When my first dog was diagnosed with cancer, but could still walk fairly well, I took him to Walden Pond.
I was a college student, on my way into senior year, living at home with my parents for the summer. I’d be returning to school soon and I knew my dog, Spirit, would likely be dead before I next returned home. The lump on his front paw was visible and he gnawed at it whenever he lay down.
I’ve always loved Walden Pond. It’s an oasis near Boston, a deep glassy swimming hole surrounded by forest, right up to the shore. Late in the summer season, during the week, you can often get the place to yourself. I was counting on being alone since dogs aren’t allowed.
Spirit and I didn’t see any park rangers so we ducked into the woods and began our walk. Spirit moved more slowly than he had just days before, hobbling slightly, but his eyes remained alert. He turned to chase every bird and squirrel with his eyes, even though he knew he couldn’t follow them on foot.
I had the idea that I’d take Spirit for a swim. He was an Australian shepherd, not a water dog, and thus far in his life, he’d never entered water deeper than a puddle. Still, I thought he’d follow me in if I waded slowly, helping him get comfortable.
I pulled off my shorts and tank top and stepped into the water.
“Come, Spirit,” I called.
I knew he’d love the feeling of the cool ripples sliding under his hot fur and the excitement of paddling out away from shore. The cold might soothe his leg. Weightless, he might be able to move on the water in a way that he couldn’t on the ground anymore.
Spirit was a big dog. I couldn’t lift him, but in the water I’d be able to hold him in my arms, just like I had back when he was a puppy, when I’d first brought him home from the farm where he was born.
Spirit watched me, tilting his and cocking his ear, attentive and intrigued. I stepped out further and then ducked under the surface. I emerged and called again, but still, Spirit didn’t venture into the water. He barked and backed up further from the shore.
I swam back to him and tried to coax him to join me. “Come on, Spirit. It’s really nice. Come on.”
Spirit didn’t come.
More than anything, I wanted to stay in the water, removed from the realities of the world. I longed to swim out to the center of the pond, float on my back and enjoy the quiet and sun. I didn’t want to think about saying goodbye, letting go of my beloved dog, returning to college for my final year after which I’d be expected to act like a full-fledged adult. Soon enough, my childhood home, a house biking distance from Walden Pond, wouldn’t be my home anymore. I’d have to find my own home, my own family, a job, and, some day, my own new dog.
It wasn’t my day to let go of worries, though, and I wasn’t going to get the goodbye I’d hoped for.
Spirit continued to bark and began to shake just slightly. Maybe he thought I was going to drown and worried he wouldn’t be able to save me. Maybe he just didn’t like being kept apart by what, to him, must have been a mysterious, possibly dangerous, depth of liquid. Even when I stood closer, with just my feet in the water, he wouldn’t come forward into the pond.
Spirit wasn’t going to attempt to swim. I wouldn’t be able to hold him in my arms and cry into his fur, with pond water dripping from my hair to disguise my tears.
I climbed out, dried myself with my T-shirt and reassured him, “We’ll finish our walk.”
Not long after that day, Spirit’s health dramatically declined. After much discussion, my mom and I decided to take him to the vet for an injection that would stop his heart. Neither one of us went into the back room to hold him while the vet administered the shot. We didn’t trust ourselves to be able to stay reassuringly calm. I knew I’d fall apart.
My mom’s always regretted sending Spirit back alone. I guess I have, too, but when I think about the end of Spirit’s life, I don’t dwell on our last vet visit. I think of that day at Walden Pond.
In a way, we really did say goodbye that morning, separated, watching each other across a distance. It wasn’t a comforting farewell. Spirit wouldn’t follow me where I wanted to go.
I wanted him to live forever, or at least until I really was grown up and ready to process that kind of loss. Spirit just wanted me to stay close, or maybe he needed me to accept that he couldn’t follow anymore.
I guess we both disappointed each other.
When I think about Spirit, usually I don’t think about his last days at all. Mostly, I think about his youth (and mine), when I tied on my roller skates and he pulled me by leash and a bandana-turned-harness down our block. I remember the time he dragged an entire fallen tree instead of a properly proportioned stick for a mile long walk. I think of the first time he saw snow. He tried to capture every snowflake with a snap of his jaws, then rolled on the grass, until he transformed himself into a fast-moving, fluffy snowball.
He couldn’t swim, but, to me, he was a perfect, wonderful dog.
My novel, Drowning Cactus, features another wonderful dog who also visits Walden Pond. It is now available as an e-book from your favorite online bookseller.