Remember the first time we met? I had seen your photo months before in a show dog newsletter, looking tall and fit and proud and kind. Then at that dog show in Michigan I spotted you easily in the parking lot, a head taller than every other Wirehaired Vizsla on the property. I knelt in front of you, held your face in my hands and said, “My God you are magnificent.” The second time we met, in a little park in Champagne, Illinois three years later, you looked at me with fondness and recognition. That’s how it felt, anyway. I know now that is simply how you looked at everyone you ever met. But on that meeting, after a quick private walk around the swing set and a quiet exchange of promises between us, your title was signed over to me, and you were mine.
I’ll never forget that first night with you in a hotel halfway home. I had changed your name, and called you Finn. In all our time together, in fact, I never once spoke your previous name aloud in your presence. I wanted a fresh start. But I did wonder if you wondered, as I repeatedly called you the wrong name, if maybe I had accidentally picked up the wrong dog. But you adjusted to your new name, your new life and your new home as beautifully and simply as you adjusted to that night in the hotel room. I left you there for a half hour to pick us up a pizza and a six pack. I was worried you might be barking the whole time I was gone, but when I returned you were sitting on the bed, calm as could be, patiently waiting for me. We ate pizza and watched TV and I told you I would take good care of you. Then you slept on the bed, almost certainly for the first time in your life.
When we got back to Virginia you met Winnie for the first time. I don’t remember the moment, but it was unremarkable. There has never been any drama with you, buddy. And in almost twelve years together, you and Winnie never had a single harsh word between you. You also never played together, which seems odd, but you both understood the assignment: You were a team. I called you ‘Team Orange,’ and you coexisted flawlessly together, albeit often in an old married couple kind of way.
Remember when I wondered, not knowing your background when I got you as a three year old, if maybe you could hunt? It’s certainly in your bloodline, I know that with certainty. But then we tried you on some birds and I figured maybe it skips a generation. No matter, buddy, I’ve never been disappointed in you a day in your life. We’d try something else. Everything else. Hiking, fishing, kayaking, camping, you loved all of it. You and Winnie got me moving, got me exploring and photographing and writing about nature. You literally changed my life in that very important regard.
Remember that Mud Run 5K we ran together at that festival in Richmond? God that was fun. The whole time I was running I watched you trot next to me and thought about how there had never been anything I’ve asked you to do that you pushed back on. We finished the race and wandered around the festival drinking beer and answering questions about you. Dozens of people were enthralled by the look of you, but it was more than that. They were drawn to you. People’s reaction to you at that festival was the catalyst that began your therapy dog career, a facet of dog ownership I had never explored before you.
Nursing homes and the VA Hospital became your official therapy assignments, and I’ve never been more proud of anything in my entire life than when I was watching you bring comfort to people who so desperately needed it. Once you got a taste for the work, you did it everywhere. To everyone. A visit to a brewery would result in five or six new “clients” of yours, folks just soothed by placing their hand on your head and looking at you.
Remember when you started losing your hearing? When you could no longer hear my voice from far away you would watch me for hand signals and come when I waved you in from the yard. Later your eyesight started to fail, but these are all part of the lucky, wonderful life with an older dog. Nevertheless, that’s when I retired you from official therapy work. Though you continued ‘freelancing’ at every opportunity.
Remember when your hind end starting to get weak? You needed help getting in and out of the truck. In fact, lots of things were getting more difficult for you, but we figured it out. You couldn’t do stairs so we’d walk around the gentle slope of the back yard to get to the basement office so you could hang with me all day. You’d use the ramp I built for Winslow to get up and down from the porch to the yard. And we gave you supplements and medicine to keep you from being in pain.
You and Winnie and I grew old together. When the day came that I knew we had to say goodbye to Winnie, the doctor came to the house. We put all the other dogs in another room, not wanting to complicate what came next. Except you, buddy. I know you don’t remember this part because you were asleep in a dog bed a couple feet away the whole time, but we were all glad you were there. I needed you there.
Remember the other day, when you lost your appetite and your energy? You still ate treats so I wasn’t panicked just yet. But the next morning, before that vet appointment, Mommy paused on her way out the door for work and lovingly put her hand on your head. This was not part of her routine, so I noted the gesture but pushed it away in my mind. Later, before we left, you wandered around the driveway to find new places to pee and I think you got a bit disoriented. You had the dog yard memorized, but out here, you lost your way a bit. I walked closer, and you know that fondness and recognition I mentioned earlier? Well I saw it in your face, but you couldn’t hear my voice. Your cloudy eyes couldn’t focus on my face. This time you just sensed me near, and smiled in your way. I touched your ear and you followed me to the truck and I lifted you in.
Remember how kind Dr. Carson was? But the news he brought was not kind. The words, the marks on the bloodwork printout, the X-rays, the symptoms, the age. The conclusion drawn was unmistakable. The decision made was one that I’ve dreaded since that night we shared a pizza in a hotel room and I promised you I would do right by you.
Remember the last vibration of a voice you felt in your ears? The last breath on your face, the last cheek, wet with tears, against yours? That was me, buddy. But you knew that. You never needed eyes or ears to feel my love.
You were more than my dog. You belonged to everyone who ever met you. How on earth do you say goodbye to the best dog you’ve ever met? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you have to just say, until we meet again.