A foretaste of heaven: On the loss of our dog Suzy

Dec. 18, 2009

The end came too soon, and unexpectedly.

I knew my dogs Suzy and Gus were getting up there in years, as we adopted them from the dog pound nine years ago when Gus was just a pup and Suzy, his mom, was not much older than a pup herself. I had been bracing myself in recent months for the difficult days ahead that invariably come with aging pets, but Suzy and Gus showed no signs of slowing down. Even Saturday morning I took them on a walk through the woods – one of their favorite activities – and everything seemed as fine as ever.

Then on Sunday morning I awoke, walked out back to see them and discovered Suzy’s lifeless body curled up in her dog house. She had passed away sometime during the night, quietly and most likely painlessly, according to the vet. Her dying was consistent with her living, which she did quietly, joyfully and faithfully, without ever causing a moment’s pain to others.

Over the past few days I’ve reflected on Suzy’s life, and the joy she brought to ours. A little more than nine years ago, I walked into the dog pound in Benton, Ill., looking to adopt two dogs. I had just lost my two dogs, Luther and Calvin, who had been killed by a car when they ran away from home one day, and it was time to welcome two new animals into our lives. At the pound I met a dog who wasn’t in one of the kennels – she was in the office. The workers there liked her so much that they had semi-adopted her themselves. They told us that she was half golden retriever, and that she had recently had a litter of seven puppies, only one of whom had lived. He was there with her, a little white puppy with brown spots only a few weeks old. So we adopted both of them, naming her Suzy (after Susanna Wesley) and him Gus (after Augustine). She came with a special deal, because the local vet thought so highly of her that he offered to spay her free of charge.

We took them home and they became part of our lives. It wasn’t easy at first. I was still grieving the loss of Luther and Calvin, two rambunctious young dogs with whom I wrestled and rumbled. I remember sitting in the garage trying to get Suzy to chase a ball or something, and getting frustrated because she wasn’t interested in fetching or playing. All she wanted to do was sit next to me and let me pet her. Oddly enough, that trait became one of the things I grew to love most about her in the years ahead. She loved nothing more than for you to pet her and love on her, and I’m convinced she would have foregone food and sleep if someone would have stayed with her around the clock to show her affection. Now, how I wish she were still here for me to pet once more.

The first four years we had her, we lived in the country, where Suzy and Gus could roam freely. But they never ventured too far away, preferring instead to stay close to the house, and close to us. It became my habit to take them for a daily walk, and that was the highlight of their day. Many times they’d detour off the road looking for critters and who knows what else in a bean field, and all I’d see of them would be their tails sticking high out of the beans, wagging vigorously as they meandered around. Every once in a while, Suzy would leap up into the air over the beans, and we’d catch a quick glimpse of her before she disappeared into the field again.

The dogs stayed outside, each of them with their own dog house. When the weather turned cold, I’d get some straw to stuff into their dog houses to keep them warm. Suzy always got excited when it was time for me to give her fresh straw. I think she enjoyed the cold weather. She also enjoyed sitting on top of hay bales. Our landlord, Frank, farmed the land around us, and had a barn with cows not far behind our house. It wasn’t uncommon for him to haul a hay bale down to our house, and leave it sitting in our yard for a few days. It also wasn’t uncommon for us to look out the window and see Suzy perched atop one of those hay bales. I think she enjoyed the different view of the world around her.

Suzy proved to be a good mama to Gus, raising him to maturity (he grew to be almost twice her size) but never really ceasing to be his mother. She always let him eat first and have his fill before she’d eat what was left. When we returned home from our walks, Gus’ coat was often full of burrs and seeds and such, and he’d sit patiently while Suzy picked them out as best she could, and cleaned him up.

I’ve wondered this week about Gus, and what effect Suzy’s death will have on him. Does he understand what has happened? Is he sad? Is he lonely? Suzy has been there for him his entire life, and now she’s gone. How difficult is that for him? These are questions to which I have no answers.

Our son Daniel was born during our time there in Mulkeytown, and Suzy quickly accepted him as a member of our family. She did the same thing with Emmalee three years later, and again with Noah less than a year ago. That’s one of the things that I appreciated most about Suzy – I never had to worry about her with the kids, never had to fear that she’d snap at them or hurt them in any way. They’d hug her and squeeze her, and she sat contentedly soaking it all up. She was their good friend. Daniel especially grew quite fond of Suzy as he got older. He liked sitting on the ground with her and rubbing her belly. And she, of course, thought that was bliss.

We moved to Jackson five years ago and bought a house in a subdivision. It was a vast departure from the country setting Suzy and Gus had come to call home, and I was concerned at first how they would adjust. But they did just fine, and it became apparent to me that for Suzy and Gus, and for Suzy especially, the setting mattered little. All that was important was that she was close to us. As long as she had that, she was happy.

Our daily walks continued, and we took advantage of the local elementary school just a few yards away. Nearly every night, during the warm months, the whole family would walk up to the school together – first with the kids in strollers, then walking themselves as they grew older, then riding their bikes when they grew older still. Daniel and Emmalee would play on the playground, with Suzy and Gus doing their typical exploring.

During the cold months, I’d usually take the dogs up to Pope School by myself, typically at night after the kids had gone to bed. I enjoyed the solitude, and I enjoyed the company of Suzy and Gus. As the dogs ran around off their leashes at the school, Suzy would often come up to me seeking attention. I’d kneel down, stroke her and talk to her, telling her what a good dog she was. That attention seemed to serve as fuel for Suzy, because she’d then burst off with renewed vigor, good to go for a while until she needed her next affection fix.

Not long after moving to Jackson I bought my first pickup truck, primarily so I could cart Suzy and Gus around with me anytime I wanted to. It became our Saturday morning tradition for me to take Daniel and Emmalee to the local donut shop. We’d sit inside eating our donuts, while Suzy and Gus waited in the back of the truck for us to finish and to bring them their donut hole. They enjoyed their tasty treat, and then we’d all go to Union University for a stroll around campus. Those times together with the kids and the dogs were always one of the highlights of my week.

But now, those days with Suzy are relegated only to my memory. My heart sank as I discovered her body a few days ago, and as I thought about how I’d have to break the news to the kids. I gathered them together on the couch in the living room, and told them that Suzy was no longer with us. I’ll never forget how the tears welled up in Daniel’s eyes as he responded, “But I loved her.”

I know you did, buddy. I did too.

That’s been one of the most difficult parts of this whole sad ordeal. It’s hard enough on me to lose my faithful companion and friend. But it absolutely broke my heart for me to be powerless to stop Daniel’s heart from hurting so badly. So we sat on the couch together and cried for a while before I took the kids out to see Suzy’s body and to pet her one last time. I then carried her over to the edge of our property, dug a hole and buried her. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. She may be gone, but she’ll not soon be forgotten.

Though I’d like to think otherwise, I’m not expecting to see Suzy in heaven, as I know that dogs don’t have souls and Scripture won’t allow me to assume that I’ll see her again. But that’s OK. With the unconditional love she showed to me and my family, with the loyalty, gentleness, faithfulness and kindness that characterized her life, she spent nine years giving me a small taste of heaven here on earth.

Thank you, Suzy, for loving us so much. You were, without exaggeration, a great dog.