For the first time in my adult life, I am without a dog. And though it feels shocking and a little disloyal to say so, at 61, I’m kind of okay with that.
It was on May 19 that I made the difficult decision to let my sweet girl Lucy go to her rest. She had been my companion for 14 of her 16 years, helped raise my two sons, endured a succession of disdainful cats, comforted me during my divorce, adapted without complaint to a couple of years of unsettled living and rejoiced when I met and married Douglas, whom she adored.
In fact, Lucy’s ship really came in when we moved here to Sandy Point in the spring of 2013. After a year of moping around my little rental houses on Mount Desert Island while I worked all day, she suddenly had two big acres of grassy lawn and field to play ball in, a swimming beach just across the road, a house with big windows for monitoring foot traffic and plenty of space in which to get away from the cats. She had time to enjoy these lifestyle improvements, too, thanks to Douglas’ self-employment and the flexibility of his schedule.
Most mornings, after I drove off to my job, she would hop in the back of Douglas’ old Volvo wagon and head to Belfast, her head poked out the window or resting on his shoulder. She would spend the day at his studio, greeting visitors and sleeping on the cool concrete floor. She accompanied him on his rounds to the Belfast Co-op, the bookstore, the curling club and his fiddle-group sessions, making friends everywhere she went. There’s something about a friendly old Lab mix that just invites love, and Lucy gave it back in spades — you could see it in her warm, brown eyes.
But Lucy got off to a rough start in life, one characterized by neglect, abuse and abandonment. By the time she came into my family at about the age of two, when I was married to my first husband and our sons were in their early teens, she was fearful, suspicious, aggressive and untrustworthy. But with time, patience and love, she overcame her harsh beginnings and blossomed into an excellent family dog, an up-for-anything hiking buddy and a congenial, loyal companion.
She filled the empty spot in our home left by her equally terrific predecessor, a cheerful little shepherd mix named Sparkle Plenty. Sparky had come to live with us just before the death of our big-boned, good-natured Doberman-Lab-whatever mix, Ida. And Ida had overlapped with Sol, a tightly-wound purebred yellow Lab who proved so volatile we had to find him another home. I loved each of these dogs dearly and mourned them deeply when they left us.
It was very hard to say goodbye to Lucy. But as any dog owner will tell you, when the time comes, you’ll know it. She was in remarkably good health right up to the end. She still loved to chase a ball through the field or swim after a stick in the river. Her red-brown coat was soft and shiny.
She had slowed down some over the past six months and was sleeping more. We noticed that she got winded more easily and took longer to recover from exercise. The vet said whatever was happening was normal old age, and congratulated us on having kept her so healthy for so long.
The Sunday before she died, Douglas and I took her for a three-mile walk in the woods near our house. She frisked down the path like a puppy and never flagged. When we got back to the car, though, she was panting heavily and needed a boost into the back. Tuesday, she was still dragging, so we took her to the vet. Old age, the vet said, offering bloodwork and x-rays. We declined.
Thursday, we took her back in. Her breathing had become labored; we could see her rib muscles working and hear a little grunt at the end of each breath. She wasn’t eating or drinking. We loaded her into the Volvo; she made the trip with her head out the window, her ears and lips flapping in the wind.
Old age, said the vet — what do you want me to do? This time, we opted for a chest xray, which showed two good-sized tumors in her lung, an enlarged heart and fluid in the chest wall. We looked at each other and knew the time had arrived, with nothing to be gained by delay. She died quietly in our arms, and though we wept, it was a joy to see her at ease and at peace.
So, now, there is no dog here. We miss Lucy’s convivial presence in the house, her companionship when we’re working in the yard, her grumbling at the cats, her snoozy snoring at night. We miss taking her for walks and her warm, musty smell after a swim. We miss it all.
And yet, we’re not in any hurry to round up a replacement for this dear dog, to fill the new quietness in our lives. We recognize that owning a dog entails a thousand large and small responsibilities, compromises and costs. From training and exercising to vet bills and kenneling, from scooping up poop and vacuuming up balls of hair to always carrying extra water and parking in the shade — a myriad of tasks and considerations attend the privilege of living with a dog. They become second nature, but in reality, they use up a lot of psychic space and energy.
At 68 and almost 62, with retirement on the horizon and travel on our minds, Douglas and I wonder if being unencumbered by a dog isn’t, perhaps, a good thing, a liberating thing. And so, with some sadness, we have put away the dog beds, the dog brushes and the basket of toys, donated the half-bag of chow to the shelter and begun to imagine ourselves as non-dog-owners.
At six weeks out, it still feels strange and a little lonely. I’ll let you know how it goes.