My dog died the other day. Rebus, a blue heeler, mottled near his rump, with light brown and white patches on his neck, chest, and forelegs. Ears like Yoda. He could run and jump like mad. He once sprang up from a lying position and bit me in the chest. That was before he mucked up a ligament in his hind right leg while chasing a frisbee, but even that didn’t slow him much. He was a bundle of muscle and teeth and piss and speed, but then he’d lie down and show you his belly and let you rub it. The top of his snout was another spot he liked, and the base of his black ears, which were fuzzed with something like velvet.
When we got him eight years ago he was an emblem for our relationship. We’d entered into dog ownership armed with information, and an idea that the dog we chose would in some way define us. So we decided, after intensive research, to get an Australian Cattle Dog. High energy, high intelligence. We have since learned what every parent knows: the more intelligent they are, the more challenging they can be. He liked jobs, such as chasing a ball until the point of exhaustion, and if you didn’t provide him one he’d invent one himself. Herd the cat. Scare off the overhead hordes of migrating geese. Pre-clean the dishes while I load the dishwasher. Herd the children.
We lived outside the city back then, childless, on an acre of grass and cedar and jimson weed. Across the rolling gravel road was forest. When we drove our Saturn around the bend, raising a column of dust to the sky, we passed farmland. To the west, beyond the forest, lay Oxford Mills, a town consisting of an intersection, a gas station/general store/post office, a restaurant, a church, and a few houses. The South Branch of the Rideau River tumbled through the heart of it. Somewhere beyond that lay a place called Limerick Forest, a piece of government land with a pine plantation, a broad wetland, and several kilometers of trails, a place where the air was gummy in the summer, rich with rot in the fall, antiseptic in the winter, and gooey in the spring. Those trails were where I’d take him, and let him off the lead, and just watch him go. It was marvelous to see him run. At a trot his hind legs came nearly together in rapid, pointed little steps that fell inside his hips, but when he’d explode his legs would fly open wide and he’d dig in, low, ears back, tongue flapping, his mouth open in something like a smile.
He once took off like that after a buck that bounded across the trail, and I don’t know who was more surprised when I shouted “Whoa!” and he actually stopped cold. He did likewise after a skunk on another occasion, and I was able to stop him in time, and still another time after a porcupine, when I was not. I won’t forget the sound he made when I dragged him from the bush, his face full of quills, and the surge of invincibility subsided in him, and he realized the pain he was in. I drove him into Kemptville, to the veterinarian there, while holding his collar so he wouldn’t try to rub the quills out, the blood dripping everywhere.
That energy, that sense of his own invincibility, his keen intelligence, his restlessness — these were the very things we thought we could not only contend with, but harness, thereby affirming ourselves as restless, active people. Frisbee, long walks, agility training. His nature reflected well upon our own, or so we believed. Or wished to believe. We were in our twenties and we were testing the waters. Who would we be? He was our canine avatar. He was a symbol, an example, a future we could will into being.
But he wasn’t any of that, finally. He was a dog. A pain in the ass much of the time, truth be told. Stubborn and excitable and quick tempered. He had, I liked to say, a head full of bees, always buzzing, never leaving him be. Even when he slept, the noise was there — you could see it — and his ears stayed perked up, waiting.
We failed to become the people we felt he represented. We found ourselves overmatched by the effort required. Life interfered. Jobs, chores, then children, and a move into a city. He became less an emblem, and just a dog, then. A country dog in the city, I think. At the cottage that country dog would show up again, on the trails that crisscross Birch Island, and he’d go back in time a few years, become a puppy again. I’d take him onto those trails and unclip the leash from his thick leather collar, and watch him take off. When I hooked him up again he would seem grateful. Once back at the cottage he’d sleep the rest of the day.
One child, then three. Our lives sped up as he began to slow down just a bit. The kids played with him, loved him I think, certainly felt he was ours, a part of us, with all the good and bad that conjures.
He got sick two winters back, lost weight. One by one parts of him began to fail. The spark dimmed. His permanence and his invincibility were old ideas. They didn’t have any bearing on the present. He was dying.
You hold a dying thing in your hands though you know the holding won’t stop the dying. When the child brings you flowers and weeds he has ripped from the ground, and says, “Put them in a vase,” you do just that, though you know they are dying, that the tap water and the glass and the spot on the mantlepiece won’t keep those things alive. We knew the thing that wracked him wasn’t going to relent, but we felt, maybe, maybe, we could wait it out.
“Old Rebe,” we’d say, patting him, “not doing so well, are you?”
He got worse, then a bit better, then worse. It went like that for quite a long time. He couldn’t chase a ball anymore. He became irritable — moreso — and a bit unpredictable. Like he was hanging on desperately, I thought. Like he knew.
So we made an impossible decision and then had to figure out how to tell the kids, and whether to do it before he left or after he was gone. I still remember when my parents did the latter, when illness caught up to our mutt Toby. It’s a thing I recall — the anguish, upon hearing — better than thirty years later. Could we avoid that?
You sometimes understand your role as a parent to be the prevention of trauma, an all-out effort to prohibit death from visiting their lives. The whisper of it, the taint of it. But you can’t, of course, and your kids start talking about death, though it’s clear they don’t understand it. They say, I’m going to kill you. They say, Bang, you’re dead. We watch TV shows about dinosaurs and I realize that notions of evolution and extinction and death are great big empty holes for them, cognitive Bermuda triangles, just voids in their understanding. The only part of it they would understand, I felt, was that Rebus wouldn’t be here anymore. But then, maybe that’s all there is to understand.
We told them shortly before, and let them all say goodbye. We said, It’s better. We said, Animals die. It’s sad, of course, we said, but there’s no way around it. It became teary, all three of them feeding off one another. Then I took him to the vet, alone, and talked to him as I drove, just like I had when he had a face full of porcupine quills, and then they made me sit with him in a tastefully decorated room where they did these things, with a fake fireplace and overstuffed furniture and oil portraits of collies on the muted brown walls. I thought, This is for me, not for him, and I’d rather not draw this out. I sat with him, and remembered him as he was when he was most alive, and then they came in and it happened and he was gone. Finally gone. The noise, the bees, that he could never shake, went quiet, and I stroked his soft ears and said goodbye. I removed his leather collar, rolled it up, and I left.
The collar sits right here, on my desk, and I think it’ll stay there. There is no dog to bark when we come in the door, or when the phone rings, or when another dog happens by on the sidewalk. The kids speak about him in the past tense already. I keep seeing him out of the corner of my eye, but that will fade. He’s gone. I put away his food dish. We don’t have to worry about pushing plates back from the edge of the table. He doesn’t take up space on the bed.
With him, maybe, the notion of the people we once thought we’d be has died, too. It was so long ago, and our lives were so different. And though all of that had faded, he was a link to it, to open space and vigorous living and lungs full of early morning country air. To boundless energy.
The kids are asking for another dog, but we’re deflecting. Maybe that’s a lesson for us, though. To move on. It’s gone, all of that, and we can’t will it back into being. We just have to go on. But I like to think of him, on a trail in Limerick Forest, shooting ahead, running so hard, hind legs spread wide, front legs digging, forgetting me behind him, forgetting everything. Just running. It was such a beautiful thing to watch. My dog, running.