From time to time my congenital optimism — the emotion that underpins this whole project — gets pierced by sadness. Awful things happen. When the awfulness unfolds on a single day, you could call it a Big Day. Even though only thing “big” about it is the hole it leaves in your life.
On the first day of February, Penny climbed the basement stairs at the usual time, around 7am. Normally she appears and her ears flatten and her tail sweeps the floor and she comes straight over for a hero’s welcome, another day of adventure ahead of us. But today was different. As she crested the top step, her legs gave out. Nails skittering on the floor as she tried to hold herself up. Oh god. What has happened, girl?
At the pet hospital across the bridge, I waited in a separate room while they gave her a look-over. I figured we were dealing with some kind of suspension problem—an element of the hip joint out of whack. At the auto shop it’s always “the bushings” that need replacing, whatever those are. Maybe a bushing had worn out in this slightly tarnished golden retriever.
Then in came a young veterinarian. Dr. Gendreau, her nametag said. She closed the door behind her. And she began to speak.
I cannot tell you exactly what you said. “A mass on her spleen.” “Internal bleeding.” After “Unfortunately, with this breed… ” I couldn’t take much in. “Hermagio sarcoma… very aggressive cancer … 25 percent chance …” Then she said: “I know this is hard to hear but I think we may be considering euthanasia here … today.”
Two words you never want to be surprised by in the same sentence: “euthanasia” and “today.”
My eyes got it before my brain did. The tears said: Dummy, it’s over.
Two hours later Dr. Gendreau phoned the house. The radiologist had confirmed the initial guess. The main mass was about the size of a fried egg, with another smaller one other end. “No evidence that it’s metastasized. Her heart and lungs look normal.”
“So surgery’s an option?” I said.
“Well,” Dr. Gendreau said, “it is. But there’s no guarantee the cancer hasn’t already started spreading. This kind often attacks the liver.”
Surgery, she said, because I asked, would cost between 12 and 15 k. We could do it. We’d just have to cancel all our travel plans for, like, the next three years. And Penny would submit to the worst pain of her life in the rehab. And maybe we’d buy ourselves six months or eight months.
“What would you do if it were your dog?” I asked Dr. Gendreau.
She met the question from the side.
“In my experience, when pet owners in this situation have regrets, looking back, it’s almost always that they left the decision too long, not that they made it too soon,” she said. “If that helps.”
Jen reached our daughter Madeline in Montreal, coming out of the university library. Maddy had already been texted a heads-up that some bad news was coming from out West. Her mind was churning over worst-case scenarios: a car accident, no survivors, she’s on her own. The catastrophizing softened the blow a little. But the truth was still plenty bad.
We let the information sink in. Technically, Penny was her dog. The one she’d painstakingly saved coins in a jar to convert, eventually, into the boon companion her heart was already dialling up.
“Do you think she could … hold on another three weeks, till spring break?” Mad asked.
“I’m afraid not, Sweetie,” Jen said. She explained that we’d booked a vet to do the procedure tonight.
When I couldn’t stand the silence any longer, I said, stupidly: “So … how has the rest of your day gone?”
We canceled all our plans. I picked Penny up from the clinic and brought her home, for her final four hours in this world.
There’s an exercise the ancient Stoics used to do, part of the memento mori ethic: If you knew today was your last day, how would you live it? But here’s a corollary: If you knew today was the last day of someone you loved, how would you help them live it? We used to imagine Penny’s perfect day: We’d rent a Mustang convertible and bomb down the Sea-to-Sky highway, and she’d put her head out and the wind would flatten the fur on her face as she blissed out on the olfactory rush. At Britannia Beach we’d buy her a whole salmon; she’d devour the meat and then roll in the carcass.
But today she was not up for the dream. One look into her eyes said she couldn’t manage even a little tug-of-war or a last walk down the Varley Trail.
Instead, we lifted her up onto the bed, and for the first time today her tail twitched: a tiny positive pulse from deep within her. Dr. Gendreau had left the bandage on her hind leg with the catheter still plugged into a vein under there, to make it easy for the vet, later.
And so here we all were, the three of us snudging up around our dog. Laying hands on her. Committing her to memory.
A highlight reel of nine years is almost impossible, but we let our minds sweep back over the span of this life.
“By the time we got up your day with her was half over,” Jen said. “We’d get a report of how things were unfolding.”
“And I’ve be like, ‘Going good. She’s already had a Gordie Howe hat trick out there – a fight, a play and a poop.’ Except it wasn’t really a fight – more of a skirmish.”
Not even a skirmish, really. More of an accommodation of another dog’s issues.
She saved the best of herself for us.
Penny was among the first wave of dogs of whom it will be said: ‘They got us through Covid.’ When everything was going to crap, they leaned into us. When everybody was hair-trigger reactive and about to blow, they were reliably on Team You. Penny was the steadiest beat in rock ‘n roll back there through the girls’ whole childhoods. As a teenager, what you need more than anything is validation. Someone who, every day after school, is so nakedly thrilled to see you she can’t stop sneezing. Someone who, when you rehearse your school report, listens attentively and then gives you a look like: You, madam, are a genius: I never would have thought of that!
Penny was, as the kids say, a great hang. Dogs remind us that good company is often simple company. “Is Penny gonna be there for you on your bad, bad days?” I asked Maddy, hoping to privilege the wise parental counsel of her mother and me by comparison. “Yes!” Mad said. “She always is. By not saying anything.”
One weekend in Nanaimo, a guy watched Penny amble along the sidewalk in front him and pronounced: “Yer dog don’t walk straight.” He was right. The way she sort of sashayed, hind end swaying, left male dogs’ eyes spinning in their heads. People’s too. “She opened doors to strangers because she was so friendly, and so beautiful, that we ourselves didn’t actually have to be interesting,” Jen observed.
A quirk of Goldens is that they (like dolphins) appear to smile. It gives them what the late psychologist Paul Ekman called “the happiness advantage.” In any crowd of strangers, the vast majority of faces you see are not smiling. It’s a sea of bland neutral masks or outright RBFs. Against that backdrop, a smile just pops. “You can see a happy face from hundreds of feet away,” said the psychologist Dacher Keltner, who worked with Ekman. It’s a powerful signal of a potential ally. “A sincere smile triggers in others good will and the instinct to cooperate.” I will fight anyone who says a golden’s smile is not sincere – whatever the evolutionary pressures that may have created it.
The Minnesota writer Kevin Kling tells the story of how, after after a devastating motorcycle crash, he lost the use of his arms and could no longer type. So he had to train his computer’s voice-recognition software. While he was reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into the microphone, his dog and cat got into a fight behind him. Bow Wow Eeii Eeii Eeii Bow Wow! He looked at the computer, and it had written: How How. Why Why Why. How How. “That explains a lot about dogs and cats,” Kling said. Cats are the philosophers. Dogs just git ‘er done.
Was there much ‘git ‘er done’ in Penny? She was definitely a champion at getting one need met. In the kitchen she’d quietly post up, right behind you, in a perfect spot to collect anything that fell almost before it landed. Treats were her obsession. Out on the ballfield she could spot a hand going into a pocket faster than a security guard at Cartier. One time out there she committed an awful awful felony. She ran straight for a wee girl and her grandmother who were having a picnic and just scarfed sandwiches off their plate. And in the midst of their shock, and my shame, she looked at me with an expression like, What? I thought you’d be proud of me: I did my own hunting… so I wouldn’t have to rely on you.
Of course, it’s always the person in the family who didn’t want a dog in the first place, who blocked all progress in getting a dog, who ends up falling hardest.
“I think you and Penny are splitaparts,” Lila said one day.
“What’s a splitapart?”
“When Zeus made the world, he made everyone with four arms and legs and then he brought down the knife – whoomp – and everyone went scattering. You spend your life trying to find your missing half.”
I’m not sure Penny and I lived complementary lives so much as parallel ones. Both of us faced, on a daily basis, the low-level insecurity of the freelance life. You go out there and walk the trapline with hope in your heart. Maybe today there’s something in it. If you’re lucky it’s enough for dinner. If you’re really lucky there’ll be leftovers.
Every day around 4:30pm Penny would get quietly attentive to my body, my gestures. If a hand moved toward a pocket, or if took a step toward the cupboard where the kibble lives, her ears pricked up. I found this funny. Then one day I was sitting in a client’s office, and every time he picked up a pen I could feel my own attention spiking, thinking he might be about to write me a check. It was near the end of the month and I was hungry too.
Once, while traveling for a story, staying at a budget hotel and forgoing dinner because I was right up against my credit limit, I remembered I had an emergency pack of salted almonds in an outside pocket of my suitcase. Pure joy. Just like that time Penny, on a walk, suddenly broke into a run when she remembered the half-eaten burrito she’d discovered in the bushes yesterday.
I always imagined she was introducing me to other dogs as her husband. Hi Corky, love what you’ve done with your hair. Have you met my husband? That’s no slight on Jen — just an acknowledgement that what we had, Penny and me, was a more traditional arrangement. Pen’s really the only female in this household for whom I play that old-fashioned role — in the protective, I’ve-got-your-back sense. “We don’t care for someone because we love them,” the psychologist Alison Gopnik has said. “We love them because we care for them.” I think this is why the ritual of dinnertime became so important. I want at least one female in my life to be famished for something I have to offer.
In the early days, watching Penny chase a ball over the grass, I marveled at the physics of what she was pulling off. No human could pick up a stopped ball on a dead run. Approaching it at top speed she’d pull her head back while her body continued, sometimes resulting in a spectacular roll-over spill, and she’d emerge from that cloud of dust with the ball in her jaws. It was exactly what Gretzky used to do chasing a loose puck. Every part of him would overskate it except the blade of his stick, and he’d sort of amoeba around it, and the puck would stay on the tape the whole time.
But then she grew older. She stopped chasing the ball. She seemed to be conserving her energy. She acquired a bearing I came to think of as “senatorial.”
During Covid, we started putting on weight together. Because we weren’t getting our long afternoon walks in the woods. The girls had graciously been taking over the afternoon dog walk but that also meant Penny got scanted — instead of an hour she got fifteen slow minutes. And I stopped going at all.
Any exercise took the wind out of her. During the recuperative rest — flat on her back, gravity tugging on her jowls — I could see flecks of grey in the muzzle. Together we became Maria Popova’s age-salted man, on the street corner waiting for the light to change, with his age-salted dog beside him, “each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.”
It hit me one day in January that our trajectories had converged.
“Hey, I just figured out that Penny and I are exactly the same age,” I said to Lila. In theory we were the same distance from death. There’s a Billy Collins poem about this exact moment. Only this time the apprehension happens in the mind of the dog, not the man. The dog is imagining the moment when she will pass him, and it will be “the sweetest shadow I have ever cast on snow, or grass.”
Penny’s breath was laboured now. A couple of times she nodded off and we watched her legs take her somewhere in a dream.
This was a devastating intertidal zone: we still had her, but not entirely. We couldn’t stop our minds from pulling out of the present moment, and ahead to the things we would miss most.
For me it was the routine. On the long Tuesdays and Wednesdays Jen commuted to Surrey it was just me and the Penster alone. We’d nap together. Get a walk in the woods, always stopping on the way home by that one guy’s lawn with the clover. When we got home she’d be all frisky for tug-of-war. Like: We’re having a great day, bud – let’s keep it going!
Goldens were bred as working dogs but Penny wasn’t much of a retriever. She had the golden part down. She had no actual skills except companionship itself. But maybe that is the ultimate skill.
Mornings she’d lie on the front steps picking up today’s news on the wind. We’d watch her take a ritualistic sequence of sniffs, six or eight or ten at a time, her cheeks inflating and deflating like bellows. Once on a walk she stopped and stood, perfectly still, just her nostrils moving. I came to the conclusion that she was meditating. So I let her stand there for about two minutes, while I likewise stood and tried to just think about my breathing. It felt pretty good. A second ago I’d been thinking, Come on, hund, we’re burning daylight. Now I’m going: This is your life, man. You get happiness, just not always on your own timetable.
The past will make you depressed and the future will make you anxious. It’s only at the fulcrum point – right here and now – that you can truly escape existential torture. That’s the space a dog pulls you into. Penny was right here, and when you scratched her butt, you were right here too. When she rolled over a tennis ball, so that it stimulated pleasure points between her shoulder blades. … a jolt of pleasure shot through you too. There’s a Sanskrit word: mudita. Roughly: “sympathetic joy.” It’s the opposite of schadenfreude. Basically: I’m happy because you’re happy. I am infected by your happiness.
I now believe Penny sensed the menace in the way this day was unfolding. She didn’t want to go into that first examining office: I could almost hear her saying: Don’t leave me.
And then later, at the second clinic for our six o’clock appointment with eternity, she wouldn’t get out of the car. This was unprecedented. Opening the hatchback usually releases her like a joke shop snake. But today she cowered. At some level she seemed to understand that earlier visit was connected to this one. The expression on her face was one I’d never seen, one I didn’t know she had. It was fear. A silent exchange between us:
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want you to die, baby.
So if nobody wants this, why are we doing it?
In 1939, in Britain, as the inevitability of war sunk in, the government issued a pamphlet called “Advice to animal owners.” Authorities feared food shortages, and if that happened pets would be competing for precious calories. It if wasn’t possible to move your animals into the country, the notice said, “it really is kindest to have them destroyed.” Below the message was an ad for a bolt pistol. Stoic Brits swallowed hard and did what they were told. In the space of a week, three quarters of a million animals were killed. Reading this bit of news I thought: There is no freaking way I could do that. And yet: we were doing it. Now. Right? Only the means are different. We just offloaded the actual deed to someone else.
There are veterinarians who will come to your home to administer a lethal injection on short notice, but none of them returned our calls from this afternoon.
We even reached out to a physician friend. Could she come and oversee things – like carrying out a MAID, but for an animal.. “We’re actually not licensed to do that,” she said evenly.
So if a vet couldn’t come to us, we’d have to go there. Penny’s normal vet, Dr. Bratty, whom we adore, was not available, but his colleague Dr. Susan Munro agreed to meet us at the vet clinic at 6:30.
In the tiny examining room, Maddy’s face appeared on an iPad screen. She was across the country in her dorm room. And here with us, right now.
We lit a tea candle, one of those pretend ones.
We’d brought some of last night’s salmon dinner. So that the last thing Penny experienced in this world would be a juicy zing of it on her tongue.
The room was warm and getting warmer. The heat of the four of us had nowhere to go.
We positioned ourselves around Penny, who sat upright on the little dog bed with her name on it. Over the years this dog had somehow become the family identity. She was in our passwords, our network name. Her rhythms were our rhythms. Her imagined death was what the girls used to summon tears in the school play. But that is a dog’s job in a family: they train you to love something all the way, no brakes; and to train you also to handle what follows when, eventually, still crazy in love, you crash at full speed.
The philosopher Kwame Appiah is sometimes asked whether euthanasia is the right call with pets. They cannot make it for themselves; what right do we have to make it for them? “The quality of the life of a dog or a cat is a matter of the quality of its moment-to-moment experiences,” he said. “They have no projects to complete; their lives have no narrative arc that matters to them. They do not fear death in the way we do.” The tension — the resistance, the bargaining — it’s all on our end. I remembered the day a dishwasher repairman came to the house, and he took a comically long time working on our old Blomberg washer because he had fallen in love with Penny. He used to have two Goldens, he said. One of them died, which made him suddenly extremely covetous of the other one, a true gem, unquestionably the World’s Best Dog. He could not countenance the end of her, ever. So he looked into getting her cloned. He decided against it when he discovered the price tag was north of $60k. And even if it worked, a clone would not be the same dog, right?
The door opened and in came Dr. Munro. Her calm presence flooded the room as she did some preparatory things with the medications. Who could do this job? You are an angel of mercy and yet there’s no way it can feel like that in the moment, for you are coming into a family that’s hanging on by a thread, and you are cutting that thread. Dr. Munro would confide later that she had had to have her own dog put down a few months earlier.
Penny held her position, a little stiffly, until the first sedative eased in. Then her knees began to buckle and she lay down. The doctor slid a rolled-up towel under her head.
It took a mighty force of will to keep looking her in the face as her eyelids fluttered.
Some animal behaviorists believe it is a source of comfort for a pet that senses it is dying to have their owner there with them. They have an inkling they are going somewhere. Wherever it is, it’ll be okay because you’re right there with them. And they assume you’re coming too.
Lila surprised everyone then by reciting a poem. By heart. It was by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Dr. Munro slid a second needle into the injection tube. And then we waited.
Ice ages came and went.
“Now she is deeply asleep,” Dr. Munro said.
Maddy lost it then. An animal moan issued through the iPad, from across the curve of the earth.
To Buddhists, death is the great inversion: When you’re born, you’re crying and everyone else is laughing; when you die, everyone else is crying and you’re laughing.
Is it true? There’s not much we know about what death feels like from the other side. But as Martin Amis once said, there’s a tiny likely truth in a sea of unknowns. We can be pretty sure that love is the last thing to go.
The Penny Principles:
Six things I have learned from the world’s best dog
1) Never show up without a shoe in your mouth.
2) Be nice to everyone — you never know what they have in their pocket.
3) Attention is the most basic form of love.
4) You never know who’s walking whom.
5) Expect magic in every encounter.
6) There are no bad days