Posted November 28, 2016 by jimhigley
Our Golden Retriever, Lucca, died about an hour ago. And I’m not sure what to do with his leash – the only thing I came home with after our 8:00 am appointment with his vet where we went through with what I know was the humane decision.
I’ve walked in the door with Lucca’s leash thousands of times over the last 11+ years – and I’ve religiously put his leash in the top drawer of the dresser by the front door. Tucked away for his next walk.
His next walk…
He got his name after a family trip to Lucca, Italy – a tiny town in Tuscany just west of Florence. We were there over the Christmas holidays. Not prime tourist season. But it was prime season for incredible memories. Lucca, the town, was warm and friendly – a place where we all felt untethered from the stress of life. A perfect name, we thought, for this new addition to our family.
Our Lucca lived up to his name. We won the lottery with this pup.
And, I know, like the lottery – others are also winners with their own prizes.
My friend, John, had a Golden Retriever – Oslo – who he lost to cancer last year. Oslo was a celebrity of sorts in Seattle – even having a men’s clothing store named after him. When I heard he was ill, it pained me because – in addition to the pending loss of my friend – it reminded me that Lucca’s time on earth was also zipping by.
Just last month, my friends Aaron and MJ – lost their Golden, Haley (yes, I’m aware that there’s a pattern here. I obviously like “Golden Retriever” people.) Haley had been ill but an accident changed her storyline way too fast. And once again, I ached because – well – I love this family. And it made me remember that these dogs we also love aren’t forever.
Just two weeks ago, Lucca was on his A-game. Except for his white snout (which he’s had since he was four), you’d think he was five years old.
A wise dog, Lucca lived his life modeling Switzerland. Neutral to the core. He had no favorite family member although each of my children believe that they were his number one choice. So did I. But Lucca truly didn’t have favorites. His love was unfiltered and he delivered it with his paw on the accelerator.
For each of us – myself and my children Kevin, Wallis and Drew – he was the first one to turn to many a times during moments of crisis because we always knew what his reaction would be. Our flaws, faults or missteps in life mattered not to Lucca.
A part of virtually every one of my children’s milestones – Lucca was a family fixture. Years of first days of school, meeting the bus, graduations, birthdays, attending baseball games, senior photos – and being an integral part of each and every family celebration and holiday for over a decade.
And he’s been there, faithfully, through some pretty dark days.
This past summer, my college-age son, Drew, begged me to consider letting Lucca “visit” him at his fraternity house during the following fall semester. (And I know what you are thinking. Say no more.) I avoided the request consistently for months. I mean, come on – a fraternity house visit? But Drew persisted. And when I realized that I was going to be traveling most of October I started to reconsider. I had confidence in Drew and knowing that, as an upper classman, he had a single room, I felt it was worth a try. So I said “yes” and off we went on the 2+ hour drive to Drew’s campus.
The fraternity was like doggie camp for Lucca. And it was the best decision of Lucca’s life I ever made.
He was the spry and playful senior citizen living with a fraternity of spy and playful college guys. He quickly became the mascot of the house, enjoying celebrity status among his fellow housemates and others in the Greek system who came to know him. He even got to experience his very first Halloween costume – being the “Beast” to Drew’s caveman costume.
“What do you do with Lucca when you are gone for a few hours?” I asked Drew one day.
“Everyone wants Lucca to hang with them, Dad,” Drew told me. “Don’t worry. He’s rarely alone.’
My friend, Michael told me that I was screwed. “That dog is never going to want to come home to a boring life with you, man.”
I got him home, however. That was three weeks ago.
“Have you ever seen the movie, ‘Elf?'” I’d often find myself asking people.
97% of the people would nod their head.
“Lucca is is like Buddy. The Will Ferrell character,” I’d tell people. “He’s never met someone he didn’t love.”
Taking Lucca on a walk was always an adventure in making new friends. If someone 40 feet away looked his way, shared a smile or a head nod, Lucca would notice and somehow, some way, figure out how to connect.
“I’m sorry,” I’d always say. “He’s just very friendly.”
“Oh my gosh is he smiling?”
Yes. Lucca smiled. Like for real. It was always the heart-melter for anyone who came into contact with him.
He was the master. And he started it with a smile.
“Lucca the Therapy Dog.” That was going to be the next chapter as recently as a couple weeks ago. The idea was presented to me by Drew – after Lucca spent a month in the fraternity house. Drew told me of a number of instances where his fraternity brothers actually turned to Lucca for some chill time.
“Have you ever thought of training him to be a therapy dog?” Drew asked.
I hadn’t. I don’t know why. But it was so perfect an idea. So my daughter, a pediatric emergency room nurse, did some research and I was ready to take the next step. Next week.
It was going to be wonderful. A new chapter in this loving dog’s life. I had visions of him bringing his love to hundreds of children who drew a short straw in life. If was going to be a match made in heaven.
As life so often reminds us – things happen that are out of our control.
For those of you who are interested in what happened: Two weeks ago, Lucca suddenly started having, for the first time, problems walking. Our wonderful vet started him on a regiment of anti-inflammatories and joint supplements.
Things quickly worsened and x-rays revealed degenerative spinal issues which impacted the nerves feeding into his hind legs.
There’s more but that’s the short story. We tried a couple things but Lucca quickly became unable to walk. Options weren’t good.
The day after Thanksgiving, when the kids and I all came to the mutual decision of what to do, I resolved that the few days we had left with Lucca couldn’t be dark and heavy. After all, other than having hind legs that now like wet noodles, Lucca was still his same, loving self. There would be plenty of time for us to be sad. These last few days were about spreading just a little more of Lucca love in the world.
So I drove to Target and bought and old-fashioned, red, Radio Flyer wagon. Just like the kind all of my kids grew up with. My goal with the wagon was two-fold. Number one it would help me with logistics of taking Lucca out several times a day because carrying him out on my shoulders – and navigating a high-rise elevator system was, candidly, wearing on me.
But number “two” was the most important thing: the red Radio Flyer wagon gave Lucca mobility. It was his Pope-mobile of sorts. His chariot waiting to let him explore the world.
That was a very good decision, if I do say so myself.
Over the last two days, Lucca and I gone on many “walks” in our Chicago neighborhood – with me pulling Lucca proudly in his red wagon. Person after person have stopped us to tell Lucca how cute he was. And in return, they received a gift they will never forget: his smile. They didn’t know the realities this sweet pup was facing – they didn’t need to. So we put on our best face to do what Lucca does best: reach out and touch people.
So how exactly do you spend the night before the inevitable?
The idea of sitting at home, alone, with Lucca watching the clock slowly tick away seemed horrifying.
Other than Lucca’s lack of leg power, he was still himself. So I concocted a plan to give him a night we’d all remember: a trip to Lincoln Park Zoo and their annual annual “Zoo Lights” spectacular.
We live a ten minute walk from the zoo – and my two oldest kids were quick to say “yes” to the journey. (Youngest son, Drew, had said his good-byes the night before when he left for college).
So off we went, Lucca, his Radio Flyer chariot and the three of us.
And as I suspected, Lucca was the center of attention as we strolled through the zoo, surrounded by a light extravaganza and thousands of people.
“Oh my gosh, he is so cute! May I pet him?”
Lucca spent a life brightening the lives of others so it was only fitting that he spend the final hours of his life doing what he did best.
“Ironic,” I thought to myself. “We’re in a zoo surrounded by monkeys, giraffe, elephants and tigers…but it’s Lucca who is getting all the attention.”
As it should be.
It was a night to remember.
Lucca enjoying the lights. And spreading his own special light one last time.
So I think I’ll put the leash in the top drawer. At least for now. I’ll let it rest there with his tennis ball, his toothbrush that I never used, his doggie bags, his monthly heart worm medication and his bag of treats. I’ll clean the drawer out another day.
It’s funny. We brings these pets into our families when our children are young and never think about the fact that the children grow and leave us alone with the pets.
I’m grateful for that, actually. It’s let me extend what felt like my youthful parenting years just a bit. Since my youngest left for college nearly three years ago, Lucca has been the first soul who greeted my every morning and final part of my nightly routines. It was a very fair arrangement. He needed me for food, a little exercise and an occasional requirement to drain his bladder.
What I got – what we all got – was so much more.
He really was the lottery dog of dogs.