Lucy: proper name, from L. Lucianus (cf. Fr. Lucien), a derivative of Roman Lucius, from lux (gen. lucis) “light” (see light (n.)).
If you’re lucky, somewhere in the course of your life an animal picks you who gives you much more love than you can possibly return. If you are luckier still, the animal who picks you lives a long and relatively healthy life. And if you are even luckier still, this abundance of luck suddenly pivots into a kind of curse.
It feels like both the best and the most terrible luck in life to have arrived at this point with our 10-year-old golden retriever, Lucy. We learned this past Wednesday that the fast-growing lump on her neck was an inoperable cancer. PW and I made the excruciating decision to spare Lucy any more suffering than she has already endured, to allow her life to end while she’s still recognizable to us as the goofy, light-bearing wonder she has always been.
And so, Lucy’s humans, on whom her light has shined—who have been adored, and sometimes tolerated, far more than we can begin to comprehend or repay—have to let go of our animal before we are ready. And really, is it ever possible to be ready to let go of a love that has exceeded our wildest dreams, both in its longevity and its sheer size?
This morning GForce and I took Lucy for one last frolic in the snow. Lulu gave her a few Christmas cookies (Lucy loved baked goods of all kinds). Then we gathered with a couple of dear friends, who are facing a similar decision with one of their three dogs, and had a little ceremony of farewell. And then an amazingly compassionate veterinarian came to our house so that Lucy and we could say goodbye in the comfort and familiarity of our own home.
When we adopted Lucy at nine months old, she came to us from the National Education for Assist Dog Services (NEADS) with a list of about 50 commands she had down pat. She could turn on lights, open doors, and, my favorite feature, she never jumped up on people. Her name was Robyn.
Robyn was raised in the NEADS “Prison PUP Partnership,” which places puppies in prisons all over New England to be raised and trained by incarcerated people for assist dog work. I had put in an application for one of the NEADS “furloughed favorites” several months prior to getting a call from them, in July, 2003.
Robyn was “furloughed” from professional assist dog work at 9 months because of hip displaysia, and she was a perfect fit for our family. When PW and I first met her at NEADS, she was fresh out of prison, and her NEADS handler warned us that the prison pups develop an intense bond with the people who raise them because they have so much 1×1 time. She added that in the couple of days since Robyn had left the prison on her furlough, every time she entered a room she would frantically look around for “her guy.” Then the handler went to get Robyn.
Sure enough, Robyn came bursting into the room a la Kramer from the old Seinfeld show. She frantically looked around, then locked in on PW and me and scrabbled excitedly across the tile floor, sliding to a sitting stop on top of my feet. She tilted her head back to look at me and grinned. And that’s pretty much what the last almost 10 years have been like with her.
After that first meeting, PW and I reluctantly left her behind so that we could go home and get our house ready. A couple of days later, the five of us piled into the station wagon and drove an hour west to the NEADS facility to bring Robyn home.
Of course, we brought toys with us. The whole way home, in the rear view mirror I’d see Robyn’s head randomly popping up as she threw the toys from the way back into the back seat where the girls were jammed in next to each other. No offense to anyone named Robyn, but we all felt this dog needed a different name. The five of us discussed new names, and we settled on Lucy, in no small part because her fur had a reddish hue and her personality reminded us of Lucille Ball. She seemed very much like the kind of dog who would have lots of “‘splainin’ to do,” as Ricky always said to Lucy in the “I Love Lucy” show.
Little did we know.
Sure enough, Lucy’s “counter surfing” skills were unparalleled and the only place we could safely leave food out was on top of the refrigerator. One Christmas at PW’s mom’s house, we put all the pies out to cool on a sideboard in the dining room and left for a walk, with Lucy secured in the kitchen by baby gates. When we got back, two pies were gone and a very uncomfortable and bloated Lucy had somehow jumped back over the gates into the kitchen, where her sugar high gave her smile a demented quality.
A couple of years later, that same demented sugar-high smile was tinged with green Christmas cookie frosting after she nosed her way into the room where four dozen Christmas cookies were cooling and ate every last cookie.
PW’s dreams of taking Lucy to work with her were crushed by Lucy’s love of baked goods. It proved impossible to keep Lucy out of the food pantry storage bins at the church. She would sneak off when PW was busy with something, return with a half-eaten loaf of focaccia in her mouth, and fix PW with big sad eyes, as if to say, “I have been bad, and here is the evidence that convicts me.”
In her range of mishaps and facial expressions, our Lucy was the canine embodiment of Lucy Ricardo from that classic old TV show. Because she had such a long and vibrant life, there are way too many Lucy stories to tell in one sitting.
She was both incredibly sweet and ridiculous. She could sit quietly for a long time while our cat Tiger licked her entire face, and she was also given to random air raid siren howling in her sleep. She snored loudly. She would carry on entire conversations if we took the time to grunt back at her. She slept in positions that seemed unbelievably uncomfortable. She was very licky. She had a great smile. She had terrible breath. She loved to grab Tiger around the middle between her front feet and drag him around the house. Tiger also loved this.
One can learn a lot about love from a dog. I like to think that all of us learned how to love each other a little better from getting to live more than nine years with Lucy. And as it often goes with love, the greatest depths of our connections are plumbed at ending times.
Since our animals can’t talk or write to us about what might be the best time to move on, we have to figure that out, both for them and for us. It is an unbearably heavy load. Thankfully, PW and the girls and I agreed that we didn’t want to wait until the sweet and goofy Lucy we knew was eclipsed by a hollowed out, incontinent, and immobile shell of her former self. We will not choose to let her suffer to squeeze a few more days or weeks out of a well-lived and long life.
I know so many people who, after putting their diminished pets down, have said, “I probably waited too long.” That is not the song that our family wanted to sing, even though we all are probably still feeling wobbly about this decision. So we made our Alleluias with broken hearts and through a river of tears, surrounded by the love of friends, family, and probably quite a few strangers.
The prophet Isaiah wrote,
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
How lucky we have been to have been chosen by Lucy, to have basked in her light for these past nearly 10 years. There are not enough words for the gratitude we feel.
I made this video to share some of Lucy’s spirit with you. The song is “Heavenly Day,” by Patty Griffin. Griffin has described this gorgeous love song as having been inspired by her dog, so it seemed the perfect soundtrack. The last image in the video is a watercolor portrait of Lucy that Lulu gave me for Christmas last week. When I opened it, I burst into tears because even then I could feel the shadow of this day.