This post has me reflecting on the first time I had to put a dog to sleep due to debilitating health issues. I have discovered that the best way for me to honor something or someone is by using my gift and putting into words what that specific object, person, pet, or memory meant to me as our journey progressed forward and ended at a certain point in time.
This is the story of Mattie, a fifteen year old black Labrador retriever.
Mattie was an “outdoor family dog”, and in the rural South, most people know what that label entails and are not offended by it. Mattie’s ceiling was the high heavens. Her lamp was the sun. Her nightlights were the different stages of the moon, the stars that would slowly pop out like shiny diamonds, and the outdoor lights I routinely turned on around the house for her. Mattie’s carpet was the various types of Earth that she happily treaded, and she racked up more miles on her odometer while being confined to a one mile radius than some people drive their entire life. Mattie’s swimming pool was the nearby creek or nearby ditches that filled with rainwater. Mattie’s air conditioner was the wind that Mother Nature provided or an electric powered fan I would occasionally put outside for her. Mattie looked forward to can-can time around four in the evening, and she never shied away from a treat, even if I chose some that were not to her liking.
If Mattie needed to release number ones or number twos, she sniffed countless minutes for the perfect spot in the yard and did it on her own time because she was free to do so. She never dropped a number two in a spot where I would step in it at a later point in time. If she felt like getting away from me and having girl time alone, she had free will and range. Mattie was not chained, pinned, or enslaved to me unless it came to her medicines, water (I could fill her bucket with ice cold Voss and she’d rather drink from a puddle), food (she did kill a rabbit on her own one thanksgiving while we were inside feasting), pampering, and outdoor housing (which consisted of a fully insulated and cushioned dog igloo underneath a shop shelter and out of the North wind, as well as having full access to enter inside my shop through a door so she could lay in her favorite bed). To me, and granted I am showing one hundred percent favoritism since she is the family pet, Mattie was a real dog, a type of dog that is a dying breed in this modern day world.
Mattie enjoyed her younger years by chasing the four wheeler around the yard and as we traveled around the fields to the creek. Nothing made her happier than jumping in, cooling off, and dunking her face in the water. She enjoyed playing with kids, followed them around, and protected them like they were her own even though her ovaries had long been removed. When she was in good health, she loved chasing after a thrown frisbee or tennis ball. As her body began to wear down due to use and age, the trips to the creek consisted of her having to board the golf cart and not run slash walk there. I knew time was slowly winding down for our once strong black Labrador because I would have to help her into the golf cart so we could take a familiar ride to one of her many places of pleasure.
On numerous occasions, I would open the door to my house and tell her to come in but she did not want to. She knew that pioneers, explorers, and cowgirls never lived in a house because the outside world was their playground and home. A couple of times in her later years, I brought her inside to see how she would react, and I could tell that she felt uncomfortable by the close spaces and confinement of numerous walled rooms. I recognize the fact that I am not a scientist, doctor, or trainer, and I know her reaction to her surroundings was based upon her conditioning and how she was raised. As humans, a lot of our repetitious behaviors are based upon those same pre-programmed mannerisms. Most people would quickly assimilate to their surroundings so they could blend in when given the opportunity, but Mattie, she was an exception to the rule. She was my kind of dog.
In this day and age where some family pets receive their own checking and savings account, a personal butler delivering their kibble in diamond studded bowls, two vacation homes – one in Palm Springs and another in the Hamptons, and are bestowed life insurance money if the owner dies, Mattie’s life was about something more. Her life was about living off the grid and being content doing so. Her life was about digging foxholes that were deep enough to break an elephant’s kneecap. Her life was about standing up and wagging her tail whenever she saw a family member driving toward the house. Her life was about looking forward to July 4th celebrations and running through the sparklers and smoke like a kid. Her life was about enjoying time on this Earth while she had it. Her life was about living each day to its fullest and greeting her loved ones with wet nosed kisses. That’s more than some of us humans can say about our own lives, myself included, if we sit down, disconnect from Wi-Fi, reflect, and truly think for our own self.
As the years passed by and the world around Mattie changed, the gray hairs began to appear on her snout, belly, and paws. Her back legs began to give out on her, and she had trouble standing and sitting. Her breathing became more and more labored and shallow with each passing season. Her hearing began to dissipate and sent her into a state of passive confusion. The last sense to fail Mattie was her eyesight, and I believe she could not make out objects until she was very close to them. I had to pick Mattie up a couple of times and carry her to her food bowl for can-can time and I know that embarrassed her. A beloved, strong willed pet, that had been in the family for more than a decade, had ran out of time, and us holding onto her was not giving her the quality of life that she used to have or deserved.
It was a sunny and comfortably cool day when me and my sister took Mattie to the vet. Mattie audibly farted on me while we waited for the doctor and her assistant to come to the truck. I, personally, had not dropped a bomb that potent in quite a while, yet I let it slide considering the current circumstance. If there is anything that will break the tense air in any vehicle, it is a non-discreet shot out of a nervous cannon.
Since Mattie’s mobility was limited, and at our kind request, me, my sister, the doctor, and her assistant found a wide shady patch of Earth under a tree where we parked my truck. If there could have been any way that Mattie would have wanted to go, it would have been to peacefully pass away and fall asleep in her element. Mattie laid on top of her favorite blanket, and I held her face under one of my arms, rubbed her face with my other hand, and coaxed her. The entire day, I had been dreading this event, and my mind was running rampant and filling in the gaps on how everything was going to play out. Little did I know, it was going to be one of the most peaceful departures I have ever witnessed.
The doctor did her assessment and said it was remarkable that Mattie was that old and in as decent shape as she was. She listened to Mattie’s heart and breathing and felt at her joints and bones. The doctor agreed with our concerns and said that Mattie had lived a full life and was ready to go on to the next stage of her enlightenment.
I watched as the doctor inserted the first shot. I could feel Mattie relax for the first time in a long time, let go, and be at peace with having lived the most awesome life a dog could possibly live. Her rapid breathing finally lulled and slowed as her life transitioned from one stage to the next. The last breath that Mattie took was not one of struggle but of relief. I could hear and feel the difference as she laid in my arms.
The doctor then inserted the next shot and comforted us as the drugs took effect. We sat in the shade, listened to the wind, and shared an experience that transcends time and space. At one point in time during the process, I rubbed Mattie’s forehead and said,
“Well, today, it’s your time, ole girl. One day, though, it will be ours.”
One thing they do not tell you on the internet or that I did not realize until faced with it even though it should have been common sense – a dead dog is a helluva lot heavier than a live one. The doctor and her assistant helped me and my sister wrap Mattie in her favorite blanket, and I sat on the ground for a minute. Whether it was out of shock or because I had never held a dead family pet in my arms or because the passing was so peaceful that it took me off guard, I could not tell you. I told the doctor and her assistant that I had it under control from there, and my sister walked over to me and asked if I needed help.
I exclaimed, “nah, I got it! I’m good!” (But I wasn’t)
I tried rolling up to my feet from the ground with Mattie in my arms, and I swear that dog was playing tricks on me even though she was no longer present. What was once a forty-five pound sack of rattling bones, a worn out heart, and good, life long memories, had now turned into a two hundred pound, water logged bean bag. I know in Mattie’s mind she was hoping for a more prestigious procession than what her idiot owners were providing, and as my sister drove home all I could do was roll the window down and let the breeze blow past me as I held the shell of the greatest dog alive.
That night, after we buried Mattie at her own spot at the family cemetery, I was lying in the bed, watching Breaking Bad, and a somewhat violent thunderstorm swept through. Before the rain began to fall, I could hear the thunder getting closer and closer until it was on top of us. Considering how the day unfolded, I thought it was fitting that it should have ended as such. A quote then popped into my head, a quote that I try to live by each and every day.
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death trembles to take us.”
That day, death showed up in more places than each of us can list, and each person was affected by it in a different way. That day, four people and a dog named Mattie were huddled underneath a shade tree, giving relief to a tired heart and a worn out body and setting a strong spirit free. That day, when death transcended through the blue sky, cut the cool breeze, slipped through the cracks of loving arms, and showed up for the beloved family pet, it shuddered at what it had come for.
Death came for the greatest dog in the universe, and what it found was an old school black Labrador named Mattie.
That day, one of the weakest dogs around made death tremble. One day, I can only hope that my life does the same.
“We may face Death alone, but in Love we will always be together!”
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