Sharp Edges

Phoebe, Jim Taylor's faithful dog.

I lost my closest friend a week ago. Although we don’t normally describe a dog as a friend.

But over the last 12 years, I probably spent more time with her than with any human being. She was always happy to take part in whatever I might be doing. Always ready for a walk or a hike, a swim or a car ride. To anywhere. She listened to my musings without contradicting me or correcting me. She seemed to prefer my company to anyone else on earth.

“Friend” almost seems too weak a word for her.

Her name was Phoebe. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever. She adopted my wife and me when she was two. And from then on gave us total devotion.

But age caught up with her. Joints that once could run and swim all day developed painful arthritis. By the end of her life, she couldn’t put any weight on her left front paw. Her right hind leg tended to collapse without warning, leaving her sprawled awkwardly on the road, or tumbling down the stairs on her back.

We knew her time had run out. We made an appointment with the vet.

It had to be this way. But I hated doing it. Even when Phoebe couldn’t find the energy to raise her head off the floor, she looked at me with eyes that held nothing but love.

Her last afternoon, I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk, for old time’s sake. She tottered to her feet. Limped to the end of the driveway. And turned back.

I couldn’t cope. Even if she didn’t need that last walk, I did. So I went on our regular route all by myself, for the first time in 12 years.

Part way along, a voice called from a front porch: “Hi Jim! How’s it going?”

“Fine.” I said. Pause. “No, it’s not.” Choke. “We’re taking Phoebe to the vet later this afternoon.” Choke.

Painful silence.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. And then, as I turned to walk on, he called after me, “That dog had a good life.”

Yes, she did. But more than that, she gave us a good life.

Can any human relationship match the bond some of us have with our dogs? No matter how much we love our children, our parents, our friends, the relationship is always coloured by our expectations. They don’t always measure up to our expectations, nor we to theirs. Children grow up, grow away. Parents grow old, cranky, dependent. Friends have their own lives, their own priorities.

But dogs set no conditions, have no expectations. They just want to love, and to be loved. Unconditionally.

It’s not their fault that they spell God backward.

I read somewhere that dogs, uniquely, choose to leave their own species, including their own siblings, to bond with a totally different species that walks on two legs and doesn’t even know how to bark properly.

It started to rain that afternoon as I walked. I almost welcomed it. I felt I wasn’t the only one crying.

We took her to the vet that evening. We sat with her, stroked her head, her ears, her shoulders, while she got the first injection. She was nervous. Paced a little. Panted a lot. Finally settled down.

Slowly, her eyes closed. She got the second injection while she slept.

Just one month short of her 14th birthday, she lay still on the blanket on the floor. Even her heart stilled.

Mine broke.

Joan and I both gave her one last pat on the head. “Good night, girl,” I said, as we left her.

Now she’s gone. I wonder where. If there’s a heaven for humans, I hope dogs are allowed. Any heaven that barred the kind of relationship that Phoebe had with us would not be heaven.

Our former minister used to say, at memorial services, that death ends a life; it doesn’t end a relationship.

So we’ve given away her food. Packed up her beds. Gotten rid of her toys.

But she’s still with us. We see her out of the corners of our eyes. Sense her under the table hoping for scraps. Look for her when we get out of bed in the morning, and when we go to bed. Think we hear her tail thumping on the floor.

And I do what I always do at such times -- I write about it, seeking solace in words.

Goodbye, girl. Thank you.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca