A Lovesong to My Beautiful Girl:
On My Harrier Hillary at Age 15 1/2, Dying with Dignity, and Making the Hardest Choice I’ve Ever Had to Face
I look at my little girl and I see big brown bright eyes, filled with anticipation of what the pregnant next moment will give birth to.
She is so curious: she’s hunting scraps of food, seeking out stray crumbs, wondering what her Harrier cousin Tommy is sniffing, and wanting to make sure she isn’t left behind.
Her head worms its way outside the open front door every time I so much as go to the garbage chute or head to the gym, and I suppose it all gets back to that summer’s day in 2007 with her big journey that brought her into my life.
Hillary is a beauty queen (that’s what I call her) who was a Champion of the Harrier hound dog show circuit. She hails from southern Oregon, right by the California boarder where she was bred to be a Champion. Ellen Parr’s Winfield Harriers did well by my little girl long before I even imagined having a little girl that’d I’d come to love so much.
Hillary collected enough points to earn her the title Champion and it’s then that she was bred. Hillary has always been a sleek and trim dog: a narrow muzzle tapering up to her hound head with the sweetest floppy ears that pop forward when she furrows her brow in wonder. Her big beautiful brown eyes twinkle, and they are as round as two moons as she watches every move, never missing a beat.
Perhaps it was due in part to her athletic build that bearing a litter of puppies was tough for her. I was told that the C-section only produced five puppies, and that birthing marked the end of Hillary’s breeding career.
But it was the beginning of a sequence of events that brought this beautiful creature into my life, and it all happened because I told a white lie to my husband Mike. You see, I had the desire for a second dog because Tommy, I felt, needed a companion. Mike adamantly said no (he might say differently), which is when I picked up the phone to start finding a second Harrier. Breeder Ellen Parr had just finished finding homes for Hillary’s four-pup litter. Ellen’s nine-hound pack was a lot, and Hillary was the dog for whom she wanted to find a forever home.
My call to Ellen was perfectly timed, and after she checked with Robbin Philips about our credentials as good Harrier owners, the deal was set: Mike, Tommy and I would be Hillary’s forever home.
It was a hot, humid summer day in August 2007 when I drove out to the cargo section of Boston’s Logan Airport. The area smelled of jet fuel, and the heat was stifling and I was frantic because I knew that my new companion was stuck somewhere in that complex; I urgently wanted to workers to find her crate and bring her to me.
And that they did.
Inside, I found a beautiful girl, scared and wondering where her eight best dog friends were. She didn’t realize they were still in Northern California in a small town. She didn’t know that that from then on, she’d be an East Coast city girl.
The moment I first saw her beautiful eyes, I knew she was scared. She was hot. She was disoriented. And I would now be her caretaker for the rest of her life. We got into the car and I tried to calm her, but I was a stranger, as was Tommy when she met him walking in the dog park alongside George, Tommy’s best friend. We walked around Boston’s South End for a while, and then George went this own way. Tommy, Hillary and I came home together.
That was 11 years ago.
I had been warned she was a counter surfer, and her ability to grab food from remarkably remote places that I’d had thought to be entirely out of reach was amazing. She would eat, and eat, and eat, but she’d never gain an ounce. That’s my girl. And she’d be rambunctious, leap off the sofa, leap off the bed, leap down stairs, lunge at a pizza crust laying in a street gutter, and pull toward the chicken bones in chicken bone park, my pet name for Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle.
The city had become Hillary’s smorgasbord, and she ate anything and everything. And she would howl… when she was young, I said she sounded like a wookie from Star Wars. And she’d sing beautiful songs when she howled, and I learned to sing along with her and find ways to keep her going. I liked being a part of Hillary’s chorus.
* * *
Tommy likes to swim, and Hillary never took to the water but she does like to wade in up to her elbows. Cape Cod Bay is gentle, and I’d hold her by her belly and let her paddle about but never let her feel insecure — I always wanted my hand to give her support and comfort.
* * *
Those days have passed, and life with Hillary has mellowed. I tell people that she is in her final days, partly because they wonder how old she is as her hind legs are no longer athletic, and even somewhat skeletal as they struggle to keep her hind up high.
She has never been a sitter — she is always a stander ready to pounce on the stray carrot or chicken skin that might fall within her reach while she shadows me in the kitchen. But now, her legs lack the strength to hold her hind up, so she reluctantly sinks into a sit. But even from this compromised position she is still always watching and waiting.
* * *
Time stands for no man, nor does it allow me to play favorites by protecting the beautiful creatures I love from its ravages.
I see Hillary’s eyes. I know her personality. I indulge her curiosity by leaving her little food gifts hidden throughout the apartment. I’ve come to love her, and I am not above admitting that I need her unquestioning friendship and acceptance of me. And I see all of that today as I look at her diminished physical state which I often choose to ignore.
You see, I know that what my eyes may tell me is not an accurate reflection of how she really is; I force myself to embrace reality by calling her an old lady in public. And she is old, and the progression of her age, and the advance of time toward what will inevitably be her last sunrise with me seemingly speeds up.
* * *
For a long time I had been saying that this is her last year. Or her last summer. Or her last December. Or her last trip to Cape Cod. It was all part of my strategy to be strong and prepare myself for the ultimate last for her, which would be her last day.
I unrealistically had hoped that divine intervention would eliminate the need for me to intervene and end her life in a humane way. For Mike and I to be the ones who force ourselves to dim the brightness of her eyes and make the spirit driving her curiosity but a memory.
But divine intervention isn’t going to happen — it rarely does.
Here’s what I know: I don’t want her to hurt. I don’t want her eyes to shut on their own because she is in pain. I don’t want her to fall one final time and for the pain of a fracture to be with her until her last breath.
Mike and I are her caretakers and her guardians. We are responsible.
I will miss her warmth, and her being by my side every moment I am in the kitchen sneaking her food while Mike isn’t paying attention. I will miss hauling her up into bed with me, only to have her wildly wiggle out from my grip to leap off the bed and run away in search of something that only a hound knows.
I have come to miss her running through the park, dashing off after a scent. I have come to miss her wiggle worm motion in the bed as she massages her back writhing to and fro atop the bed. I have come to miss finding her laying in the sun on top of a bed that she jumped upon easily.
* * *
These are all things she once did, but can no longer do. The are small things, but they were her favorite things. She moved through the world in a way that she can no longer do, and allowing her world to become even smaller would be a terrible thing to do to my girl who is driven by impulse, curiosity and a hound’s nose that can detect even the farthest off scent.
We are her caretakers. We have to make the choices that ensure she has the best care and that she has the best life possible. We need to ensure she is not in pain ever, and we have the power to give her the ultimate kind gift of a peaceful passing.
* * *
It was an early morning — I was waiting for dawn. The sky hadn’t event turned the periwinkle shade of blue that happens on a clear spring day when the sun dawns early. I listened and waited for Hillary to stir, and she inevitably did. She was an early riser like me.
I told Mike repeatedly that I wanted Hillary’s last day to be on a sunny day, and for it to be a good day that was fun for her.
Since this morning’s sunrise, we woke up, made breakfast, went on a long walk, the route of which Hillary choose. She took us a few blocks further than yesterday, and she took me and Tommy into a park we never go toward. There were new smells that her hound’s nose picked up and were undetectable to me.
Hillary, Tommy, Mike and I piled into the car and drove to Rock Creek Park for a walk — Hillary trotted and trundled her way through the grass. The sun was warm. We loaded the car again and headed to a quieter park to let Hillary and Tommy explore. And they did. Hillary ate grass and cuddled the two us.
* * *
Her passing was peaceful; I sang her dog songs into her ear and made sure my skull touched hers in order to transfer any resonance from my singing to her sense of touch. Mike cuddled her closely, matching her purring with his own as the two of them liked to do.
She took her last breath, covered in love and the warmth of fresh laundry that I liked to pile on her as a special treat: warm sheets fresh out of the dryer were her favorite thing that would help her settle down.
Hillary’s pack — Tommy, Mike and me — are going to miss our fourth. We may seem to be three, but the brightness of little Hillary’s spirit will be with us forever. We will always be four in my heart.