|True, in a rare moment of repose.|
It's been almost a month since the girls and I had to say goodbye to a very, very special member of our family. Thanks to my editor at the New England Hockey Journal, I was able to pay tribute to our wonderful Labrador retriever, True.
Anyone who has ever lost a pet, especially a pet dog, can probably appreciate the following. There is a rare and remarkable bond that forms between a pet and her owners. And True was truly remarkable. Let me know what you think ...
Requiem for an athlete
Your indulgence, please. Writing has always been cathartic, and I'm hoping my craft can work its magic this evening.
It is approaching midnight, on the eve of July 4. I'm home, but can't sleep. The long holiday weekend was a tough one. Earlier today, my wife, daughters, and I had to put down our beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Trudell.
Longtime readers of this column might remember True (the nickname I always felt most comfortable with). I wrote about her a few years back, as an example of the perfect goaltender – remarkably quick, agile, and focused.
True celebrated her 10th birthday earlier this year. I realize that's 70 in "dog years," but this dog was still an absolute stud. Her narrow head and lean build was a testament to her lineage as a full-on American field Labrador retriever. True was bred to retrieve waterfowl, even in the most inhospitable environments.
Her father, Zeb, was my father in-law's prized retriever, and he enjoyed needling me that True, as a family pet, was "a waste of a great hunting dog." I always laughed, knowing he was right. In her prime, True was 65 pounds of quick-twitch muscle, sinew, and gray matter hard-wired to fetch.
But even in her "golden years," she continued to personify the qualities that make Labs such phenomenal pets. Good-natured, kind, exuberant. But what really set True apart was her boundless capacity for fun.
When True saw me grab my lacrosse stick and tennis ball, her response was unadulterated joy. Her ears picked up, her tail wagged uncontrollably, her entire body would shake with anticipation. At that moment, she was absolutely locked onto the ball, a pure athlete waiting to pounce. She was the perfect goaltender – coiled, confident, and unfazed by any outside emotions or distractions.
But True, as I would learn, was more than a natural goaltender. She was the ideal teammate. Though she wasn't a "cuddly" pet, she lived and breathed whatever mood filled our house. If we were happy and celebrating, True had to be in the middle of it. Unsuspecting visitors would get smothered with slobbering kisses. If we were upset, True would mope. She embodied our family atmosphere, yet rarely failed to lift our spirits.
Late March, True started showing signs that something was amiss. Her exceptional endurance began to ebb. She was hesitant to jump into the back of the family wagon after a run at the beach, and even struggled to hop onto our bed (her favorite napping spot). Like her father, True developed laryngeal paralysis, making breathing difficult.
Starting in May, True's condition deteriorated rapidly. Her decline happened so fast, we couldn't get ahead of it. Our local vet was visibly stunned when he saw her, just six short weeks after her annual physical. She was stumbling badly, her hindquarters barely able to support her weight.
We had X-rays taken, and were told that True, orthopedically speaking, was flawless. After consulting with four different veterinarians, the consensus appeared to be that True was suffering from some kind of neurological problem. It could have been the result of a tumor on her spine, or brain, or caused by a stroke. We tried steroid supplements, with minimal benefit.
The only option at that point was more expensive testing, which would only tell us what type of more expensive surgery needed to be done. For an aging pet who already was suffering from laryngeal paralysis, it simply didn't make sense. Our vets concurred. Lauri and I resigned ourselves to helping make True as comfortable as possible for however long she was with us.
Over the last two weeks of June, it was clear True's time was coming. She held on for a final visit from my mother in-law, the woman who weaned her as a puppy. On Sunday, Lauri made the courageous decision that True shouldn't have to deal with her declining health any longer. We drove to a clinic in North Andover, our girls cradling their "knucklehound" in the back seat.
We would return home to our small cottage that afternoon, knowing it would seem far too big without True. There would be reminders waiting for us, of course. Tennis balls in the backyard, the water/food dish in the kitchen, couches and carpets covered with her fine blonde fur. I'd miss her appearing out of nowhere every time I opened a peanut butter jar, or a package of cheese. Daily rituals, including her trembling delight at meal times, and our slow walks around the neighborhood (when she had to sniff every blade of grass), would change forever.
Now, though, we were only concerned for True's well being. More than anything, we didn't want her to be in pain. Her tail still thumped vigorously against the floor every time a new person came into the room, a sure sign of her indomitable spirit.
But part of True was clearly resigned. She had fought the good fight. She put her faith in our decision, just as she always had. She trusted us, unequivocally. She seemed perfectly at peace, even as the technician put the catheter into her front leg. The veterinarian then came in, assured us that we were doing the right thing, and explained the process. True, she promised, would not suffer.
Not a minute later, our beautiful True was gone. Her incredibly strong heart stopped beating, her labored breathing stilled. My wife, and our two daughters, took turns lying beside her, sobbing. The love this dog engendered was truly breathtaking. My girls then left, leaving me alone with my True.
I leaned in close, looking into those deep, milky brown eyes that no longer could see me. I apologized to her for being a less-than-perfect owner, for being short tempered at times, for being impatient when her boundless energy prompted her to run off.
Stroking her soft coat, I thanked True for the lessons she taught me, lessons about how to love without conditions, without boundaries of any kind. She taught me about joy – the joy of simple pleasures, joy of physical exertion, and joy of camaraderie, of just "being there." I knew I had to leave True's body behind, but I would take the lessons she taught with me.
Then, with a heavy heart and swollen eyes, I said my final good-byes to this wonderful athlete, to this perfect teammate. True.