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Saying goodbye is never easy

The tears left my eyes and hit dirt as soon as the shovel did.

I’m not prone to crying (this may have been the first time in a decade), but digging a grave for the family dog was more than I could handle.

We found Lucy, our 13-year-old chocolate Lab, lying in the driveway late one night recently. She was in bad shape, even for a decrepit dog with heart and lung problems. She couldn’t move, much less walk.

So I picked up all 75 pounds of her dying body and carried her into the kitchen. Her breathing was heavy and abrupt. Her eyes were open but vacant. We knew it was time. We had been expecting it.

We gathered the children, the same five children Lucy welcomed home after they were born, to say our goodbyes. Some of them understood what was happening, some didn’t.

We sat with her on the floor and tried to comfort her. We remembered the good times and bad. The weekends hiking and swimming. The time she was held for ransom in Texas. The way she would lie still while children climbed on her back or stuck fingers in her eyes or pulled her ears.

We remembered her as a puppy in Starkville, too small to climb the steps to our apartment. We looked back at just about every significant event in our lives for the past 13 years and saw Lucy there.

No matter how many moves we made or houses we lived in, if Lucy was lying on the floor, the place felt like home. She was so many things to us — friend, protector, comforter — but more than anything, she was part of home. She was family in a way that I didn’t know a dog could be.  She was our baby long before we brought one home from the hospital.

She was my wife’s first dog. I grew up with dogs and knew the pain that comes with their deaths. My wife did not.

As our house filled with more and more children through the years, we spent less time with Lucy. We still took her swimming and would toss a stick for her to fetch, but she slowly drifted into the background of our lives. We loved her the same, but just didn’t have as much time for her.

As she grew older, our interactions were fewer. And she seemed to be OK with that. She didn’t crave attention like she did as a younger dog. She simply wanted a pat on the head and a place to rest near the door.

As I watched her die on the kitchen floor, I didn’t long for the days when she would run until her legs gave out. I didn’t long to watch her chase a squirrel or jump from the dock into the lake. I just wanted her to be there, like she always had been. My children did, too. They had never known life without her.

We went to sleep that night listening to her loud, uneasy breaths coming from the kitchen. I woke at about 1 a.m. and couldn’t hear her. I feared the inevitable. But to my surprise, she was still breathing, much more slowly though. Her eyes were closed and her body more relaxed. I put my hand on her head, whispered a goodbye and walked away knowing it would be the last time I would see her alive.

When I came back downstairs early that morning, she was still. I covered her with a towel and grabbed the shovel. After a couple hours, her new resting place under the big pine tree near the pond was ready.

We told the children as they awoke that morning. The baby let out a loud “Ohhh” when she saw Lucy’s tail sticking out from the towel. She was excited that the big dog was in the house. She had no idea Lucy would never be in the house again.

We removed her worn collar and gently lowered her into the ground. I tossed the first shovel full of dirt on her body and cried tears I hadn’t cried in a long time. There were tears of grief, but also tears of emptiness, because something that belonged in our family was now gone.

Our 3-year-old, staring down into the deep hole, asked if Lucy would get back up when she felt better. Our 4-year-old, with wisdom beyond his years, told her that Lucy couldn’t get better and would never get back up.

“You can’t worry about things dying, because everything’s going to die,” he said.

That might be what made Lucy’s death so painful. It was a reminder that everything’s going to die, even those things we love and cherish most.

We stood around the freshly piled dirt and tried to imagine life without her. I engraved her name into a chunk of granite and placed it near the dirt so we would never forget where Lucy was. But we all knew we could never forget something that’s always been there and would always remain, even if just in our hearts.

Luke Horton is publisher of The Daily Leader. Email him at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.