Only twice in my life has something died in my arms.
I was in Cincinnati, OH at Youth for Jesus in 2004. We were just getting ready to start that evening’s meetings, but most of the youth were missing. Since they were staying at the church school behind the church for the summer, I was asked to run down to the school to fetch them.
When I got to the school I saw most of the kids huddled over by one corner of the building. I approached them to let them know that it was time for the meetings to start. When they saw me, the informed me that a small bird had hit the window. Some of them wanted to help the poor little thing but didn’t know what to do. I sent them all up to the meetings and got a towel. I carefully picked the bird up off the ground and took him inside the school.
He was gasping and twitching a bit. I didn’t expect him to live, but I got a drop of water on the tip of my finger and put it to his beak. He drank a little this way and settled down a bit. He lay there, his tiny chest heaving for two or three minutes. Not knowing what to do I just held him and prayed. A few moments later his breathing stopped.
Today, my parents and I drove up to our house just outside Woodland Park, CO with my German Shepherd, Shadow. We have 40 acres there in the Rocky Mountains. The property is beautiful with rocks, trees and meadows. Every time we bring Shadow here he loves it. There’s plenty of land on which he can run and play. This was his home. This is where he grew up. This is where he lived. This is the place he loved.
We helped him get out of the truck. His back legs have been nearly paralyzed as a result of a condition called Spondylosis which causes his lower spine to deteriorate, eventually paralyzing his hind legs. It’s so bad he could hardly climb the 3 stairs to get on the porch. But once we let him out of the truck and he realizes he’s home, he gets excited and runs all over. Sometimes limping, sometimes just dragging his back legs. He’s lived four years like this which is more than twice what most dogs survive, yet he still acts like a puppy when he comes home.
After letting him run around for a bit, I took him for a walk out across the meadow toward a small, quiet, aspen grove on the other side of the property. That walk brought back a lot of memories. When he was younger, we would kick Shadow’s basketball (his favorite toy) across that meadow and he’d go thundering after it—at 110lbs, you could hear his feet striking the ground as he raced across the meadow. Today it was a slow and laborious trip for him. Sometimes his legs would give out, but if we didn’t stop, he wouldn’t either. So we took several breaks to let him rest.
About the time we got to the aspen grove, the vet arrived. I took Shadow over to the Aspen trees. The vet came over and talked with us a bit. Shadow was excited by the presence of new people and wanted to be up moving around but I told him to lay down, which he did very obediently, and I sat down next to him.. I sat there for a while in the dry, parched grass just petting Shadow and thinking—he grunted and talked to me as he has since he the day I brought him home twelve years ago.
“Let’s do this.” I finally said.
The vet shaved a small spot on Shadow’s back leg and inserted a syringe.
I hugged him as the vet began the injection. Shadow didn’t know what was happening, and as he has since he was a puppy, he squirmed and talked to me as I hugged him. I start to cry. That moment seemed to linger. Thoughts and feelings too intense to make sense of flooded over me. All I could think of was the finality of that moment—the immutability of what was happening. I held Shadow tightly, not wanting to let him go. I remember feeling him relax in my arms. When I petted him he didn’t talk—he always talked—I knew it was over. I sat there on the ground, just squeezing him tightly and sobbing.
I saw the darker side of the world today. I said goodbye to my most faithful friend. I tell myself over and over again that this was the best thing for him, but part of me feels like I betrayed him. He’s been a part of my life for the past 12 years and I can’t believe he’s gone.
We buried Shadow there in that grove under a beautiful Aspen tree. His collar hangs on a branch above his grave.
I thank God for the time I had with such a precious gift, and I pray that I might learn someday to be as selflessly loving and faithful as Shadow.
If dogs go to heaven, surely I will see you there, but until then—goodbye my faithful friend.