To A Friend
I gave up my friend’s life yesterday. She was more than fourteen and a half years old. She had arthritis in her spine, which must have made it painful for her to walk. She had cataracts in her eyes, which made her mostly blind. Her stomach was bloated by internal bleeding, and she had trouble standing up. She was incontinent. With all of this, she still found the strength to bark at passing dogs from our front window, and wolf down food she loved as Labs are wont to do. When I signed the paper authorizing our veterinarian, Dr. Trujillo, to end her life with a lethal injection of anesthetic, I found myself weeping. We sat in a dark room. A technician, the vet, and I petted Lucy as she innocently lay on a sheet spread on the floor. A half hour ago I was feeding her banana and yogurt, and now I was stroking her head as the sedative, and then the anesthetic did their work. My dog died without pain, but her death left a hole in my heart. I loved that animal so.
Lucy, a chocolate Labrador Retriever, was born in a litter of chocolate Lab puppies in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I taught in the Education Studies Department at Guilford College. My family and I lived on campus in a three bedroom house right by a wood and a pond, an idyllic location. When we went to pick out our pup, there were just a few left, and one of them was very shy, almost hiding herself from view. That was Lucy. We took her home at around ten weeks and began the process of socialization to our family. It didn’t take long for Lucy to win our hearts, and to make her mark on the clothing of our five year old, Katie, and our nine year old, John. Every pair of shorts, underwear, and pants they possessed had Lucy’s little puppy teeth marks in it. The kids would run away and call to her, “Come on, Lucy,” and she’d run after them, them take a little nibble of whatever they were wearing. I can remember the first time, at around three months old, when she swam. Following some Lab instinct, she nervously looked out into the water of the pond and finally jumped in. From then on, water was her second home.
There was something about the bond between Lucy and us that made us know she would be our special family dog. One day I was walking her on campus, when a car pulled up. It was Lucy’s breeder. She asked me what I had named the puppy. I told her Lucy. The woman seemed a little startled to hear it, and noticing this, I asked why. She replied that a good friend of hers named Lucy had just passed away. I think she thought the soul of her friend had transmogrified into a two month old Chocolate Lab puppy. If it was so, then her friend had to be the gentlest and lovingest woman she knew because that was Lucy’s disposition.
Lucy was very gregarious and absolutely needed human company. When I had picking nights with my music buddies, she would come into the living room where we were playing and sit down right in the middle of us, as if she were part of the gathering. Thank God she didn’t try to sing. Other times I came home to discover that she had run away to the student housing on campus. I’d find her eating pizza with students. After a while, everyone on campus knew her.
We decided to move back to Santa Barbara when Lucy was a little over a year old. We did it in stages with my wife and two youngest going back first, while I completed an academic year at the college. Lucy stayed on a while in North Carolina with me and my oldest child, Louisa, who was now attending Guilford College. When Lucy joined my wife and younger children in Santa Barbara, she emerged from her airline crate at the Santa Barbara Airport and promptly made a deposit on the small lawn area in front of the building. Lucy had arrived.
Through the years Lucy became the sixth member of our family. Along the way she developed a very definite doggy personality. She was gentle, but energetic as most Labs are, which is why people love them. She was a noble dog, very sure of her pedigree and unintimated by those on two or four legs. She did things seasonally with the family. In the warmer weather, she enjoyed fetching balls thrown into the surf at the beach. We had to be careful with her around Thanksgiving time because she cultivated a palate for pumpkin pie. One day when my wife had left a pie to cool on the kitchen counter, Lucy tiptoed to the countertop and ate the whole pie. When we returned home, we knew who the culprit was – a human being couldn’t have looked anymore guilty than that Labrador Retriever did. On Christmas morning, she taught herself how to open packages. Her Christmas gift was usually a package of tennis balls, and of course, she never met a tennis ball she didn’t like. When we lived on the Mesa, she loved her walks at Shoreline Park at 6:30 in the morning. When we moved near Sheffield Reservoir, she loved walking up Mountain Drive. When we moved to our current home just below Elings Park, she found her favorite walking place. Every morning we would troop up the hill leading to the highest point in the Park, and Lucy would do the Veteran’s Walk with my wife and me. We would end the walk with a session of fetching the tennis ball in the tiny meadow of Godrich Grove. We hid balls in tree branches rather than bring them back and forth to the park from home. Lucy always knew exactly which trees held balls.
When Lucy was eleven and a half years old, we noticed her start to gray a little. We also noticed that as the children finished high school and went on to college, Lucy had less companionship than she’d been used to. So into her life and ours came the runt of a litter of Chocolate Labs born on Vandenberg Air Force Base, little Bella, whose official name is La Bellesima Spaventa, which loosely translated from Italian is “The Most Beautiful Spaventa.” Lucy tolerated Bella and then grew to accept her as an annoying little sister. Over time they became friends, and shared the walk in Elings Park every morning together. As Lucy slowed down, Bella sped up. The pup who was so tiny she fit into a shoulder bag became a spunky, ball crazy, boundlessly energetic young dog. Bella is now three years old. But as I write this, Bella seems sad. The holidays are almost over. The kids, grown now, are back in Austin and Eugene. The house is empty, and yesterday I took her friend, and my best friend, Lucy, to be euthanized. Somehow I can’t help feeling the guilt that a Catholic childhood automatically brings with it. What right did I have to end my friend’s life? But then, how much was she silently suffering without complaint? She was a very tough dog with a high tolerance for pain as I found out the night she ran into a passing car, bounced off it, and acted like nothing had happened or the day she pierced her tongue on a sharp tree branch tossed to her which she had tried to catch on the fly. I’ll never know for sure how much pain Lucy was in. I’ll never know whether I made the right decision. The vet said it was time for her, that the future held costly and invasive tests that her weakened body might not get through.
Do we let go of those we love or do they decide when it is time for them to go? When the family was gathered together at Christmastime, we all sensed that Lucy was hanging on for the occasion. She made it through the holidays as if she knew it was the last chance for her to see everyone together, the way she liked us to be. Goodbye, Lucy. I can never ask for a better friend than I had in you. You were such a big part of our lives and we will miss you always