I wrote this in 1996, and it has been sitting on a floppy disk ever since, unedited, because it is too painful to read.
GOOD DOGS AND SECOND CHANCES
In Loving Memory of Heinz. I miss you, my friend.
He wasn't much to look at when I first got him, just black fur and feet and a wide-eyed wonder at every new thing he encountered. One of my friends had given him to me for Christmas my junior year in high school, promising me he would grow no bigger than a Cocker Spaniel. With a voracious appetite (and, incidentally, a fondness for hiding anything he could carry under my parents' bed), however, he soon grew too big to be kept indoors.
Over the next few months, he grew to be roughly the size of a filled-out greyhound. He became my shadow, my escape, my fishing buddy and a very dear friend. No matter how badly I'd screwed up, I knew when I got home, Heinz would be waiting for me, wagging his tail so hard his body shook, as excited to see me as if I'd been gone a month, when really it was just an afternoon. In his eyes, all was forgiven. All I had to do was sit down on the steps of the front porch. Within a minute, he would find some way to be in my lap, which was quite a feat considering that when he was grown he was a sizable animal. Still, he managed.
At various times, he served as a chew-toy for younger pups we'd get, a comforter for the mama cat and her kittens, protector of any newborn animals he found, from baby calves on down to chickens and ducklings. He was also bloodhound for any deer my dad had wounded but could not find, and most importantly, my constant companion on endless adventures, explorations, time wasters, and slow, monotonous hours of walking required as part of my physical therapy for a back injury. He would never leave me and go back to the yard, even though I could see he was tired. "You're my responsibility," he seemed to be saying to me. "It's my job to keep you safe and out of trouble."
When I went off to college and returned home only on too-infrequent weekends, there was Heinz, as glad to see me as if I'd been gone only a couple of hours instead of months, wagging his tail so hard I thought it might break, doing his little excited-puppy-dog dance, which was quite a sight when performed by a full-grown part-Labrador.
When I moved back in with my parents, he was the first to welcome me into the yard, bounding toward me at full speed as if the slightest hesitation might make me disappear.
I'm one of the lucky ones; I had the chance to say good-bye to him once. You see, Heinz liked to chase the mail truck. He would bound off the front porch and hit the ground at full speed, down the circle drive like a rocket and after the interloper who had, in his mind, tampered with our mailbox. He'd chase the truck for a good half-mile, nipping at the front left wheel.
One day, I was sitting in my room not doing anything in particular when my mother came into the room. "John, you'd better go check on Heinz. He got hit."
Heinz had crawled through a fence to a pile of leaves, where I found him bleeding from the mouth and nose, his body crumpled. I stroked his head and neck and accepted the fact that the best thing for him would be to have him put down. I slid one arm under him to pick him up and take him . . . God knows where . . . SOMEWHERE. He yelped as my hand touched his broken ribs but he knew I would not intentionally hurt him. He patted his tail two weak times and looked up at me with his big, beautiful eyes, and I knew I could never go through with having him put to sleep.
I knew he would probably never be completely pain-free again even if he did survive and that it was selfish of me to want to keep him alive, but I also knew that I could not handle losing him, or worse, being the person who ordered him put to death.
I scooped him up and held him in my arms, riding on the tailgate of the truck as my mother drove us back to the house. I expected him to be dead by the next morning, but I could not take him to a vet because the vet would simply tell me what I already knew--he's suffering. It would be better for the vet to euthanize him now instead of letting him die a slow, painful death. I lined a box with a blanket and put him in it in our feed room. I sat up with him all night, stroking his fur, cleaning his wounds, telling him that if this was goodbye, I loved him, that he was a good dog, pleading with him to live, knowing that I was asking too much of him. He would not eat or drink anything. In the predawn hours, the temperature dropped to below freezing and I was forced inside. Before leaving him, I told him "If you have to go, then go. Just know that I love you very much and I want you to stay if you can."
After sunup, when I went to check on him, he was not there. I saw his frozen waterbowl and hoped he had dragged himself to the pond to get a drink of water. I circled the pond three times calling his name, knowing I wouldn't find him there. It sank in. He's going somewhere to die, and he's protecting me from the hurt of finding him dead.
Frantic, I searched my parents' 52-acre farm all day, first on the 3-wheeler, then on foot, praying to a God I didn't believe in that I would find him alive. In late afternoon, I did. Hiding in a ditch, burrowed under some leaves to stop the biting cold, there he was. I'd never have found him if he hadn't managed a few pathetic tail-pats, rustling the leaves.
No way, buddy. I'm not letting you give up on me, I told him. You're strong enough to get yourself way out here, so you're strong enough to get yourself well. Again, I scooped him up in my arms and carried him back to the house, every step eliciting yelps and whimpers from him, which in turn brought tears streaming down my face. I laid him back in his box as gently as I could and poured him some fresh water. He lapped at it timidly, and I came to the realization that if he fought to live, he would be fighting to live for me. Not because of some instinct of self-preservation, but because it would break my heart if he didn't.
Eventually, he recovered. Not completely, however. In his age, the places where the bones had mended turned arthritic and I could see on cold days this made him ache terribly. The fur grew back grey over the flesh wounds, but for the most part he was good as new. His happy puppy-dog dance returned the next spring, and he eventually even began chasing the mailman again, although I noticed that now he would wait until the truck was a good quarter-mile down the road and he had no hope of catching it before he shot off the porch like a rocket.
When I moved into my own apartment, I would be sure to visit him at least once a week on some pretense--picking up a forgotten item, doing laundry, whatever. Every week when I would pull into the driveway, there he'd be, insisting on being the first dog to get a hug. Why not? He deserved it. He'd given me a second chance, and every day after I'd said my goodbye to him was an added bonus that I will always cherish.
Earlier this year, I moved to Houston and could not take him with me. It was very hard, because I kept wondering if he and my other pets would think I had abandoned them because of something they did. I knew my parents would take care of them, but I wished desperately that there was some way I could make them understand that I HAD to go and if there was any way in the world I could take them with me, I would. I cried for fifty miles.
I've only gotten to return home for one weekend since I moved to Houston. When I pulled in the driveway, there was Heinz, doing his little puppy-dog dance. All was forgiven.
Yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I received a letter from my mom, telling me Heinz is dead.
I hope to see you again someday, my friend. If I do, can you find it in your heart to give me one more second chance, and maybe one more happy puppy-dog dance?