03/15/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Final Gift

We sit gathered around his bed, listening to his labored breathing. The tumor distends his belly like some malignant child crying to be born. The pain is palpable. It's time.

"When I give him the sedative it will only be four or five seconds and he'll be in a sort of twilight," the doctor says. "So if you'd like to say your goodbyes you should do that now. Take your time."

My wife and I glance at each other and then at him. He looks back. His tail shifts briefly, a limp wag, a glimmer of days gone by now at their end. And in that moment, my only thought is "What can I say?"

Of course, the words matter only to me. The important thing is to suppress the tears and to smile: a final gift to him as recompense for all the gifts he's given to us.

In a flash it's there. The mornings huddled close, the three of us, sharing warmth, softly shaking off sleep. Heartbeats like comforting clockwork counting off the moments before we arise. On coming home, the joy of reunion. Pure joy. The walks, the games, the countless sparkling, family moments long since passed from memory.

And the others. The day of the first bleed: massive, flowing, uncontrollable. A nasal carcinoma. Radiation. The next bleed. A splenetic tumor. The slow and steady deterioration that brought us to this moment, here, now.

"It's okay, take your time."

What can I say? How do you distill the years into a few simple words, the last words, the final catharsis?

I lean forward and whisper into his ear.

* * * * *

Peebucks had been my wife's dog for 11 years. I met him before we started dating, his first greeting being an emphatic but well-intended whack to the shin from his tail. It may have bruised (when he was happy that thing could really start whipping, as dozens of coffee table-height wine glasses could attest to). When I sat down he was on my lap in an instant, no small feat for an 80-lb pit bull, making me the somewhat reluctant recipient of a thorough (and surprisingly warm) facial tongue bath. "I would normally have never let him do that," my wife would later tell me. "You seemed so natural with him, I just thought you were a dog person." I wasn't. I am now. Peebucks made me one.

The connection I developed with him over the next five years was something I wouldn't have believed possible until it happened. Not with a dog. I mean, how close can you get to someone whose greatest pleasures in life include eating dirty underwear and rotting trash? (For all the things Peebucks was, I wouldn't say "classy" was one of them.)

Well, let me tell you, if you've never owned a pet before you'd be surprised. Disgusting becomes endearing. Sloppy face baths become "kisses." And the annoyances... ok, they're still annoying. But there's one thing you always get: completely unconditional love. That makes everything else irrelevant. In that way, they become like a child. However, unlike a parent, a pet owner must live not with the tragic possibility but with the inevitability that one day you will see your child die.

* * * * *

I turn to the doctor and nod. "Okay." I see my wife, arms wrapped tightly around him, cuddling him close in a final embrace. Then I look back, knowing that this is the last time those brown eyes will meet mine. In the briefest of seconds they begin to cloud. He lies down, but I'm relieved to see not a flicker of pain or fear cross through them. The needle comes out and the next one goes in.

I know that this one will stop his heart.

I try to suspend time, to turn these last seconds into minutes, days, by pure strength of will. He's still there. I can see it, just now, right now. If only forever, but at least in this moment the light remains. And then it doesn't.

"He's gone. I'm sorry."

* * * * *

I know he couldn't understand those words I said to him. They were mostly for me I guess. But I hope he understood the touch of our hands on his neck, the warmth of my breath on his ear: that we were there with him, that we would not leave, and that he will never, ever leave us.

I try to take comfort in his peace now, knowing that the pain is gone and rests now only with us. And these words, perhaps, are what I wish I could have said to him if I could pierce the barrier of language. But there is another language we spoke as he passed to the other side, a silent language that needs no words. That was the Final Gift we shared.

As for me, my simple parting will have to suffice:

"Bye Buddy. I Love You."