I was still sitting in bed reading the newspaper a few days ago when Jane came upstairs from feeding our three dogs and said tearfully, “I think it is time to put Shasta down.”
“Yes, I know,” having reached the same conclusion a few days before, but being unwilling to voice it.
Shasta is our rescue dog. She came into our lives 13 years ago. My daughter, who was 7 years old, was riding with me on our tandem bicycle on the Huckleberry Trail when we were stopped by a family walking a dog. They were interested in our bicycle. We chatted about the bike while my daughter petted the dog. “We already have another dog at home,” they told her. “You can have her if you want her.” The next day, Shasta came home with us.
Shasta is beautiful. She has long, luxurious fur, black on her back and tan underneath, with a silly curl in her tail. Her face is brown and white, in the shape of a fox, and she has alert, pointy ears. She has an ebony nose and dark skin around her brown eyes that looks like fine mascara. She is, or was, athletic – a fast runner and an able leaper.
I am a habitual walker, covering typically 3 to 6 miles every other evening on the Huckleberry. Shasta has always been a willing companion, scurrying excitedly whenever I reached for her leash. We have walked together hundreds of miles in weather ranging from rainy to icy to snowy to pleasant, and she’s always unfazed. People often stop us to comment on what a beautiful animal she is.
Our other two dogs are 7-year-old littermates, energetic Australian shepherds. These are mamma’s dogs, following her every movement around the house, paying mere lip service to me. But Shasta has always been mine. She is less clingy and more independent, content to spend hours alone, often on the landing of the upstairs steps. A couple of times over the years, she’s gotten loose outside and stayed on the lam for days. She’s never met a stranger, and when she’s wanted to be petted, she nudges the elbow or forearm of family or visitor alike.
These pleasant and happy occasions stopped a few months ago. Shasta began to look sick and under all that fur was rapidly losing weight. In the process, she began to lose control of her back legs, finding it difficult to stand on slick floors. She could no longer climb or descend steps. Her right eye began to cloud up and ooze fluid, and her hearing failed.
We knew Shasta was nearing her life expectancy and would never recover. The quality of her life was gone. Our veterinarian said that it was unlikely she would die on her own in a timeframe we would consider palatable, that she would more likely face an ongoing deterioration, and that we would face the decision to terminate her. Yet we kept vacillating, putting off her final breath, as she was still continent, somewhat alert, and mobile. However, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was her mournful cry of pain towards the bedtime hours.
Our tearful decision is shared by millions of Americans, who keep approximately 163 million domesticated dogs and cats. If the average life expectancy is 11 years, there are 15 million unhappy families every year. But sharing the sorrow makes it no easier.
In a couple of hours, we have an appointment where the veterinarian will do the Grim Reaper's job of putting our dear Shasta down. Once the doctor takes Shasta into the back room, I will retreat outside to wait for my wife and daughter. I prefer not to watch Shasta pass, but instead to have my final memories be good ones. I want my mind’s eye to see that chilly evening last November when the fading sunlight far to the western horizon lit her fur as it wafted in the wind. Her eyes were alert, her ears were back and her nose was high, as she ambled effortlessly forward, absorbing her world and brightening mine.
When I retreat to bed tonight and Shasta is gone, a piece of me will be gone with her.