Ten years ago on Thanksgiving morning, my husband and I did not yet understand what we might lose.
We were driving with both our geriatric Jack Russells (Barney and Boog) to meet my family for a few days near West Jefferson, N.C., in a cabin in the woods. We did not often take our dogs with us on travels, but Boog, the smaller, fluffier of the two, had been sick and needed a regimen of medicine I thought might be too demanding for the pre-teen who usually took care of the dogs when we vacationed. So, at the last minute, Barney and Boog; their beds, bones, and food; their leashes and meds; and their little winter jackets got packed along with our things.
But at a gas station toward the end of the two-hour trip, I noticed Barney’s head looked a little funny. Preston (my husband) noticed, too. Barney’s skin looked saggy at the throat. We shrugged it off and got back in the car.
By the time we arrived that afternoon to the cabin in the woods, Barney’s white, furry face had blown up to the size of a small football. We didn’t know what was wrong, but we were sure it wasn’t good. Barney wasn’t just old, but had become increasingly frail and suffered from dementia. He often walked toward walls and stood facing them for a while before realizing where he was and figuring out that turning around might be a good thing. Barney had been my running buddy, but more recently, he couldn’t keep up with even my slow jog.
And so on that fateful Thanksgiving, as Barney’s face grew bigger and bigger, we knew his end was looming round the corner. We ate an early and somber Thanksgiving meal with my family before getting back into the car with Barney and driving through the darkness toward the closest emergency vet, in Boone. We talked about Barney on our way there, and though I don’t remember now which stories we told, I do know there were plenty: like the time Preston was sitting with Barney on a lawn for an Alison Krauss concert. Barney was a pup then, still learning the ways of the world, and he must have noticed all the other dogs on the lawn and decided to mark his territory. Except instead of peeing on the grass around where Preston sat, Barney lifted his leg, and peed on Preston’s back. After that, it was perfectly clear Preston was his and no one else’s.
In his old age, Barney had lost many things, including most of his teeth, but he had never lost his Jack Russellness. He still strained at his leash when faced with other barking, snarling dogs, especially the neighbor one I had dubbed “Cujo” who lunged at us and threatened to run through his electric fence every time we walked by. I loved Barney in part for how tough he was, so full of fight, even one he was sure to lose if tested.
But that Thanksgiving, as the headlights of our car bled white into the night, Preston and I were sure this fight was over. By the time we were led into the examination room, we’d each held Barney, and we’d each cried.
The vet inspected Barney for only a few minutes. Bad news never takes long enough to really be prepared.
The vet looked at us. We braced ourselves.
“He has an abscessed tooth,” he said, and handed us antibiotics. “He’ll be fine.”
In a moment, Barney was back in my arms, and we were on our way to the car, back to where we’d started. Barney was oblivious, his only concern being when he was going to get a treat.
That night, we drove again to the cabin in the woods with our old dog, grateful for time we thought had run out, grateful for a life we weren’t ready to give up.
That night, we did not yet know we had only a few more months with him. All we knew was we had another day, and maybe another, and that suddenly seemed like so very much.
Shuly Cawood is a writer and the author of three books, including the memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and the forthcoming short story collection, A Small Thing to Want.