By Antoinette C. Wetzel
Illustrations by Stan Fellows
The day that I had dreaded since a plump, yellow puppy was dumped into my lap came on September 21, 2005. My dog, due to illness more than age, had reached a point where her quality of life was lagging, and pain and fear predominated. I called the vet and through broken sobs made the last appointment I would ever make for her.
It was an overcast fall day and the leaves had started to turn. Hunting season was in the air, but this dog, despite all the heart and desire in the world, could no longer make the journey into the field. Each day, as I pulled her successor out to hunt, she cried and barked and begged to be taken along, only to be left behind, her thirst for the hunt unquenched. That is not how a Labrador retriever should live. The very reason for her being was denied each time I left her behind. She was left alone with her memories of past hunts. She was left alone to battle the unrelenting drive to hunt again.
So I was forced to make one of the most difficult and gut-wrenching decisions of my life. I made the decision that it was time to end her pain. It was time to put her down.
I made the appointment for later that afternoon. I relayed my decision to my family and my best friend. My brother also had hunting dogs, and he had been in my position before. He was nice enough to offer to help me dig her grave. We have always buried our hunting dogs in one particular spot. From there, they can keep a watchful eye on the marsh where we hunt and see the ducks as they fly over. It is a good spot for dog and hunter alike. I thought about my brother's offer. "It would be quite a chore," he said. I thought about it for a moment longer and then declined with a heartfelt "thank you." As I hung up the phone, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I wondered about my inexplicable need to do this one thing by myself.
I gathered my shovel and a pair of gloves and set out at mid-morning for the task at hand. The assignment was tough, but with each shovelful I began to understand why I had declined the help. This was a chore for one person and one person only. It was a task that a dog owner should perform alone at least once in his or her life. A good dog deserves to have a grave dug by the one who loved her most, so that the place of her eternal rest contains not just broken ground, but tears of love. I hoped that the tears that rolled from my cheeks would seep down and give her comfort. I hoped those tears would send her on her next journey with a glistening coat symbolizing my love for her and my anguish in her departure.
I dug until my lungs burned and my back ached. I dug and cried, and I cried and dug some more. I tore at the ground until I stood rib-deep in it. Then, with tender care, I squared up the hole. I smelled the damp earth and hoped that my dog's leap to the heavens would be swift. I was exhausted with not just effort but heartache. My pain seemed so deep, as deep as the grave in which I stood. When I was finished, I hauled myself out, pitched the shovel aside, and took one last look at the empty cavern that would soon hold my faithful companion and protector. I turned my back and walked away. I went to fetch my dog.
As I drove, my mind traced back over the years that I had spent with her. The adventures were many and most often included just the two of us. She wasn't a field-trial champion and I wasn't a sharpshooter. There were no triples falling at the report of my shotgun, nor were there any heroic retrieves on her part. Nevertheless, she was my dog. I was her owner. And she was a champion to me. She hunted hard on crippled birds that I should have killed on the first shot. She patiently endured my countless misses without denigration or disappointment. She stuck by me, and only me, even though she deserved a much better marksman. Her loyalty was unsurpassed.
Together, we were just two ragtag swamp rats who loved to hunt. Season after season, we sat together and watched the sun rise and set on our days and our dreams. Over the years, we sat in rickety blinds, stood in frigid water, broke ice, slept in fields, and trembled in frosty boats. We sliced hands and paws on cane and cut weed. Countless times, we huddled together for warmth and quietly endured uncontrollable shivers. We hunted hard and long. We hunted regardless of heat or cold, rain or snow. Through it all, we were a team. And on this last mission, I was hell-bent on sticking by her side until the bitter end.
On creaky legs, my dog followed me to the truck. I picked her up and gently set her on the seat beside me. My best friend came with us to the vet's office. My friend cried just as I did when my dog took her final breath. Together we stroked her yellow coat, which felt as soft as it had on the day I first held her in my arms. We gently kissed her muzzle, and then we began our trek to the gravesite dug in agony just hours earlier. We placed my beloved dog in the grave after I lined it with soft hay. A final kiss good-bye and we covered her with the old flannel sheet on which she used to lounge and chew her bone. She was sent off with her bone, tennis ball, treat, and a shotgun shell, should her next gunner be low on ammunition. More tears dropped onto my dog and the sheet that covered her. The ground that held the tears of my desperate dig was showered again with not just my tears, but those of my friend as well.
Together we laid my dog to rest and covered her with the tear-sodden soil. We patted it in place and pressed a stick into the ground to mark her spot. My dog was buried with much effort and with much care and love. My friend said, "It was a perfect grave." Such a statement may seem strange to those who have never exerted any effort to create a final resting place for an animal. But that statement gave me comfort, knowing that I had done right by this dog, in both her life and her death. I did right by this dog not only when it was easy but also when it was hard. I have many regrets in my life. But I have no regrets that I buried my own dog. It was just the right thing to do at one of the hardest times in my life.
Antoinette C. Wetzel lives in Little Falls, Minnesota, where she enjoys the outdoors and currently hunts with her yellow Lab, Chopper.