Damn Gem, our 13-year-old chocolate lab, left us on a cold December Saturday morning. She took her last breath while laying in my lap on the floor of the veterinarian exam room.
I had been meaning to take her to the beach one last time. She loved the smell of the ocean; it never failed to fill her old body with the youthfulness we assumed was gone for good. But her illness crept up on us – two days after I noticed her acting strange, we made that awful decision. By then, it was too late for her to enjoy anything.
Gem had been a rebound dog for me after the sudden loss of my first dog. But when Gem came home, the Diva was a toddler, and soon the Pterodactyl joined us. I had little time for training my canine baby. Still, she possessed a gentle spirit, and was never wild or rough. She insisted on being petted, shoving her wet nose under an arm or into a lap with surprising determination. She was an incorrigible crotch-sniffer, greeting guests with an (unwelcome) poke and a smile. After an unfortunate stay at a terrible kennel, she habitually ate her own poop, which made me a maniacal yard cleaner.
When Buddy the Wonder Dog joined the family, Gem spent a few days staring at me balefully. Eventually, though, she became the pack elder, showing Buddy where to pee and how to wait patiently for the kids to drop bread crusts off the
table. She shed like a motherfucker. I could sweep the floor twice with an eagle eye then find tufts of thick brown hair hiding behind a door.
Last spring, in a brief lapse of sanity, I brought home Yobe the Brindle Rescue Pup. Gem seemed oblivious, or maybe just nonplussed, like, Nothing these people do surprises me any more. Yobe, about a year old, scared of her own shadow, so delicate and fragile I worried her ribs might break from the kids hugging her so tightly. Within days, Yobe had chosen Gem as her go-to protector. When Gem curled up on the couch, Yobe nosed her way into a snuggle. She craved Gem’s warmth and security like it was a blanket.
Gem generally slept so deeply I often watched her chest for movement. She used to sleep on a dog bed next to me, but she started snoring like a trucker so I moved her to the living room. One night, though, I heard her toenails clicking on the floor. I got up to see about her, let her out, and gave her a treat. She fell back asleep leaning against our bedroom door; in the morning, she seemed okay. The next night, though, she paced and cried all night. Like, really, all night. She was inconsolable. I sat on the couch and pulled her into my lap, and she lowered her bulk down to the floor and paced. I gave her a treat, and she refused it. If you’ve never owned a lab, let me just tell you: labs don’t refuse treats. They look at all food – cheerios, cheese, raw broccoli stalks – as though it’s bacon. I held Gem’s big blocky head in my hands and looked into her eyes, and I knew.
I took her to our awesome vet, who confirmed my suspicions: Gem was likely suffering from some catastrophic neurological event – a brain tumor or cancer or something only confirmed and/or treated by brain surgery. Our old dog was too old to endure such trauma and suffering. (Please don’t write me about all the things it could have been; trust me, we discussed every possibility based on her history and considered every option.)
I brought her home to say goodbye to the kids and explain what was going to happen. “You’re going to kill her?” asked the Pterodactyl, wide-eyed. I feel sick even now, recalling how I tried to explain the concept of euthanasia to my heartbroken children. As I spoke, poor Gem paced in circles, trying desperately to relieve her pain.
The Pterodactyl and the Tyrant decided they wanted to come with me; they didn’t want their dog to die alone. I brought along Buddy, too, to comfort both Gem and me. They were so brave, my two little kids; they stroked Gem’s face and scratched her ears and belly, and spoke soothingly to her as she relaxed after the first injection, then shuddered and exhaled deeply after the second. Buddy watched quietly.
We went home. I had elected to allow the vet to take care of Gem’s body – it was too soon after my dad’s death for me to deal with ashes and burials. I should have known, though, that my poor son would need more closure than simply walking out of the vet’s office without our Gem. He stomped around the house aimlessly for a while; then he found an old shoe box, and stumbled upon an idea. Quietly he pulled together a memorial box: Gem’s collar; a tuft of her hair; a poop bag; a dog treat; one of her chew toys; and a roll of toilet paper. Gem loved to eat toilet paper. When the box was full, he went outside and started digging a hole in the yard with his bare hands. I found a shovel and helped him out. After we buried the box, he used some rocks to form the letter G as a marker.
So we are back to having two dogs, which I admit to not minding at all. Buddy remains the greatest dog ever. When the Pterodactyl is home, they are rarely apart. And that little Yobe, so full of love and need, has wormed her way into our hearts. She sleeps in somebody’s bed every night and spoons. I think she learned that from Gem.