Saying Goodbye

“Persistence” named herself. I brought her home the first weekend in February, 2000, a speck of white puppy with the most beautiful black and tan markings on her head that I’d ever seen on a Jack Russell. Brady and Grace were three and five, and the puppy found the white flounce on Brady’s favorite dress entirely irresistible. The only thing equally enticing was the way Grace’s sleeper feet flopped in front of her toes when she came down the stairs each morning. She was just a puppy, so we were patient, removing her to her crate when she attacked the floppy sleeper feet, showing amazing strength for such a scrap of a dog as she pulled three-year old Grace down to the ground one more time. Grace was tough, but everyone has their limits. Brady was more distraught, the flounce on the skirt as it bounced along at Brady’s knees had been attacked by the puppy enough that it was gradually turning brown with puppy spit and in several spots had pulled entirely away from the dress. The puppy was winning, and Persistence was clearly winning out over patience.

It took almost three years for Percy to be released from daily penance in her crate. She jumped from the floor to the kitchen counters to scramble after any food item left on a dish. She “rid” us of the girls’guinea pigs and was proud of her accomplishment. She attacked our older dogs, Champ and Tonto, two huge male dogs, who allowed her to hang from their hairy chests as she growled and torqued her body to try to bring them to the ground. She taught Champ to be her wingman in hunting our chickens, and frequently succeeded in getting them to cross the invisible fence line to their demise. Faith was born a year after Percy arrived, and Percy had to be banned from the car for several years, as any sighting of another dog could turn her into a canine missile, scrambling without regard for anyone’s safety to get to the nearest window and defend her territory. But at night, Percy always redeemed herself for her day’s misdeeds. She curled up with whichever child needed her most, and when we went to search her out before we locked up for the night, she had always nestled herself under the crook of a little arm.

From the time Percy turned five, she was irreproachable. She kept the farm rodent-free, she entertained family and guests with endless ball games, unleashing incredible speed to outmatch the largest competitor, she could leap five feet, hovering in the back door window for a moment before falling back to the earth, and repeating the process until someone noticed she wanted to come in.   And of course she salved the wounds of childhood with nightly ministrations of love and affection.

Last year, when Percy was fourteen, she was diagnosed with small tumors. Arthritis had slowed her down, but she was still game for a long walk every day, she played hard with Brady’s little dog, Mighty, and she was still my favorite companion on long trips. She went with me to Aiken for three months last winter, and I’m pretty sure that she enjoyed the sunshine every bit as much as I did on the wide porch overlooking the piney woods. Cancer didn’t seem to be affecting her at all.

But then came a Monday last week when she didn’t eat her breakfast and just lay there looking at the bowl. Mighty and Max wouldn’t even think of touching her bowl, but she didn’t seem to care. Surely it was just a stomach ache, even if we couldn’t remember a time Percy didn’t want to eat anything and everything. But it didn’t change through the day, and then our long-time vet, Alan Topol, gave us the bad news. For four days we tried pain killers and medications, but Percy didn’t eat. She went to a Hotchkiss hockey game and snuggled with Grace. The third day she played with Mighty, for just a minute, but of course, to win. We held her and cried and watched her leave us in front of the fire in her bed.

Sometimes I wonder why we choose to have pets in our lives. Kittens destroy the furniture, climb up your dresses in the closet, and bring small animals into the house to torture, often letting them go and losing them in the process. Puppies wake you as often as a newborn baby, pee everywhere and continue to chew indiscriminately and jump on unsuspecting guests for at least a year. But then they spend years with us; they never question our motives or achievements; they dole out love as unconditionally as one could ever ask for. Tonight, Max is curled at my feet, and Shady the tortoiseshell is purring deeply as she kneads my lap into a soft space, both of them delivering comfort in the ways they know best. How can I imagine life without them? Surely, one time we will never have to be the one to say goodbye.