by Theresa Wells
Over the weekend some dear friends lost a family member. It was an expected loss, perhaps, as the family member was elderly, but it was no less tragic in that they had to say good-bye to a loved one who had been part of their lives for a very long time. They were there when she breathed her last, loving her to the end as she slipped away from them. They rubbed her furry head, and cuddled her close, her loyalty and unconditional love traits they would never forget and that would never diminish over time. Yes, the beloved family member was their dog, and anyone who does not know this sense of loss has likely never loved – or been loved by – a dog.
This loss over the weekend took me back almost a decade, to a time when I said goodbye to a family member who had four feet and a furry coat. I don’t talk about him much, but he was a huge part of our lives, if only for the short six years we had him. His name was Nugget, and he was a massive Chesapeake Bay Retriever, larger than the breed standard and the most remarkable creature I have ever known.
Nugget came to us through a backyard breeder. I should have known better after working in vet clinics for a decade, but even so when I saw the ad for Chesapeake puppies I leapt at the chance to have one. His initial purchase price of $50 was deceptive given the later veterinary bills for a dog that had bad hips, hypothyroidism, chronic stomach issues and tore his cruciate ligaments just by standing up. In the end I think we invested almost $20,000 in Nugget over his brief six years, but it was money well spent as he was, without any doubt, an exceptional animal.
We lived in a very small town in northwestern Ontario back then, and every night like clockwork a knock at the door would signal that the neighbourhood children were looking for Nugget to come out and play. They would take him to the field across from us and they taught him to play hide and seek, with him always being the seeker as he was a terrible hider. They would make him sit and stay while they all hid in the tall grass, and then shout for him to find them and so he would, usually ending in a jumbled pile of kids and a dog all tumbling in the grass and laughing and barking.
He was the dog who whined to go out every morning when it was time for the school bus, and it took me a while to realize the kids were feeding him their sandwiches before they left for school. It was only the smell of ham and mustard on his breath that gave him (and them) away, ending a habit that was beginning to make him look a bit chubby.
He was the dog who was there to greet a tiny baby girl when we brought her home from the hospital, and he became her staunchest defender, planting himself beside her whenever she was outdoors, watching for any threats to her wellbeing, and finding me in the house when she cried and he felt she needed attention.
He was the dog who saved us from going down a trail where there was a mama bear and two cubs, planting himself in front of me with a determined “none shall pass” look and forcing us to go another way, finding out only later from a neighbour of the bear who had been showing aggressive behaviour to those who dared to venture into her territory.
He was the dog who alerted us one night when we accidently left the barbecue on, whining non-stop until we got up at 2 am to turn it off and possibly preventing a fire that could have destroyed our home and our lives.
When he was five years old Nugget tore a cruciate ligament again, leading to another surgical repair. Months later he developed a swelling at the site of the surgery, and while I was sure it was innocent I took him into the vet to have it removed. The vet, also certain it was fine, suggested a biopsy just for our peace of mind. We were both stunned when the biopsy came back showing an aggressive form of cancer known as a mast cell tumour. I recall the vet’s face when he gave me the news, as we both knew what it meant, having seen the prognosis with other animals.
It was the most painful thing I have ever done. Almost a year later I held him as he slipped into that permanent sleep from which he would never awake, tears streaming down my face. My daughter does not remember him well as she was only five when he left us, although her deep love of animals undoubtedly stems from her relationship with her first playmate, guardian and canine sibling.
We have gone on to other furry family members, including our beloved Irish Terrier, but there will never be – could never be – another Nugget. He was one of a kind, unique and loved and in memory forever the strong, handsome wavy golden-haired family member who loved us just as we loved him. You see, sometimes family has four paws, a cold wet nose and a warm heart. The hardest part of loving your family is having to someday say goodbye, whether that family member has two legs or four. This weekend I thought back to Nugget, to that sad final goodbye but more importantly to all the moments before it, and I was deeply grateful for sadness I felt, because it also meant I had had the privilege of knowing that kind of unconditional love, the kind you can never understand until you have felt it. And instead of feeling sorrow, I felt lucky to have that nugget of memory in my life, thanks to a dog who was so much more than just a dog.
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