One Last Walk
We’re heading into the wooded grove that has been our go-to spot for so many Sunday outings. The place I learned to hunt as a boy, and where you worked tirelessly as a younger dog, always circling back to ensure I was keeping up. Thirteen seasons, in all kinds of weather. For all kinds of reasons. Or sometimes no reason at all. Our secret place of escape where we run free. It’s warmer than usual and I’m sweating, longing for the coolness of the creek bottom where we always begin.
I navigate the bank and instinctively look ahead for your white body flashing through the forested landscape. Bounding. Carefree. Following your nose. I start to give a quick whistle to call you back, only then remembering that this last time you aren’t running. You’re in a small tin I carry awkwardly in my arms.
Glancing down, I’m forced to face the reality that you are actually gone. Your graceful muscular frame, mischievous brown eyes and bobbed tail that followed you like an exclamation point, reduced to dusty ashes in a box. My eyes blur and burn from stains of sadness that leach in long salty streaks down my face and fall in futile silence on my shirt and the dry forest floor.
This was where I thought I’d lay you for your final rest. The creek where you chased fish and retrieved rocks. Where you’d cool down and grab a quick drink before tearing off again. But now it doesn’t feel right. Too permanent. Not enough. Maybe no place ever will be, or maybe I just can’t bring myself to let go completely.
It was unbearable to watch as the cancer slowly ate you away. A black demon inside I was powerless to exercise. An uninvited guest unwilling to leave. Somehow this day always seemed so far off. But your thinning body, skin hung like a suitcoat too big for a child on your frame, and the telltale arch in your back belying the pain you hid so well, told the story I was reluctant to hear. Somehow, you’d always rally enough for our walks. Our ritual. You’d put on a brave face and follow faithfully along. Slower than before, but always willing.
I remember finally making that call to the vet. To come and give you the peace you earned after all these loyal years. To take away the pain you hid so well. In our home. Comfortable. Together. I remember hanging up the phone, closing my office door, and crying uncontrollably. Ugly embarrassing crying. And I remember the day before that visit, coming to this very place together. You alongside, windows down, and ears blowing in the wind. Smiling. I swear to God you were smiling. A couple cheeseburgers for both of us on the way, because why the hell not. And then letting you go to wander. Still knowing the way. Years of walks engrained in the marrow of your bones. To fetch rocks in the creek, run in the woods, and take one last swim in the river.
There’s a quote that reads “It’s the last greatest thing we’re able to do for a faithful friend.” And I know it was, but I can’t help feeling that I somehow betrayed you lying on your bed while I gently stroked your soft brown ears, shuddering as your chest heaved its last breath and your faithful heart fell silent. Feeling your warm wet tongue one final time on my hand; a small reassurance that left a hole impossible to fill back in.
Climbing out of the creek bottom, we move on. Toward the overlook by the river. Where we’d always stop for a spell. I’d sit and watch the river while you fetched sticks. Small gifts you’d bring to foot, while not so patiently waiting for me to throw them again. Over and over; it never got old. But we did. I can feel it. In my battered body and sorrowed soul. I sense it holding thirteen years of memories in this tiny box. Even the landscape seems to have aged in a way I notice for the first time.
I remember you as a puppy. God, you were a spitfire. Climbing fences, running fast on those too-long-for-your-body legs. Getting into mischief. I could never get mad. You had me completely. Sure, I’d pretend to be upset, but deep down I just chuckled when you’d flash that forlorn look at me. Those sad eyes. Ears down. I knew it was a ruse. Hell, we both did, but I played along. And, I grew to love you even more as an older dog. Maybe we just came to understand each other better in those years.
I sit for a while at the overlook, watching the river far below. Reliving our walks together. The memories temporarily lighten the moment but, glancing down at the small tin by my side, I’m heavy again. There’s a lump in my throat I can’t swallow. A grief that feels bottomless has overtaken me. My buddy Jon told me, “every dog takes a piece of us with them, which is partly why it’s so hard to let them go.” I fear in letting you go you’re taking the better parts of me with you. The happy me. The younger me. The me that runs free in these woods. Leaving just the husk. Rattling and empty. But those are selfish thoughts. I wipe my cheek and reluctantly pour out your ashes; releasing you for the last time into the wind and woods and water you so loved.
Then I walk back to the truck. Numb. Unsure of the moment. Empty container in hand; a stark reflection of the hollowness that has overtaken me. What I wouldn’t give to have you alongside just one more time.
Back home, I walk through the door still expecting you to greet me, as was our routine. I’m met instead by the sight of your leash and collar hanging pensively on the coatrack.
I choke back another wave of tears and remember our walks. At that moment I finally realize that while you took an enormous piece of me with you, you left some pieces of yourself for me too. And while our time together seemed so unjustly short, I will never walk in the woods without you by my side.
And today, that will have to be enough.