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"A Different Kind of Homecoming"
Dogs get sick too. I learned this painful lesson two years ago when my nine-year-old black and white Boston Terrier, Shadow, began to act differently. Normally, he was full of boundless energy. Now, he struggled to move around, making heaving sounds as he breathed. To me, dogs always seemed invincible. When Shadow was a puppy, nothing seemed to faze him. I remember watching him run around our backyard, his short black and white legs moving as quickly as they could, chasing a squirrel. Running at full speed, he would often run out of the twenty-foot rope leash stopping him from escaping the backyard. Ouch. My face would cringe as I observed my dog flying into the air, the leash choking his neck. Sometimes, he would let out a bit of a yelp. But after a few seconds, he would begin sniffing the green grass so I knew he wasn’t hurt. It seemed like he never experienced pain…until one October day.
I vividly remember that day, and the week leading up to it. Shadow all of a sudden stopped eating his food. That came as a shock. He loved to eat. Whenever one of us opened up a banana or an ice cream container, he was immediately at our feet. He always pranced about the kitchen, circling around in front of the cabinet he knew contained the biscuits. His eyes seemed to say, are you going to feed me? I’m hungry! Sometimes, we made him work for his doggy treat. My mom would kneel down in front of him and tell him, “Sit up pretty,” picking up his front paws. He always looked like he was a formal dog; most of his body was black, but his stomach was white, giving him the appearance of a tuxedo. Whenever he would “sit pretty,” he looked very prim and proper, and my family got a lot of laughs out of it.
The starvation continued through the week. On that Friday, my mom decided that it was time to take Shadow to the vet. He had had an illness once before, a digestion issue, so we all were not overly concerned. We figured that the vet would put him on a special diet like last time, and all would be well.
When I got in the car after tennis that day, the day I was supposed to have my conference tournament before it got rained out, my mom was on the phone talking to the vet. I don’t remember exactly what she was saying, but as soon as I buckled my seatbelt, my body tensed up and my stomach churned, like I knew that something was not right. Turning my head towards my mom’s face, I analyzed it for any signs of worry or concern. Her face had the normal worry lines of a mother, but I didn’t know what the vet was saying on the other end of the phone.
After returning home, Mom said the words that I did not want to hear: “There’s nothing that they can do. We have to make a decision. Either we have to put him down tonight, or we have to bring him home, and he may last one more day, but with suffering.” She struggled to get the words out without crying.
I could not say anything. I was in complete shock. The back of my throat closed up, and immediately my face was damp from the tears that fell from my eyes. My mom started crying too, and we embraced, each of us trying to comfort the other. Mom led me over to our dark blue couch in our living room, motioning me to sit down. The couch was only a couple of months old, and in order to keep it new, we decided to not let him sit up on it. I couldn’t help but thinking about this as I sat down. Just thinking about him started me on another bout of tears. I could taste the salt of the tears, as they dripped into my open mouth. Why was this happening? He was only nine years old! He should have still had at least five more years to live!
Of all the times for this to happen, it had to be weekend of Homecoming. I had the football game, tennis conference the next day, and then the dance the next night. Why now? Mom called Mrs. Latos, our neighbor, and in a very emotional conversation told her about our dilemma and asked her to have Nicole tell Mr. Barnum, my band director, that I would be late to the football game that I had to march in for band. During the phone call, I was sitting on the bottom step of the staircase, next to Dad. He cried, too. This is about the only time I had ever seen him cry. Shadow was a part of our family. I felt like a ton of bricks was thrown on top of me, crushing my body.
We piled into our tan 1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette and drove to the vet’s office. I stared out the window, my body stiff and numb, biting my lower lip to try to keep myself from crying again. The sky was overcast and gloomy from the rain. Even Mother Nature seemed to understand how I felt. I gripped the seatbelt and squeezed it trying to ease some of my grief. My eyes were all red and puffy, a box of Puffs next to me on the seat.
Climbing out of the car, I still couldn’t believe what was happening. I stared at the white building and thought about all of the times I had come with Mom to take Shadow to the vet for his annual checkup. Shadow would pull on the leash, sniffing the ground where other dogs had just been. When he saw another dog, he would get really excited and almost cause Mom to fall down as he tried to run towards a new friend. In the aqua blue waiting room, I saw the weighing machine that looked sort of like a treadmill. It made me think about the struggles we had to get Shadow to sit still on the machine. We would have to put part of a biscuit on it to keep his attention focused on the machine and not other dogs sitting by their owners. After thinking about this, I burst out crying.
An assistant took us back to the exam room. I noticed the grey tile floor and the white walls and the black chairs for us to sit in. I tried looking around the room to distract myself from the inevitable while we waited for the vet to bring Shadow in to see us for the last time. The room smelled like cleaning supplies.
After what seemed like ages, I heard Shadow’s dog tags clinking together in the hallway. I tried to brace myself. It was no use. As soon as I saw the familiar black and white fur, I lost it. I didn’t care if I looked like a cry baby. I was seeing my family member for the last time and there was nothing that could have prepared me for this.
I watched as Shadow heaved in agony. Mom had said that there was a mass on his heart and lung, making it hard to breathe. I knelt down and picked him up. I held him tightly, not wanting to let go of him. I tried to take it all in as my hands moved across his fur, trying to remember what it felt like to pet him. The vet was baffled by how well Shadow moved around, almost like his regular self, except for the frequent heaving sound. Normally, dogs in his condition would be almost paralyzed. But this was Shadow. He was always full of boundless energy, and he was going to fight for his life until the end. As I put my face near his to kiss the top of his head, he licked away some of the salt on my face. This caused me to start crying again, as I realized this would be the last time he would lick me.
The vet asked us if we were ready. We knew that we couldn’t stay there all night saying our goodbyes, so my mom nodded her head. The vet then asked us whether we wanted to watch them put him down. Was she crazy? Couldn’t she see how emotional we were? Did she really think that we needed to see his last breath?
On the car ride back home, I stared at the red leather collar on the seat next to me. It should have been on Shadow’s neck, with Shadow in the seat next to me. I wondered whether he was gone yet. The tears kept coming; it had been a good two hours since they had started.
I arrived at school, not in any shape to perform, but needing something to keep my mind off of the situation. The band was outside warming up by the band room. As soon as Nicole saw me, she ran over and gave me a huge hug.
“I’m so sorry.” Those three little words were enough to start me crying again. As we watched the fireworks after we performed our half-time show, I imagined that they were celebrating Shadow’s life and his homecoming to heaven. The next day, as I played in my tennis conference tournament, I played for Shadow. My goal was to play with the same amount of energy that he used when he bolted up and down our upstairs hallways during his “spaz attacks.” Two years later, I still get a little choked up when I think about him. I learned how important it is to cherish every moment you are with the one’s you love, because at any moment, you can lose them forever. Dogs are like family members; they get sick, too.