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He used to pull my sister and I in a little blue sled along the frozen canal.
The Winterfest in Ottawa, Canada: One of my favorite times of the year. I can still picture that little blue sled, smell the winter air, feel the slippery glass of the ice sculptures beneath my frozen fingers, smell the fried dough cooking, relish it melting in my mouth. Images flash before my eyes, memories of what once was.
He used to go blackberry picking with me, picking them off with his teeth, trying not to snag himself on the thorns. He liked berries. He liked corn on the cob. He liked kittens. He loved me. He was a big dog, a large black lab mix, but he was as gentle to me as a kitten, maybe more so. He looked after me. He never barked. Mutley never did tricks. You could try to get him to fetch, to shake hands, to roll over, but it wasn’t going to happen. He’d sit, and he would lay down, but after all, he was a person in nature, a far better person than many I know.
My family and I used to go to the Adirondacks in the summer for a big family reunion. We often climbed up what seemed to me like great peaks, and in reality were probably sloping hills. He would go twenty times farther than anyone else, because he always ran up and down, from the person in front to the end of the line, to make sure that no one got left behind. He defined loyalty in every moment, every action, every thought. He trusted me. He relied on me.
“C’mon, Mutt! You wanna go for a run?!?” I dash out the kitchen door, leaving a note on the table for my parents. The sun shines brilliantly through the huge maples. The sky is a clear blue, with puffy white cotton strewn throughout it. Mutley runs eagerly ahead of me, tongue lolling, ready to run. I take off at a sprint, up through the woods. The first half of the trail is straight uphill. By the time I start to approach the biggest hill on the trail, my energy starts petering out. Mutley runs ahead, then stops. He turns when he sees me lagging behind, and comes to trot alongside me, happy just to be out with me on this idyllic afternoon. He feels no need to rush ahead, he is content to wait for me. I smile to myself as I ponder over this, and it shows me just how lucky I am.
For longer than I can even remember, Mutley had always been around. Loving, trusting, caring, and loyal, he was all, and much more, that anyone could ever ask for in a dog. He was more than just a dog; he was a friend, a mentor, a member of the family. He was a role model for us all to watch and learn from, to look for, and really see, the true meaning of life. For a long time, I wondered what that really was.
Five years ago, my family and I moved into a new town. Mutt loved the woods, the trails, and especially the creek or pond on a hot summer day. He loved to go with me or another member of my family for a walk or run, or for cross-country skiing in the winter, and he was a genius for going in the tracks. For a long time, my dad shooed him out of the tracks, but he was getting older. By December, 2006, and January, 2007, Mutley was steadily slowing down. He could no longer run in the deep snow, and he barely ran at all.
I push myself up that last hill, happy to enjoy this crystal-clear winter evening on skis. Mutt is right behind me as I start my descent downhill. Smiling with glee, I hardly notice my frigid hands, stinging ears, and frozen nose. I love downhills, everything about them: the speed, the feeling of freedom, the clearness in my head. Then I notice that Mutley is falling behind. He can’t keep up.
“Come on, Mutt!” I say, eager to continue my exhilarating ski down the hill, “Come on!! Muuuuttlllleeeeeey!!! C’mon!!! Mutt!” I cry. I keep skiing forward. He starts to yip. He never barks, yet he is whining. “Come, ON Mutt!!” I speak forcefully, quickly losing my patience. I want to keep going. I keep skiing downhill, picking up my pace. “He’ll catch up.” I think to myself, perhaps more for my own reassurance. “If I just keep going, he will follow.”
I walk in the door of the house. “Mutt!?” I call out the door. A worried expression settles on my face. I put the kettle on the stove for hot chocolate or tea, and grab a glass of water. My mom comes in ten or so minutes later, with Mutley. She said that she found him up in the woods, shivering, crying for someone to help him, and no one was there. He could not make it back to the house by himself. She had to carry him. She scolds me for leaving him, but she did not need to. I have never felt so guilty about anything in my whole life, and now I cry tears of guilt and shame. Mutley has been so loyal to me. Bearing my own weight, he pulled me in a sled, waited for me, was patient, loved me, yet when the time came that he could not keep up, I left him behind. I left him behind.
By the end of January, Mutley could not even walk outside to go to the bathroom. My dad had to carry him. He barely ate. It was so hard to watch someone who had always been there for me, my idol, struggling to even breathe. The vet gave us all kinds of pills: Glucosamine for his joints, painkillers, vitamins, but nothing worked. I sat for hours with his head in my lap, stroking it, weeping, and praying fervently that he would be okay. Someone free of sin, so good, so loyal: why did he deserve this while the rest of us went on living? I called my best friend, sobbing, to tell her. We talked about the great times we had with him, and how hard it was. When we hung up after talking for an hour, she was sobbing, too.
On February 1st, 2007, I got a phone call at school, to leave early. I had no doctor’s appointment, nothing planned. I was puzzled, and sick with worry. The pained look on Dad’s face confirmed the worst. When I got home, my sister, my mom, and my dad were already there. He was doing worse. My mom gently told me that Mutt had lived an admirable, long, life, that it was wrong to make him suffer so much. He was almost seventeen. She said that we would have the day with him, and then take him to the vet the next day to be put down. I cried. I sat with him and pet him, rubbed his belly, and fed him treats galore.
The next morning, we drove to our vet in Weedsport. We put all kinds of fuzzy blankets in the back of our van, and climbed in along with Mutley, whom my dad had to lift into the van. The vet explained to us how it would work. He would give Mutley a shot that would take a few minutes to travel around his body, before he would quietly and peacefully fall asleep and relax, drifting off to sit in his reserved place in heaven. The vet came outside. Mutley lay in our arms, too weary to move. The vet injected him with a shot. His body went limp and relaxed, his eyes closed. My sister cried. My mom cried. My dad cried. I broke into sobs. The vet went away with tears in his eyes, and our favorite nurse came out to give us a hug, crying as well.
When we got home my dad dug the grave. Wrapped in a soft blanket, Mutt was slowly lowered into the ground. We passed the shovel around to cover him, all crying freely, before my dad gathered my mom, sister, and I into a hug. I had never lived without Mutley, and I found that it helped me to be around my family, who could understand how hard it was, for all of us, not just me. He was my dad’s stead-fast companion, following him wherever he went in the woods. My sister was the same age as him; she had grown up with Mutt, too. My mom loved him with all of her heart. Even my grandpa, who on principle is not overly fond of dogs, loved Mutley from the very beginning. At Holiday Dinners, Pa would sneak Mutley scraps of food.
Just recently, we have acquired two dogs in need of a good home. Their names are Winston and Tusa. They are great friends to me, but not the same. No one, dog or other creature, can ever replace Mutley. That day that I left him behind in the woods still grieves me. For a long time after his death, I blamed myself, that it was my fault because I had left him. After all that he did for me, I left him. I could have helped him. I could have waited. I could have tried to start to repay all of the things that he had done for me. Just thinking about it makes me cry. It is the one thing in my life that I can never forgive myself for.
In time I have come to realize that this is not the case, that he was very old, and that it had been coming on for a while. I know that he led, in all senses, a wonderful life. He taught me too many valuable life-lessons to count. He demonstrated to me to put forth my very best effort, to try my hardest at everything I do, to always persevere. He taught me to love, to hope, to give. He showed me what friendship and loyalty really mean. He revealed to me what life is all about.