They should come with a warning label, these creatures. They should come with a label that says you’re going to fall hopelessly in love, only to have your heart shattered before you could ever possibly prepare. And then you face one of life’s truly wrenching decisions.
Which is where I am now. Specifically, as I type these words I am on the back deck of a rented house in Maine surrounded by fields and forest, watching a sleeping golden retriever named Harry drift another day closer to death.
He is gorgeous, this dog, with a gray face that shows the wisdom gained from his 10 years on Earth and brown eyes that are the most thoughtful I’ve ever seen. He is sprawled out on the wood, his blond fur damp from his morning swim and his breathing labored from his disease.
And I ponder the question that has dominated my thoughts for weeks: How will I know when the time is right?
He arrived in my life nearly a decade ago on one of those storybook Christmas season nights that is too good to ever forget. He was a gift to my wife, and when she opened the box the tears that spilled down her face were those of joy.
Women, of course, come and go, but dogs are forever, so when the marriage ended, Harry stayed with me. Since then, we’ve moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., and back again, fetched maybe a quarter of a million throws, walked, I would wager, over 10,000 miles together. He carried a tennis ball in his mouth for most of them, convinced that anyone who saw him would be duly impressed. And, judging by their reactions, he’s right.
Throughout, he has shown me sunrises and sunsets that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. He has taught me that snow is a gift, that the ocean is there for swimming, that the coldest winter mornings and the hottest summer days are never as bad as people say.
He has introduced me to people, kind people, whom I otherwise wouldn’t have met. He has forced me to take time every morning to contemplate the day ahead. With his tail-swishing swagger, he has taught me to slow down, to pause in an Esplanade field or on a Public Garden bench, the journey being as good as the destination. The big ruse, which I think he figured out years ago, was that all these walks were meant for him.
He has been an anchor in bad times, a ballast amid occasional uncertainty, a dose of humility when things might be going a little too well. He has been a sanctuary, a confidant, and an occasional excuse. He regards it as his personal mission to make me laugh, whether by a ritualistic dance over a pig’s ear or a gushing lick to my face. He’s never once said the wrong thing, and it’s impossible to be in a bad mood around him.
All along, he lives by one simple mantra: Count me in. Anything I’m doing, he wants to do as well, no leash or nagging required. At home, he prefers to lie on the stoop of our condominium building, presiding over the world around him.
His time, though, is fleeting, a fact that he’s starting to understand. In April, his lifelong veterinarian, Pam Bendock, blinked back tears as she informed me that his stomach pains were caused by lymphoma. Several rounds of chemotherapy failed to do what was hoped. Two weeks ago, I stopped his treatments.
These days, he has lost 10 pounds or more and can’t keep food inside. He often wakes in the dark before dawn moaning softly in pain. But by daybreak, he is urging me toward the beach or guiding me on another walk, ball in mouth, ready to fetch, albeit slowly.
Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit that a dog can change a man, but I’m not. So as the clock winds out on a life well lived, I look back at the lessons learned from this calm and dignified creature, lessons of temperance, patience, and compassion that will guide us to the end.
And I look into those handsome brown eyes for the sign that the time has come. He’ll give it to me, when he’s ready. And hard as it will be, we’ll both know the journey was better than we could have ever possibly hoped.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.