“When A Friend Crosses Over”

Dalmatian Club of America Spotter, Summer Issue 2010

I had promised Gulliver that when his time came I would not let him be in pain and that I would be there to hold him in my arms and rock him out. A week ago, I kept those promises.

I had bred Gulliver’s litter, and he slid out into my own hands the day he was born. In his first year, he won his Futurity, Sweepstakes and Regular classes at the Dalmatian Club of America’s National Specialty show in Perry, Georgia—an achievement that had not been accomplished in a long time. But when I became seriously ill, I reluctantly withdrew both of us from the show ring, though he was pointed out and only waiting for that last major in order to become a Champion. Instead, he lay by my side on my bed, comforting me, guarding me—my therapy dog.

In recent months, I learned how hard it is to have a senior dog, no matter how beloved. Just shy of his thirteenth birthday, Gulliver developed small bowel intestinal disease and had constant diarrhea; he couldn’t control himself and looked forlorn and humiliated whenever he had an accident. I was glad he was still there, despite the innumerable stains on my carpet.

We consulted a nutritionist at Cornell University, who prescribed a special diet: I peeled two hundred and thirty two hardboiled eggs and baked one hundred and twenty pounds of sweet potato a month. Long gone were the easy days of kibble. Yet yesterday, in the supermarket, I passed the gray cardboard cartons of eggs stacked high in the case and wished fervently that I were putting some of them into my cart.

The other day I read that there are more senior dogs than ever before: how grateful we are for their longevity at the same time we must do things that are inconvenient. I did them because he gave so much to us: the honesty and integrity in his deep brown eyes; the way he stood in his yellow lifejacket, barking furiously at jet skis when we were out for our weekend sails; how stubbornly he got between my husband and me on the bed so that he could claim strokes from both sides; his determination when he squashed himself into the kink of my bent legs as I lay watching television. As he aged, he played different roles in my life: infant, toddler, teenager, and constant friend.

Suddenly one morning, he began to have projectile diarrhea and vomiting that did not stop. Within an hour he couldn’t stand. I raced to the vet, a specialist in internal medicine. The diagnosis: aspiration pneumonia that had developed after only three hours, and perhaps some kind of gastrointestinal bug that was ravaging his gut.

We visited him in the hospital the way we would any family member, but he was able to lift his head only momentarily to greet us. My husband and I sat with him until the staff closed the facility and forced us out. By the following morning, a third x-ray unexpectedly revealed a shadow above his pancreas.

The vet told us we had to make a choice: exploratory surgery or euthanasia.

If I had been deciding for myself alone I would have opted for the former, despite the odds that he might die on the operating table. As I held his paw where he lay limply on the stretcher, I desperately wanted him to tell me what to do. But then I realized that he trusted me to make the right decision. He had placed himself in my hands. It took us three interminable, excruciating hours by his side to decide.

Now, as I grieve for Gulliver, I ask God why it is that our dogs live for so much less time than we do. Why must we face losing those we love so intensely, after only thirteen or fourteen years? Even though some people vow that they will not subject themselves once again to this pain, everyone goes out for another dog. It seems we just can’t do without them. To cope when they leave us, we rely on our other dogs to fill the space left behind, even though they cannot, and should not, be expected to. We run memorial ads in breed magazines, and say, “Sleep in peace, old friend.” These are ways of celebrating their lives and continuing to keep them in our hearts.

Every day when I wake, I stroke his face in the photo that is on my nightstand, and tell him how much I love him. Every night when I go to bed, I tell him how empty my day was without him. Before I had dogs, I used to poke fun at animal cemeteries. Yesterday, I went on to the Internet to pick out an elegant marble urn for his ashes. I will put him in a spot in the yard where he used to sun himself, call it “Gulliver’s Garden,” and plant flowers there.

We believe in the Rainbow Bridge because we cannot take our dogs for walks anymore or give them their food bowl. Our faith in their voyage over the Bridge is our way of letting them pass on without us—of feeling certain that they do not simply vanish into a void. We will never stop seeing their faces, and we bless that fact even as we know that it would be less painful to simply forget. And so I say, “Sleep in peace, old friend.” I believe that somehow you will.

Linda Gray Sexton is the owner of Literati Dalmatians. This article originally ran in “The Spotter,” the national magazine for the Dalmatian Club of America.

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