Legacy of Love

Legacy of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Legacy of Love

The best thing about being a veterinarian is helping welcome new puppies and kittens to a family. The absolute hardest thing is helping someone say good-bye to a family member. Because pets’ biological clocks tick faster than ours, few pets live past their teens. Over a career, a veterinarian can be involved with tens of thousands of pets dying. It has no parallel in any other profession—second place is not even close.

In order to cope with the high number of deaths and the difficulties in dealing with grieving clients, veterinarians sometimes find their hearts hardened to death, their souls callused against yet another tearful good-bye. Although surveys show that the public appreciates the visible care, compassion and concern that veterinarians express, the fact remains that, as a veterinarian, you can become numb to saying good-bye to a pet or helping ease its passage. Until it’s your pet.

I was a senior in veterinary school when we got a spunky, salt-and-pepper miniature schnauzer. My wife, Teresa, named him Bodé (pronounced bo-day) after a favorite college professor of hers. Bodé became our first child. We called Bodé our son, and ourselves his mom and dad, another example of our generation’s philosophy that “pets are family.”

We spoiled Bodé rotten. He ate with us in the kitchen, munched on the best pet foods, rode with us in the car (yapping his way around town like a canine siren), sat with us on the couch to watch TV at night, slept in our bed and went on vacation with us. He wore handmade sweaters, received the hot-oil treatment at the groomer’s and got the very best medical care available. We did anything and everything to pamper our beloved first child.

Sadly, because of a very weak immune system, Bodé had medical problems—a lot of them. First, he got a severe case of pancreatitis and went blind. Then, he developed incurable, greasy seborrhea that left his skin oily and smelly. Over time, his teeth went bad, which caused his breath to smell horrible; he lost his hearing and he limped on a bad hip joint. Despite his bad breath, smelly skin and the need to be lifted on and off the bed, he never missed a single night sleeping in our bed.

On December 10, 1985, our “second” child was born: our first daughter, a beautiful two-legged, blond-haired girl named Mikkel. When we brought Mikkel home, we, like a lot of first-time parents, were worried about what would happen between Bodé and our baby. Would Bodé be jealous of the lost attention and try to bite Mikkel?

As Teresa sat with Mikkel on the couch, the two sets of grandparents and I watching intently, Bodé walked over to check out this wrinkled, weird-looking alien with a baby-bird-like tuft of hair on her head. Bodé opened his mouth and made a sudden movement toward Mikkel. I sprang to my feet. But Bodé wasn’t going to bite the baby! Instead, he started licking her, giving Mikkel a canine version of a sponge bath. Forget worries about disease transmission, we were delighted a powerful affection-connection had been born.

Almost exactly a year later, close to Mikkel’s first birthday, Bodé was stricken with a fatal condition called autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Simply put, Bodé’s red blood cells were being destroyed by the thousands as his immune system attacked the very thing that kept life-sustaining oxygen flowing to every cell in his body.

Refusing to accept the finality of this diagnosis and with a dogged determination to save Bodé, I ran tests, called specialists at various veterinary schools, consulted with other veterinarians with whom I worked, pored over textbooks, ran more tests. Sadly, all roads led to a dead end.

I remember delivering the news to Teresa. She sobbed as she held Bodé in her arms, gently rocking his body, which was becoming increasingly lifeless due to the lack of oxygen. She couldn’t imagine life without Bodé. Neither could I.

She looked to me for guidance in making the right decision, and suddenly it hit me. I wasn’t counseling another client about options; I wasn’t preparing for the passing of another precious pet; I wasn’t gearing up for my standard lectures on what happens when a pet is euthanized or what the options are for memorial services and remains. This wasn’t another pet; this was our child, the greatest dog in the world.

Although the weight of that realization crushed my soul, it also succeeded in breaking through the heavy callus around my heart, a barrier built up from participating in thousands of pet passings. I began to cry—releasing not only the tears of a grieving family member, but also tears that had been subdued and submerged as I’d struggled for years with the sadness of saying good-bye to hundreds, thousands of my clients’ and friends’ family members and beloved pets. My heart was reawakening even as my four-legged child was slipping away.

Finally, Teresa said to me, “You know Bodé won’t get better and is in a lot of pain. We love him so much; you know what we need to do.” Then she handed me Bodé’s warm, limp body.

Overcome with grief, she couldn’t go with me to my veterinary clinic, so I gathered up his favorite toys and held him in my lap as I drove to the clinic. “Your journey is almost over, my boy,” I said to Bodé as I stroked the full length of his body. We’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, we’ll miss you, echoed my aching heart.

Sobbing, almost unable to see or catch my breath, I walked in the back door of the hospital and told my veterinary-practice partner that it was time. He put an experienced, caring hand on my shoulder and nodded his head in agreement.

As my partner prepared the injection that would end Bodé’s suffering, I cradled Bodé’s head and looked deep into his eyes. I told him how much love, laughter and loyalty he had blessed us with. I whispered to him that where he was going, his body would be new again: He would have sparkling white, razor-sharp teeth, eagle-eyes able to spot the most distant bird, ears that could detect the treat drawer being opened from across the ranch, glistening Howly-wood hair, four good wheels able to not just keep up, but lead the way on our frequent horseback rides in the mountains and sweet smelling breath for sleeping nose to nose at nights.

As the solution left the syringe and entered Bodé’s body, his stub-of-a-tail hesitated, then stopped. It was over for our first child, only six years old. His body was still there but his essence had left him.

That night Teresa and I sat in the yard at home holding Mikkel and reflecting on what special gifts Bodé had brought to our lives. We decided to return him to the soil at the family farm. We knew he was gone physically, but in memory he would be with us forever.

Bodé’s passing brought me a new understanding of the grieving process. When we lose a pet, it breaks our hearts—but when our hearts mend, they expand somehow to accept another four-legged family member, a process to be repeated many times during a pet lover’s lifetime. So the pain of loss—however great—is just one step in the journey of making our hearts capable of experiencing more and more love.

There was one more important part to Bodé’s legacy: The callus around my soul never came back. From that day forward, I lost the numbness to other people’s pain at losing their pet. This was Bodé’s most precious gift to me: He gave me back my heart.

Marty Becker, D.V.M.

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