One year ago today, I had to put my own dog down with the rifle I inherited from my grandfather. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was a cold day, much like this one, a dull gray palette to the light. There was, as there is now, a light breeze. It was a Sunday. Nothing extraordinary about the day except that I was about to do something so contrary to my nature that I couldn’t have imagined, that morning, that I would ever have done such a thing. Or could.
We were going to have Tillie put down at the local animal hospital. My family had been staying at the Best Western motel downtown while I spent the weekend with Tillie up here on the hill in an RV we had rented for the winter. The hope had been that she might yet recover, but as the long weekend drug on and Tillie and I spent those restless nights together, it was increasingly clear that there was no improvement on the horizon. I had lain down in the snow with her that morning, thinking she might just go to sleep and never wake up, but she couldn’t do that either. Things were not right – she could no longer go on, but it wasn’t yet quite time to die – and we both seemed to know this. So I picked up my family that morning with Tillie in the back of my Jeep and we all drove to the animal hospital.
I had done this sort of thing before, seventeen years before, with my two other dogs, Annie and Rosebud, so I knew what lay ahead. White linoleum, fluorescent lights, a cold steel table, Vet Techs in light blue or pink uniforms, the smell of anesthetic, the blank stares of other listless pet owners. We waited in the parking lot, as instructed, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. I called twice to see if they were about to bring her in, as we’d been told they would, and they kept telling me that they’d be right out. But they never came, and Tillie was agitated, little spasms contorting her body from time to time. I did my best to keep her calm, but nothing about this situation was right. So I walked back to Jenna’s car just behind me and told her that we were leaving and that I’d do it myself. I hardly knew what I was saying, but Jenna agreed, to my surprise, and so we all drove off, my daughter Belle and I in the Jeep and Jenna and Will in her car on their way to the grocery store, planning to come up after it was all over.
Belle and I arrived at the homesite (at the time that's all it was, the frame of a floor and a foundation and not much else), and when I picked Tillie up and set her down on the snow, she could hardly stand. So Belle grabbed Tillie’s favorite bed and I picked Tillie up, and we brought both to the edge of the hill on the other side of the house where the view stretches for miles, and this is where we lay our sweet girl down. Belle, all of 15 years old, spent her last moments with Tillie, whom she'd gotten as a birthday present fourteen years before, on her first birthday, as I went back to the RV to retrieve the rifle. When I got back outside, Belle was already standing next to the RV. I looked at her, still not sure how I could do it, and Belle just gave me a hug and said, “You got this, Pa.” Those words rang in my ear like a sweet benediction, carrying a power that I did not possess, and I walked to the other side of the house where Tillie lay on her bed on the berm in the snow, completely relaxed, the calmest I’d seen her in weeks. The breeze was still blowing, the scene was serene, and all the familiar smells that she loved about this place were, I’m sure, floating in the air. A peaceful stillness pervaded the whole scene, which belied a deeper reality, invisible but impossible to miss.
I still, to this day, have no idea how I actually did it. The last moments between a man and his dog are sacred, but even this was more complicated. Almost sacramental. All I’m prepared to say about the final moments was that it was, unexpectedly, a gift. She wagged her tail as she took her last breaths, as if she knew something I didn’t; as if, improbably, she was thanking me. Perhaps it was none of those things and I just conveniently choose to believe it. Or perhaps not.
All I’m prepared to say now, on this first anniversary of her death, is that I miss her terribly – we all do – and I look forward to the spring when the dogwood we planted at her grave, just outside my study window, will soon come back to life, the white buds collecting on its branches, the tiny green leaves wagging like a thousand tails in the light breeze.