THE BLOG
12/13/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

A Fair Exchange

Today is beautiful. The snow is falling, there's a fire in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree lights are glowing. But as I wrap presents, hang "just one more" ornament on the tree, bake cookies, and listen to Manheim Steamroller and Trans Siberian Orchestra CDs, I find myself getting a bit teary. My own pleasure and contentment remind me of the sense of loss and sadness two other people must be feeling.

Yesterday, a longtime friend of the shelter where I work -- I'll call her Hope -- brought her cat in to the medical center to be humanely euthanized. The cat had found herself at the shelter last year for reasons I don't recall. Miss Daisy, as we named her, was confused, cranky, and -- in her middle teens -- not what one might describe as "highly adoptable." It didn't help that she rebuffed most people's attempts to show affection.

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But despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- Hope stepped in to help. She agreed to foster Miss Daisy with the intention of adopting her if she and Hope's dog got along. Perhaps Miss Daisy knew this was her best chance because while she and the dog never became what you'd call friends, they were able to coexist.

Hope knew that her time with Miss Daisy might be short, but she was committed to making the cat feel loved and cared for. When Miss Daisy's health began to decline, Hope did everything possible to preserve her quality of life. And when the time came that Miss Daisy's life no longer had quality, Hope made the difficult but generous decision to let her go.

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When she arrived at the shelter, Hope mentioned that she had no photographs of Miss Daisy. I told her I had taken some when Miss Daisy arrived at the shelter and offered to print them for her. While appreciative of the offer, Hope asked if I would take one more so she could have images to remind her of both the beginning and end of Miss Daisy's journey with her.

I feel privileged to have been able to do that for Hope... especially after all she did for Miss Daisy, but I have to admit that it wasn't easy. Just a few short hours earlier, my good friend Sandy had said goodbye to a beloved canine companion.

I've known Sandy -- and her dog Jocy -- for more than a decade, ever since the day Sandy and I met at a volunteer orientation for a county animal welfare organization. Since then, we've spent countless hours together...taking foster dogs to adoption shows, veterinary appointments, and home visits; enjoying good wine and good food in bars, restaurants, and each other's homes; and even indulging our mutual love of travel with explorations both domestic and international.

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At least two of our "girls" trips included Jocy. One was a weekend on Maryland's eastern shore, where Jocy indulged her love of the water along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The other was a visit to the Poconos, where Sandy, Jocy, my dog Ceiligh, and I enjoyed peaceful walks in the woods and even a quick dip in a cold mountain stream... the dogs, not us. Such are the experiences of which wonderful memories are made.

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Jocy was a sweet, calm, even-tempered dog who seemed to love everybody and everything, especially her food and her "mom." She was the benevolent leader of a three-dog pack and served as a great canine "sister" and role model to dozens of foster dogs over the past decade.

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Last year, Jocy began showing the signs of age, including a progressive weakening of her hind limbs. Sandy and her family did what they could to make Jocy's life easier, carpeting first the stairs and then the floors of rooms Jocy frequented to give her the traction she needed. When Jocy could no longer make it up and down the stairs, Sandy and her husband took turns sleeping in the first-floor family room with her so she didn't feel abandoned by her "pack" at night. They fitted her with a handled harness to help her walk. In short, they did everything humanly possible to make her life comfortable.

But eventually, inevitably, "everything" wasn't enough. Deciding that existence isn't life, Sandy and her family asked their veterinarian to make a special house call.

And so my pleasure in the joys of today is tempered by other, somewhat complicated emotions. I feel sympathy for Hope's and Sandy's losses. I feel a sense of melancholy as I remember my own departed loved ones. And I feel admiration for and appreciation of the courage it took these women to ease their loved ones' passage.

Such a decision can be painful almost beyond bearing, but when life has become a struggle rather than a celebration, it is also, I believe, the greatest gift we can give our animal companions... and the price we pay for their extraordinary gift to us: the gift of companionship.

I'd say it's a fair exchange.