Three years ago, we knew my grandfather was going to die of cancer.
There’s no surprise in this story. He did, in January 2006, just days before his 71st birthday. We traveled to Idaho to spend one last Christmas with him, knowing he wouldn’t have another, and a few weeks later we were back, mourning instead of celebrating, feeling the relief of finality mixing with the grief of losing the rock our family was built upon.
For my grandmother, it was a tragedy. Her life partner, the man who provided for her all of her life, who served as the other half of the strongest marriage I had ever seen, who was a strong and loyal family man, successful business owner, loving father and husband, everything you would want a man to be – all gone.
We weren’t there when he passed away. My grandmother was there. My aunt, uncle and cousin were there.
And Darby was there.
Three years later, Darby too is prepared to pass.
Darby, an Akita, was more than a dog. He was the number two male in the house, an overgrown teddy bear known for getting into binds. Fiercely protective of my grandparents, yet incredibly sweet, he found himself growing old due to a series of untimely fights: a handful of black labs, a porcupine, a series of additional wild animals His skin was scarred, his hair becoming patched. His eyes clouded, began to bleed, until no amount of drops would cure them. His hips went through surgery. His weight ballooned until my grandmother could no longer pick him up.
As of this weekend, my grandmother has made the decision to put Darby to sleep.
Think about that. For her, Darby is the last remaining connection to my grandfather. He is the link that binds my grandfather’s life and memory. When my grandmother looked at Darby, she saw an animal that my grandfather loved, despite his faults, despite his difficulties. Darby was my grandfather’s best friend, just as many dogs have been best friends to many men.
Darby was there when my grandfather died, nuzzling his hand, fully aware of what was going on during those last few hours of hospice. He held that memory strong, until he felt it in his bones, in his hips, through eyes that could no longer see, blinded by bad luck and a sped up mortality, bleeding from his sockets like tears for those who have passed. He took on the pressures that my grandmother felt, weighting them on his back, collapsing under the pain, sapping it away from her mind, like a sponge cleaning up a staining oil.
It was as if he lived the part so my grandmother wouldn’t suffer, serving as the living embodiment of my grandfather’s legacy.
At the same time, he was just a dog. He was merely mortal.
Not to get all Marley and Me or Mitch Albom on you, but it’s heartbreaking to think about. They say dogs have no soul, but perhaps this is because they so fully take on the soul of those they love the most. They serve as a reminder; of what’s good in life, and of what’s important. Unbiased love, blindly unconditional, feeling everything you feel, both sympathetic and dismissive, as if they understand your plight but know it’s better to move on.
In putting Darby to sleep, my grandmother is finally ready to take that last step. To cut ties with the past, to face up to a future without her greatest love, to put the grieving out of misery and to walk forward.
To let go of the pain.
To let go. Move on. With fond memories, before things get worse.
To say goodbye, to both Darby and my grandfather. And to say hello to tomorrow.