For the first time since my son was about to turn 9 almost 16 years ago, our home is without the extraordinary sweetness and aggressive unconditional love of Rugby, my son’s (but really the whole neighborhood’s) extraordinary Jack Russell Terrier.
He peacefully expired after an injection, as he was held tightly by my son Grant, whom he loved beyond explaining, wrapped in the tattered baby blanket that a toddling Grant himself once held for comfort, and that had lined Rugby’s dog bed in my son’s apartment.
In the end, these decisions always come down to ethical values. We received from our vet the not entirely unexpected news that our dog’s sudden lack of energy and stability as well as labored breathing was almost certainly caused by progressive heart failure. Dickens, his more flamboyant and occasionally diabolical predecessor of the same breed, had perished of the identical malady just short of 15 years of mischief. The first question— Is there anything you can do?— was met by an answer we have heard before in earlier animal companion tragedies: “Maybe, but even under the best circumstances, the time will be short.”
The second—Would he be suffering?—also had a less than satisfactory response. “These are very stoic dogs; if he’s hurting, he won’t tell you. You know him best: what would he consider a comfortable life?”
Rugby had answered that question when we arrived at the vet’s in the early morning today, rousing himself for the first time in days to play mayor and MC as if nothing was amiss, greeting terrified new arrivals, running up to every dog large and small, old or young, and bumping noses, and making me sound like an idiot as I explained to the staff that he had become progressively less active and lively over the last week, culminating in a collapse early in our previous evening walk, sleeping almost all day, and suddenly seeming his age and beyond after over 15 years as a perpetual puppy. This was how Rugby wanted to be, scampering, wagging, loving everybody and everything (even squirrels, cats and mailmen) because this is who he was, and it had to take an extraordinary effort for him to pull off the last 10 minutes of effervescence that had several dog owners asking, “What kind of dog IS that? He’s such a character!”
Rugby had shown signs of more decline in his brief time with the vets, refusing the kind of treats he loved while still charming all of the assistants and doctors. After we learned that there would be no way to euthanize him until Monday if he worsened, as was likely, over the weekend, our duty was clear. As my wife has said in the past and repeated today, our animal companions trust us to do what’s best for them, even when our own selfishness would dictate other courses of action. We weren’t ready to lose Rugby, but letting go was the kindest and most responsible decision we could make.
It is amazing what a giant hole a small non-human friend can leave in your life.
Just now I found myself thinking back to “My Dog Skip,” a movie about a boy, like Grant an only child, and his Jack Russell terrier. Skip was a roughcoat Jack, unlike both Dickens and Rugby (whom we hadn’t met yet), but the last speech of the movie, uttered in reflection by the boy (Frankie Muniz), now grown, resonated deeply when I first heard it in the theater, and it strikes even deeper today.
The dog of your boyhood…teaches you a great deal about friendship and love and death.
I was an only child. He was an only dog. Old Skip…never lost that old devilish look in his eye. He made my room his own.
I came across an old photo of him not long ago. His little face…with the long snout sniffing at something in the air. His tail was straight out and pointing and his eyes were flashing in some momentary excitement. He always loved to be rubbed on the back of his neck, and when I did it, he’d yawn, and he’d stretch, and reach out to me with his paws as if he was trying to embrace me.
[Note: Dickens would yawn; Rugby didn’t. Rugby would stretch and reach out with his paws, and sometimes did embrace you…]
I received a transatlantic call one day. “Skip died” Daddy said. He and my mama wrapped him in my baseball jacket. They buried him out under our elm tree, they said.
That wasn’t totally true. for he really lay buried……in my heart.