Too Soon Over
When Merle the dog of my heart was dying, he rallied one morning, going outside on his own to take a pee. The sun had just risen; robins sang; geese called from the river. The snowy Tetons stood pink in the clear May sky.
Merle squatted and relieved himself. Then, walking to the spruce trees on the edge of our land, he had a bowel movement, holding himself in a perfect crouch. Just as had been the case when I tended my dying father, and any small sign of renewed vigor in him had given me hope of a recovery, these indications of normalcy in Merle buoyed my spirits. As the rising sun gilded his fur, I could for a moment deny the inevitable: that he would soon pass from this life and our remarkable partnership would end. His dying simply wasn’t possible. After all, only thirteen years had gone by since we had met on the San Juan River, I a forty-one-year-old writer looking for an adventurous whitewater run, Merle a ten-month-old, half-wild pup living a very real adventure on his own in the Utah desert.
Golden in color, shading to fox red, Merle was of indeterminate ancestry and had strong Lab features — the tall rangy Lab, the field Lab — with perhaps a bit of hound and Golden Retriever thrown in. I liked his looks, and I very much liked his manners: no frenzied barking, whining, or licking. I gathered that he liked me as well, especially how I smelled, for he’d stick his nose against my skin, breathe in deeply, and sigh.
We went down the river together, and at the end of the trip he leapt into the truck and came home with me to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Over the next thirteen years, we hiked, horsepacked, and camped throughout the Rockies, running rivers in the spring, hunting elk in the fall, and skiing the Tetons from October until June. We were partners in the outdoors as well as in our small village of Kelly, where Merle had his own dog door so he could come and go as he wished. Each day, as I went to my home office to write, he, too, would set off to work, visiting his friends in the village, both canine and human, exploring the surrounding countryside, and making sure that everyone and everything in his domain was in order. He was called “the Mayor” and was as collected, calm, and independent a soul as one could wish for, yet he always came home, bonded to me, as I was to him.
Now, almost fourteen years old, Merle finished relieving himself and trotted across the grass, his tail swishing happily. Jumping onto the deck with a surprising bound despite his arthritis, he gave a joyful pant: “Ha-ha-ha!”
I couldn’t mistake his meaning: “Can you believe it, Ted? I’m feeling really good this morning!”
“You do look good, Sir!” I replied. “Like your old self. What do you say? Do you want to come with me and do the recycling?”
“Hah!” he exclaimed. “You bet!”
As we drove south along the Gros Ventre River in our big blue truck, he sat erect on the front seat, puffed up as he always was when he wore his dog seat belt. He looked out the window at the snowcapped Tetons with a grin of idiotic pleasure.
“They sure are pretty, aren’t they?” I said.
He panted twice, deeply — “HAH! HAH!” — which I translated as: “Yes! Yes! It is so good to be alive and looking at them!”
“Yes, it is good to be alive!” I replied, putting my hand on his ruff and thinking, “Here we are, still together.”
I was so grateful, for only two weeks before, most of our friends and all of Merle’s vets except one had suggested putting him down after twenty-four hours of seizures. The one exception had been a canine neurologist who had counseled patience and prescribed two medications that had ended the seizures and allowed Merle to begin his recovery.
The neurologist had given us a stay, and we were making the most of it, unwrapping each day as if it were a gift. We dumped the trash bags at the landfill; we sorted the bottles and papers at the recycling center; and on our way back through Jackson I stopped at Valley Feed and Pet, which was having its annual spring sale, rows of booths set up under a pavilion-like tent that had been erected in the parking lot. I could see friends milling about and eating barbecue as their dogs sat alertly at their feet, noses pointed upward, their eyes saying, “Excuse me, I could use a bite of that.”
“You want to meet and greet,” I asked Merle as I parked the truck, “or stay and have a nap?”
He lay down on the seat and gave a soft pant: “I think I’ll stay right here.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few.”
I closed the door, gave him another pat through the open window, and walked toward the booths. Just then, a young, athletic-looking couple came out of their car and intersected my path. They were in their midtwenties, both of them dressed in baggy chinos, running shoes, and fleece jackets. The man held a small puppy, a chocolate Lab, with a broad, wrinkled face and bright yellow eyes that looked keenly at everything going on around him.
“Seven weeks old?” I asked as I stopped before the couple and reached out to pet the puppy.
“A little bit more,” said the woman. “We just got him.”
I leaned close to the puppy so I could touch noses with him. His breath smelled like milk and vanilla and young teeth. I made a smooching noise with my lips; he squirmed in delight. The man put him in my arms, and the puppy wriggled against my chest and licked my neck madly.
“Oh, you are a beauty,” I told him, kissing his head. He squirmed again in happiness.
I had the sudden feeling of being watched and turned toward the truck. Merle was sitting up, looking out the window at me, his deep red fur not nearly as red as when we had met, his face as white as snow.
“Hah!” he panted. “I see you petting that puppy! Just remember who the main dog is.”
I blew a loud kiss to Merle and held the puppy for one more moment — young and warm and delicious in my arms — before handing him back to the man, who snuggled him against his chest.
The couple walked toward the booths, and as I watched them go I thought: “In fourteen years, perhaps sooner, certainly not much longer, he’ll break your heart. Your entire life from now until then will be colored by him: his woofs, his wags, his smells, how he swam, his yips while he dreamed, how he rode your first child on his back, and how he began to slow down just as you were hitting your stride.”
I looked back to Merle, grinning at me from the truck. Like everyone’s dog, he had been all that and more, and I thought: “Why do they die so young?”
I’m not alone in asking this question. In the months following the publication of a book I wrote describing Merle’s life and what he had taught me about living with dogs, I received hundreds of e-mails from readers who had lost beloved dogs and closed their letters with a variation on this theme: “Why must our dogs die so young?”
Naturally, when most of us say this, we’re not expecting an...