Mike was a herding dog with no herd.
Though he tried to treat my wife and me like sheep -- guiding us to the door when he had to pee or to his dog bowl when he was hungry -- the arrival of our boys gave him a clear purpose. And like us, he quickly found himself completely overwhelmed. Sheep, after all, don't pretend to be ninjas and run screaming up and down the hall.
His default state seemed to be "worried" and the boys' energy exacerbated that. When they were truly on a tear, he'd often glance at me -- face long, eyes full of concern -- as if to ask, "Is this normal?" My silent reply, always one of commiseration: "I have no idea." (Of course, raising him helped prepare me for parenthood in ways I could not have imagined.)
Still, he did what he could. When the boys were babies and adjusting to sleeping in their cribs, he'd spend the nights on the rug in their room. When one of them woke crying, he'd come into our room and nudge one of us. I didn't have the heart to tell him we'd already heard the cry.
Because of Mike, the boys have a love and respect for animals I've not seen in most children. When he stole food from their plate, they got upset that they'd left it within reach, but they never blamed him. And their favorite excuse for getting out of bed at night was always to give him a hug.
Throughout his life, his main concern was just knowing where we were. He'd wake from a nap, notice the house was empty, then wander the halls and, eventually, out into the backyard until he spotted me or my wife or the boys. Once he found us, he'd pick a spot out of the way to lie down. And that, I think, is how I'll remember him. A quiet family member who just wanted to know we were there, that we were OK.
So strong was his need to find us, he once escaped a mobile groomer's truck parked in our driveway. Sitting in the living room, my wife and I heard the groomer shouting, "No! No! NO! NOOOO!" Then, Mike came galloping into the living room, dripping wet and covered with suds. He saw us and stopped. That's all he needed.
As he aged and his eyesight failed him, his searches through the house became longer, more labored. Sometimes, he'd awake from a nap by the couch and set off to find us though we were already right next to him.
He died with his head in my hands as my wife rubbed his ears. Though blind and deaf by that point, I hope in that moment he understood that he didn't have to search for us, that we were right there.
Many people suggested I ease the pain for the boys by getting another dog. I appreciate the advice, but I'm not taking it for one simple reason: I want my boys to experience the pain.
As uncomfortable as it makes me to write, Mike's death provides a last service for our family. My boys are now learning about grief, loss and finality. They're starting to comprehend why my wife and I get upset when they say they're going to "kill" the bad guy while they're playing superheroes. Play is fun, death is serious.
On a recent trip, the boys occasionally asked about him. The progression of their questions and thoughts revealed the path of their understanding...
Wyatt: "Is Mike in the back of the van?"
My Wife: "No, hon. Mike passed away, remember?"
Later in the trip...
Boone: "Is Mike still at the vet?"
Me: "Mike died, buddy. The vet helped him die peacefully. OK?"
Wyatt: "What's this song about?"
My Wife: "I don't know. I like to think it's about something you want to remember, something that makes you happy."
Wyatt: "I want this song to be about Mike."
Like any good dog, Mike enriched our family. And even in death, he's helping us teach a heartbreaking, yet vital lesson to our boys. They don't seem to be throwing the words "kill" or "dead" around anymore. They understand the inescapable gravity of those words, the pain of their reality.
Now that he's gone, I find myself waking in the middle of the night to the faint clicks of his toenails on the hardwood, like I used to hear when he searched for us or wanted us to open the door for him to go outside. Each time, as the room comes into focus, the sound goes away -- just a memory that refuses to accept the painful truth.
In those moments, I'll sometimes get out of bed and loop through the living room, down the hall, past the boys' room. I know he's no longer in the house, but I guess some part of me keeps looking, just wanting to know that Mike's there, that he's OK... That I'm OK.