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Letting go of Dakota

Published March 19, 2006

[Family photo]
What, me big? At age 1, Dakota manages to cozy up with owner Lane DeGregory. It was a love sustained through marriage and two children.
[Family photo]
After 14 years, marriage and children, what would life be like in the DeGregory family without Kota?

My old dog's head was heavy in my lap. I rubbed her white muzzle, listened to her labored breathing.

"It's okay, Dakota,'' I kept telling her.

She was 14. For months, she had been hurting. Tumors bulged from her belly. Her legs were so stiff, she needed help to stand. Most of her teeth were gone. And the night before, she had collapsed. Now she could barely lift her head.

That's why we were here, in the parking lot of the vet's office, sitting on the floor of our ancient VW camper. I had spread Dakota's favorite blanket beneath us. It smelled like beach and dirt and dog.

Since she weighed almost 90 pounds and couldn't get up, my husband, Dan, had gone to ask the vet to come outside. Both our boys were at school, thank goodness. So I waited, cradling my dog.

"It's okay," I told her again. "It's gonna be okay."

If I said it enough times, maybe it would be true.

*   *   *

She was a day old when she found me. My friend had a domesticated dingo she had brought back from Australia. It had just delivered 10 puppies. The dad was a big black Lab that had jumped the fence.

I was sitting on the basement floor, watching the puppies roll around, when I felt a tug on my jeans. A caramel-colored pup was struggling to climb my leg. Her black nose was twitching. Her forehead was furrowed in concentration. I pulled her into my lap. She lay her head on my thigh and, still panting, fell asleep.

That was 1992. I was 24. I had just landed my first job, just fallen for a drummer named Dan. I had never had my own apartment, furniture, anything. I brought the puppy home and named her Dakota, because that was what I'd planned to name my daughter. She was my first dog, the first thing I felt devoted to.

We called her Kota. Crazy Kota. She tipped over trash cans and opened cabinet doors. She loved rifling through laundry, parading my underwear through the house. She devoured pantyhose and plastic soap dishes, dead fish, a pound of Valentine's chocolates. An incessant digger, she turned our yard into a moonscape. More than one vet prescribed Prozac.

As wild as she was, Kota had a gift for listening. She was my secret sharer. When I found out I was pregnant, I wasn't sure how Dan would react, so I tried the news out on my dog. She knew three weeks before he did.

Eventually, Dan and I had two sons. Kota herded them like lambs, let them pull her stumpy tail and ride on her back. She slept under their cribs.

This past year, though she could barely walk, Kota still tried to climb the stairs every night. Sometimes, she would make it almost to the top, then lose her grip and slide back down. After a few minutes, she would heave herself up and try again.

All that effort just to sleep on the floor by our bed.

*   *   *

"The vet will be out in a while,'' Dan said, coming back to the van. Kota was still resting in my lap. He stooped to pet her. Neither of us knew what to do.

So we sat there, stroking her fur, sharing Kota stories. Remember when she ate my mom's wallpaper? I asked. What about that time she blew her knees out, chasing a bicycle? Or when she gobbled the top layer of our wedding cake, Saran Wrap and all? I got so mad, I threw the empty box at her. She just looked at me, her snout flecked with frosting, then started licking my toes.

"You're a funny old girl,'' Dan said softly.

Finally, a vet tech came out. She lifted Kota's snout, felt her sides, listened to her gasping for life.

"You know,'' the tech said, cupping her hand on my shoulder, "she's always depended on you to take care of her. Look at her. She's hurting. There's nothing you can do for her, nothing we can do. She's so tired, so old.''

"Almost 100 in dog years,'' Dan said, nodding slowly.

"She's had a good life,'' said the tech. "She's been loved. She needs you to let her go.''

I clung to Kota. What would I do without that dog? Who could I complain to? Brag to? Who would sit on my feet while I typed my stories? How could I come home and not find her waiting?

Kota looked up at me. Her ears were still so soft and warm; when I scratched just the right spot, her stump wagged.

"I'm sorry,'' I told her. "I'm so, so sorry.''

The tech pulled a syringe from her pocket. I looked away. I felt Kota shudder, then go limp.

"Goodbye, old girl,'' Dan said, bending to close her eyes. I looked down at her. She was still the puppy who had fallen asleep in my lap a lifetime ago.

*   *   *

Dan wanted to bring Kota home to bury her. But our sons would be back from school soon, and I didn't want them to see her body. So we decided on cremation.

We both bawled all the way to the bus stop. As soon as the boys saw us, they knew something was wrong.

"Why are you both here?'' asked Tuck, our 7-year-old. "Why are your faces so puffy?''

Ry, 9, threw his backpack into the van. "Where's Kota?'' he demanded.

They knew we were taking her to the vet that morning. They saw her blanket on the floor. So we had to tell them.

"It was her time," I said. "She was so old. She had a great life."

All the way home, both boys kept silent.

*   *   *

Tuck had to write spelling sentences that night. While I made dinner, he sat at the table, sniffling over his second grade assignment. "My brittle old dog was named Dakota," he wrote, underlining that week's words. "She died this morning and we were all very sad. She had very tender bones and was very old. When she was younger, she was cunning. And when we gave her special treats, she was delighted. At dusk last night, we embraced her after she threw up and collapsed on the floor. We miss her very much."

His paper was stained with two wet spots. "I can't believe she's gone," Tuck sobbed. He folded his homework. I put mac and cheese on the table. "It's not fair," Tuck said, pushing away his dinner. "I can't believe she had to go and die.''

Ry suddenly looked up. He narrowed his green eyes. Usually Ry is my quiet one, sweet and infinitely agreeable. He never seems to get upset. Now he was steaming.

He picked up his fork, stabbed it into the table. "She didn't go and die,'' Ry hissed. He glared at his dad, then me. "She was murdered.''

Dan and I tried to stop crying so we could explain euthanasia.

"We didn't want Dakota to die,'' I told Ry, reaching to hug him.

He pushed me away. "Then why did you kill her?''

I wasn't sure how to answer. I had been holding on, probably longer than I should have, because I had been thinking about myself, not Kota. It was awful, playing God. For months, I had been praying she would just die so she wouldn't be in pain, and I wouldn't have to make that call.

"Why did you, Mom?" Ry asked again. "Why did you kill her?"

"I guess," I told him, "because I loved her.''

*   *   *

That night, we turned in early, all together in our king-sized bed. No one could sleep. We lay awake, listening for toenails scraping on the stairs. Everything was too quiet. The house had stopped breathing.

Then I remembered the blanket. I walked out in the dark, brought it back from the van and spread it across us.

"It's still warm,'' Tuck said, nestling into it.

"It still smells like Kota,'' said Ry, pulling it over his head. "Stinky old dingo.''

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or

[Last modified March 16, 2006, 14:37:21]

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