Today our canine companion of 15 years—about the length of our marriage—died. He passed away peacefully at the age of 17 with his closest family around him, stroking him wistfully between sobs and thanking him for the life and love he shared with us.
Velvet-eared, sweet and gentle Carter was a rescue dog, just a garden-variety lab mix with a personality that made you want to love him for the rest of his life. He was dropped off on our porch during our first year of marriage, a time when we were still acclimating to newlywed life. Carter had been found as a puppy roaming a construction site in rural Tennessee, and—as we soon discovered was typical of Carter—charmed his way into the hearts of the men who worked there. They soon were feeding him scraps and one day, one of the men, an acquaintance from church, dropped Carter off on our porch in hopes a new dog might lift our spirits after the loss of our last dog Truman.
15 Years of Being There…
There are so many things by which to remember our dog. His boundless energy on long hikes or accompanying us on jogs. The way he seemed to intuit when we were having a bad day, and would tenderly put his muzzle in our lap, letting us stroke his head and tell him about it. And, before children came along, Carter’s warm body cuddled up next to us in bed at the end of a day. He just wanted to be with us no matter what. Even when my husband and I couldn’t be around one another, and there have been those moments, Carter was always there— and we could always be around Carter.
Carter’s unfailingly sweet disposition to all belied his capacity as a hunter in the wild. (Carter had come to us after spending at least a year, maybe two, surviving on his own in the woods, after all.) There was the time when a neighbor kid issued a 10-year-old boy’s taunt one day as we were standing in front of our apartment in Princeton, New Jersey: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Carter could catch that squirrel?!,” he exclaimed, as we watched Carter zero in on a squirrel 10 feet away, his body gearing up for a chase.
Carter caught that squirrel, and pretty soon had it in his jaws, flinging that squirrel by the neck in a death grip—all to the neighbor kid’s enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah, Carter!,” and to the kid’s parents’ horror at an unfolding scene that, because of its grisliness, probably would not be shown on your average PBS nature program.
Then there was the time that 40-pound Carter took down a fully grown adult deer on the Princeton golf course. Early in the mornings we would let Carter run free on that open field of meticulously clipped, rolling green carpet. One morning, however, during a snow storm in early spring, my husband came back from a walk to report that Carter had caught and killed a deer, one of the many in the woods around the seminary apartment complex we inhabited. After the unstoppable carnage, the deer’s carcass had been too big to lug or haul anywhere, so we had been obliged to leave the unlucky deer there, and to imagine what it would be like for some pharmaceutical executive in his perfectly white golfing knickers to discover venison near the tenth hole. We still feel a bit sorry about that incident.
When our first child came along, there was an adjustment period, and we wondered, especially I in my jittery, anxious first days of motherhood, whether Carter would treat my newborn child like just another squirrel or deer. But Carter was smart, and he soon caught on that he had taken a new position in the family food chain. After that, he became a loyal protector of our kids, always enduring even the rough shoves and pulls of toddlers with nothing but an abiding patience—even in his twilight years. He accepted his lot with grace, contenting himself just to be there, even if it meant being an afterthought next to dirty diapers, skinned knees and swim lessons and soccer practices.
In recent years, Carter had been there, too. A stable, faithful presence. When in old age he no longer could go on hikes with us, he still would greet us with his tail wildly wagging, as if we were the best thing that had happened to him; and when any of us would leave the house, he would whimper. He was our canine cheerleader of sorts, and he was always there, even when we took him for granted.
During the last months of his life, Carter could no longer climb our home’s steep stairs to join us in the TV room on family movie nights or to lie at my feet as I worked. That was hard for him. Some days he would cry and whimper at the foot of the stairs, because all he really wanted was to be there next to us. But his hips had started to give way and cause him pain.
And When Being There Was Hurting Him Too Much…
There were other issues, too, that in recent days came to a head and led to the awareness that Carter did not deserve to be kept around for our sake anymore. His quality of life had so greatly diminished.
Carter rallied again for us this afternoon, just before the vet came to inject him with sodium pentobarbital. He wanted to join us for one last romp around the yard on a bright day in early spring—and, somewhat begrudgingly, for some family photos.
Then, surrounded by teary-eyed family telling him how much they loved him and how much he had been a gift to us, Carter climbed onto his comfy bed for one last time; and, with his tired, now white-haired muzzle enclosed by a cup of Dairy Queen soft serve ice cream, Carter drifted off into a long and peaceful sleep.
The vet said we were sending Carter to heaven. I hope so. Because if he’s not there, I’m not sure what hope there is for the rest of us.
God speed, boy. I’ll miss you.