Last year, veteran broadcaster and occasional First Coast Connect contributor Jay Solomon introduced us to his 14-year-old Labrador retriever, Sam. A year later, he has this update.
Sam was just about to celebrate his 14th birthday when I brought him to your attention. Being a big old yellow Labrador retriever means he had a lot more mileage on him than the typical family teenager, and I recounted how his loyalty, affection and protectiveness remained constant despite the growing list of physical issues challenging him.
We were amazed and thankful for his perseverance but, sad to say, Sam’s 15th year was tougher than anything that confronted him earlier. While still excited when we filled his food dish or took him outside to walk or prowl the yard, he became increasingly distant from us because of arthritis, failing sight and almost total loss of hearing. I would whistle for him from 10 feet away and his head might go up, but he couldn’t detect the source of the sound.
He started to trip while on his walks, and fall down when stepping the few inches to get off the back porch. Because of personal plumbing issues, we had to keep Sam in the kitchen overnight and when we were out of the house. We moved his bed there too, and that’s where he spent most of his time. He still seemed happy, though, with wagging tail and his big Lab smile whenever one of us was near.
Then came episodes when Sam suddenly seemed to go down hill. Time and again, we looked at each other and said this was it; we were going to lose him. But just as suddenly, he’d bounce back. Eventually, though, more and more, we’d have to help him just to stand up.
We began questioning ourselves. Were we keeping Sam alive simply to push off the inevitable loss? Did we discuss the alternative of putting him to sleep because it would make our lives more convenient? I talked to the vet about it. He said the point where it’s necessary to act is not clear cut, but we would know when we got there.
To watch Sam sleep, everything seemed normal. When his paws would start moving accompanied by the occasional "woof," it brought back memories of runs on the beach and surfing the waves, of racing beside my bike on a quiet neighborhood street, and of madcap chases through the house in hot pursuit of a toy or ball. But is sleeping almost all day, every day really living?
I asked Sam about it. Our talks were more thought transference than conversation, but they were frequent. I put his big head between my knees as he sat in front of my chair, scratched his ears, and looked him in the eye.
"How you doing buddy?"
"Been better," he said.
"Sam, what do you want to do?"
"It’s not really up to me, is it?" he responded.
"Well then, what do you want me to do?"
"Hmm," he mused. "What would you want if you were me?"
"Wow. Good question. There are lots of variables. I don’t want to be a burden. I do know I don’t want to be kept going with machines and that stuff if all life means is I have a pulse and there’s no chance of improvement."
Sam asked, "Is the family OK with that?"
"Yes," I said. "Everyone knows."
He raised his eyebrows. "If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me," he said. "But what about... 'after'?"
"You mean, after I die?"
"I wrote a little poem about it," I said. "It’s called, 'One Last Thing':
"Cremate me, when I’m quite dead. And then, my ashes spread, by the sea."
Sam’s big tail thumped on the carpet. "If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me," he said.
A couple of weeks later, just after Sam reached the remarkable age of 15, we knew it was time. Wise and loving as always, Sam had prepared me. He had taken me off the emotional hook about what to do.
We took him to the vet’s office where he had received his puppy shots, and we sat on the floor of the exam room with him as he got his last shot. He moved closer to me as the muscle relaxant began to take effect, offering those incredibly soft ears for one last scratch… comforting us as we tried to comfort him.
A breeder counseled us when our first yellow Lab died many years ago.
"It’s not like losing a spouse," she said. "You can get another dog to fill that newly empty place in your heart."
We took her advice then, and we’ll do it again now. After all, that’s the advice that led us to Sam.
With all due respect, I’m Jay Solomon.