A Familiar Road

A Familiar Road

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

A Familiar Road

Dog ownership is like a rainbow. Puppies are the joy at one end. Old dogs are the treasure at the other.

Carolyn Alexander

I slowly run the tips of my fingers over the nerve-rich compass of Joe-Dog’s nose, eliciting no reaction. Still warm, it feels lustrous as silk. In our ten years together, it’s been the single place he’s consistently reserved as too sensitive for human contact—patiently shaking off all attempts with a gentle head butt or sneeze.

A second guarded touch again meets with no response. His eyes are closed, broad Labrador chest still. My beloved best friend, who for eighteen months fought back cancer with a tenacious spirit, and from whom I have sought— and received—boundless solace and joy, is gone.

What began a decade ago, as an effort to teach my children the responsibilities of caring for a pet, has instead become for me an achingly rich lesson on the fleeting gifts of life.

I bundle up his body in a well-used wool blanket, but not before sinking my face one last time into the soft fur of his shoulders, inhaling deeply the familiar comfort of his scent until my lungs threaten to explode. I want to remember this smell forever. I take care to leave his head uncovered, as if wrapping an infant, leaving in place his azure-blue collar with the worn metal ID tags that tinkled a melody with each step.

While my husband prepares a burial site along the cool shaded edge of a pasture still verdant with spring, I wander numbly through the house, ambivalent about this last task of choosing which of Joe-Dog’s belongings to send with him. I have known this day was coming, and chastise myself for being so unprepared. With a sigh, I settle on a white porcelain kibble bowl sporting the words “Dog from Hell” lettered in gold, a gift from family after Joe-Dog once underwent emergency surgery to remove an ingested pair of underwear hopelessly twisted in his belly. In the bowl I place three of his favorite chew toys, including a star-shaped fleece one, nicknamed “chemo-baby,” not for its missing threads of rainbow hair, but because it often accompanied us on our drive to the vet’s office for chemotherapy treatments. To the pile I add a half-eaten box of Milk Bones, and last, a photo of the three of us at Silver Falls, taken in the light of an icy, bright February day.

Outside, I stand nearby as my husband gently lowers the bundle with Joe-Dog into the freshly prepared grave, handing him the items I have chosen when he finishes. He adds these, too, in silence. Offering him a hand up, we are drawn together in a momentary embrace. The ensuing knock and rattle of the tractor’s diesel engine as it labors to return the scoops of black earth isn’t enough to cover the sound of my sorrow. It pours out of me in gulping sobs. My husband wipes his face with a checkered shirtsleeve between working the tractor’s levers. With a last pat of the machine’s bucket, the job is done.

Navigating through grief in the only way we know how, we later plant a rose bush with petals the color of peaches at Joe-Dog’s burial site. As a gesture we add a small concrete tile that is imbedded with his paw print and three smooth round stones, the tile originally made for the butterfly garden in happier times. In the still moments of daybreak, we place an occasional offering of waffle, Joe-Dog’s favorite morning treat, to feed both the birds and our souls.

Several months pass; my husband and I travel to the county animal shelter, seeking an unsure measure of relief for our loneliness. We agree Joe-Dog can never be replaced, but still, we have much to offer a homeless new companion, and we know he would understand. After an emotional visit, we bring home a nine-month-old female shepherd mix—full of love, energy, and soon, bits of rubber from the sole of my favorite dress shoe.

Already a Frisbee expert, she willingly chases many a misdirected spin as I work at mastering this fast new game. We name her Josie, and she takes a quick interest in squirrels, all manner of human breakfast fare and the warm comfort of our king-size bed. Before I realize it, she has led us down a familiar road, tugging all the way.

Pennie DeBoard

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