Fifteen years is a long life for a dog.
That’s what I kept telling myself as I said goodbye Monday morning to my first dog. His name was Fletch, a yellow lab that has been a major part of my life since the summer of 1998.
This dog was a big deal to me. He was special because he was the first living being that I was ever responsible for in my life besides myself. He was my dog, and at 23 years old he taught me a lot about responsibility. I like to think of him as my first kid.
Over the last 15 years, a lot has occurred in my life. I went from a single bachelor with misplaced priorities and a know-it-all attitude to now a grateful husband and father humbled by life and its curve balls. We have lived in four different houses together and along the way the family he and I became expanded to six. It’s been a wild ride, and Fletch has been a constant.
The passing of any pet is difficult. I remember when our family pets passed away when I was younger. I recall talking to my mom when I was in college when our family dog died. It was sad for me, but it was a true loss for my parents as they were the ones who truly connected on a deeper level with the dog. I felt what they surely felt then on Monday when I made the decision Fletch’s time had come.
For the last two years, Pam and I wrestled with the decision, and I wanted no part of it. I wanted him to go on his terms, but in the end he left it up to us. Once I finally acknowledged that he was suffering, I knew what had to be done, and it has touched off an emotional week of constant reflecting.
His fight and will were strong and he hung on, even beyond the point of being able to walk. There was no singular moment when I realized enough was enough. It was a gradual buildup and I told Pam over the weekend I was at peace with it. She didn’t believe me and neither did I.
There is nothing easy about putting a pet down. Since it was the first time for me, it was particularly difficult, and I was an emotional mess as I thought about the first day I took him into the Berlin Animal Hospital 15 years ago as a flea-infested 6-week-old puppy. I carried him in that day for his first appointment just as I did on Monday for his last appointment. As I sat in the waiting room, Fletch, in my mind, gave his endorsement to the decision. For the last time, he had an accident on me. I didn’t care and he didn’t even know he had done it. It was time.
Life changed a lot for Fletch over the last 15 years. He came to work with me every day for most of his life. That changed over time when his health diminished and work and family demands blurred my routine.
Fletch once slept with me every night. That changed when the bed became a little too crowded for him. I told him it was because he had gotten too big, but he knew better. His place atop the pecking order was no more.
When his little dog brother, Bailey, came into the picture nine years ago, he didn’t eat for a week. He was sick over this new addition. Eventually, they became best buddies, though, and didn’t spend a night apart from each other since that day nine years ago when I came home with Bailey. Of course, that was until Monday when Fletch did not return home from the vet.
When the kids were born, the dogs invariably dropped down the pecking order of the house. As much as I might like to think the dogs got the same amount of my attention as they did pre-kids, the fact is they didn’t. The walks were much shorter. The play time was a lot less, and the trips to the beach went from every weekend to monthly jaunts to practically non-existent. Life’s changes complicated things and provided numerous distractions.
Fletch will live on in my heart forever as well as my family’s. Fortunately, I have a painting that my wife gave to me as a Christmas present two years ago to remind me of him. She knew this day would come eventually and I’m glad she looked ahead and knew I would want that keepsake.
In the days leading up to Monday, my concern shifted to the kids and how they would handle it. We told them that Fletch would be going to heaven and not be around the house anymore. When I went to daycare and told them on Monday, the finality of it seemed to hit Beckett.
“What do you mean? I’m not going to see him at all anymore?,” he asked, while Carson, in his non-verbal way showed confusion, hunching his shoulders with the palms of his hands facing up.
That was a tough moment that was dulled somewhat when I was told later that Beckett told Mary, our daycare provider, “I really love Fletch, but it’s okay because he’s in heaven now with God and Jesus.”
Today, there is now nothing but memories, which being the sap I am left me a wreck at times this week.
For example, when I came upon a tennis ball this week in my truck, I couldn’t help but reflect on the multiple beach trips each week when Fletch was younger and sprightlier. These trips had to include at least one can of three tennis balls.
One tennis ball was never enough for him because he would chew them in half out of excitement or dig one in a hole so deep on the beach I could never find it. There I would be digging and trying to find it and he would be barking in my ear and pawing my back, reminding me he was waiting not at all patiently.
To me, he was indeed a special dog for so many reasons, but it all starts and ends with the fact he was my first, and there will never be another first.