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Barbara Coombs Lee Headshot

A Dog's Gentle Death

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Our family will always remember this holiday season as the time Sugar died. Sugar was a mixed breed, mostly lab/border-collie type. She exhibited the best character traits of every gene she carried and seemed to bear none of any breed's drawbacks. She was a real credit to her species.

A member of my daughter's household, Sugar was one of my "grand dogs," for whom it was my privilege to dog-sit if her parents went somewhere she was not welcome. Those unwelcome places were few and far between because Sugar met love and enthusiasm everywhere she went. Friends would vie for the chance to keep her when her parents left town. But, I'm proud to say, my daughter believed I was her favorite sitter, so I always got first dibs on her company.

She lived a long time -- almost 16 years -- as her humans' constant companion. Sugar was an enthusiastic participant in daily life, hikes, camping excursions and road trips. She accompanied my daughter to work at a neighborhood art gallery, hanging out on her bed and greeting patrons with gentle good will. She never forgot a face, and offered a smile and nudge of the nose to those she knew. She waited patiently outside restaurants and stores until her people reappeared, came to church and dozed in the corner during choir practice. Of course she attended social and family gatherings, and her birthday celebration was not to be missed as the highlight of the barbecue season.

During her long life Sugar taught us about living well. She taught us about playing and having fun. She taught us the importance of relationships and acknowledging our loved ones in small ways, each day. She taught loyalty and how to abide, steadfast during hard times. In the end, she taught about dying well, too.

Over the past few years deafness, poor vision and a variety of ailments slowed Sugar down and took their toll. Hip degeneration, leg weakness, recurrent bladder infections, a variety of benign tumors, stomach ailments -- all these and more called forth the best in veterinary medicine. When her appetite diminished and she lost 15 percent of her body weight, we hoped the prescribed steroids would perk her up and renew her zest for life.

It was not to be. Sugar took to her bed, stopped eating and drinking, and withdrew from communal interaction. My daughter sent out word that Sugar was dying and the time had come, for those who wished, to stop by and say goodbye. Many, many did. For two days a steady stream of visitors came to Sugar's bedside, told her how they loved her and shed a tear. Sugar acknowledged them with a weak tail wag, but continued her separation from this world.

One last time they brought her to the Oregon coast, her favorite place and what would be her burial ground. In the same cabin where she rested after so many joyful afternoons chasing balls and sticks in the surf, she spent a quiet night and drew her last breath.

As intentional and gracious as she was in living, so she was in dying. Instead of going off to a hiding place in the woods, Sugar let us witness, share and learn from the natural ending to a life complete. That's how generous was her big, big heart.

For more by Barbara Coombs Lee, click here.

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