Gains, losses and lessons

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Gus is 171 days old today.

Since before his birth, Becky and I have been reading a lot of books about child development, which often leads to confusion and some lively arguments in the too-early hours of the morning.

Despite the late-night stirrings and wakenings of Gus and our reactions to them, all the frustration, fatigue and memories of our dimly lighted wrangling falls away when we watch him rouse himself from sleep, first with cries then with smiles and a sparkle in his blue eyes.

And each morning -- perhaps it’s our imagination -- Gus is a little more aware of the world and a little closer to becoming the person we speculate he will one day be.

Part of this emerging awareness is his recognition of the animals we keep in our house and in the yard.

In the back we have a chicken pen occupied by 15 layers and sometimes we go in the pen and Gus watches them scratching the ground and chasing each other. Our birds are many different breeds, sizes and colors and we wonder what exactly he finds so fascinating about them.

I look forward to the day he can tell us.

Gus is also fascinated by the dogs. Perhaps it’s the colors of their fur or their motion or the way they stick their sniffing snouts in his face.

He’s now in the habit of reaching out to grab fur and pull on it, but Annie has been successful at staying out of reach and even when I move him within closer to her, she dodges his grasp.

But on April 3, Gus was able to touch Hagen’s fur and gently pull on it. Hagen did not offer any resistance because Gus’ touch occurred just moments after our veterinarian administered a barbiturate to Hagen, stilling his heart in a matter of seconds.

My companion of 12 years, Hagen, an Australian shepherd, was suffering from liver failure and in a lot of pain. It happened quickly, though looking back on it, he exhibited signs of his 14 years on Earth (I adopted him from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah when he was about a year-and-a-half old). He was slowing down on our walks, dragging behind Annie and me, sometimes 100 yards behind.

The weekend before we had to make the decision to put him down, it seemed suddenly he was immobile, refusing to eat, to drink water or even relieve himself. A few hours after bringing him to the vet’s office, we were told that he wasn’t going to make it.

Becky and I are still in shock, grappling with the reality of his absence in our house and our lives. He was such a large part of my life for so long and Becky’s for the past six years.

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I’ve lost track of the miles we’d walked over the past 12 years, but it couldn’t have been less than 15,000, counting our daily three-mile walks, our longer weekend hikes and the even-longer trips we made with my friend Kurt, in our attempt to bag all the tall peaks in Utah.

Though I knew Hagen was closer to his sunset than when I met him, I was hoping he would be around long enough for Gus to recognize his existence and the importance of him in my life.

I believe there is no way Gus, in all aspects of his inchoate personality, could understand the significance of our decision to say good-bye to Hagen, or the grief that swept through us as we watched the glimmer in his eyes fade to vacuity.

Since then we’ve been wracked with sorrow, moments of uncontrollable weeping, such as on our morning walks when I look behind me to call to Hagen to urge him to catch up, when I come home after work and he is no longer there waiting for me, when we awake and he is not there squirming between Becky and I, flipping on his back and begging for attention.

I cuddle with Annie and wonder if she is aware of Hagen’s absence or if it’s just another day. I imagine she is more subdued since I brought Hagen home for burial, when she sniffed his still-warm body in the back of the pick-up truck and scurried away. She lay in the grass, about 10 yards away, as I dug a grave for Hagen under the old apple tree in our backyard. She wouldn’t approach when I called to her to come close and join in our farewell. Gently placing Hagen’s body in the bottom of the hole, I tried to no avail to close his half-open eyes, sobbing and asking for his forgiveness and pleading with him to please, please not be dead.

Gus was asleep at this point, the sun having set by the time Becky and I were done filling the grave.

Gus’ presence in our lives has softened the blow of Hagen’s departure. Our love for our beautiful little boy is helping to fill some of the void left by Hagen’s death, but we know there will always be a part of our hearts that was covered by the dirt of his grave, a part we will never be able to reclaim.

I hope as Gus grows up, he and Annie (she also is an Australian shepherd and a shelter dog) will form a similar bond that I had with Hagen, though she is a totally different dog than him -- slightly skittish, prone to barking at strangers and diesel panel trucks, sometimes reluctant to take or give affection.

However, she has been protective of him since we brought him home, growling at anyone other than Becky or me who approaches Gus.

We hope she is just as protective of him as he learns to walk and begins to toddle around the yard. There aren’t many things that can compare to the bond between a boy and his dog. I can attest to that, even though I am now only a boy in my heart.

We want him to appreciate Annie’s role in his life and respect her spirit as another living being. We want him to know the unconditional love that a dog can bring into his life. We want him to learn the responsibility of having to take care of another living being.

And when that time comes, we will want him to learn the hard lesson of the impermanence of life, a lesson that can teach him to treasure every moment he might share with another living being, to know that life is fragile and fleeting but oh so immeasurably valuable.

Just as I learned from Hagen.

Bob Audette is the day editor at the Brattleboro Reformer, and proud father to Gus. He can be reached at raudette@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 160.


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