In June of 1998, my wife Kris came home from a weeklong road trip with a friend of hers. I swear to god, her first words when she got out of the van were "We're getting a dog."
Kris had wanted to get a dog for a while, but I wasn't so keen. I knew dogs, especially puppies, took a tremendous amount of energy and effort to care for, and I didn't want to be tied down. Kids you can take just about anywhere; not everyone or every place is so welcoming to dogs. So we discussed and debated and researched, ultimately deciding that golden retriever was the breed for us. We picked out a breeder, and I bought supplies, but by the time I was convinced I wanted—no, needed—a dog, Kris was having second thoughts. So, with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, we decided to take the plunge. We went to the breeder, picked out a puppy from the litter of eight-week-old goldens, and brought Woody home. I was on a Woody Guthrie kick at the time, and the name seemed to fit his personality.
When we got him home, we decided that he'd sleep in the basement. We could just set up a baby gate in the doorway of the root cellar, which had a window and stayed nice and cool. The morning after his first night with us, I marveled at how quiet he'd been. Then I opened the door to the basement steps, only to see him on the landing, staring up at me, ready to go out. Clearly, Woody (like his namesake) would do things his way. When we took him in the backyard on a leash to "do his business," he jumped and chomped at the leather; when we tried to take him for walks, he sat his butt down on the driveway and wouldn't budge, no matter how hard we cajoled and pulled. We'd pull on the leash until his collar came right over his head, and he'd remain planted firmly on his butt. Thank goodness we lived across the street from a park where, as long as nobody was playing softball, he could run. For the next two years, we didn't take him for walks. He took us to play. We got another dog in 2000, a beagle named Dilly (and she was a dilly), and only then would he go for a walk, when he had both of his people and his "sister" with him.
Woody was a classic golden retriever—loving, playful, loyal, gentle with kids. But it's his little quirks that I think about the most. His nose was brown only for the first few months of his life, after which it turned pink. He loved eating napkins and paper towels, whether or not they contained any morsels of food. His favorite food, though, was bread: I can't count the number of times we'd come into the kitchen and find him with his front paws on the countertop, eating the rolls we had set out for dinner.
For more than a decade, Woody came almost everywhere with us, except the few that wouldn't allow dogs. I've worked at home for much of time Woody's been with us, and I couldn't even open the back door without Woody prancing on up, waiting to go with me on even the shortest journey. He's been at my feet as I've worked at home for the last seven years, save for 10 months when we lived in a place that didn't allow pets. Luckily, my sister and her family took him in until we ended up in our current house, which was a perfect place for him to spend his last months. Big yard, birds to chase, rabbit turds to eat—all the things a golden retriever loves, except water, but by the time we moved here, his swimming days were behind him.
By the time he turned 14 in 2012, he'd slowed down considerably, though he still insisted on coming outside with us whenever we opened the back door and still loved going on car rides, even if by now I had to lift him up into the van. He especially loved playing in the snow, but this last winter, I'd have to help him out of or over the snowdrifts he'd dive into. When we took him to his last annual vet appointment, the vet gave us "the talk;" when I took him in again recently for a bladder infection, the vet told us he looked happy and as healthy as you could expect from a 15-year-old dog, but that he had "weeks to months" left. We figured he wouldn't see winter again.
Of course, we focused on the "months" he might have left, and forgot just how quickly dogs, like people, can decline once they reach a certain age. When I left on a business trip on June 14, he was his slow but happy self; five days later, Kris told me that she thought it was time. When I got home on June 21, Woody could barely lift himself up, and needed help getting up or down even a single small step. So we've spent the last week petting and talking to him, bringing him water and food even though he's only eaten once in the last seven days. Seeing him like that has been hard, but helping him through his last days—carrying him outside, bringing him water when he's panting but just can't muster the strength to get up—was the least we ould do for him after all he'd done for us. I'll never forget this time, but I'll try to remember all the times I saw him swim and jump and roll around on the grass and do all of the the other things that made him happy.
The vet came to the house yesterday, and we stroked Woody's head as he passed. It was only then I realized how tough life had become for him, and I cried out of relief rather than sadness. We put Woody to rest in a nice shady spot under the trees in the backyard. He was the very definition of a good dog, and I'll miss his silent presence in our house for a long, long time.
Just before bed last night, our 4-year-old son said "I want to say goodnight to Woody first." We reminded him that Woody wasn't here anymore. He reminded us that yes, he was, and so we grabbed our flashlight, walked to the tree line, and said goodnight to Woody.