One last act of loyalty11/30/2016
Digging a grave for a loved one gives the gravedigger an opportunity to reflect on good times past.
Recently, I dug her grave on the edge of our prairie. It was cool, overcast and windy, but ramming the shovel into hard clay brought out beads of sweat. Despite the dreary weather, she came through the garage “doggie door” with Tópe, our 3-year-old labrador retriever, and Gus, our rescue-league cat, to watch what I was doing.
Oso was our 14-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever. She was our first dog, coming to our house from a southern Iowa farm a couple of years after my wife Jill and I married in 2000. Some Chesapeakes have odd-shaped faces, but Oso’s was well balanced and handsome. Her coat was cappuccino in color, her eyes full of intelligence. When we brought our son Graeme home after his birth in late 2004, Oso heard him give a little cry upon entering the kitchen. Raising her ears, Oso gave a quizzical look as though she were asking, “What is this new thing?”
Oso was a typical Chesapeake. She was extremely loyal and protective of family and home. When newborn Graeme was lying down, she would lie next to him. Visitors arriving by car were greeted with warning barks, but, with a few reassuring words from the family, she turned friendly and spent her time inquisitively sniffing visitors to see if they had rolled in anything good. She was all dog.
Like many dogs, she took great enjoyment from going on walks with the family, her “pack.” The walks around our acreage gave her time for her to investigate everything she saw, heard and smelled. She particularly enjoyed rolling in anything dead, such as opossums, raccoons, deer, fish and snapping turtles.
She was a natural hunter. She knew the sounds of pheasant and quail well, and when she heard them, her excitement level heightened, and her nose and legs went into overdrive. She had an interest in more than just game birds. One winter night, I arrived home and found a relatively large pyramid of something dark lying in the shadows in the back of the garage. I got a shovel and turned on the lights to discover she had regurgitated eight little bunnies.
She was much more a swimmer, though, than a hunter. She seemed to enjoy life the most when she was immersed in our pond. When the edges of the ice started to melt in the spring, she’d jump in the water for an ice bath and swim. With a thick, oily coat, the coldest of water posed no problem for her. When Jill would go for a sail in her small boat, Oso would paddle after her. The question, “Oso, swim?” resulted in a tail wag and wait at the door.
On at least one occasion the water was also Oso’s refuge. A friend brought her amorous male dog out for a visit. Oso realized this dog had no love of the water, so she escaped his advances by jumping into the pond and swimming in circles. Meanwhile, he sat on the pond edge and eagerly waited for her to tire. She never did, and he went home to take a cold shower or do whatever male dogs do when their advances go nowhere.
Although never overweight, Oso tipped the scales at more than 90 pounds at one point. As she reached her 90s in “people years,” however, her weight began dropping. She developed bald spots in her once-luxurious coat. She could not stop herself from defecating in the house or garage. She had difficulty arising from the floor and hearing even the loudest of sounds. She seemed lost at times, walking into a room and appearing to forget why she wanted to go there.
These ailments made her feel vulnerable and wary. She gave warning barks at things real and imaginary and gave whining barks about the air temperature or food.
In the summer, we discussed putting Oso down. We set a couple of dates to bring her to the vet clinic, but cancelled them when we saw — or believed we saw — signs she was still functioning well and enjoying life. By autumn, though, we saw that her quality of life was deteriorating at a relatively rapid clip.
We arrived at the vet clinic late on Friday afternoon with Oso on her leash. With her legs lacking strength, we had to load her into the car and unload her.
A short time later, she fell asleep for good.
We wrapped her in a blanket and took her home. We patted her coat with our hands one last time and laid her in her grave with some dog biscuits and a bone between her paws.
As we shoveled soil onto our friend and worked prairie flower seeds into it, I thought about the walk she took with us earlier in the afternoon, one in which she moved slowly, placing one last unsteady paw ahead of the other. It was our last walk for all of us together, and, thankfully, she did not discover a dead raccoon to roll in.
Back at the house, I remembered what a friend told me about his own loyal dog, which, like Oso, had made one last walk with him and his family: “We weren’t doing it for her — she was doing it for us.”
Thank you, Oso, for our last walk together. ♦