“I didn’t think it would be this hard,” my wife sobbed, head buried in my shoulder, ”…just wish she would go to sleep.”
With that, we gave Abby – our 13-year-old Sheltie – our last measure of love…agreeing to put her to sleep.
None of us ever think, I suspect, that it could be so hard to deliberately end the life of a beloved animal.  But this is a scenario played out thousands of times every day in the world.  And still, we adopt them, bringing them into the deepest, most personal moments of our lives.  Why…?

​Science informs us that approximately fifty-thousand years ago, wolves and wild dogs made an evolutionary leap…preferring to risk death, rather than attack humans… coming into caves and other abodes, nestling up to humans by the fire, hoping for scraps of food…willing to trade their independence and feral nature for something more abiding.
The “how” is found in archeological sites, depicting dogs and cats with humans in a tenuous dance of interdependence; the “why” remains a mystery…if only to those who’ve never experienced the profound pleasure and pain of caring, on a deeper level, for another animal.
Abby’s introduction to our world was, indeed, more visceral than most:  she was the product of breeding our daughter’s Sheltie, “Kasey,” with a sire from my wife’s Aunt’s kennel.  (Yeah…try to keep up.)  About four months later, four Sheltie pups were born on a cold March night, inside our kitchen.  My wife whelped each of them, we made a nice makeshift kennel from a cardboard box and towels, and began the task of raising them, knowing nearly nothing about how to do so!  But I was newly out of work, sidelined with what would later become known as a degenerative bone disease. 
So…I went with it, you might say!  Fashioning a puppy gondola out of one of my wife’s re-purposed good baskets (much to her chagrin), I took the four pups around the yard every morning as they peered over the sides with wonder.  Midday, I played with them on the patio, teaching them the delight of receiving treats for the simple act of potty-training outdoors.  I was a big pushover…with one little problem:  one of them was a “howler” – apparently, a legacy remnant of genetic coding that compelled one of them to choose carefully-selected moments to unleash a bellicose howl like a wolf!  Try as we may, neither my wife nor I could catch the offender in the act!
After a few weeks, the pups were big enough to wander and chase one another in circles, always heading back to me as their home-base.  When the time came to place them in good homes with families who loved dogs, we sold two:  one, to a loving middle-aged couple; the other, to a young family with children who’d (successfully) convinced their parents that they would take good care of a puppy.  They even convinced me! (…well, that was a low bar).  Still, the howling persisted!!  Left with one male and one female, the odds of finding the mad howler seemed significantly improved! 
At ten weeks came a moment of choice:  in exchange for breeding, we had agreed to allow my wife’s Aunt to choose her “pick of the litter” for showing…either the lone male, or the remaining female.  (We still hadn’t determined the mad howler!)  She chose the male…which we thought – happily, at the time – would rid us of late-night and early-morning canine calls of the wild.  That happy delusion was soon shattered.
Now, with only one puppy remaining, our task was clear:  give her a name.  Our daughter – at that time seventeen, and given to the “eclectic” – initially decided her name should be “Optimus Prime,” an apparent vestige of the “Transformer” era.  However, when we introduced her as such, peoples’ reactions were of consistent…confusion.  Alas, our daughter needed a better moniker; didn’t take long before she settled on “Stevie” – apparently a nod to the Fleetwood Mac lead singer, to whom our daughter had taken a liking.  However, dogs’ names are apparently as fleeting and changeable as the musings of young, teen-aged girls…our daughter decided that “Stevie” was entirely too common for such a beautiful puppy!  Thus, the new name (flavor of the week): “Abacus”…and no, I STILL have no clue why!  But there it was: “Abacus.”
As teenagers are inclined to do, ours left home for college in Autumn 2008.  She left behind her beloved Kasey…and a dog whose aliases were beginning to rival those of Cher…or Prince.  It became increasingly complicated – and painful – to introduce this young doggy as “the dog, Abacus, formerly known as Stevie”…much like “the artist, formerly known as ‘Prince.’”  More than once, the introductions were met with looks alternating between pity and disgust.  Thus, one last name change: “Abacus” became “Abby.”  Ahhh…
Still, Abby was a rambling rascal, given to strolling the neighborhood, seeking out young children for attention and imploring others, with her eyes, to take pity on her…owing to the plight of one encumbered with owners who didn’t appreciate howling and other canine eccentricities to which she was given.  Abby was, in short, a real con artist.  Then, one night, her neighborhood stroll turned into an existential flight.
Before we could find her, she was gone…and we wandered the entire neighborhood, frantically searching among the hedgerows, fences and back alleys of our neighbors.  As night does, she was rendered invisible to us.  All night long, we searched, setting up “Lost Dog” notices online at vet sites and others.  We made posters with her image, and slapped them on every post, pole and tree trunk we could find.  Night dissolved into day, with foreboding despair…until a call, from a nearby neighbor, who’d spotted her being chased by boys…and a woman who’d tried to coax her into the car on Eldorado Boulevard – a very busy street in McKinney – the previous evening.  Seeing Abby playing with her children, she recognized her from one of the veterinarian websites, and we brought her home.  Abby’s great adventure had brought us to our senses that being more vigilant was a necessary thing.
Though she never again attempted great adventures without us, Abby brought raw joy to our lives by attracting the attention of young children, and showering them with her love.  She had a special bond with children.  Over the years, as we took in one dog after another, Abby remained the “Alpha”…sort of a “don’t mess with me, and I’ll show you the ropes with my humans” kind of attitude.  As I’ve endured one surgery upon another over the last thirteen years, Abby has been the empathizer, the one to lick my wounds, to stand vigil over me in bed.  All she asked in return was…nothing.  Nothing at all.  She simply lived to serve…and in serving us, she bound her spirit to ours, inextricably.
Over the last few years, as my wife – now a tutor and retired teacher – works with students suffering various anxieties in her home office, Abby has become a presence as steadfast and soothing as a lullaby.  As they sit down in her office, Abby nudges them – not to play, but to simply rest on their laps, calming them, encouraging them to pet her, and showing her compassion for them by nuzzling in and giving them affection.  The calming effect she invoked was profound and undeniable.
Over the last few months, her eyes belied the pain with which she lived to serve.  She loved peeled oranges, chicken and tummy rubs…but she REALLY loved her ears rubbed.  It was, for her, the one “big thing” for which she always thanked us with kisses.  It wouldn’t have mattered had we never done those things for her; that we did, she simply regarded as sheer delight, and accepted whatever love we gave…such is the life of an unconditional friend. 
As Abby’s doctor explained – in some graphic detail – what the terrible final syringe might cause Abby to do, my wife left the room in tears.  At first, I thought I should at least stay behind, see Abby through this last step in dispatching her to what we all hope is “a better place.”  Then, realizing my wife’s pain, I told doc I needed to leave with her.  He said, “Hey!  Well done…you guys gave her a great life!”  I just shook my head and left.  It was, at best, cold comfort.  In truth, Abby gave us much more than we ever gave her…
…which now compels me to wonder, as this day draws to a close:  Will we humans ever be able to provide for one another what, until now, only our beloved animals can provide?  Perhaps the answer isn’t as important as the question.  Perhaps, for us humans – who mark our lives, in part, based on the eras in which a pet or other animal graced our lives by dwelling with us, teaching us unconditional love – the entire point is to bring us a little closer to God, who gives us to them for the briefest of time.

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