You were just a trembling pup all those years ago, only eight weeks old when we picked you from the litter. We brought you home in a box filled with blankets and put you to bed that first night surrounded by bones and treats and toys. Yes, I guess you could say we went overboard, but of course we couldn’t help ourselves.
Now here you are, about to turn sixteen, and where did the years go? Your face is still the same familiar black, brown and white, though fully blended now with gray. You still have the same sad hound eyes, but everyone knows that’s just how beagles are. Every time we come through the front door, you still bark and howl and jump with joy.
But dog years are not people years, the veterinarian reminds us, and by his count you have now lived more than a century. You sleep most of each day at my feet, and you follow me from room to room whenever I leave my desk. Thunderstorms frighten you more than they used to. You also have not seemed yourself these last few weeks, and now the doctor can tell us why. A sudden tumor is following a grim schedule all its own. Time is running out. There is no hope.
Here in the old file folder with your name on it are my notes on what the vet has said, frantic scribbles to help us understand the awful truth. Underneath those papers, though, lies the long story of your life, a tale told through lab reports, test results, and receipts accumulated over the many years. Here’s a sheet from not so long ago that only makes me shake my head again: the emergency visit to the vet the night you ate an entire chocolate Easter bunny. Then there was the time you chewed through a glass thermometer. We were told simply to feed you breakfast; something in pancakes would help carry away the mercury.
Back in time the papers go, through all the vaccinations you received, the baths and grooming you hated, the kennels you occasionally had to endure when we were away. And here, at the bottom of the stack, is the yellowed slip of paper that documents that day you became ours. We had been married only six months, but I remember how much we wanted to begin a family. You might say you were our first child. We named you Cassidy after the old Grateful Dead song of the same title, a winsome ode to a baby girl with all of life’s restless, changing seasons still ahead of her.
In time, of course, the real babies came, first a girl, then a boy, and to keep you from feeling jealous, we brought their tiny blankets home from the hospital for you to sniff. But you accepted each child from the start and without reservation, as if you knew the affection we felt for you would only make our hearts grow larger.
And as our family grew, I suppose the attention we gave the children began to eclipse the time we spent with you. But I have heard it said that while humans are flawed, animals are pure, and it was enough for you to wait by the door or lay next to the couch, calm and content. You would breathe a heavy sigh, and stretch out your legs, and seem happy with your place in the world. For you seemed to know you had done more than simply give us your unconditional love. You had helped bring out all the love that lay inside us. All the love that helped make us the family we are. The love that made me the dad I am.
In the days and weeks ahead, it will be the smallest things that break my heart the most. In the early morning, I will start the coffee and butter the toast and make the children’s lunches. But I will not unlock the back door to let you out, or watch you from the kitchen window, or chide you in mock exasperation for dawdling. There will be no need to remember to close the door to the den to keep you from jumping on the couch. I will keep taking candy wrappers out of the wastebasket, forgetting they won’t be dragged out, licked clean, and torn to pieces as soon as I turn my back. Visitors at the door will no longer be met with wild barking and baying – they can ring the doorbell all day long if they like. And worst of all, when I come home, and turn the key, and step inside, there will be no sound at all.
So let us walk in the yard just a little while longer, and you can sniff the grass and leaves and earth as long as you like. I have left your collar and leash inside; there is no need for those now. Because soon enough I will gently pick you up and carry you back inside, and we will meet with the doctor, and hold and stroke and pet you, and wait for the endless sleep to come. Then tonight we will tell the children – they have never known a time without you – and try to explain what your hound eyes seemed to say: We have come all this way together. But I have lived my life. Now it is time for you to let me go.
Fare thee well, now, go the words to your namesake song. Let your life proceed by its own design. So we go on, and take with us all the love you helped us find. For tomorrow the seasons turn again in another people year, and I will wait by the door for our family to come up the walk, and I will be so very happy to see them all.