A few years ago, I moved into a modest three-bedroom in Toluca Lake, California. In addition to moving in with two other guys, I had the joy of having two bonus roommates, a cat and a dog. The cat was, as was to be expected, a little stand-offish but the dog was the sweetest Boxer you’ve ever met. His name was Achilles and he was a good boy.
He never barked, and he’d do this thing where if you were sitting on the couch (or literally anywhere), he’d stare at you with big puppy dog eyes, waiting for you to pet him. If you didn’t figure it out quickly enough, he’d just lay his head on your lap until you figured it out. If you were standing, he’d lean against you. He was willing to meet you halfway; he was a good boy.
I remember how he would do little tricks like sitting and getting up on his hind legs to get a treat. And I remember the day he stopped being able to stand on his hind legs. I called him into the kitchen to give him a treat and said, “Up,” thumping my chest, signaling him to stand. His body compressed like a spring, but instead of standing he yelped. It hurt him to put that much weight on his hind legs. He’d never do that trick again, but he was still a good boy.
For months, he seemed fine. He would still run outside to the little patch of grass in front of our apartment; well, he’d run most of the time. Sometimes he’d be a little slower; we all have our days. But he’d do it and he’d take care of his business, and come back and give more puppy dog eyes so that you’d pet him and snuggle with him. But soon his slowness became the norm, and over those months he became more and more disoriented. My roommate and I always talked about how old of a dog he was, but the reality hit me when my roommate looked me in the eyes one afternoon and very candidly said, “He’s dying, Jeff.”
But we’re all dying; doesn’t mean it’s going to happen soon. Hips always go out on old dogs, it’s a normal thing; we’ve got years!
We had days.
Seeing him deteriorate was hard, mostly because it wasn’t linear. There were some days when he’d only sleep on the couch and barely move, then other days when he’d amble around like nothing was wrong. But something was wrong, and I was having a hard time accepting it.
The hardest night was when I was watching him while my roommate was at work. Achilles was sleeping on the couch, as he normally does. He was a very easy dog to take care of. He’d sleep on the couch, and if he wanted something, he’d come to my room and stare at me. If he wanted to go outside, he’d stare through the doorframe from outside my room. If he wanted to be pet, he’d come inside and rest his head on my lap. He was a really good boy.
But that night was different. He walked into my room, his legs uncoordinated and shaky. I didn’t realize what was wrong until he collapsed on my floor, knocking over several things and letting out a sad sigh. I tried my hardest to carry him from my room to the patch of grass outside, but it was a struggle. He was disoriented and it made him panic, and so he resisted. Eventually, I was able to get him back on his feet. It was at that moment, my roommate arrived. We walked with Achilles from the living room to the patch of grass. He stumbled to his usual spot and finished his business, but on his walk back he fell. As he fell he panicked, legs no longer in his control. He jerked and twisted around on the floor. My roommate ran to him to comfort him. We spent hours outside in the cold with him, and in one sobering moment, I truly understood that he was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I didn’t know it yet, but we only had two more days with him. He hadn’t been eating food, but he’d still eat ice. He always loved ice. Whenever I’d pour ice into a cup, he’d come into the kitchen and beg for a piece, and of course I’d give it to him. It was adorable the way he would get it into his mouth then open-mouth chew it until he was able to swallow it. No matter how terrible he had been feeling, he’d still eat ice. That’s how I knew he was alive. That’s how I knew that he was still alright.
My roommate went to work, so I watched Achilles. He was sleeping in the hallway, so I let him be while I worked. An hour later, I heard a loud crash in the living room. He had tried to jump on the couch by himself, but could only bring up half his body. His legs were locked, his whole body in shock that a task so familiar and routine, had become impossible. I tried to help him onto the couch, but his hind legs wouldn’t bend. He was stuck in a half squat.
I spent the next 30 minutes running between the living room and my bedroom; I was frantically Googling things to understand what was happening and how I could help, but my searches were fruitless. I heard him fall again. He was between the couch and coffee table, belly-up. He let out his now normal, regular sigh. He knew his body was failing him, but I refused to believe it.
He took three deep, slow, labored breathes. “It’s okay,” I said, rubbing his head and ears. I helped him get into a more comfortable position on his side and rubbed his belly. Then the labored breaths stopped.
He had fallen asleep; he was old and exhausted and deserved a good nap. But his eyes were open and he wasn’t moving. “Achilles. Achilles!” I said, hoping he was sleeping with his eyes open or maybe some other weird dog thing that I had never heard of. I rubbed his head and his belly and touched his paws to try to get him to respond.
He was still warm. Maybe it was a coma? I went to the kitchen and grabbed ice. I brought it to his nose, waiting for his head to turn so he could grab it from my hand.
It didn’t turn.
One thing about death that is nothing like the movies, is that eyes stay open. I wanted to try to close them, so he’d at least seem at peace, but they stayed open. I tried to lift him off the floor and put him into a more comfortable position, but his head was heavy and there was no more strength in his neck to support its weight. He was gone.
My roommate called me to see how he was doing; I gave him the bad news. He came home to be with Achilles; I went out to drink.
I came home and my roommate was home. We hugged. We cried. And we remembered the silly memories of a smelly old dog who brightened up our lives by simply existing and loving.
Achilles let us be a part of his pack, and to him, we were his good boys.