Posted by: trevormeers | October 31, 2010

So This Is How Old Yeller Ends

First the disclaimer: We have the right perspective on this, believe me. You don’t make it to spokesfamily for the Ronald McDonald House without earning your What Really Matters merit badge.

But even if your feet are firmly grounded in the primacy of human life, there’s something a little too cold inside you if you don’t get teary at the sad end of dog movies (and do they end any other way?). To this day, I’ve refused to put myself through watching Old Yeller or Marley And Me. In the ‘90s, I nodded solemnly every time I heard the country singer seal the verdict on a cheatin’ woman’s heart by singing, “She never cried when Old Yeller died.” When I figured out in fourth grade that Where the Red Fern Grows refers to the grave of a kid’s coon dog, I swore it off forever, too. Even when our Lab Moose was in the prime of life, I moped around for three days after My Dog Skip got me thinking about the day when my dog wouldn’t be leaning against my knees as I made lunch every morning.

But this is the contract each of us tacitly signs when we take on a pet. Because unless you adopt a kitten when you’re 85 or have a taste for pet tortoises, the odds are very high that you’ll have to watch your pet die.

A month ago, Moose started stumbling around the house, and that afternoon, the vet said we were within weeks of the end. My heart pounded all afternoon as I started bracing for the final ride we’d be taking. I began anticipating this day when Moose reached age 10, the time generally allotted big dogs on this Earth. Even so, I worked at not wasting a few more good years worrying about how it would to end.

But when I got home that night, Moose greeted me at the door. And so we waited a little longer. How could I take in a dog that, at least outwardly, looked pretty good? For my own peace of mind, I wanted to put this off until the day when there was no choice, even if it bought Moose only a couple of more weeks. And, thankfully, it did come to that. Teri called me at work to say Moose couldn’t stand up or walk and that we needed to do something.

All in all, we’d gotten over 13 healthy years together before I showed up at the vet’s office on a beautiful fall day with my 80-pound pal in my arms. They showed us into an exam room where the lights were dimmed, and a little desk lamp glowed on the counter. The “animal nurse” reassured me this was the best thing to do, then handed me a box of Kleenex and a little crock full of biscuits. I fed the bone-shaped crackers to Moose until the sedative made his head so heavy that he was done snacking. I rubbed his ears between my fingers, hoping the soft velvety feel would seep into my nerve endings and be there when I wanted to recall it. I leaned down and pressed my nose against his paw where the white hairs stuck out between his toes. I inhaled the puppy smell that had never left his paws and never failed to take me back to his first floppy days following me through the fields outside Ceresco, Nebraska.

Then I watched the vet’s thumb slowly push the plunger on the syringe until it came to rest at the bottom. He picked up his stethoscope, listened for a moment and said, “He’s gone. Take all the time you need” and then slipped out.

Moose was everywhere around me on the drive home. I passed the wetland where we’d take him to splash during the spring melt. I looked into the neighbor’s chicken coop Moose terrorized when he wandered out of the yard. In the next few days, I’ll be watching for the chance encounters that will ease some of the sting. It will come, I know, because I saw Moose himself provide that lift for an aching dog owner a couple of years ago in Chicago. After I got back from the vet, I pulled out a magazine story I wrote about that trip and took comfort in the story in a new way:

I’m sitting on a bench when a woman approaches and says, “Can I pet your dog?” She scratches Moose’s velvety ears, telling us that her 14-year-old Lab died last week.

“What’s your dog’s name?” she asks.

“Moose,” I say.

She looks up. “You’re kidding. That was our dog’s nickname.” She leans in, rubbing her cheek against Moose’s gray muzzle as she murmurs, “Moose.” Then she stands and looks at me. “Thank you. That was very therapeutic for me.”

She slips away in the crowd, and I reach down and rub Moose’s head, his eyes sliding shut from the familiar pleasure of it. I promise him a treat. After all, Dennis taught us at Camp Dogwood to reward dogs who do something special.

If I happen to run into you and your dog sometime soon, don’t be surprised if I lean down to see if he has any puppy smell left in him. I’m just taking my turn in a healing tradition Moose showed me one afternoon on Navy Pier.

(Photo courtesy of Midwest Living)

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Responses

  1. I have been where you are. I am familiar with the sadness. Larry & I were there when two of our dogs (Maggy and then Claire) had to be “put down”…members of our family…both because of a seizure that changed everything. We loved them as they peacefully slipped away on the vet’s examination table. And we both cried all the way home. The Lord taught me “unconditional” love through these fur people. I sobbed as I read your post…you have my sympathies…I have been where you are.

  2. Great job, as always. My condolences on your loss of Moose. My latest dog is only three, and I’m only 64, so you can see that I touch on that “Old Yeller” scenario occasionally. But like you say, if we didn’t care, it wouldn’t matter.

  3. Oh man, Trevor – you are where I know one day all pet owners must be. The “I Will Never Own a Dog” Dave is now in love with our Ripley and we both walked away from reading your post more than a little teary eyed. Moose was such a sweet dog and I sure was hoping to see him again on the 20th… I am so sorry for your loss… I’m so glad that you had so many happy years and wonderful memories with your friend. I’m forwarding this post to our friends, the Sipherds (they hosted Dave’s 40th B-Day party last year). They just put Bailey down a 14 year old chocolate lab… They will find comfort in your post.

  4. You definately know how to make a girl cry. So sad for you and your family, sounds like Moose was a great dog! I feel like I just watched Marley and Me. That was the saddest dog movie I ever saw, right up there with Lassie. I’m in a motel in Atlanta with people around and must find some kleenex. You are a great writer. You NEED a new puppy next spring, (just my opinion) We will probably get one then. Have a great week and keep up the writing.


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