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He stepped his little yellow paws into the cold, clean water that filled his brand new stainless bowl. And stared.
His new owners.
Two not-quite-newlywed-but-still-young Carolina kids over 2,000 miles away from home, settling into a new home in Arizona.
Two kids who moved across the country with the taste of adventure on their tongues.
A month later, those two kids had fresh new jobs, so we took the next logical step any young married couple would do: we got a puppy.
We named him Trajan after a roman emperor with architectural ties. Given my graphic design background at the time, I loved the idea that the name was also a font (but of course). So it stuck.
We spent hours training him. Teaching him to paw a bell when he wanted to go out. Sit. Shake. Whisper. Bow. Roll over. Play dead.
We took him on adventures big and small. Making fast friends at the dog park. Trotting through long, sometimes steep hikes. Chilling at camp sites with his dog buddies. He’s even seen the Grand Canyon.
And boy did he love to swim.
Most people in Arizona have pools, so he took any possible opportunity to jump in and swim swim swim. God made labradors for that.
Fast forward 13.5 years.
We’re now two newly-40 adults living back in the Carolinas (just the north one this time). Except we now have kids of our own. Their childhood came with a dog. The default setting. An ever-present part of growing up. They know no other way.
Our kids don’t really remember much of the energetic, adventurous Trajan. As the kids grew to form memories that stay tucked in their heads, there were only glimpses of that version of Trajan. And there were definitely no traces of the unsure little pup that sat in my lap on the car ride to his forever home. He was cozy and comfortable with his life, even if his body eventually wasn’t.
He had a host of health issues that would rival any old man: diabetes for 8 years, blindness for 6, one “dead” eye for 3, Cushing’s Disease for a few years, deafness for around 18 months, and so on.
Yet he was resilient in every way possible.
He hadn’t slept through the night with any regularity for a few years. And neither had we. Instead, we’d sleepily shuffle from the downstairs master bedroom to the back door to let him out in the middle of the night. Multiple times a night.
Because that’s what pet owners do. What we need to do. We adapt, even if it’s inconvenient.
And when he started losing control of his legs a few months ago, we’d reach underneath him and boost his body up so he could walk to his destination. Sometimes 20 times a day.
Because that’s what you do.
And when he started losing control of his bowels and didn’t even realize what happened until it happened, we’d just grab some toilet paper and clean it up.
Because that’s what you do.
Upon learning Trajan was going blind years ago, I remember a vet told us “you should consider not keeping him since you have young children at home.” We never spoke to her again. It never even crossed our mind that he wouldn’t be with us until the end, no matter his conditions.
Because when your dog is family, that’s what you do.
We gave him almost 6,000 injections over the years. Probably 200 doses of his weekly chemo pills (for Cushing’s). And who knows how much other medicine. And we would have kept it up even longer.
But he was ready to let go.
Trajan, the lab who used to run laps around the backyard, full of excitement.
Trajan, who left a bare spot in the grass because he loved to roll in that exact spot.
Trajan, who’d perch his muzzle at the edge of the couch, hoping for some buttery popcorn.
Trajan, the wonder lab who went on so many adventures big and small, was weary.
When I made the call to talk to our vet to discuss his worsening health from that week, I told him I guess I was waiting for an event that would make the choice from us. And he, knowing Trajan so well, said, “Trajan is a fighter. He just rolls with the punches, so I don’t know you’ll get that from him.”
He was right.
The truth was that Trajan had been giving us “events” for months. Like tremors that come before an earthquake. The nighttime roaming, the panting, the back legs not working, the days I’d come home from work to find him laying in the floor because he couldn’t get up. In isolation they were easier to accept, but when you started to connect the dots, you saw the bigger picture of his health. And it wasn’t good.
Deep breaths, I told myself.
It will be okay.
He will be free of his limiting body.
He belongs there now.
I picked up the phone and made the appointment. After I hung up the phone, Daniel and I held each other on the back porch and sobbed.
Emperor Trajan of Arizona was put to sleep on a Tuesday. He was three months shy of 14 years old.
I took the kids to my mom’s after they gave Trajan one last hug around the neck and pat on the head.
A few days before, we had told the kids the news. All four of us sat on a couch and bawled.
The kids had never seen their dad cry before. The staggering news paired with the evidence of their parents’ pain showed in their eyes. I won’t forget that.
The next few days were filled with lots of Trajan time and treat giving. His last dinner was a Five Guys burger. I sat on the floor with him and shared a bowl of popcorn. He got one last walk with just Daniel and me, sniffing all there was to sniff.
Then we hoisted him into the car for one last ride, with the windows down so he could feel the spring breeze on his face. He couldn’t see and he couldn’t hear, but feel he could. And he did.
The experience was heart-wrenching, but I couldn’t imagine not being there for him.
It started with us. Picking up a yellow, floppy-pawed pup that would change our lives.
It ended with us. Stroking the body of a soft-eared, hazy-eyed dog as his final moment slipped from the earth.
He softly passed to a world where he’s running free with eyes that can see, ears that can hear, and legs that don’t give out.
We puddled in the floor beside him, crying over his body that still remained. He, however, had moved on.
A piece of me floated away with him that day. When I looked at Trajan, I saw an old pup who lived a long, happy life. I saw my life reflected. A life when it was just two young souls with an adventurous dog. A life with children running through the house and a loyal dog by their side. Me going through my 20s, 30s, and turning the corner of 40.
From a prancing puppy to unsteady old dog, I witnessed the full life of God’s creature within a sliver of my own.
He embodied a piece of time. And that time was now gone.
Parts of Trajan still linger around the house.
A ball of fur in the corner. A bone under the couch. A dog bed with his imprints still visible.
We now also have his ashes in an unadorned mahogany box. And a beautiful portrait of him my sister painted. He’s with us, even if I don’t hear the clicking of his paws traipsing across the hardwoods any longer.
Sometimes I cry because he’s gone, and sometimes I still walk through the door thinking he’ll be laying in our bedroom floor.
Loss screams in your face, then is faint like a whisper. And back and forth and back and forth.
But faith reminds you that it’ll all be okay.
It’ll be okay.