Old Otis

Why do they call it "putting down"? I keep having to tell people, "We have to put Otis down today." It sounds so weird and it doesn't make any sense, either. We're not putting anyone or anything down. Otis is going to leave us through death today, this afternoon. By human hands. And it's OK. He's old and he's in terrible shape, physically. If he were a dog in the wild he would have gone somewhere quiet by now, on his own, to lay down and die. But we humans love to keep each other and our animals alive as long as possible. At what cost? That's not really a story to dig into today. 

We found Otis through an ad in the newspaper, at the end of one summer. He was the leftover from a litter that had been long-dispersed. No one wanted the little guy, so we went to take a look at him, in a parking lot in Enosburg Falls. We decided he was the dog for us, so a few days later we told the boys we were going to look at a boat together, and off we went to claim our new pup, who turned out to be a lovable troublemaker right from the start.

At the time we had two Golden Retrievers, Luke and Zoey, and they were quite old and nearing death. They weren't too sure about this renegade from up north, but they learned to live together in peace, despite their many differences. Otis took very good care of Zoey, especially, when her time came to leave this world.

One year after we adopted Otis, after Z & L had died, we brought Roxy, who was the result of a tryst between the dog of some friends and their neighbor's dog, onto the scene. The two of them: a chocolate Lab with questionable behaviors and a yellow Lab with questionable lineage, became the best of best friends, and when Roxy got very sick a few years ago and we had to let her go, Otis seemed to have aged overnight. 

A lot has happened in Otis's lifetime. Coco was born, Richard and I split up and the boys grew up and left for college. Sam was 7 years old and Nate was 5 when Otis came into our family. They are now tall, handsome college men, living very far away. I know that they were hoping that Otis would live until they reached their Christmas break so they could say good-bye.

A 14-year-old Lab is an unusual thing. Many times we thought Otis would simply live forever. That dog ate anything and everything he could get his paws on. He devoted his entire life to two things: eating and loving his family.

Like all dogs, Otis endeared himself to us with his uniquely-Otis antics, with his unwavering devotion and with his stealth ability to track down even a piece of already-chewed gum and then rip an entire backpack apart to get to that irresistible treat. You kind of have to love that, right?

The thing about dogs, of course, is that they mark the stages of our lives. When we brought Otis home, Richard and I were engaged to be married and very much in love. We were settling in as a family on Whalley Road in Charlotte and we had many happy days with our dogs, on the lake and in our yard. Then Roxy came, then Coco came, then Roxy died, then our marriage died. Then Otis became a Lodge dog, traveling each weekend in the winter to the Stowe Mountain Lodge, where he was beloved by the folks who work there. Otis and Richard have been inseparable for the past fourteen years, and Otis has been with us for the entire duration of Coco's life. Many things have changed over the years, but Otis has remained steadfast in his pursuit of more food and his love for all of us. A few years ago we adopted a blind coonhound, Daisy, and she and Otis became a new kind of pals. If Otis could speak I know what he'd say: "Well, you're no replacement for Roxy, but you're fine; welcome."

Today we are not putting Otis down. I wish we could find new language to describe what this is. Otis, like all dogs, brought out the best and worst in us humans. He's moving on, leaving behind a very different landscape than the one he entered in 2002. All of the kids who used to live in the neighborhood have left, two of his own kids have grown and gone, it really is time for him to move into his next configuration, where I'm sure he'll be romping in green fields and eating compost all day long. Thank you for the gift of your companionship, Otis, and your antics, which drove us all mad and made us all love you, too. Today we lift you up, in gratitude, in sorrow, steeped in memories, and in the beautiful, unique and tenacious love that exists between human and animal. Amen.