It is possible to take something beautiful out of the heart-wrenching experience of seeing the animal you love move inexorably toward death. A man named Harry, an Iraq war veteran from Minnesota, came up with a simple way to transform this event into a blessed one.
It was a gray morning when Harry learned that his dog Duke's heart was failing. Listening to the vet, Harry got an idea. "Tomorrow, I'm going to give you a Perfect Day," he told Duke, a border collie/shepherd mix. He would take off from work and do all the things Duke loved most. He was embarrassed to tell his wife, Debbie, but she sensed what was going on and gave him the space he needed. She believed the dog helped Harry heal from the trauma of Iraq. He couldn't look at Duke without smiling, and when he had first come home, he hadn't smiled often.
The next morning Harry got up, went to the kitchen, reheated a burger and two strips of bacon from the fridge, and put them in Duke's bowl. The dog couldn't believe his eyes. He was almost never given people food. He waited until Harry nodded and said, "Okay, boy," before inhaling it. A feeling of sadness came over Harry as he thought about how Duke would soon die. He lay down on the couch and Duke curled up next to him. When Harry began to sob, Duke gently licked his face. After a few minutes, Harry got dressed, grabbed a bag filled with red balls and went into the yard. One at a time, he bounced them off the fence and Duke tore after them gleefully. When Duke started to pant, Harry stopped.
Next they went to the town pond. Duke waded in, paddled around, swam back, shook himself off, then repeated the routine a dozen times. Every few minutes Harry tossed him a liver treat. They came home and napped. After lunch, Harry took Duke to the state park, where they walked on a flat trail to a stone abutment with a beautiful view. The wind ruffled Duke's hair, and he held his nose high, picking up the scents of the earth. God, I love this creature, Harry thought. It is something to remember, to honor. That evening, Harry cooked Duke prime sirloin. They watched a movie, with Duke resting his head on Harry's lap, before he carried the sleeping dog upstairs and laid him down on his bed.
Weeks later when Harry came home from work, Duke was not there to greet him, and he knew he was gone. He found Duke in the living room, knelt down and said a prayer. He buried Duke in the yard, along with some bones and his beloved red balls. Harry passed on the idea of the Perfect Day to other dog owners struggling with their own pets' failing health. Many have since shared with him their own sweet stories. It makes Harry happy to think about Duke's legacy—all the Perfect Days for those other great dogs leaving our world behind.
Excerpted from Going Home by Jon Katz Copyright © 2011 by Jon Katz. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.