In Memory Of Rocky

It's been five years since I lost my beloved beagle Rocky. In his memory, I'd like to repost a little something I wrote about him after my family and I were forced to put him to sleep:

Written June 6, 2007

On Monday morning, I got up, I showered, I clipped my fingernails, I ate a blueberry fruit pie, and then I paid a man to kill my dog.

It was all legal and everything. A veterinarian with a white table and a syringe. All very humane and professional. But that's really what it boils down to, isn't it? I took out a hit on my beloved beagle for 74 dollars. Oh, and I'd like to put that on my credit card, please.

His name was Rocky. A name I wasn't incredibly fond of, but he started out as my nephew's dog, so the choice was entirely out of my hands. As the years passed, though, the name conjured fewer Stallonian images as the dog made it his own. Besides, the name was easy to play with — Rock, Rock-o, 30 Rock, Rock-a-doodle-doo. Though I usually just called him Stinky Dog.

Really, I didn't have much contact with him until I moved back to Texas from California in 2000. I saw him whenever I visited my parents' house, where Rocky spent his days patrolling the backyard. My nephew couldn't keep Rocky where he lived, so the dog stayed with my mom and dad.

Still, I didn't take a real interest in him at the time. After all, he wasn't my dog. And none could replace Fred, the beagle I lost to an episode of canine epilepsy when I was a kid. Although it had been years since Fred's passing, I didn't feel I really had a use for another dog.

Over time, though, Rocky's cucumber charm started to draw my attention. He was the mellowest dog I'd ever met. Sure, he'd play when it wasn't too hot outside, chasing a slippery plastic football or doing that thing dogs do where they crouch down and wait for you to flinch, then run in a circle at top speed for 15 seconds. But, mostly, he just chilled.

And I had never seen a dog take food in stride the way Rocky did. Most mutts will dive straight into their dishes the moment you start pouring the kibble. Rocky would linger about, watch you fill the bowl, then wait to see if anything better was on the menu. He'd look up as if to ask, "Any stale bacon? Maybe some gravy you're not using?" Only after you scratched his ear a couple more times and went back inside would he amble over, fish a few pellets out, then carry them over to the doormat, where he'd savor them one at a time.

He didn't mind sharing, either. Too many times, I caught the local bird population brazenly stealing bits straight out of his bowl. Rocky just laid there, 12 inches away, watching them from his Dogloo. I imagined the birds later expressed their gratitude by cleaning his bed of debris when I wasn't looking.

I actually believe Rocky maintained a friendly rapport with most of the resident wildlife, holding the post of benevolent warden. As long as the other animals respected the grounds, and each other, everybody would get along just fine. He preferred quiet amity over aggression. Anytime we'd try to get him to chase a squirrel who was pilfering pecans off the ground, he'd just turn back to us and give us a look that said, "What? The squirrel? Yeah, I see him. That's Phil. Nice guy. Likes jazz."

He wasn't lazy. He just didn't see a point to all the barking and running. All that noise and commotion was just ... pedestrian. Unless he heard you pull up in the driveway, then there was something worth clamoring about. He didn't really bark, though. He produced more of a sharp howl, a kind of "Awruh! Awruh!" that made his voice crack. Come to think of it, he sounded a lot like a seal.

Rocky was always well behaved, even though we never had to train him, even informally. He would obey commands he was never taught, although he always let you know he was complying because he wanted to, not just because you said so. He was his own dog. He'd come when called, but only after he was done standing right where he was for the originally intended duration.

Even when my parents started letting him live inside, he never had to be housetrained. He just stood silently with his nose to the back door until somebody noticed he had to go pee. When he was done, and had completed a ceremonial patrol of the perimeter, he scratched on the screen door ever so quietly. Thank you. All done. I'd like to come back in now if that's cool with you guys.

By the time my father retired 2 years ago and my parents moved to the country, I couldn't help but consider Rocky my dog. My nephew had ceded custody long ago, and although technically my dad took care of him, Rocky had surreptitiously dug out a shady corner in my heart the way only a faithful pet can do. Honestly, I think he had the same effect on my dad, although the old man tried not to let on how choked up he got when we left the vet's office on Monday.

Rocky lived to be over 100 years old, though you never would have guessed his age. When he perked up his ears, he still looked like a puppy, and could chase down a field mouse if he really wanted to. Of course, he'd just corner it and give it the what-for. Even in his new rural territory, he maintained his status as the kind-hearted warden.

In the last couple of months, though, age had begun to take its toll. Rocky started having trouble getting around and was rapidly losing his hearing and his sight. Some days were better than others, but more and more, he was becoming disoriented. Sometimes he might look you straight in the face, but only if the light was really good and only if he was plenty rested. Most of the time, he had trouble even finding his water bowl.

He took to feeling his way along the walls and furniture to find his route. But if he missed one turn, he'd end up in the wrong room, lost. Outside, if he couldn't find a familiar marker, he'd get stuck adrift, walking in a little circle until someone came to put him back on course. Naturally, he would never admit his difficulty. If you pulled him by the collar, he'd refuse to follow, as if he knew exactly where he was going, thank you very much. You had to casually nudge him with your leg as if you just happened to be going his direction, and when he was ready, he'd join you.

But, at night, his stubborn resolve would wear thin. He'd wake up every hour or so, confused and out of character, barking until someone rubbed his head to let him know they were there and to calm him back to sleep. The disorientation, and his failing metabolism, were becoming too much to handle.

Still, having him put down just didn't feel right. He didn't appear to be in any pain. He was just getting old. I imagine it wouldn't have been long before he just laid down for a nap and didn't wake up again.

Then again, maybe Rocky's stubborn resolve wasn't wearing thin like we thought. Maybe he wasn't scared, he was just letting Death know who was in charge. It wouldn't surprise me to know it wasn't disorientation that disturbed his sleep, but a recurring vision of a pushy, white retriever barking sternly and insisting that Rocky follow. Except Rocky wasn't ready. He'd come along when he decided he wanted to. And only if he were headed that direction. I keep asking myself if maybe I shouldn't have just let him depart on his own time after all, like with everything else.

But, in all honesty, I know his health was worsening. His legs were starting to give him trouble, too, and it was best that he was still able, however slowly, to walk into the vet's office of his own volition.

So, if I'm totally honest with myself, I think maybe I'm not upset about having to put him to sleep so much as I'm angry about not being with him when it happened. The vet had asked if I or my father wanted to go back and be with him through the procedure, and in my mind, I fully expected to do just that. The whole morning, I considered whether I wanted to witness his passing and I had decided I did. I couldn't just drop him off like a bag of dry cleaning. It would have hurt to see it, but I wanted him to have someone familiar there, scratching his ears till he fell asleep.

When I asked what I should expect, though, the vet advised against my being there. He made the offer, then told me it wasn't a good idea. He rescinded and I gave in. Instead, I removed Rocky's collar, gave him a hug and an extended head rub, watched him smile, and left. I stood in the waiting room until the vet opened the door again and gave a respectful nod to let us know it was done.

That night, as I was falling asleep, stoned and drunk, it occurred to me I had been calling him Stinky Dog less and less. Until that moment, I didn't realize I had been addressing him as "pal" for some time now. And his pal should have been there.

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