By Billy Smith
The giant Great Pyrenes limped into the waiting room with bright, thankful eyes. His breath was heavy and labored, but it calmed when he plopped his head in the lap of Ms. Mindy, who was waiting on the floor to greet him. He’d been at the veterinarian’s office through a string of health challenges; cancer seemed the most likely contributor to his lethargy. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, draining the energy and livelihood out of the most joyful beast I’d ever known.
King was a truly kind soul. He was the passion of my young son’s life from the day Hunter joined up with one of our friends to separate bulls on a Northern New Mexico ranch. “That’s what I want,” he said as a young cowboy fresh from the ranch. While we knew that wouldn’t be the last request from our son, it turned out to be the most meaningful. Hunter would grow up to chase bad guys in earth’s most dangerous places as an elite U.S. Marine, seeing things civilized people should never see and hardening himself against war and deprivation. But King would always still his heart, calm his wanderlust and welcome him home.
Through a series of cues and miscues, we ended up with this kind, large-eyed, hairy ambassador who allowed our family to serve as his flock, and we stayed near until his last quiet breath. And he stayed near to us, nursing Ms. Mindy back from a life-altering accident, for which he was partially responsible. He seemed to spend her recovery making amends, carefully sliding his massive head under her neatly manicured and delicate fingers, apologetically hoping for a scratch. She often rubbed, scratched and stroked the top of his ridged head even at times as she slept. If Saylor White is right and “no one sees a heart that’s underfed,” King’s heart was healthy, on full display and raptured our family in ways we’ll embrace for a lifetime.
Throughout her recovery, which included many weeks of mostly bedrest, King stayed close to Ms. Mindy, offering the brand of healing animal lovers understand but can’t really explain. Even though she has an army of friends, King was the most faithful, most loving, most kind and probably the most clairvoyant.
But on this day, we forced ourselves to the veterinarian’s office to discuss what we knew might be his final page in a series of chapters that enlivened our family and left us with a dearth of stories and pictures and joy that only a few farm families can experience. When my son was deployed to the badlands with the Marine Corp, it seemed that King wanted—perhaps needed—to remain closer to his human flock. He was, by both nature and genetics, an outdoor dog, but in his final months, King seemed to want to stay closer to us and he’d lay his massive head on our laps with increasing regularity. Maybe he was trying to tell us something. Maybe his goodbye started much sooner than ours. Our farewell was sudden and jolting; his was kind, artful and compassionate.
I remember the day I grabbed Hunter in a fatherly headlock in our back yard. It was the only time I ever heard King growl at another human being, and he was growling at me. To him, I had put his boy in danger and he needed me to understand that his tolerance extended no further than Hunter. From that day forward, all father-son roughhousing took place indoors and out of King’s sight.
I was more than grateful Hunter had spent time with King during his Christmas leave from the Marines. King found solace in my son’s bedroom, making his way into Hunter’s room on most mornings during his leave, crawling into his bed and help him greet the morning or join him in carefree slumber. King loved both.
With a single pat of my right hand against my chest, King would place his massive paws on my shoulders, staring eyeball-to-eyeball at each other as equals. After four or five second, his squishy tongue wrapped a wet thank you across my left cheek and he’d skedaddle, expecting me to chase him. He was always willing to offer up a handshake, first with his right paw and then his left paw. This was our daily greeting when I opened the front door. First his right paw, then his left.
Our veterinarian had taken one last set of X-rays before she walked into the examination room. Her face spoke before her words: the X-ray showed rapidly growing cancer throughout King’s lungs, the likely cause of his labored breathing. That settled the question. We didn’t have a compelling or even selfish argument for allowing our great King to wither away in pain and agony before his final breath. We were as ready we could be when preparing to say goodbye to a really good friend—a really kind, soulful, joyful friend.
I’ve always pondered why our four-legged friends rarely outlive us. Maybe it helps us understand grieving and life in a way that conditions us for giant wracks of pain and loss that awaits us all. Maybe they’re our guides to grief and suffering. For sure, they’re our guides to joy, love and acceptance. And an occasional lick.
I reached down to scratch the giant white head that was in Ms. Mindy’s lap. King raised his head and blinked his giant eyelashes before offering his right paw, then his left. The veterinarian administered the sedative, and he melted further into Ms. Mindy’s lap. The pink barbiturate injection came next, and she listened to his heart until there was nothing left to hear. I reached down for one more shake, his right paw, then his left, and Ms. Mindy folded herself over his massive body, stroking the length of his flowing hair. She wailed the way good people do when they’ve lost something good; I tried to hold it together for reasons I don’t fully understand, but I failed and two rivers traversed my increasingly aging cheeks. King’s kind eyes stayed open and dilated as though offering a final thank you, an overture to a life well lived: a kind, soulful, joyful life.