My wife, who rises earlier than I do because she has the morning dog-walking duties, woke me the other day to tell me that Thatcher was not moving.
Thatcher is a Goldendoodle or “Groodle,” a species developed in the 1990s by crossing a Golden Retriever with a Poodle. She joined our family about the same time our youngest child graduated high school and headed off to college. Thanks to Thatcher, we did not become empty-nesters.
The previous day, my wife had taken her on a five mile hike. That night, she lay by my feet in the living room, asleep by the fire, while I binged on White Lotus. When I got up to go to bed, I stepped over her carefully and wished her a good night. Sometime that night, she had stirred, moved to our bedroom, lain down, and died quietly without disturbing us.
When my wife woke me, Thatcher was lying beside our bedroom door, facing toward the patio. It appeared that she had been thinking of going out. Instead, she died as she had lived, causing no trouble.
She was just shy of 13, a long life for a dog.
Thatcher had the sweetest disposition an animal could have. She was visibly overjoyed when anyone – friend, relative, postman, deliveryman — rang the bell. She raced to the door to welcome the visitor and to ascertain by a hurried nasal inspection where he had recently been, whether he had pets, and whether he was carrying treats. She held a firm conviction that any creature walking on two legs was put on Earth to play with her.
Her benevolence did not extend to all animals. She would bark furiously at any dog walking in the neighborhood if its route brought it within a hundred yards of our home. But that was mainly for show. Once introduced to the encroaching dog, and after some perfunctory sniffing, she would lower herself down to her play position and invite the newcomer to chase her or to be chased.
She had one hatred that brooked no compromise. It was directed toward turkey vultures, an odiously unattractive species who live nearby and often soar above our back deck. No matter the altitude, if they were within sight, Thatcher considered them a mortal threat. She would rise on her hind legs, in the vain hope of somehow elevating herself one or two hundred feet upward to confront them. She knew her limits, and must have figured out that the tactic was futile. Nevertheless, she would bark fiercely, making it plain there could never be peace between her and any members of that tribe.
During dinner, Thatcher would anger my wife by begging for food. She employed a tactic which I found irresistible. She would place her head on my lap, look up at me with her languid brown eyes, and emit quiet mournful sounds. My wife, quite rightly, barred me from succumbing to her pleas. But after dinner, while cleaning up, I often allowed her to pre-wash our dishes, and she manifested her gratitude by licking my hand after licking our plates.
For the most part, life was a series of clear choices for Thatcher. Being fed, washed, or petted were always good things to be welcomed. Invader dogs, eye drops, and, above all, turkey vultures were always bad things to be hated.
But there were also dilemmas which defied clear choices.
For example, Thatcher could never decide about surrendering a ball. She appreciated my using the chucker to fling a ball for her to retrieve. In fact, the sight of me heading toward the door, chucker and ball in hand, drove her into paroxysms of anticipation. But once I had flung the ball and she had retrieved it, she was torn. She knew she had to give up the ball in order for me to fling it again. And she wanted me to do that. But she desired to maintain possession of the ball, and was loath to give it up.
The result of the dilemma was a truce which neither side found satisfactory. She would let me approach, and then drop the ball. But before I could grab it, she would snatch it away from me, and chew on it with a rueful expression which seemed to say: “I really want you to have the ball, but what can I do? I’m a dog.”
For most of our life together, Thatcher was our youngest child, the one who would never desert us to go off to college. But late in life, Thatcher displayed parental qualities which surprised and pleased my wife and me.
When we become grandparents, Thatcher helped us with babysitting duties. She had of course been “fixed” (a terrible misnomer – there was nothing wrong with her) early in life. But the surgery did not totally divest her of her maternal instincts. During visits, she stood over the grandchildren protectively, and she was tolerant when they climbed and rolled over her, enjoying her soft fur. She did not even mind when they jabbed her with their favorite books, apparently expecting her to read to them. All these indignities she bore with stoic patience, occasionally licking their faces to reassure them.
Our grandchildren are quite young. My wife and I, and our daughters, have not figured out how to tell them that they won’t roll over Thatcher’s soft fur again.
Thatcher may or may not have been correct in her belief that all creatures who walk on two legs were put on the Earth to play with her. But it is certain that we such creatures were put on the Earth to befriend and to care for dogs, protecting and nurturing them. That duty also extends to deciding when to end their lives, if age or disease renders such lives not worth living.
Many of our friends have had to make that difficult decision. We did not, because Thatcher made it for us. She died peacefully on her own, without any help from us.
Yet another gift – one of many – which she bestowed upon us.