As I set down his dog bowl and began to walk away, my Labrador Spike’s head shot up, tail wagging, amber eyes glaring, as if to say: “I’m scared to be alone when you leave.” I sat down next to Spike, pointed to his food bowl, gently pet his face and started to cry. Spike, like the rest of my family, is processing the recent loss of our other dog, Sugar.
Like Sugar, Spike is 13-years-old, and like the rest of my family, he is mourning Sugar as well as the end of his life. And like Spike, I don’t have much of a concept of what my life was like without Sugar.
I still remember meeting Sugar like it was yesterday; I was in second grade, waiting in carpool with my little sister, when suddenly my mom appeared in the halls of our elementary school with a fuzzy yellow dog that didn’t look quite like a golden retriever or a collie — it was a mutt, and it was Sugar.
Sugar was vibrant, wild, playful, clever and deeply maternal. Between her and Spike, she was the alpha, and the way she saw it, my siblings and I were her puppies and it was her responsibility to protect us.
She was an extremely athletic dog that used to run like a cheetah and leap like a deer. She was born in the wild and chased birds, squirrels and deer with a thrill for the hunt. Sugar loved being outside; she lived to run, play and lie in the sun.
My dad, sister and I would spend hours during the summer chasing her in circles around our neighborhood tennis court, and on every walk, Sugar would pull us as far as she could go on our retractable leash.
She was proud. She was passionate and she had an energy and vigor that I’ve never encountered in any other animal or person. Sugar was a skinny dog with as big an appetite for food as she had for life.
I remember her as a vivacious and distinctly aloof creature. Sugar usually preferred to subtly show my family and me affection, rather than demand it from us.
At least, this is the way Sugar was until the last few months of her life.
I regret not noticing her neediness as a red flag sooner, but it was so difficult to conceptualize that the independent dog I had always known her to be was quietly crying for help.
I started to notice the change in her behavior in late October, and again during Thanksgiving break; she would walk up to my family and me, follow us around and wag her tail with sad eyes as her hind legs began to shake. There was a nervous energy about Sugar that made her sudden need for attention troubling.
Sugar had always been skinny, but it wasn’t until I returned home for winter break that I began to realize that this was a problem. She was losing weight to the point that she was visibly bony, and began to show less interest in her kibble, as well as the human food that used to excite her.
Throughout the month of December, I made an effort to take as many pictures of her as I could, not realizing until 4:00 a.m. on Dec. 18, that she was running out of time.
For three full days, my family and I would switch shifts taking care of her. She was bound to Spike’s dog bed, progressively eating less and less until she refused to eat at all.
After taking Sugar to the vet, we were told that she was losing weight because she likely had an aggressive form of cancer, as well as a neurological issue that was causing her body to twitch and paws to curl.
I’ve never really had to deal with death in my family that felt significant, but losing the animal you grew up with for 13 years is different. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared, or that desperate to hold on to someone than I was for Sugar.
While I watched Sugar, I would stroke her head and body softly, whispering: “You’re gonna be alright. I’m here with you and I love you,” while trying to keep it together.
Without knowing at the time, I spent the last night of Sugar’s life watching her. But unlike the nights previous, she was restless. She intermittently had periods between shaking and breathing heavily and sleeping.
At this point, she drank little water, and had stopped eating entirely. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I slid spoonful after spoonful of water between her teeth in order to get water down her gullet.
I attempted to comfort her in the same ways I had before, but it seemed to be more reassuring for myself than her, so I let her rest until about 11:00 a.m., when I went to bed. Shortly after laying down, my mom walked into my room to tell me that Sugar wouldn’t make it another day.
It was like a lead weight dropped in my stomach.
I quickly dressed and sat in the back of my mom’s van with my little sister to pet and comfort Sugar on the way to the veterinarian. I was told that grief comes in waves, and it took all that I had not to break down sobbing in the car next to Sugar.
As my family and I surrounded Sugar on the vet examination table in her final moments, I buried my face in her fur, whispering praise and affection while kissing her head and caressing her face.
The last thing I remember was the sound of her heartbeat as her body and mine simultaneously twitched. My mom said the last thing she saw was Sugar sticking her tongue out a little bit at us, as if she wanted to kiss us one last time.
The glassy, glazed over eyes of death that followed was an unbearable sight. While exiting the vet’s office, I lost it. I cried so hard and so long that my eyes hurt, and even then, I kept crying.
It was four days before Christmas, I hadn’t done any shopping and now my dog was dead. Needless to say, it was a rough time.
Even though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, it’s easier to imagine that Sugar is still with me — that she’s watching over and protecting me and that her spirit is the same playful puppy I met so many years ago.