When my older son turned 12, we felt he could handle the responsibility of a dog. So went to the pound to rescue an animal to become part of our family.
There were no six-week-old pups on hand that interested him, so we were told to take a quick trot down the older puppy aisle. And as these anxious fellows threw themselves at the cage doors, we came upon one quiet little black lab with soulful eyes and a tail that would not stop wagging.
Nicco leaned to the gate, and the humble four-month-old came forward, licking and crying softly.
“This is my dog,” Nicco said.
Fifty dollars and two days later, we brought Lucca home.
He spent the last 11 years exhibiting the kind of selflessness and loyalty I have yet to find in any other living being I have ever known.
He was emotional, kind, almost apologetic in many ways. His puppyhood had evidently been quite traumatic, and the whole rest of his life seemed to be spent saying “thank you” to the family that brought him on board.
Fathers that take their traditional roles seriously, like me, find great trust in the family dog. His ever-alert ears often hearing a sound that I might have missed, his hawk eyes many times seeing potential threats.
He was essentially an extension of me. When I left for work in the morning, I would say to him, “Lucca, watch everything till I get home.”
He’d stare right at me, tail wagging as if to say “I got it covered, Chief. See you in eight hours.”
And when I got home he was right there at the door seeming to say, “All set here boss, nothing to report.”
I’ll never forget the middle-of-the-night moments when I’d hear a strange noise and creep down the stairs to check it out. He’d be there, right next to me, with the kind of dedication and loyalty that they try to capture in movies.
“OK bud,” I’d eventually say. “Stand down; we’re good.”
His tail would go into immediate relaxation mode and he’d rub against my legs like a cat.
He tore an ACL a few years ago chasing squirrels, and his recovery left him a bit arthritic. By age 8, a few tumors had grown beneath his chest and legs, partly due to inactivity and the affiliated stiffness of a lab’s hips as they age.
He still carried out his duties like a soldier, and when our younger boy pleaded to add a German Shepard to the family, Lucca took Bruno on as a son -- kept him in line, scolded him, and loved him, too.
They became the best of friends, and I think Bruno’s impetuousness gave Lucca a new lease on life. He became immediately more active and busy, wrestling around this little tyke who would outsize him within the first year.
Despite his renewed spirit, the flesh still got older, and last week we had to put old, reliable Lucca down.
The previous week or two had found me lifting him to his feet in the morning to go out for the morning business. Then, last Tuesday, he hobbled over to me from the back yard and I sat down and looked in his eyes.
Without speaking, I could see he was in pain, and his return gaze said that he’d be glad to keep doing the job as family overseer, but it was getting to be quite a challenge. I began to feel selfish for keeping him here any longer and knew the day would be soon.
I told my family to say their goodbyes in the next few days, because when the moment was right, I was going to take him for that last ride.
The night before, I had finished cutting the grass and he lay in front of me, probably three or four feet away. He just looked at me, unlike any time before. And he smiled, like only labs can do.
His solemn glance, his sturdy constitution, his final thank you maybe -- he was telling me it was time, that he knew it would be hard for me -- but that he understood and appreciated me understanding that it was time to go.
I sat there looking at him as tears ran down my face. When I got home from work the next day, he was at the gate as usual. I leashed him and put him in my truck. He sat quietly in the front seat.
Bruno, who would typically throw a fit if I took one of them without the other, seemed to sense the moment and sat staring from the gate.
Upon arrival, the vet said she would handle it and I could leave. But I refused and said I would hold him close to me until his very last breath.
She was very understanding and could see the kind of relationship she was dealing with. She put a blanket on the floor and I guided him to it. I held him tightly around the shoulder, kneeling beside him.
The injection began to impact him and his eyes panicked for a moment as he looked up and fell forward into my arms. I pulled him closer and laid him to the ground covering him entirely in an embrace.
As I spoke softly to him, his tail gently wagged as it always did when he heard my voice.
I said, “Thank you, Lucca. Thanks for loving our family and watching over us all those years. Thanks for making our family so happy and giving out all that love. Don’t be afraid. I am with you like always. I will miss you every day old friend. Sleep now -- just rest. Don’t be scared. I got you.”
The vet put her stethoscope to his heart.
“Is he gone?” I asked.
“Almost,” she said.
“Just let go buddy,” I said, squeezing him more tightly. “I got you.”
And as those words hung in the air, he heaved a final sigh.
My sobs were silent. I owed him that dignity.
I slipped his collar off and held it tightly. The vet respected the moment and I covered him with the remainder of the blanket. I nodded a thank you to her and drove home in silence.
When I got home, Bruno was waiting patiently at the gate and saw me get out of the car alone. I sat down and pulled Lucca’s collar out of my pocket. Bruno smelled it, licked it and looked at me. He went back to the car as if to make sure he hadn’t missed something.
He has barely eaten in the days since, but seems to be coming around as the recent days have passed. I would expect him to mourn as I have been, too. Handling loss is a very personal matter, and I have given him his time.
But this morning began a new day, and as I watched Bruno get on with things and romp a bit as the morning sun rose, I thanked God for the time I had with Lucca and the memories he made with our then developing family.
How he loved those kids! The dog of your children’s youth becomes a teacher in many ways. When I reflect on the lessons he gave us -- kindness, generosity, faithfulness, loyalty and unwavering love -- I cannot do his life dishonor by feeling only sadness.
He was family. He was love. He will be missed but more than that -- remembered.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.