August 2015: Our mutual bargain

Editor's Note
Photograph courtesy of Steve Fennessy

If you’re a fan of Louis C.K., you may have heard his bit about dogs, and how bringing home a puppy to a family obscures the inevitable truth: “Look what I brought home! I brought home us crying in a few years. Here you go—countdown to sorrow!”

I found myself playing that bit on YouTube a lot over the past few days, as it became painfully clear that it was time to say goodbye to Sadie, a shepherd mix we adopted as a puppy 13 years ago from the Atlanta Humane Society. The fact is, the only way I could discuss it or even ponder the approaching reality without bawling like a grandmother was to joke about it. So the side-eye glances Sadie shot when my wife and I discussed the hows and whens of euthanasia we interpreted as not just her comprehension of the subject at hand, but careful deliberation about how she might escape her fate. Kill us in our sleep, perhaps? But Sadie was wicked smart. (An admirer once sized her up and said, “She could fold your laundry—if she wanted to.”) Sadie knew that our remains could feed her for only so long, and unless she learned to grow opposable thumbs so she could unlock the front door, she’d be S.O.L. without us before long.

And really, as calculating as we imagined her being, she couldn’t deny her nature. She carved out two simple jobs for herself, tasks she seemed appalled we weren’t doing ourselves: Nudging us all into one room, and then, with that accomplished, plopping down, her eyes trained on the front door, ready to bark ferociously at anyone who dared step foot onto our porch.

But the other evening, I looked out the back window and there she was, struggling to stand in the grass. Arthritis. Her rear legs had months ago become stiff as canes. Still, she’d managed. But now—this. In the fading light of the backyard, I picked her up and carried her into the house. I set her down gently, and she tottered off, banging her head on a corner cabinet. Was it a stroke? I called the vet and she asked me to look at Sadie’s gums, but they were pink and fine. That’s how it goes. You’re never 100 percent sure. And no one knows what they’re talking about.

A week before, I’d ordered a book called Dog Heaven. Our boys are three and five, and I wanted to prepare them for what was coming. I read it first to Casey, who pointed at the man in the hat, peeking out from behind a tree. The man was supposed to be God, smiling at dogs in heaven who were barking at geese in a pond. “Is that what God looks like?” he asked. Well, I don’t know, I said. But it’s what the person who wrote this book thinks he looks like. The next night I read it to Jack, who marveled at the expanses in dog heaven. Fields and fields and fields.

Then I turned out his light and kissed him and walked into the kitchen. For 13 years, Sadie had played a lot of roles: herder, protector, shedder extraordinaire. Now, with dusk falling, I looked out the back window. There she was, in the grass, waiting for me to assume the role I’d long ago promised I would take on—even if I had never spoken it. For the first time, she was needing me more than I needed her. She was telling me the countdown was almost over.

This article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue.