Living in the country for most of my childhood meant working with animals and facing the realities of an animal’s life. I must have been six or seven the first time I helped my father slaughter the chickens and turkeys we had spent the summer raising. I always felt a little sad and once we staged a protest to save one of the turkeys we loved. But the realities were that if we didn’t eat the chickens and turkeys, we didn’t have much to eat. Even though our protest hadn’t worked, we didn’t hesitate to enjoy the meal. The other animals we had, goats, horses, geese, cats and dogs served more of a functional purpose and although we really loved having them, we didn’t consider a part of the family.
Around my middle school years, we moved out of the country and sold our animals. We kept a couple of cats and dogs to have as pets. I liked having the cats and dogs but never found myself extremely emotionally attached to the dogs. When I was in 9th grade, one of our cats was hit by a car and had to be put down. We were all sad, but I was used to animals dying and I got over it as soon as we got another cat. As I grew up, went to college and started my career I encountered people who were extremely distraught over having lost a pet. I thought it was ridiculous that someone would be so torn up over the loss of a pet. I recall coworkers taking the day off because of this and I had not only a lack of compassion, but a bit of disdain for them. I couldn’t fathom the idea of grieving due to the loss of a pet.
For the past ten to twelve years, my children have wanted pets. We have had the occasional beta fish and we had a turtle. The beta fish each had their own life story and when they died, the kids were sad and we moved on to the next fish. My children always asked for a dog or a cat and the answer was always no. Three years ago, we went to the pet store to purchase some food for the little turtle we had at home. It happened to be the day that the local animal shelter held pet adoptions. When I walked around the corner, I saw the most beautiful, black Great Dane. He was about 18 months old and was the sweetest dog. Up to this point, I generally avoided dogs and didn’t understand how or why people loved their dogs.
I immediately felt connected to this dog and by the end of the day; we had signed the adoption forms. We welcomed Polo with open arms into our life. This was the beginning of the journey of raising this amazing dog that followed me everywhere and played with me every day. When I had to travel out of town for work, he would get depressed and only ate minimally until I returned home. I spent a lot of time working from home and became accustomed to having Polo by my side during the day. Polo would often interrupt my work because he wanted to play and I would take several breaks to play tug-of-war. The 140lb dog gave me a workout whenever we would play. Whenever we sat down to watch TV, he would try to sit on our laps and often took our spots on the couch. On a few occasions, he even tried to kick the kids out of their beds and take over.
One of our favorite games was for the boys to keep the dog in one of the rooms with the door closed while I hid in another part of the house. When I had secured the best hiding spot, I would yell to the boys that I was ready and they would open the door. Polo would immediately race down the hall searching for me. He would go immediately to the last place he had found me and when I wasn’t there, he would race through the house searching for me. I usually had to give him a hint by making a noise or two. Then, he would barrel toward me and jump all over me. He made a great addition to our family and even my wife who does not like animals grew to enjoy having him around.
During the summer of 2015, we noticed that Polo had some lumps under his chin and I took him to the vet. After several tests, the vet told me that he had lymphoma and that he only had several months to live. I was devastated. I was sad for him, for my kids and for myself. I remember going home to tell my boys that he was going to die. Diego, my youngest, ran to his room and hid under his bed upon hearing the bad news. It was a very sad next few months. We decided that we would enjoy the last months with him and when he began to suffer, we would take him to the vet to have him put down.
By October, his health had deteriorated and it was time to put him down. The boys decided that they did not want to go to the vet with me so I would have to do it alone. That morning, everyone had left to school and my wife had gone to work. I was alone with Polo and had a little time before his morning appointment. I decided to play hide and go seek one last time and to play one last time. He chased me through the house, jumped all over me as much as he could and there was a flood of emotions that I had not expected.
By the time I arrived at the vet, I felt overcome with sadness and guilt. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt so guilty for ending his life even though there was nothing more I could do for him. I could hardly speak to the staff at the vet clinic because I sat on the verge of losing control of my emotions at every moment. I knew I didn’t have it in me to witness the event so I turned him over to the vet and said my goodbyes to my sweet, loving playmate. When I got to my car, safely out of public view, I began to weep. I wept and began to tremble and the pain was horrible. I had never in my life mourned for an animal in this manner. In that moment, I became one of those for whom I had lacked compassion and was filled with empathy for anyone who had ever loved and lost their pet.
Animals see us the way we want to be seen. They never judge and are always ready for the next round of hide and seek. I learned a lot from the playful, unconditional love of Polo and I am grateful for my time with him, he forever changed me.