Several months ago, my wife, Shelley, and I lost our best friend and soul mate. Her name was Sammy. She was our pet dog of a dozen years. She had cancer and we had to end her suffering. I’m still grieving the loss.
I’ve had pet dogs all my life and I’ve had to decide when to end the lives of five of them. It never gets easier. I’m never sure if I’ve made the right decision. Did I end their lives too soon, when they still had many “good days” ahead of them; or did I wait too long, because I wasn’t ready to “goodbye,” and my pets suffered needlessly?
It was more than a dozen years ago that Sammy came into our lives. She was a beautiful brindle-hued Heinz 57 mix that we adopted from the local SPCA. Before that, Sammy had been a stray that animal control officers caught while she was eating from a deer carcass in the grass median of Route 328 in Pine City.
I became her adopted dad and she became my best friend, always eagerly and excitedly waiting to greet me at the door every time I returned home as if I had been away at war for years. She would meet me with a smile on her face and her tail wagging so rapidly it wiggled her rear end. Her tail wagged through her heart.
Dogs instinctively know how to be kind and share unconditional love. It takes people years to do the same. That’s probably why dogs don’t live as long as we do. They are born with life’s lessons deep in their hearts. She shared those lessons with me. I learned so much from her.
She was my constant companion and a respite of happiness and stress relief at the end of a difficult day. She loved to be loved and petted. She would lie next to me on the couch with her head on my lap, as I read or watched TV. If I stopped petting, she would gently nudge me with her paw or nose to get me back into petting gear.
She was friendly to everyone she met. She taught me not to judge people and to not be too hard on myself when I made mistakes.
She loved car rides, with her head out the window, ears flapping in the wind, and her nose savoring the countless fragrances that blew by her.
Sammy didn’t chase sticks, play catch or do tricks. Instead, she fetched fun and love in everything she did. She showed me how to enjoy life’s little moments of glee and wonder. To love and be loved by a dog is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
We spent hours hiking in the woods, cross-country skiing on nature trails or sitting in the grass next to the river on a sunny day. Often, while hiking, she would run ahead of me, and I would duck behind a tree and hide. When she would look back and see that I was gone, she would stop and perk up her ears, before darting back to find me. I would jump out from behind the tree to startle her and send her tail and butt into hyper-wag, as I laughed hysterically. She would tilt her head quizzically and look at me as if to say, “You’re so immature. What am I going to do with you?” Then she was off and running ahead again searching for more fun and adventure.
Now, when I hike those trails, I envision her up ahead, glancing back to be sure I was still in pursuit. At times like those, her loss feels unbearable.
She was the most lovable dog I’ve known. If I sat down and leaned forward, she would come up to me and rest her head against my forehead, and just sit there quietly, head-to-head, as I rubbed her belly.
At night, she lie next to my wife and me in bed, slowly taking over more and more of the mattress as the evening progressed, until I would awaken precariously balanced on the edge, about to fall to the floor, while she comfortably hogged the rest of the bed, snoring, with legs outstretched and head tucked into her chest.
Dogs, like all animals, are good a hiding their pain and infirmities, an evolutionary defense that keeps them from being preyed upon by predators looking for the weakest in the pack.
After he cancer diagnosis I paid close attention to her behaviors, physical condition and her eating and sleeping habits, looking for signs that would tell me “It’s time, Jim. It’s time.”
As her health grew worse and I struggled with making the heartbreaking final decision, I took her to one of our favorite outdoor spots, beneath a quiet stand of shady white pine trees in Big Flats. She laid next to me on a soft bed of pine needles as I petted her, prayed and asked the universe to give me a sure sign that it was time to bid her farewell. Tears filled my eyes, as they do as I write this column. She crawled closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder to tell me that it will be okay and that she would let me know when it was time to say farewell. I hugged her and wept like a baby.
Sammy taught me that it was okay to cry.
They say that losing a pet is one of the saddest and most difficult traumas we deal with in life. It’s true. Her death was a double whammy because she was my rock of strength and she always made it easier for me to deal with loss and sadness.
Her death carved out a hard emptiness inside me that I’m still struggling to fill.
Sammy was true to her word about telling me when it was time to say goodbye. One day, in a matter of hours, she started showing signs of a “vestibular disorder,” of balance. To her, the room was in a never-ending nauseous spin. She couldn’t stand up or walk without stumbling and falling over.
I knew it was time. I called the veterinarian, who came to our home to help us end Sammy’s suffering. The farewell was painless for Sammy. She died softly and comfortably in our arms, amid our hugs and tears.
I try to ease my sadness by telling myself that my deep grief shows that Sammy was loved and had a great life.
Sammy, old girl, this one is for you in honor of your life, our wonderful times together and all the love and happiness you shared with us. You made my life more enjoyable, joyful and meaningful.
Best of all you taught me to be a better man.
And that is one damn good tail-waggin’-and-butt shakin’ Father’s Day gift.
Jim Pfiffer’s humor column posts every Sunday on the Jim Pfiffer Facebook page, Hidden Landmarks TV Facebook page, West Elmira Neighborhood, SouthernTierLife.com and ElmiraTelegram.com. Jim lives in Elmira with his wife, Shelley, and many pets. He is a retired humor columnist with the Elmira Star-Gazette newspaper and a regular swell guy. Contact him at email@example.com.