For Christmas in 2001, my newly betrothed wife and I got each other a boxer puppy. Mixed with the joy and excitment of bringing our 9-week old Boxer puppy home to Chicago was the thought that this puppy would break my heart one day. Unfortunately, that day is tomorrow.
It begs the question - is it worth it? I remember a friend of my parents' buying a parrot in his 50s after putting his dog to sleep, unable to bear parting with a pet again in his lifetime. But, even as I look at my beautiful dog and his broken body, dreading tomorrow, the answer for me is still a resounding "yes."
They say dogs take on their owners' personality. Leon certainly did. He stubbornly refused to be walked on his leash in the cold Chicago January. He planted both legs on the pavement and put his head down with an obstinant look on his face. Eventually, he accepted the leash, but with the dignified air of a dog doing it on his terms. I watched with twisted pride as he embarrassed a cocky dog trainer in a class of 20 dogs, refusing to budge to any command. He was proclaimed "the most stubborn puppy I've encountered in 13 years of doing this." Under our (or so he let us think) tutelage, he became an extremely well-trained dog that could be taken anywhere off leash. But he did so on his terms, with dignity.
He became the "mayor" of Chicago dog parks, greeting every dog that arrived, being drawn to those that ignored him. Friends of ours fought over who got to babysit him when we left town for the weekend.
Leon taught us patience in 2004. Weeks before leaving for my post-doc in Ireland, we found that our vet had screwed up the paperwork that would allow us to take him to Ireland with us. That meant my wife's parents would keep him for four months and bring him over once everything was done properly. We had the Leon countdown, and embarrassed the hell out of our friends (and ourselves) as we jubilantly greeted him at the Cork airport.
Leon and I formed an even closer bond as we ventured into the trailless mountains of Ireland together. I was a novice hiker, and felt better having him with me - even if he would have been as worthless as tits on a bull if something went wrong. He followed me during horrible days of wind and rain in 35 degree weather. On the rare days he saw me leave with my backpack and I didn't take him, my wife reported upon my return that he lay in front of the door whining.
Then, we returned to the States, living in North Carolina. We almost lost him to pancreatitis while Tiffany was pregnant with our son. Probably just to test us. Then, six years ago when his "little brother" arrived, he was the most gentle, tolerant dog in the world. I had to use the jaws of life to pry a ball from his jaws, but he would let our toddler son simply pluck a ball from his mouth. He just knew.
With the mountains now hours away, he became my running partner as I tried to stay in shape. Until one day three years ago he refused to get out of the car. I had to drive him home. Two days later, instead of running to the door after asking him if he "wanted to go for a run," he bolted upstairs and hid. He would still go hiking with me, but he had started to slow noticeably.
And now we're here. He's completely lost function of one rear leg, has partial function of the other and has lost control of his bowels. He doesn't greet us enthusiastically, follow us around everywhere (unthinkable) or do much except lay on the couch. The spark in his eyes is gone, and he struggles to maintain dignity. He resists being carried up the stairs, wanting to do it himself even if he falls three or four times. It is time.
Tomorrow will be extremely difficult. Leon is an avatar of our marriage and has been part of almost every experience we've had. It's really hard to imagine life without him. Leon is the best dog ever. All dog owners think they have the best dog(s) ever. And they're probably right.
I'm not sure I believe in heaven. But if it does exist, I hope Leon is there, greeting me at the gate with a wag of the tail and a sparkle in his eye. If not, I don't want to go.