"Uh oh," I exclaimed as I looked down into the last 4' x 4' pen. I expected it to be full of puppies like each of the other six pens. The date was May 4th 1986, and my friend Fran and I had just come from the largest dog show on the East Coast. It was early afternoon, and we were in search of ice cream when we passed a big sign that said "Puppy Barn." "Let's take a look," I said innocently, not knowing that it was an impulse decision that would forever change my life. But that's the way life is. Each decision we make forever changes our lives. It's just that some decisions change our lives more than others do. For example, the decision to have children. In retrospect, this was one of those decisions.
What I saw when I looked into that last puppy pen was one small, black and brown puppy. He was about 3 pounds, and he looked very happy for a small dog so young and all alone. But he was not so happy that he didn't perk up when he saw me. I'm not sure I perked up. It was more of an instant realization that my life was about to ricochet in a new direction - like the first time I saw my ex wife.
The sign on the pen said "Airedale Mix," and I quickly discovered that all I needed in order to change my life was a credit card and some not so subtle encouragement from Fran. By mid afternoon the three of us were back at my apartment - Fran, Ben and I. Ben was the name we selected because he looked like Benji, and because I had read that the best names for dogs are one-syllable names. Then Fran went home, and it was just Ben and me.
Impulse decisions are called that because there is no preplanning involved. Questions began to enter my mind that rational people answer prior to purchasing a dog. I wondered if I was allowed to have a dog in my apartment complex.
On the way home we had stopped and purchased the necessities for dog ownership - dog food, a food bowl, a water dish, a brush, some chew toys, and a collar, so I wasn't totally unprepared. I had raised other dogs in my life, so it wasn't a totally unfamiliar experience. But those other dog acquisitions were thoroughly planned ahead of time, and there were other family members involved. The suddenness of this situation was like giving birth to a child when you hadn't known you were pregnant. I still had to go to work in the morning, but now doing so took on a whole new significance.
Ben went to work with me. I had a carpeted office, an understanding boss, and lots of coworkers who loved puppies. In fact, Ben went to work with me every workday for the next 10 years - until arthritis kept him from climbing the three flights of stairs to my office. We were inseparable. He traveled with me, spending many summers in Colorado and the rest of the year in Pennsylvania. He loved riding in the back of my pickup truck, and he ran with me when I rode my horse. He loved to play ball, chase sticks, swim, wrestle, and just be with me day and night. He loved all people and all animals, including cats.
At 12 years he developed a thyroid problem and his arthritis got so bad that he had trouble walking. He had a hip operation, and recovery from that was barely underway when he was diagnosed with cancer and had a tumor removed. But the cancer remained. He would struggle to stand and almost make it, only to collapse and look sadly at me as I encouraged him to try again. His eyes watered as if he were crying - and perhaps he was. It was a slow decline for him his last 18 months, and the inevitable was growing closer day-by-day.
He was slowly dying, and my heart died along with him because I could do nothing. He might have appreciated my attempts at comfort and assistance, but they did nothing for me, and only served to emphasize my inadequacies. I once was his source of fun, strength, adventure, guidance and love. I was his parent, his friend, and his companion. He was totally dependent on me for all his needs and joys. Now he looked at me as if to say that I had let him down when he needed me most. And I felt as if I had.
He had helped me through the deaths of both of my parents as well as the trauma of several failed relationships. He had been my best friend and my constant daily companion for all of his life, and now has left me as the others did. But this time I had a much tougher decision to make. I had the power to end his life and his suffering, but I didn't have the will. I had to put his needs above mine, as I had done many times before, but it was different this time. The finality of my own death would have been easier to accept.
Ben was put to sleep in the back of my truck on his bed, 13 years 33 days after he was born. I was with him to the end. Now there are only the memories. At night I can still hear his breathing. The sounds of him drinking water, eating, barking, and panting after a run are as real to me as if he were still here. His empty bed beside mine, his dishes and toys, and the photos of all the good times we had are now constant reminders of how important he was in my life. Ever since he was a puppy it has just been the two of us, and I thought he would live forever. He was the best dog in the whole world, and life just isn't as good with out him to share it.