By Dan Haag
The phone call from Dr. Matt Didlake at Nehalem Animal Healing came at 5:07 pm.
“I’m on my way over,” he said simply.
Which meant we had maybe 10 minutes left to say goodbye to Lilo, our beloved giant Black Labrador. 10 minutes to cram in all the last bits of affection and assurances. 10 minutes for final ear rubs and tail wags.
Those of you who read my previous column know that Lilo had bone cancer. We got the diagnosis on May 3rd and were blessed with an extra three weeks of time together.
Though she couldn’t walk on her own anymore, we managed to get her to the beach for a final visit. She baked her tummy in the sun and stared wistfully at the water, remembering the time she could run and chase a ball. There was a sad look of understanding on her face, one that spoke of a deeper knowledge of her illness than even we perhaps knew.
The day after the beach visit, she collapsed repeatedly. Whatever will had kept her hobbling along on her cancer-riddled leg had finally evaporated. After falling over during an attempt to go eat dinner she looked at me with a sorrowful plea in her eyes. I’ve always believed that pets will tell you when they are ready. Lilo was ready.
I made arrangements for Dr. Matt to come to our home to perform the procedure that would send Lilo onto her next journey. We bundled her onto her favorite pillow, surrounded her with warm blankets and waited for the phone call letting us know he was on his way. I rubbed her ears and eyebrows while Janell gently brushed her thick coat. She faded in an out of sleep, her tail thumping occasionally when one of us hit a spot that needed more attention.
When Dr. Matt arrived, she greeted him with more furious wagging, happy to see her longtime vet and perhaps understanding that he’d come to free her of a body that was still full of spirit but completely breaking down in every other way.
We huddled around her face, soaking in her big brown eyes and white muzzle, stroking her chin and whispering softly.
After a series of preparatory injections, Dr. Matt drew a larger syringe from his bag, one that looked terribly final.
Deep down, I knew this final gift was the greatest gesture of love I could offer, a release from pain. It felt terrible and beautiful.
“Is that the one?” I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking.
Dr. Matt nodded and encouraged us to offer our final words to Lilo.
It’s hard to know what to say in the last few moments of a life you’ve treasured for so long. I wanted to say something profound and encouraging, something that Lilo could hold with her as she passed.
“I love you, sweetheart,” I said over and over, because it was the one of the truest things I’ve ever spoken. Her tail thumped and she blinked happily.
The needle went in and the blue liquid made its way into her veins.
“I love you, sweetheart,” I repeated rapidly.
At the final moment, she flexed her giant paw against the palm of my hand and sniffed the air. Her eyes widened, a spark within flaring brightly. Just as suddenly it dimmed, her paw relaxed against my hand and she was gone.
In the days since, I’ve wondered what she saw in that moment. Was she looking back to the joy and love that was our life together? Or was there something ahead beckoning her forward?
As we sobbed over her warm, quiet body, I thought about her new journey and what form it would take.
My views on spirituality are rather nebulous. To put it most simply, my main belief is that love is the highest, most enduring power in the universe. But after a long, sleepless night in a house that suddenly feels a lot emptier (and fueled by no small amount of wine), I developed a vision for what I hope Heaven, or Nirvana, or Narnia, or whatever you want to call it looks like:
Enormous green fields and forests lined with winding trails; a long stretch of beach fed by numerous, clear streams; a beer garden (of course). The sun is always shining, the stars clear at night, with no city lights to interfere. There’s a large, open amphitheater where Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and George Harrison perform. The place is managed by all of the dogs that have passed and they get to decide which humans can or cannot enter.
By the grace of whatever power runs the universe, I am allowed in and Lilo is there, running in circles, barking, and wagging her tail. Her pain is forgotten, her body restored.
I will wrap my arms around her giant neck and say the one thing I’ve been dying to say since we said goodbye:
I love you, sweetheart.