How do you write a love story without loss and tears? I don’t know of any love story ever told where there is no loss, no tears. This one is no different.
When I first looked into his soft brown eyes, I fell in love. I felt an over whelming urge to stroke his head and keep him safe from all manner of threats. I first met AJ, our black lab, on a hunting trip ten years ago, when I began a quest to find a hunting partner for our aging yellow lab, Buddy.
AJ was 2 years old at the time and afraid of just about everything that didn’t pertain to hunting. He was and still is the most beautiful dog in the field I’ve ever seen. He moved with grace and speed in search of the elusive scent of a pheasant. He was truly alive and in his element in the field. When he locked on the bird he would go on point and hold the bird until we could get set for the shot. We didn’t deserve such a magnificent hunting dog.
We soon learned that when not in the field, AJ was terrified of most everything else. He didn’t know how to go up or down stairs had never been inside and had no idea how to walk on tile or wood floors. Mitch had to carry him down the steps the day we brought him home and I had to run a path of throw rugs and towels through the house in order to get him to go to the kitchen. AJ suffered from severe separation anxiety to the point of mass destruction throughout the house when left alone. Storms and fireworks would send him into a panic. He would tremble and shake violently; the only relief would come from touch. As long as he could touch me, he would find some comfort and sense of protection.
Looking in those soft hooded brown eyes, I always saw total trust and devotion. AJ became my constant companion, looking to me before listening to anyone else, Mitch included. Mitch constantly complained that he was chopped liver when I was around.
AJ seemed ageless until this year. He had an eternal youth about him, ready for a wrestling match or a game of tag with Orso and Charlie. This year at twelve years he started feeling his age. First it was his eyes, his peripheral vision starting to fail. He struggled with dark rooms and doorways. Going from the bright light of outside or another room to the dimmer room became a challenge. Depth perception was the next to go. AJ would linger at doorways not sure if the floor was really there. He started becoming tired quickly not able to stand for very long, preferring to lay down on something soft.
The heartbreaking next stage of aging came rather suddenly with his sudden refusal to eat his usual diet of Science Diet dog food and carrots for snacks. When he first starting to refuse carrots, I thought maybe the carrots were too hard, maybe he had a broken tooth. But a quick inspection of his mouth revealed perfect teeth. I even soaked his food longer to soften it more, but he just turned away and refused the food. This from a dog that we had to put a rock in his dish in order to slow down the hoover vacuum force food inhalation. He even turned away from pumpkin. Now I was getting really worried. I have never known a Labrador retriever to turn away from food. Especially our dogs.
I was able to deal with the eyesight problems and I could rationalize the tired bones. My brain understood that AJ was growing old and had lived a wonderfully long life, but my heart was breaking watching the rapid physical deterioration. Not knowing how it would turn out, we took AJ with us on our hunting trip last weekend. He seemed like the AJ I’ve always known doing what he was bred for, most alive in the field searching for the ever elusive scent of the bird.
Once we got back from the trip he became shakier in his stride and refused almost all food, even hamburger. We took him to the vet for tests, hoping for the best and trying to prepare for the worst, but you never do. The test results and X-rays showed a massive tumor the size of a football in his abdomen pressing against his ribs. Considering the surgery was high risk with a very slim chance that the vet could even get it out and his age, we made the decision to have him put to sleep. My head knows that this was for the best but my heart is broken, knowing that I will never know the absolute love and devotion from a dog ever again.
AJ was special and has gone to a special place that only the great dogs can go to.