadness.