Sometimes I think I'm the only person who notices when spring actually starts. Despite the 14 inches of snow outside, spring is already underway; I have seen the leaf buds bursting through the dull grey branches of trees whose eagerness may prove their undoing.
Tucker's season had been changing for a long time before I could admit it to myself. I feel guilty because I didn't notice how far into his winter we had traveled, so consumed were we with Champagne. He was always a patient dog, as my mom said, the middle child oft overlooked because he was so well-behaved. Tucker and Champagne were born 3 months apart and only lived a year without one another. I was concerned we might lose him to grief, and he was sad, but his heart was big enough not to break.
The signs were there: the smell in the house, his inability to even get into the walk in shower for a bath, shortened trips outside, more frequent falls, and most of a disturbing difficulty in waking him. When his hips began to sway I thought it might be displaysia. In December I took Tucker on a group walk for senior dogs. He needed help getting in and out of the car (no small feat with a 100lb dog) and he walked on the tops of his hind feet without knowing it. I felt the familiar helplessness of watching a power greater than my own, like sand slipping through my fingers, and the fear that my friend's time might be running out. His hips went out twice before the halfway mark and he had to be driven back to our car. That was Tucker's last walk.
Two weekends ago, we noticed drops of blood around the house. Then Tucker started drooling blood, had a fever, and the right side of his face was swollen. I made a vet appointment for Tuesday morning. I told Nick he needed to consider that surgery may not be viable in an old dog, that it might be Tucker's time.
When I got home from school on Monday evening, Tucker was unable to stand on his own. He wouldn't eat. It started to snow; I got him up and let the dogs outside. When I opened the door to let them in, I found that Tucker had fallen at the porch steps and couldn't get up. He looked up at me with sad, hurting eyes that said, "I have no dignity." Sobbing, I maneuvered him into the house and lay on the floor with him as I had done with Champagne, stroking his big golden head and telling him I loved him. Champagne and I watched Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus series. Tucker and I listened to a Christmas podcast. Widget circled around us (Zeke would later pounce on Tucker's head twice), the only animal who seemed cognizant that a separation would soon follow. That night Tucker seal crawled into my room to sleep.
We didn't take a leash for Tucker's trip to the vet. He was able to walk to the car, but not in a straight line, and he could neither load nor stand up by himself. I did insist on taking Zeke - it's good for him to go to the vet without getting poked, it was good company for Tucker, and I knew in my heart that only one dog would be coming home. I told Jean we needed a stretcher and she sent an assistant out to help. Tucker seemed amused by all the fuss and was a perfect gentleman, as always. When she took his temperature, it was apparent he'd been unable to poop for days. Dr. Albert looked at him and asked, "What is it you want me to do here?" She didn't find anything obvious in his mouth and suspected bone cancer. That thought had crossed my mind more than once in the past three or four months. "I'm not getting 'I want to die' from this dog," she said, "but I'm getting 'I would be okay. I've had a good run.'" We talked through the options for a long time. It's not as easy with a big dog; their bodies give out before their hearts do. Nick said, "Well your mind was already made up." "No," I replied, "I've had to come to terms with it." The choice was clear - we simply couldn't carry him around and if it was cancer, there was no treatment. I sent Nick to put Zeke in the car. When Dr. Albert came back she asked, "Are you stopping?" "Yes," I nodded, crying. "I think you're doing the right thing," she said. "I know we are, but he had to come to it himself," I replied. She nodded. Tucker didn't want to leave us; he fought the sedative pretty hard. But, when the final shots came, he let go of his suffering quickly. As we were leaving Dr. Albert came out and told us that, upon further examination, Tucker's cheekbone was dissolved and all that was left was a tumor. It had been cancer and we'd made the right decision.
A word about Zeke. After Tucker passed, Nick stayed in the room while I retrieved Zeke, who was more interested in the waiting area than our silent exam room. He sniffed Tucker disinterestedly and turned back to the door, whining. When he turned to look a second time, he leapt three feet sideways into Nick's lap. I'm not convinced taking him was the right move. He seemed extremely disturbed, almost panicked, and when we left the room he wanted to go back. When we got home, he still looked for Tucker and has continued to do so periodically. Then again, so do I. His presence is sometimes so strong in a room that I will verbally acknowledge him. Still guarding us from the afterlife, perhaps.
Zeke has never been an only dog and is having trouble adjusting. He either wants to be left alone in places where Tucker used to sleep or follows me from room to room, glued to my side. He will not eat unless I sit with him. Widget, who has been grieving in his own stalwart feline way, is warming up to Zeke and I find them napping closer together. (The deep cold has helped facilitate this.) That Zeke knew Tucker for only half his young life and was so influenced speaks volumes about Tucker's calming presence.
We had months to prepare for Champagne's loss, to savor moments and create memories. We didn't know we were living on Tucker's final moments as well. I hope he felt loved and not overlooked. I hope he got what he needed, that we did not fail him. His sudden departure leaves a massive hole on the farm. I hope that, when his soul crossed the mortal divide, he stood up on strong golden legs and ran to Champagne.
It's a new season for us. Lambs will be here soon. I am a one dog woman for the first time in 14 years, a young dog who knew my old dogs and loves them still, as I do.
Madeline is a fiber artist, author, shepherd, and music student. Ballyhoo Farm is the culmination of her passion for animals, horticulture, and sustainable farming practices, a dream she's worked to build since childhood.