Gracie Howard is losing her first best friend. A little girl is learning that loss is part of life. Love that is clasped to the heart is destined to be torn away. Always, always.
It is just the way it is, and we all have to learn that. It can be hard to deal with, but there's a sweetness to it because to have loved at all is the greatest human achievement.
This is the last day of Balto's life. And on balance, his dog's life has been a lucky one, discounting a rocky start. He is a male husky who somehow ended up on the streets of Baja California about 13 years ago as a homeless stray.
Balto is lying flat on a pad in the family room of a Cardiff home this morning, sound asleep. He's about 50 pounds, but looks 80 with his long, thick coat. He's a gentle dog that rarely barks and has none of the aggressive or fearful behavior that street dogs often adopt in survival mode.
The veterinarian will arrive in a few minutes. The family waits in a limbo of funk, tip-toeing quietly around Balto.
Gracie is a blond Norman Rockwell girl of 8. She sits on a nearby couch with her legs curled up and is holding a comfort blanket and stuffed dog of - right, a husky. She is quietly doing what they used to call "keening" - not quite crying, but softly grieving with tears coursing down her cheeks. She swipes at them and talks very grown-up about her old friend Balto.
"Today is the day my dog is going to get put down. He's just getting older and older by the day, and we think it'll be good because he's kind of suffering, so today we're going to put him down."
When Balto decides to rise, he has to be helped to his feet. Then he wanders off, but only for a short distance. He walks like Charlie Chaplin portraying a drunk, bumping into walls, furniture and spilling his water. He tires quickly and returns to his pad.
Gracie says, "At first, I said I want to go to school today, but I didn't really want to do that. So I said, ‘Mom, I changed my mind,' and I ran over to her and told her, ‘I want to stay at my house and be there for this sad occasion.'"
Out of the mouth of a third-grader.
She describes her love affair with this animal that has always been a part of her life, the way he would prance on his paws and "tap dance," how he would all of a sudden get "really hyper" and start tearing around the yard in what she called "having a bee in his bonnet."
The memories are just too sad, and Gracie returns to being a small girl. She begins to cry, and then talks in those gulps between sobs that we remember from our own childhoods.
"I'm bummed out, but I am happy. I'm happy he's going to be in heaven. He won't be here. He'll be playing with tennis balls. He'll be eating treats, and he'll be playing with toys like he always used to."
Gracie leaves the couch and lies down next to the resting dog, hugs him, kisses his ear, then returns.
Did your parents ask if you thought he should be put down?
"No," she says, "but I'm happy because I'd say to let him live longer. But then we'd make him feel worse, because then he'd be feeling much badder right now. So I think it's good to just let him go."
Gracie says, "I've learned that things don't always go the way you've planned. Sometimes people die, but that doesn't mean they're away from you. They still haven't left your heart. They'll always live with you. Even though they might get buried, we'll always remember them."
That's verbatim, I swear.
Children can be amazing, mainly because we don't pay close attention to their small leaps of maturity.
Then they hit us with wisdom, and we wonder: Where did she learn that?
The veterinarian is here. She is Tracey Mendlen Herman of Carlsbad, who has known Balto well.
She chats for a few minutes. Then her technician, Kaitlin Parker, skillfully inserts an IV into Balto's paw and injects a sedative that will fully take effect in about 10 minutes.
As we know, she could give a painless shot that would be fatal almost instantly, but I suspect the sedative is mainly for the family, for them to slowly accept the reality of what is about to happen. Or, at the last minute, change their minds.
Mark and Melissa Howard, Gracie's parents, have a get-away place in Baja to which they travel occasionally. During one trip about 13 years ago, Melissa says they saw a stray on the street, one that looked particularly out of place, as though it had wandered out of the Alaska tundra and down to Mexico. It was a sick, starving husky with that breed's thick, long coat trying to avoid fatal overheating in Mexico by lying in the surf.
Balto, as he was to become, was a dog in deep, deep trouble.
Melissa's eyes redden as she remembers. "He wouldn't have lasted probably another month. He had a terrible ear infection that you could smell from a distance. He walked sideways, from a neurological condition.
"You could hear the liquid in his head slosh when he'd move. He had an eye that was closed from a rock somebody had thrown at him. He was infested with ticks and fleas, just in really terrible shape."
The Howards arranged for Balto to be cared for, but on a later visit decided to bring him back here to "find a home for him."
Well, you already know what home she found. Balto joined other Mexican strays the Howards have adopted. Melissa says, smiling, "Balto was a very expensive ‘free' dog."
Mark Twain's words come to mind: "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man."
Tracey says Balto has several ailments - neurological, orthopedic and some infection problems dating to his time in Mexico that have returned opportunistically. Altogether, he's a very sick dog.
Deciding a dog has suffered enough is a decision that will always leave the owner feeling guilty, but the degree of guilt depends on the certainty of the decision.
The vet says she suggests a "three of five" test for owners as a guideline. That is, when a dog that seems borderline can no longer do three of five things it loves, then maybe it's time. She mentions things such as playing with a ball, responding to the garage door or not eating snacks. If so, then maybe ...
Personally, I think the honest question pet owners must ask themselves is: Am I keeping this animal alive for the pet or for myself?
It's time. Tracey efficiently inserts a needle into the IV and injects a pentobarbital cocktail called Euthasol, which stops the heart almost instantly.
As the body of what once was beloved Balto lies on its pad awaiting removal, Gracie turns to her mother's arms and opens her emotions to broken-heart sobs.
Gracie will soon dry her tears and time will fade her pain, leaving her a little more grown-up. Balto will become storied in her memory, and will come alive as a cute tale she someday can tell her own children of the big dog from Mexico that could tap dance.
Life, lost and found.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.