In the past year, each time I've consoled people who've had to say goodbye to their pets, I've taken comfort in knowing I wouldn't have to face that for a few years ... longer if I were lucky. Ranger has been the one constant in my life over the past decade.
It all happened so fast. He was diagnosed with cancer last week, and I couldn't find a way to avoid the grip of that awful decision.
Now it's done. I still by habit look for him to come charging through the dog door to greet me at day's end; as I walk upstairs at bedtime, I glance behind me, expecting him to be on my heels.
Countless maudlin stories have been written by people about their dogs, but forgive me, for I must tell another; there is no choice, based on the space he occupies in my thoughts.
Ranger was a good dog like so many good dogs, but I think he was more than that. To me for certain, but he won over so many other hearts. Those golden eyes and the sweetness that permeated all he did. He was a special dog, said my sister, who has owned plenty of dogs. She said it matter-of-factly rather than in an attempt to soothe me, even though it did. "He just was."
The dog had skills.
He mastered all the commands you'd expect, but also hand and whistle commands. It was like poetry watching him time his jump to catch a Frisbee. He retrieved like a pro, whether it was tennis balls or grouse (or even a remote control). In fact, I could throw several balls and he would wait for me to tell him which ones to retrieve first.
He was my constant companion, including backpacking and canoe trips; in the canoe he'd sit up high on the bow, scanning each turn of the river.
The one command he never perfected was "stay." He insisted on being at my side.
When I went on vacation without him, he'd hold a grudge, barely giving me a look. Then I'd scratch him under the chin just the way he liked, and all was forgiven with a string of wet dog kisses.
I almost lost him several years ago. We were on a canoe trip on Idaho's Snake River, and made camp on an island some 50 yards off shore. Then we canoed ashore to explore a cave high on a bluff. Because it was steep, I sat him at its base and told him sternly to stay.
When I returned a short time later, he was gone. I figured that, unable to climb the cliff, he'd tried to find a way around and gotten lost. I searched and called for hours, until it was completely dark.
I was desperate, but searching in the dark was futile and I canoed back to camp. First, I tied my shirt to a tree on shore so he might pick up my scent ... maybe be there waiting for me in the morning.
I knew it was unlikely. It was a big wilderness full of predators (in fact, I'd seen the remains of their dinners in that cave) and as I lay in the tent I tried to comprehend that he might be gone for good. I knew I had just half the following day to search before I had to head downriver lest people count me as missing, too. I'd return to search again, but the odds seemed astronomical.
Then, late at night, I thought I heard splashing ... could it be, I wondered? Would he really be able to swim that far against a strong current at night? I quickly unzipped the tent and was headed for the water's edge when he emerged from the darkness and bounded up the bank, a dripping, joyous streak of fur.
Remembering that wet dog curled up against me that night ... I'll never forget how happy I was.
Ranger often made me proud, whether it was a duck hunting trip to Saskatchewan, where my mutt (he was a springer spaniel/Labrador mix) held his own retrieving with pedigreed Labradors, or when his good manners drew compliments.
On his last night, I picked him up from the vet ... those last 15 hours were ours only. I took him to a dog park. He hadn't eaten in days, but his tail was wagging and he was making friends. One last time, he even pulled off one of his best tricks, charming a woman playing with her own dog. Her name was Shannon, and I could tell Ranger was happy when she scratched the soft white fur on his chest.
"If it's possible to fall in love in such a short time, I think I just did," she said to him.
We both wiped away tears when I told her. She gave me a hug and then I took Ranger home for the last time.
In the morning, I took him to a bench high on a hillside with a view of the valley and looked into the sunrise, his head on my lap. His black fur picked up the sun's warmth and it felt good on my fingers. I murmured soothing words and talked about old times ... so many adventures together.
As the time drew near my mind searched over and over for an out. His eyes had pleaded with me for days to make this right, to help him get well. No matter how many times I ran the facts through my head I couldn't find a way. There was no viable option, no other way to keep him from suffering, the veterinarian assured me each time I asked. But I still feel guilt.
"I'm so sorry," I told him over and over, and I sometimes say it still.
I am grateful to Dr. Jennifer Zanaty and the staff at Lone Mountain Veterinary Hospital. They did all they could, and made him comfortable enough so I could take him home that last night. They see people like me almost every day under the same circumstances, and yet their compassion is real, and so very important.
I'm lucky I had Ranger as long as I did, and I'm lucky the memory of him jumping into my arms that night on the island is still so clear and strong. Right now, though, it is dwarfed by the sadness of knowing it will never happen again.
• Barry Ginter is editor of the Appeal. Contact him at 881-1221 or email@example.com.