Big Black Dog

Arky was my sister's black Labrador Retriever. He was the first dog either of us got after our childhood Golden Retriever, Chess, died. Chess made such a big impact on us with his loyalty, sweetness, and utter unselfishness that the first thing we both did when we got out of college was buy dogs we couldn't quite afford. Kate got Arky, and a few years later, I got Gus.

I remember when Kate got out of college and first started out working with special needs kids. She couldn't afford much, and she told stories about cooking rice and beans and sharing them with Arky. I used to imagine the two of them holed up under a blanket in a cold apartment in Boston in the winter, watching over each other.

That image still comes to me when I think about Kate and Arky and probably always will.

Arky was never an obedience star. When he was young, he was selectively deaf to commands, and as he got older, he grew literally deaf. He was mouthy and rambunctious when he was young, and I remember stories of trips to the e-vet to remove broken glass and other captivating objects he'd find on his walks. But as goofy and stubborn as he was, he was forever an utterly loyal and loving Labrador Retriever.  When Kate got married, he took to her husband and then to her kids, and he became that gentle, sweet dream dog you hope your kids will grow up with, albeit one that still didn't always come when you called him.

In his old age, you didn't need a leash in the backyard anymore, since you could just jog over and catch him, and once he noticed you, he'd follow you back to the house. The last few times we visited Kate and her family in Boston, Arky would come out and romp around for a minute with the young dogs and then wander off, and I always loved going to get him, since he would come back towards the house in a perfect "heel" as long as you scratched the itchy spot on his neck while you walked with him. And then he'd spend the rest of the day sleeping off his sixty seconds of exercise.

Last night, Kate had to make that awful decision between waiting to see if more medicine and time can improve things and letting your dog go because he's suffering so much. You never feel good about that, and you always chew over the "what ifs." But you make the best decision you can for the dog. We don't have perfect knowledge of what's going on in a dog's body, so we can't make perfect decisions. But as long as you make the least selfish decision you can, the decision that you believe is best for the dog and not necessarily for you, you've made the right one. A dog would never begrudge us a day or a week that he might have lived. He just knows that you're there, rubbing his favorite spot, saying "good boy" or humming an old bedtime song as he drifts away. We can't give them a life free from suffering or as many years as we'd want to, but we can give them that.

So now Arky's gone, and I wish I could hold that huge head in my hands and scratch that itchy spot on his neck and hear him whuff air through that coal black nose. I'd tell him thank you for taking care of my sister when she was out on her own for the first time and thank you for watching over my niece and my nephew, and then I'd let him wander into the woods in the backyard for a little longer this time before bringing him back home.

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