By MARY HOOD HART
I have always held a soft place in my heart for dog stories The ending of Old Yeller, both the movie and the novel, never fails to bring me to tears.
When I was growing up, Lassie was one of my favorite shows and, once old enough to learn that Lassie was actually any one of several collies trained for the role, I felt betrayed and disappointed. I had believed in and cherished that special relationship the “real” Lassie and Timmy appeared to share. I was so moved by the bond between children and their dogs that, as a fourth grader, I wrote my first (and only) novel on the subject. Its protagonist, a boy who undertook many adventures, was always in the company of his faithful dog.
While none of my real life experiences with dogs ever duplicated any of the dramatic adventures of Lassie or Old Yeller, I have in both youth and adulthood come to form special bonds with the dogs in my life. The most faithful companion of my childhood was an ugly boxer named King, who accompanied me every morning as I walked to elementary school. My first grade teacher liked dogs, and she allowed King to sleep outside our classroom and join us on the playgrou nd at recess. King loved children, and although his thick neck, pug nose, and fleshy jowls made him look tough, to my friends and me, King was a gentle soul never happier than when in our company.
My own children know and love my King stories, the most dramatic of which revolves around the time King was kidnapped when he followed some children I didn’t know home from school. Their family decided to keep him and after he was missing for several week s, a friend of ours spotted him tied up in this family’s yard. My parents and a sheriff’s deputy retrieved him and there was a great rejoicing in our family when King returned home.
There, he grew old until arthritis so crippled him he couldn’t stand. My brother, a college student at the time, had the awful job of taking him to the vet to be put to sleep.
I am reminded of that time now because my husband and I are faced with a similar task, our children faced with a similar loss. Our 10-year-old golden retriever, Rosie, whom we’ve owned since she was a puppy, has recently been diagnosed with bone cancer. < p> In the last few days her health has declined dramatically, and, even though we’ve medicated her, Rosie is in such pain she cannot climb the three steps leading into our house. We know that it’s time to put her to sleep and we have already started to griev e.But our grief will be tempered by the knowledge that Rosie has been well-loved by a houseful of children – a heavenly existence for the sweet-natured dog she is. While we never cured her of the annoying practice of jumping on us to greet us, we will rem ember her as a dog whose love was so enthusiastic she couldn’t help but leap for joy at the sight of us.
Our first inkling she was sick came when she no longer jumped up and bounded over at the sound of someone entering the yard. Now, weakly, she raises her head in greeting. And there is a pained look in her eyes.
It’s hard to tell the children we are putting her to sleep to ease that pain. Already, our 14-year-old has questioned the ethics of such a decision. We’ve often discussed our family’s pro-life opinions on euthanasia and Katie challenges us to explain why it’s justified in Rosie’s case.
Of course, there’s the obvious: a dog’s life isn’t as valuable as a human’s. But that’s a difficult defense when Katie argues Rosie has surely been a part of the family. So our answers must be gentler, more sensitive to the strong feelings our children ha ve for their beloved pet.
I’ve always believed that owning and caring for a dog teaches children a great deal about life. In her 10 years with us, Rosie’s sole purpose in the world seemed to be no less profound than providing us a daily opportunity to accept her love and devotion. Now, in the last days of her life, we are learning that such love and devotion are not easily laid to rest.