He was my 28th birthday present, riding home with me from Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 9, 2002. The blue ribbon around his neck said “Rainy Day Farms” and he was a twelve-pound ball of soft fur clinging to me in the backseat, unsure of the ride and where he was heading.
So quiet for a puppy, until we took him to the vet a day or two later and she realized he had Lyme disease. After a round of antibiotics his true personality emerged and he was chewing our furniture like a puppy should.
“Will you show him or castrate him?” the vet, Dr. Olga, asked us at our next visit. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but we chose the latter. He forgave me. If dog shows weren’t in the cards, he still had the look of an LL Bean model. The dog kind, that is.
At every visit, Dr. Olga would examine his paws. In her Russian accent she’d declare his future. “He will be 80 pounds.” His paws kept getting bigger and eventually she said, “He will be 90 pounds.” At his biggest, he was 112 pounds, but I admit that was when Heidi was eating in a high chair and I didn’t mind his helping me “clean up” the floor.
He was the second largest dog in West Concord Puppy Kindergarten although, as with other schools, most awards were given for merit or obedience. In those he excelled in kindness, patience, love and loyalty. Although he’d never go on a walk without tugging on the leash. At first it was because he wanted to run; later it was to grab some discarded food or clumps of fresh cut grass.
We swam with him in pools and rivers when he was young and we were childless. Is there anything more wonderful than a retriever in the water or bouncing through the snow? He rolled in cold snow as if it were sunshine, so good on his furry coat and snout.
He moved with us and saw us through both kids. A gentle giant with them, curious the first day we brought Heidi home, so much so, that wouldn’t venture far on a walk the day she came home in her green car seat. I had walked him everyday during pregnancy and always thought he encouraged me to stay active and healthy. “Thank you, Gilbert,” I’d say later, “I think walking you- and your tugging on the leash--induced my labor just in time.”
It was probably not true, but given the shift in our family’s focus, it was another selfless act on his part. Long trips to the park and long walks in the snow turned into shorter ones, and he took to a supporting role when our lives focused on our kids. Maybe once he pulled the stuffing out of their stuffed animals, but never again. How did he know what was theirs? How did he love them?
He’d steal socks out of the laundry or the suitcase of an unsuspecting guest. He loved women, especially those with blonde hair. He once developed a crush on a woman who owned a video store, aware of her presence a block away.
A few days after his eleventh birthday he sat immobile. Our current vet, also a friend, and another one of Gilbert’s crushes, stopped by the house. In large breeds, she said, this sudden lethargy can often mean….. We knew, but we didn’t want to think much about it.
He perked up the next day. But the following week was off and on. He lost his appetite. His breakfast would sit in the bowl all day. He didn’t want to go for walks. He was slowing down. He was shutting down.
I sat with him for an hour or so yesterday waiting for our vet to come. I’d intended to take him to her office, but he would not stand up. Not even for a hot dog. The real kind. Beef.
I brought him some water. He nibbled on a tiny taste of hot dog I fed him by hand. I held his head in my lap. I told he what he good boy he was. How much we loved him.
The vet and a technician arrived and he stood up—only the second time all day, and greeted her with love. He was happy to see her and tucked his long tail, as if slightly sad that he couldn’t show off more for her.
He lay down. She looked at his gums. She felt his breathing. It was clear this was the end.
So, I held him and told him what a good boy he was. The sedative took effect. His head was warm on my lap and I knew he was feeling a calm sense of peace. He’d just had a hot dog and was surrounded by pretty women.
Then the next injection came and I held and talked to him some more. Such a loving creature to hold and comfort. Then, the warmth was still there, but I knew he no longer was.
Good-bye to sweet Gilbert. He was a noble dog.
The painting of Gilbert was done by Gregory Basmajian, a dear friend's brother who died, too young, late last year.