With these bare hands

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With my bare hands -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- With These Hands With my bare hands, I finished mounding the dirt over Pepsi's grave. Then I sat back, reflecting on the past and absorbing all that had happened.

As I stared at my dirt-stained hands, tears instantly welled in my eyes. These were the same hands that, as a veterinarian, had pulled Pepsi, a little miniature schnauzer, wiggling from his mother. Born the runt and only half-alive, I had literally breathed life into the dog that was destined to become my father's closest friend on earth. I didn't know then just how close.

Pepsi was my gift to Dad. My father always had big dogs on our farm in southern Idaho, but instantly, Pepsi and Dad formed an inseparable bond. For ten years, they shared the same food, the same chair, the same bed, the same everything. Wherever Dad was, Pepsi was. In town, on the farm or on the run...they were always side-by-side. My mom accepted that Dad and the little dog had a marriage of sorts.

Now Pepsi was gone. And less than three months earlier, we had buried my dad.

Dad had been depressed for a number of years. And one afternoon, just days after his eightieth birthday, Dad decided to take his own life in the basement of our old farmhouse. We were all shocked and devastated.

Family and friends gathered at the house that evening to comfort my mother and me. Later, after the police and all the others had left, I finally noticed Pepsi's frantic barking and let him into the house. I realized then that the little dog had been barking for hours. He had been the only one home that day when Dad decided to end his life. Like a lightning bolt, Pepsi immediately ran down to the basement.

Earlier that evening, I had promised myself that I would never go back into that basement again. It was just too painful. But now, filled with fear and dread, I found myself heading down the basement stairs in hot pursuit of Pepsi.

When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I found Pepsi standing rigid as a statue, staring at the spot where Dad had lain dying just hours before. He was trembling and agitated. I picked him up gently and started back up the stairs. Once we reached the top, Pepsi went from rigid to limp in my arms and emitted an anguished moan. I placed him tenderly in Dad's bed, and he immediately closed his eyes and went to sleep.

When I told my mom what had happened, she was amazed. In the ten years Pepsi had lived in that house, the little dog had never once been in the basement. Mom reminded me that Pepsi was scared to death of stairs and always had to be carried up even the lowest and broadest of steps.

Why, then, had Pepsi charged down those narrow, steep basement steps? Had Dad cried out for help earlier that day? Had he called good-bye to his beloved companion? Or had Pepsi simply sensed that Dad was in trouble? What had called out to him so strongly that Pepsi was compelled to go down to the basement, despite his fears?

The next morning when Pepsi awoke, he searched for my father. Distraught, the little dog continued looking for Dad for weeks.

Pepsi never recovered from my father's death. He became withdrawn and progressively weaker. Dozens of tests and a second opinion confirmed the diagnosis I knew to be true Pepsi was dying of a broken heart. Now, despite my years of training, I felt helpless to prevent the death of my father's cherished dog.

Sitting by Pepsi's freshly mounded grave, suddenly things became clear. Over the years, I'd marveled at the acute senses dogs possess. Their hearing, sight and smell are all superior to humans. Sadly, their life span is short in comparison, and I had counseled and comforted thousands of people grieving over the loss of their adored pets.

Never before, though, had I considered how it was for pets to say good-bye to their human companions. Having watched Pepsi's unflagging devotion to Dad and the dog's rapid decline after Dad's death, I realized that our pets' sense of loss was at least equal to our own.

I am grateful for the love Pepsi lavished on my father. And for his gift to me a deeper compassion and understanding of pets, which has made me a better veterinarian. Pepsi's search for Dad is over now; together again, my father and his loyal little dog have finally found peace.

By Marty Becker, D.V.M. Reprinted by permission of Marty Becker, D.V.M.

-- SAR01 (rauch01@yahoo.com), March 09, 2001

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