My older brother isn’t the emotional type. He doesn’t say ‘I love you’ or do things like give hugs. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve or express his feelings. He’s more of a go-to-the-gym-and-act-all-macho kind of guy. Until this one day last year when he completely fell apart.
I remember growing up and constantly begging my parents for a dog, to which they always had the same response: “when you’re old enough to help take care of it.” I remember feeling like that day would never come, but, when I was twelve years old, it did.
My mom wanted a medium-sized, female dog, who didn’t shed. What we ended up with was a male yellow labrador retriever, who would cover you in hair just by brushing up against you, and would soon grow to be 100 pounds.
It was the beginning of June and we headed to a nearby park just to “take a look” at some of the local rescue dogs who would be there, up for adoption. We weren’t planning on going home with a dog that day. But, there he was.
My mom — that same lady who wanted a medium-sized, female dog who didn’t shed — noticed him first. And, instantly, she fell in love.
Wearing an orange cloth that said “adopt me,” he walked up to her, gave her a kiss, and maybe it was a mother’s instinct, because that’s all it took — just like that, she knew he was our dog.
We learned that his name was Shrek, he was about three years old, and that his previous owners moved to Florida, leaving him behind. But it was his visible ribs, the scar on his back, his fear of my dad (and all males at first), and his habit of walking backwards that told us a different story.
At twelve years old, I had the gut-wrenching feeling that whoever had Shrek before us, didn’t treat him right. At the time, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how anyone could hurt him. And, to this day, I still can’t.
With big brown eyes, he was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen; but, it was his personality that made him even better.
For Shrek, I had a million different nicknames, but the best one to describe him was gentle giant. He was this big, 100 pound dog, who was scared of everything.
Labs are known to be swimmers, but Shrek was petrified of any type of water. Every year, we’d celebrate his birthday on the day that we adopted him, since we didn’t know when it really was. We’d put a candle in vanilla ice-cream and sing happy birthday to him, and every year, Shrek would run away the second we started singing — he was scared of the happy birthday song… or maybe, we just had really terrible singing voices. One day, it was pouring rain and we couldn’t find Shrek anywhere… until we opened up our linen closet, and there he was, hiding in it.
We always joked that he was actually a person just wearing a dog suit, because some of the things he did just defied all logic for a pet. Like the time he managed to get a six pack of beer off of a high shelf and onto the floor, open it, and drink some down without breaking any of the glass bottles. Yup, he was definitely one of a kind.
In the eleven years that my family and I spent with Shrek, he was our best friend and definitely the one thing that always kept us going. When I got my heart broken for the first time, it was Shrek who I found comfort in. I remember crying so hard in my own bed, but when I got out of it and cuddled up next to him in his, I felt at peace. Anytime I was ever upset, just looking at him made things feel better. When the rest of the world wasn’t there, Shrek always was. With him, I was never alone.
However, it was my brother who really took care of him all of those years. From walking him to feeding him and everything in between, to even being roommates with him, there was no denying that my big macho brother without-a-doubt had a soft spot for our family dog.
But, in Shrek’s old age, we all really had to pitch in. So, on the days that I was able to work from home, I’d try to help out. I remember going into my brother’s bedroom one afternoon and asking Shrek if he wanted to go for a walk. He didn’t move.
I stood there for a few minutes trying to convince him to get up, before I made a heartbreaking realization — he couldn’t. He managed to sit up, but he couldn’t stand. His leg must have given out and I watched devastated as he tried to drag his own body across the floor, with his limb just sticking out, lifelessly.
My mom and I froze. We knew we needed to get him help, but how were we supposed to get a 100-pound dog, who couldn’t walk, down two flights of stairs, out of a house, and into a car?
We grabbed two bed sheets and slid them underneath Shrek’s body so we could wrap him up in it. Together, my mom and I formed something that resembled a hammock for him, counted to three, and each picked up a side.
While carrying 100 pounds between two people may not sound like that much, he was dead weight. Still, I’ll never forget how cute he looked in that moment, even while petrified. He peed the bed sheets and it got all over me. Normally, I’d freak out. In that moment, I didn’t even flinch. I just kept going.
Getting Shrek to the car was by no means easy, but it was the only time I ever truly felt a rush of adrenaline. I felt like my own limbs were about to give out, but somehow, I got through it, because I knew I had to for him.
On the way to the animal hospital, I sat in the backseat with Shrek as my mom drove. We passed a Wendy’s and stopped to get him a vanilla frosty. No matter how hard I tried, he wouldn’t even take one lick. My heart broke.
Once inside the animal hospital, I just knew. I knew that the moment I never wanted to happen was here. I knew we were about to put Shrek down.
My brother rushed to meet us, and when he got there, he bolted through the doors looking the most distraught I had ever seen him. We all knew what was happening, but none of us could say it; except for the vet.
After examining him, she sat us down and asked if we were looking to put him down today. She said it so casually like it was nothing; like it was the world’s easiest decision to make; like he wasn’t our family.
We all lost it.
Shrek was about 14 years old — which meant that keeping him alive would be like putting a weak, 98-year-old person through surgery and then if they did survive it, making them suffer the pain it would bring afterwards. As much as we didn’t want to let him go, we weren’t his previous owners, we would never want to hurt him.
I didn’t want to be in the room when it happened. I didn’t want to watch him die or for my last memory of him to be lying there lifeless. I wanted to remember him as I knew him for the past eleven years of my life.
My mom didn’t force me to stay, but she did tell me that Shrek needed me, and that was all I had to hear to change my mind. It was time for me to be brave and put his needs before my own. After all, that’s what love is, and God, did I love that dog.
I hugged him, kissed him, and told him just how much I loved him as tears rolled down my face and I tried to process that this was it — he was about to be gone. I held his paw as the vet told us that she was about to inject him, and that once it was done, there was no turning back. I thought I was going to collapse.
I had heard the stories about how when you put a dog down, they go peacefully, I just never really believed it, until I saw it with my own eyes. There was no dramatic last gasp of breath, no fear in Shrek’s eyes, he was calm. Even while he was dying, he was still the one comforting me.
His eyes closed and the vet checked for a heartbeat; there wasn’t one. I remember looking at him and thinking “but he still looks so cute.” He was still the same Shrek I had always known.
Walking out of that room knowing that I was never going to see him again was nearly impossible to do, especially for my brother, who was a complete mess. He stayed in the room, tears pouring down his face, panting for air, hugging our dead dog for what felt like an eternity. We had to physically drag him out of there.
In the end, it was returning home without Shrek that was the hardest part of all. Nearly a year later, I still walk through the door sometimes expecting to see him on the other side, and my heart breaks every time I realize I won’t.