Rugby’s End

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.


44 thoughts on “Rugby’s End

  1. There is a song I’m sure you’ve heard, Jack. It’s called sentimental and corny these days and it’s best-selling version was about as saccharine as Elvis could get but the night my first husky died (a year younger than Rugby) some of his people-friends came over and we sat around and talked about her (a hard-working, hard-playing ranch dog, Thunder, named for the stormy day she was born – she never so much as blinked when it cracked and rolled – we sang the song, and cried every one of us, and felt better. I had dogs as a child, but both “went to grandpa’s dairy farm” when they became old and in pain, and I just thought of them chasing the cows or scampering around the apple orchard. So, I missed grieving for them, and I knew it. The difference with the last sort of knocked me down. She was my last dog. But I hope another (unique, of course!) Dickens or Rugby will grace your family in the not-so-distant future.

    This is the original Red Foley raw, outdated,unabashedly C&W waltz, more down-to-earth than the overwhelming Presley or Johnny Cash versions, for you, Grace and mostly, Grant (if it’s not too hokey for his taste):

  2. Poor doggy. Terribly sorry, Jack. Our animal friends always leave us sooner than we would like them to. My family always had cats, one of whom died of leukemia when I was 11, and the other of whom died of cancer in 2005. I was 11, so I was reaching the point where boys try to hide their emotions, but I feel no shame in saying I cried like a baby when the first kitty had to be put down.

    I hate the idea of deliberately putting an end to an animal’s life, but, like yourself, I think the duty is clear, if this poor creature can’t be cured, and what time it has left is going to be short and painful, then it’s on us to ease their transition.

  3. Oh, Jack, I’m so sorry for you and your family. Since our Queensland Heeler, KC, has been gone, we haven’t had the courage to find another true friend knowing that the joyful years end so painfully. So, I’ve made it my mission in life to send comfort to those who have lost their beloved pets. Especially for dog lovers, the best book I can recommend is Eugene O’Neill’s “Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog”. If you don’t already have a copy, I’d be honored to send it to you if, perhaps you have a PO Box or some other non-personal way to receive mail.

  4. Like Joe, I couldn’t finish the post the first time. Even now, I’m having some trouble seeing the keyboard. You have become a large part of my life, and Rugby was and is no small part of that. Please accept my deepest condolences. I grieve with you.

  5. Jack, I also grieve with you and your family for your loss of Rugby.
    My being sorry seems so inadequate…
    May the memory of Rugby’s love grow new and great love in your and your family’s lives.

  6. Jack,

    My wife and I extend our condolences as well. She read me the post while I was cleaning up in the kitchen that evening, and we talked for quite some time about the companionship of pets, the knowledge that we will outlive most of our pets, and our experiences with pets that we’ve lost over time.

    This may sound a little odd, but thank you for sharing your grief with us.

  7. In a flash of absolute brilliance, stupidity, or irrelevance, I recommend that you watch the episode of Futurama entitled, “Jurassic Bark,” the one with the dog. I have mentioned this before on this blog. It might be the most heart-breaking episode for you to watch right now, but part of me thinks this might be the best episode for grieving pet owners to watch.

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