It’s been six weeks since I knew we were nearing the end of Samson’s life. He’s been part of our family for almost 13 years, joining us about six weeks after my beloved grandmother died. My son and I found him on a rainy afternoon in May on the back roads between Greensboro, NC where we live and Richmond, VA where my grandmother lived. Nana died on March 26, 2003 and on a rainy Saturday in mid-May, Will and I were making our last visit to Richmond before her house sold. Something white in the middle of the road began to move as our car approached. The obstacle that I thought might be a shirt or a box was actually three puppies huddled together for warmth. They jumped up and ran into the woods. Within ten minutes they were in the car. Will had a look of pure delight as three, squirming puppies, covered with fleas, ticks and mud, happily licked his face.
The first entry on his card at the vet says “three stray puppies” because that is what we had on our first visit to Dr. Sims. Two girls, one boy – probably six weeks old – pure mutts. There was never any question which one we’d keep. Samson was a roly-poly ball of soft yellow fur with a sweet face and an even sweeter disposition. The two girls were snarly and mean and would jump and nip at him. When he’d had enough he’d just roll over on them (he was the biggest one) and they’d leave him alone. Ever since May 2003, Samson has been our loveable gutter pup.
The link above will take you to the poem Vagabond House by Don Blanding. It’s a fanciful poem that describes his “dream house.” In case you’re wondering what a “gutter pup” is, here are the relevant lines:
There’ll be driftwood powder to burn the logs,
And a shaggy rug for a couple of dogs—
Boreas, winner of prize and cup,
And Mickey, a loveable gutter pup.
Thoroughbreds, both of them, right from the start,
One by breeding, the other by heart
There are times when only a dog will do
For a friend—when you’re beaten, sick and blue
And the world’s all wrong; for he won’t care
If you break and cry, or grouch and swear;
For he’ll let you know as he licks your hands
That he’s downright sorry—and understands.
There’s a lot I could write about Samson and our time together but I want to focus on his last day – February 1, 2016. About six weeks ago, Samson began limping and couldn’t bear any weight on his left front leg. The tumor on his shoulder, which was the size of a small flattened mango last summer, was bigger and fuller, probably pressing muscles and nerves, making it painful to bear any weight on that leg. He was also having trouble with his back legs and began losing weight.
The week after Christmas we started medicine to ease his pain. He still didn’t bear any weight on his front left leg but Samson adjusted to a new way of walking – almost a hop with his front left leg swinging to the side but never touching the ground. He even mastered the stairs and rarely missed the chance to sleep on Sarah’s bed each night, which is in the room where I do most of my writing. He slept more than usual but other than the obvious limp and a new way of walking, Samson seemed pretty much the same. That all changed about five days ago when he began to eat less and less each day and spend more and more time outside, squatting and trying to pee or poop but without results.
By Saturday Samson stopped eating all together and looked miserable. He stopped limping and began to bear weight on his left front leg again. I took that as a sign that everything else hurt so much that the front leg didn’t bother him anymore. By Sunday I knew it was time. He spent most of the day outside, squatting and pawing at the ground, his back hunched over like the old beggar woman from fairy tales, weighed down by a bundle of sticks. His sorrowful brown eyes searched mine with a silent plea – “Why are you letting me hurt, Mom? Can’t you do something?”
Will is living at home so he’s known for a few weeks that this time was coming. Sarah lives in town and knew Samson wasn’t doing well but didn’t know how quickly he’d gone downhill. She was going to come see him on Wednesday but left work early when I told her we couldn’t wait that long. I called the vet and learned that Dr. Sims was going to be off on Tuesday but could see us Monday afternoon at 5:00. I wanted it to be Dr. Sims; Samson and I both feel comfortable with her. So at 8:30a.m on February 1, 2016, I knew it would be Samson’s last day. I stayed home from work to spend it with him. As I watched him hobble around the yard looking dazed and confused, squatting and pawing, I was thankful I could intervene.
We had our last day together and it was glorious! Morning clouds gave way to a mostly sunny, 70 degree Fahrenheit day. A soft, spring-like breeze rustled the left-over fall leaves that were scattered in random clumps around the yard. The birds were chirping and swooping from tree to tree – landing on the feeder then back to a tree. Puffy white clouds drifted overhead.
At first when I sat down beside him, Samson got up and hobbled away – squatting and pawing and looking forlorn. I came inside and watched him from the upstairs window, eventually he settled down, lowered his head and rested. Throughout the day I made several visits outside. He let me rub his ears and brush his coat with a soft bristled brush. Sometimes our love fests ended with him getting up to hobble away, groaning and squatting and pawing the ground. Sometimes they ended with me overcome with emotion, coming inside to do something else for awhile. All in all it was a beautiful day for grieving and I was thankful Samson got to spend it outside.
On this beautiful spring-like day in the middle of winter, I told Samson what a good dog he is and how much I love him. I told him it was okay to slip away and though we will miss him we don’t want him to suffer anymore. He liked the attention and seemed to relax, especially when the sun was shining on his boney back. Part of me wanted him to just slip away – but I also wanted Sarah to have her chance to say good-bye. Will would be home in between his lunch and dinner shifts at the restaurant. Rick came home as soon as school ended. We all got to spend time together with Samson in the back yard – his favorite place. Even our backyard neighbor and her little dog Howie got to say goodbye before we left for our 5 pm appointment with the vet.
The walk to the car was slow but Samson made it on his own. We had to help lift his back legs into the back seat and I climbed in beside him. Rick drove. The vet is only 5 minutes away. I waited in the car with Samson while Rick went in to make sure the room was ready. There was a red, plaid blanket spread on the floor that gave the sterile exam room a homey feel. I sat down and tried to get Samson to join me. He panted and paced, half-heartedly scratching at the door to leave as he’s so often done before when we’ve had to wait for the vet.
Dr. Sims confirmed that it was time to let him go. She found a vein and injected the blue pentobarbital that stopped his heart. It seemed to take him a bit longer to slip away than I remember it taking the cats but still less than a minute and very peaceful. Thankfully Dr. Sims told us we might occasionally see his whiskers twitch or even what sounded like a breath or a sigh, but these movements were caused by his muscles relaxing. She confirmed that he was dead and said we could stay for as long as we wanted to.
I sat close and rubbed his soft, velvety ears. He looked peaceful and pain free. Rick got to say his goodbyes and reminded Samson that he was “part of the pack.” I know many people choose not to be present when their pet is euthanized but for me it was comforting to be with him to the end. I felt the same way about our feline family members who passed away a few years ago.
In about a week Samson’s ashes will be ready for us to pick-up. We’ll save them until real Spring arrives in about 8 weeks and on another 70 degree day, with a soft gentle breeze, we’ll bury them at the base of a new weeping willow tree that we’ll plant on the spot where Samson’ and I spent his perfect last day together – basking in the warm sunlight, coaxing his weary head to rest, as I whispered my thanks for the years we had together.