My parents had Leo put to sleep a few days ago. They did it while I was out of town, to save me the pain of taking him to the vet myself. We all knew it was time. Leo was 14½ years old and his eyes and hearing were going and his legs were too frail to carry his weight. He had to be lifted from his bed to eat his meals. And he never missed a meal.
He'd been staying with my parents for the last year, because they live in a house and Leo couldn't climb the stairs at our apartment anymore. But Leo was my dog; there was never any question about that. Feisty, eager, flap-eared, with a voice like the horn of a Model T Ford, he had—according to some people—a personality similar to my own. He came along when I was 21 and together we'd grown up—I into an adult, he into an old man.
I've always hated nostalgic stories about people's dead pets. A dog, like a cat or a bird, isn't a person. All a pet can bring to us is some comfort, some warmth when things are cold. Pets are nice, but so are good books. There isn't a dog anywhere that's worth one person. You have to believe that or you start to forget what's important about being human. But I'll say this—Leo brought me a lot of pleasure.
He was the main character in the first story I wrote for this magazine. I'd recently been cut by the Kansas City Chiefs and my life was a mess. What was I going to do? How was I going to survive? I came back to the house I shared with my college buddies, and there was Leo, tongue out, optimistic, ready to get on with things.
"Hey," his look said. "Write about me." So I did (SI, July 31, 1972).
He was a sporting dog. We used to play a game we invented called "block football." I'd "kick off" with a block of wood, he'd pick it up in his mouth, and I'd try to tackle him before he could juke his way to the goal line at the other end of the yard. He was slow, but he had quick feet and fabulous instincts, and I seldom touched him.
Like everybody's dog he did things that were amazing. One day, he climbed out my bedroom window and jumped off the second-floor porch roof and followed me to the store. Another time a lady called to say she'd seen Leo riding the Evanston El by himself. He was headed toward Chicago, she said, and wasn't I concerned about this? Sure I was, but I liked it, too.
We lived in an urban area and, dumb youth that I was, I never put Leo on a leash. He would disappear for days at a time and come home filthy, skinny and weak. Friends' dogs sometimes went out with him on his trips, and sometimes they didn't return.
"That dog is a survivor," my father said about a month before Leo died, and what he meant was that Leo was smart.
Still, there were a number of things Leo couldn't or wouldn't do, and one of them was swim. I took him into Lake Michigan one time, and he turned vertical, like a weighted sausage, and sank until nothing but his wildly snorting nose was above water. I had to drag him out by his collar. But there was dignity even in that fiasco, an authentic dogness to it. Part beagle, part basset, Leo was designed for ground work, not for aquatics. His actions said, "I can't swim, and why should I?" Indeed, why.
Two weeks ago I tried to sneak into my parents' house and take Leo to the vet by myself, to save my parents from that pain. But I ran into my mother and had to put it off. Then my folks did it for me. The whole point was to let Leo go out with dignity. With animals, as with people, that's the key.
In 1970 I was pulling weeds at a summer job when a man drove up and asked directions to the pound. A half-year-old dog sat glumly in the backseat, and for some reason I said I'd take him home. The man was relieved. "He's a nice dog," he said. "But he's...different. His name is Leo."
The man drove off in a hurry, and I suppose you could say every minute Leo spent alive from that day on was a kind of gift. But really it was just simple decency. What Leo got was a chance to reach his potential—which is what any animal, or anybody, deserves—and he did that like a true champ. He was dog through and through. When he started not to be one, when he pretended not to see rabbits that were almost on top of him, when he couldn't get out of the way of marching ants, he needed to rest.
I like the phrase "put to sleep." Euphemisms bother me ordinarily, but I find this one soothing, especially in Leo's case. For, besides chasing rabbits and eating, there was nothing in this world he loved to do more than sleep.
If he could, he'd rest his chin on my foot and sleep while I read or worked on a story. He could sleep through fireworks or wild parties if I was there, leg extended. He would worm his way into the tightest places just to get a shot at my foot. He would doze and his fur would make my foot hot, and his snores and twitches would distract me if I was working, but I always tried to keep from moving as long as possible. He'd helped me more than he knew, and it seemed the least I could give him was peaceful sleep.
Good night, old friend. See you in the morning.