For Luke, our much-loved yellow lab… our companion, our friend, my baby. He is 16 and has gone down hill rapidly this year. I realize we are very lucky; many dogs never live as long as Luke has. And yet, I somehow feel cheated. A year ago, he was still quite active, youthful even. Last year, I somehow imagined the end might never come. He had begun his slide, but was still in amazing shape for a dog his age. He still hiked with us; he was still game for any adventure. He was relatively happy and healthy, just slower. I imagined that he would just stay slower, and we would enjoy him… slow and quiet. He’s 16; this is to be expected. However, if he lived ‘til twenty, I’d still feel cheated, because Luke is beloved.
We adopted Luke 14.5 years ago, when he was almost a year and a half old. I didn’t want a puppy. I was looking for a dog that was potty trained, but young enough to bond with us, and be a companion to our then six year-old golden retriever, Callie Girl. His previous owner had clearly loved him, because he came to us well-trained, sweet-natured and missing his previous owner. His name was Duke then, but none of us liked that name. You get to name a puppy, but we realized that he was too old to suddenly start calling him Lucky, or Spot, or any name that was too different from the name he’d known for more than a year. He was and is smart; he knew his name was Duke, whether we liked it or not. We are big Star Wars fans, so Luke was the obvious choice. I’ve long joked, that he probably thought that his new people had speech problems, but he tolerated us nonetheless because he could tell we meant well. We’ve also spent most of his life saying “Luke, I am your father,” to him. He smiles at the joke, to humor us.
Luke had a life before we adopted him. While we felt lucky that our local Humane Society called when he was brought in: “we have a great dog here; he might be a good fit for you guys.” Aside: If you want to adopt a pet, take your time. Get to know your local Humane Society. They’re the best, and they want to see animals go to good homes. Let them get to know you. I had gone by multiple times, without the kids. When I heard about Duke, I brought the kids with me as well as Callie. If we were getting a new dog, it needed to be a good fit for all of us. They took me out back, and there was Duke, a yellow lab mix with a pink/Dudley nose: sitting embarrassed in the crate, while another alpha dog humped him. “This dog is the best!” The Humane Society worker exclaimed! “Nothing seems to bother him.” Callie liked him immediately, and he was an easy sell for the rest of us. He came home with us that day, wearing a bold, green collar that he kept for years; like the blanked Moses was found in, it was part of his history.
But Duke had been loved before, and he clearly loved in return. When he first came home with us, he watched the door constantly. We knew he was waiting for his previous owner, and some days I felt sad, knowing that he felt abandoned. We all were patient. When he ran off (constantly), we’d bring him home and try to show him this was where he was staying. It wasn’t easy at first, but he was worth the work. With lots of encouragement and love from us, he soon expressed the same dedication to our young children, and we all fell in love with him.
Callie was older than Luke and shyer; however, they were fast friends from the start. When they played in the kitchen, it was as if a pack of wolves were in there! They would knock over kitchen chairs, growl and wrestle with such passion, that I couldn’t scold them. They were like this until Callie became frail, and Luke simply watched her fretfully, clearly checking to see that she was ok. When Callie died at 15 (five years ago), Luke mourned for months. He watched for her; he lay in the kitchen looking lost, and it made her loss that much harder for all of us. But he has always been a dedicated boy, and it was no surprise that his heart was broken with ours.
Two years later, Gracie joined our family. She is a sassy chiweenie, 65 pounds smaller than Luke–– who let him know that she was boss, the minute she arrived. Luke is and always has been patient, and sweet. He let her think that; he let her take his bed, grab his toys, and even steal his food. He has never so much as warned her. Over time, he has come to like her. He will never love her the way he loved Callie, but that’s how hearts work, even with dogs.
Luke is infinitely patient; bold and playful, strong and dedicated to his family. He has never liked the water, but if his family is at the beach or lake, he always wades up to his belly and stands there looking out, as if he knows that he should like it. He has trained for marathons with dad, and trained for each of dad’s climbing adventures, with huge backcountry hikes and bike rides. He always wore a haltie–– not because he was ever aggressive, but because he could pull you off your feet, if he saw something he wanted to pursue. Dad learned early, not to attach the leash to his waist! Luke carried his own food on backpacking trips, and led all hikes–– running reconnaissance missions back and forth, and logging double or triple the miles we cover, running ahead and back to check on each of us. He accompanied his angsty teen girl on countless nighttime walks. Whenever he entered the dog park, he was always the alpha, but he could care less about making that point. He has been in prom pictures, Yearbook portraits, holiday pictures, family vacation shots, and countless photo ops. He generally steals the show. He has the softest ears imaginable and a luxurious coat, even at 16.
In the five years since Callie’s death, Luke has become my baby. I have become that lady who treats her dogs like children. As my kids have left and gone out into the world, he has been my shadow. He greets me every morning with unconditional, enthusiastic love. If I’m down, he knows just what to say, and never presses me to explain myself. He has been my faithful walking companion and playful partner in countless outings and road trips. He’s guarded my children on so many camping and backpacking trips, usually snuggling up inside one of the tents, and has slept on the deck with us, as we watch meteor showers in the summer. He has welcomed and loved three foreign students, who became our family, and greeted guests and visiting family, for years. If love were measured in tail wags, nudges or licks, we would have lost count years ago. He has clocked countless hours loving each of us. The idea that we are about to lose him brings forth heaving sobs, and a pain in my gut, that has been there for weeks… knowing this day was fast approaching.
Our dogs have always been kept upstairs, in the kitchen. It’s a large room with a large deck, and they know not to go in other rooms. Yet each Christmas, it’s as if Luke has known that miracles can happen. Every Christmas morning he starts by peaking out, and then slowly sneaking to the living room, where we are gathered to open gifts. Over time, we’ve come to expect it, and we quietly watch for him to make his move. He does it slowly, carefully–– aware that he’s stepped out-of-bounds, but somehow sure it’s ok. As he makes his way around the final corner, we call him in and he joins us, so happy to share in the festivities. This year, when we brought the tree home, he got so excited, as if the mere sight of a tree was enough. On Christmas day however, we waited but he didn’t come. My son went and got him, and he seemed totally surprised that it was Christmas again. Once he was with us, he settled down by my feet and looked so happy to be with his family in this strange tradition of paper and boxes, hugs, lights, ornaments and rules that don’t count.
After we opened presents, we drove to the top of a nearby ridge to play in fresh snow. We brought Luke. He has always loved the snow, and we knew he wouldn’t see it again. He ambled around, watching us all, his tail wagging, his back legs limpy. He got a treat from someone up there, and starting walking slowly up the mountain with the chewy in his mouth. We were completely perplexed. He looked so determined, but we couldn’t imagine where he was going. No people, no clear path, snow… but he just walked up the hill as if he had a plan. My son went up and gently turned him around and he joined us all again, but kept looking up that hill, as if there was something there for him… as if he knew he wouldn’t see snow again.
Today was his last full day. We have done this before, so we all talked about it, and made sure we could all be home today. A dear friend who’s a vet, and loves Lukie, agreed to come to our home. We planned a day for lots of hugs and a nice walk. It’s not that simple anymore, as there are so many hills in our neighborhood and traveling in the car isn’t easy for him now. For years, he loved to go anywhere with me. He’d sit shotgun and grin out the window. Today, Luke braced to jump up into the back of the car. I watched his muscles tense as he prepared to leap; I saw the worry in his eyes––knowing he couldn’t make it. He was patient as my son gently lifted him into the car. Though I know his old body hurts, he’s so stoic; he doesn’t complain, even when we can see he’s bearing up for us. Dogs do that; they want to please us, even when it’s hard for them. We took him for a longer walk than he could actually manage. We let him sniff as much as he wanted; we walked extra slow. Every step was a reminder of all the happy times I’ve spent with him, on that very same trail. I tried to smile for him, but every step was a reminder.
By the time anyone reads this, Luke will be gone. He’s just a dog to most who will read this, but he is so much more to our family, and to so many others who have come to love him. When he dies, he will be surrounded and held by many of those people, who all insisted that they be here for him. I wrote this before, knowing that I want to honor my dear boy, but sure that I will be inconsolable later. I don’t know what I really believe in, but I want to think that Callie Girl will greet him, and they will play like wolves again. I want to believe that he knows we are making a choice that is so very hard, but made with love. Luke has loved and been loved with full, grateful hearts. Adopting him was surely one of the best things that ever happened to our family. He has been our devoted family member, our friend and love. If I had twenty years, I’d still feel cheated. We have loved him for nearly 15 years, but he has loved us in dog years, and that is infinitely longer and bigger. He has loved us forever.
(And just before the time came, minutes before, we took one last short walk… and it began to snow. So when it was time–– and we were all gathered around, holding him tight and kissing him goodbye, his fur was still a little wet, from being a dog, who loved to walk in the snow, with the people who loved him best.)
Check out this lovely piece about dogs, that my girl sent this morning.