Seven years ago this spring, I was on the verge of turmoil. I knew, somewhere in my brain, that my marriage was ending. My daughter had to leave her private school, which seemed like the end of the world at the time. All the wise people who said she'd shoot the lights out anywhere ended up being right, but no parent has a crystal ball to know how our actions will affect our kids. Somebody really needs to invent that.
So, in a fit of guilt, I decided to get a dog. Our previous adopted Schnauzer, Annie, had been a runner. The first time, she was gone for three months and turned up wearing a new collar bearing the name Misty. With that moniker, we had no choice but to rescue her again. But a year and a half later, she bolted again, collar off (my ex-husband needed a nap and her tags kept waking him up) for good.
I went back to the Humane Society of North Texas, bracing myself for the onslaught of barking. The little dog room (meaning the room for little dogs) was full of annoying yaps, but one fellow, who looked sort of like a grumpy but lovable old man, a bit like Toto from the Wizard of Oz, grabbed me. I opened the little cage, and he put his paws on my shoulders. You picked me, I thought. And there we were. His name was Gus, and the first night after he came home, I slept with him on the couch, and from then on he was completely devoted to me. My tires in the drive, my key in the lock, my footfall first thing out of bed: all were enough to get him jumping.
We moved to our little rent house, and the picture window at the front was either his thrill or torment, though as with all of us it's hard to tell. He was terrified of other dogs, and got belligerent as a result. (We all know people like this.) He had a problem with his left hind leg--a little limp--which was the result of an early injury, though we never knew what his history was or for that matter how old he really was. Our street was busy with traffic of all sorts, and Gus would exhaust himself by barking convulsively at other dogs. "He'll someday drop dead right there," I said more than once.
Our new house, though more comfortable, offered no thrills for Gus. He slept more, and besides taking the cat's bait and doing his convulsive thing a couple times a day, he seemed pretty bored. And his check-up several months ago went well and he bore the cat's inroads into the house pretty well, it seemed. And then the cold weather came this year, and he seemed arthritic. He lost energy, but did go out for walks and did lots of business. But I knew he was in decline. There was no distress, but somehow I knew, despite his relatively young age of approximately nine, that his time was near.
Last week, my son and I came home in the early evening, and the house was more quiet than usual. I'd seen a feral cat in our yard earlier and we went to the back door to look out at the deck to see what was up. Then we turned around, and saw Gus, his little head just outside of his open crate, where he'd been sleeping with the door open on a soft blanket. We knew right away.
And despite my love for this little dog, I couldn't move him, couldn't touch him. My very brave son, all of eleven, gently lifted Gus out and wrapped him up. Then we went to get my daughter, and as she popped out the door at a school function, she saw my face and knew something was up. "What's wrong with the dog?" she asked. I said he was gone. It was the second-hardest moment of my parental life. When we got home again, my son put him in a cardboard box, and then both of us put him in the shed, where he would be safe but cool. The next morning, we took his body to the vet to have him cremated.
Gus saw me, and the kids, through some really tough times and some very happy ones. When I woke on Sunday morning, I felt a huge space inside me: there should have been a dog under my bed, somebody to get me up and going. I was going to be coming home to an empty house, with no jingle of tags, no wagging tail, to greet me. I cried hard, again, for the upteenth time in several days. We loved Gus, but not nearly as well as he loved us.