The week we resolved to take our old and suffering dog Maple to the vet to be euthanized, she disappeared.
Our 14 year-old chow mix mutt left the house at 3:30 on an early Wednesday morning and did not return. Over the course of the day, friends and family search parties explored a 200-yard area surrounding our house.
Maple was deaf, mostly blind and could barely walk; perhaps she knew on some level we'd been planning this final visit to the vet. It seemed feasible she was taking care of the deed of dying on her own.
But surprise! Maple returned to us that very night at 11:30. We rejoiced at her arrival, wide eyes of amazement all around the house. Other than damp fur indicating she'd been in the river, she looked normal. What had she been doing for 20 hours?
We put off plans to take her to the pet hospital. If she'd had the chutzpah to go on walkabout for almost an entire day, she deserved more time.
Maple always bore an independent streak. She came to us as a stray over a dozen years ago, a young adult dog cajoled by our young sons to stick around. It took years to bond. We were failures as dog owners, from the standpoint of training and discipline. Maple was a firebrand of a beast, willing to go anywhere with anyone and apt to chase anything that moved, whether a car, a motorcycle or a jogger.
One time, she followed us out of our driveway and raced along beside; we clocked her at thirty miles an hour — the maximum speed we were willing to go on our streets. Who knows how fast this dog could go?
Other than a handful of horrors — attacking other dogs and cats and lunging at a moving vehicle or two — Maple's life was charmed. Numerous times we'd get a call she'd been found somewhere, even outside the realm of our 300-acre neighborhood, and we'd have to get in the car and retrieve her.
In other instances, people simply put Maple in their car, drove her home to us. We will never know how often that happened, because she was always somewhere, exploring the river behind our house, the raw green spaces that border our neighborhood, and even an intersection about a mile and a half away that features a grocery store, gas station and coffeeshop.
Sometimes I wondered, Whose dog is this? She was much more a creature of a tribe of humans, than a possession of one family.
But her predatory nature compelled us to fence her in. Thanks to cooperative neighbors, we were able to give her three full yards of invisible fence, a drop in the proverbial bucket of her earlier range, but at least more than our single property.
Her middle years were thus confined to this relatively puny area, other than the walks we gave her. She adjusted over time, but I always felt a little sad about restraining this magnificent animal's freedom.
She grew old and fatter and the invisible fence began to malfunction. In fact, it stopped altogether, but rather than fix it, we just let it be. By then, she'd become habituated; it was the perimeter she walked each day to police her space.
It was during this time I really began to love this dog. Gone were the fears she was going to attack another animal. Having her more compliant, a bit less wild, was just fine to my way of thinking, and the years went by peacefully until recently, when her stiff hips made going up and down the deck stairs a trial. The tumor that sprouted from her flank was a clear sign life was becoming a misery.
We made plans to put her down, but then came the 20-hour adventure and the tabling of the decision.
Another week went by and her suffering reached a new level, including a drooping tail and lack of interest in eating. By Friday she was lying on her side, panting with enormous effort. It was time to make an appointment and I did so for the next morning.
The night was long for Maple — and for my wife, who stayed up to care for her. There was a constant struggle for Maple to get up, go outside, relieve the pain somehow, and her yowls of distress were heartbreaking.
In the morning I could only bide time waiting for the appointed time. I let her out and carried her down the steps; I knew it was the last time.
And that's what got me, put me into tears. This sense of thelast time. The last inspection of the yard. The last sniff of that stump. I brought out her bowl of water and thought, That's Maple's last drink of water.
I placed her in the car and started to drive her to the vet. But I decided to take one last loop around our neighborhood, the space she'd ranged for so many years. She was quiet in the back of the car, semi-conscious, yet I wanted to trace in a car what was once Maple's sense of her own personal yard.
A buddy surprised me by joining me at the vet, and we waited in the car with Maple and exchanged stories of her and of dogs and cats we'd loved who'd died, and then it was time. We tucked a blanket under her and hoisted her, hammock-style, into the clinic and placed her on the table where she would soon be dead.
Does any animal love nature more than a dog? Given their dual existence — indoors and outdoors — they know the comforts of air conditioning and furnaces, but I wager their animal core appreciates nature all the more because of it.
I placed my hand on her head. I wanted to give her comfort, for sure, but I also wanted to still feel this animal's body warm and breathing one last time.
I closed my eyes and saw her, sinewy and focused, running alongside our car. I saw her hell-bent chasing a squirrel. I saw her running her own fellow pet — our cat, Pearl — up a tree, the reason for which I soon understood as another dog had just entered our yard.
I saw her simply sitting, blinking in the sun, sniffing the air, listening.
The vet administered the drug and within seconds she was still. My friend and I did not linger. We'd swapped stories, cried and said our goodbyes to her. I did not want to know that body cold.