COLUMN: Goodbye to woman's best friend

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By Mary Garrison

When I cried, Kirby always stayed close, comforting me without words.

The first time I lived by myself, Kirby made sure I wasn't completely alone. When my heart was broken, she reminded me that I could always count on her. If I was too busy to spend as much time as usual with her, she was happy just to see me when I showed up again.

I remember the first time I met her. Not long out of college, I visited the animal shelter, eager to find a dog who was all my own. As I walked by, the pups ran to the fronts of their pens and barked, begging for my attention. I wondered how I would ever choose among them.

Kirby sat silently, winning my heart with her gentle beagle eyes. We understood each other instantly, and I knew she was the one.

For years, we were inseparable. We traveled together, including a 16-hour car trip to Cape Cod that she probably thought would never end.

We took daily three-mile walks, and I kept the conversation going the whole way. Always true to the unassuming persona she showed at the shelter, Kirby was the exact opposite of her notoriously vocal beagle brethren. She never had much to say, but I knew what she meant.

We worked together once. The redeeming qualities of the employer were few - but Kirby was welcome in the office, so that made up for a lot.

We played together. We slept in the same bed. We packed up and moved three times.

When we made our last move, she overcame one of her biggest fears. She was more than a little wary of my husband's Labrador retriever at first, owing to a misunderstanding many years before between her and a different big black dog.

But after Roscoe died in 2003, quiet Kirby told us how much she missed him with her lonely nighttime howls.

In the past several years, our walks had dwindled. Last time we tried, she was out of breath before the end of the block. We'd still play chase in short bursts through the back yard or around her food bowl, but not very often.

And lately, Kirby's 14 years had been showing even more. Because of her recent lack of interest in food, which always had brought her joy in a way that only a hound could understand, she grew thinner and thinner - until she was almost literally skin and bones.

She couldn't see anymore, and her hearing was far from what it used to be. There was a lump on the back of her neck that I suspect was symptomatic of what was going wrong inside her little body.

My husband and I are planning to move again soon, and I worried constantly that Kirby wouldn't be able to adjust.

Last week, when I checked on her one morning, she was having trouble standing up. I tried to help, but her hind legs just wouldn't do their job.

So I sat down in front of her, and she snuggled her head against the inside of my leg, her favorite way to relax. I offered her a drink of water, which she gladly accepted.

As we chatted, her breathing seemed labored, so I told her that if she needed to go to sleep and never wake up, it was OK. "Mommy will be fine," I lied. She snuggled closer. I rubbed her side, feeling each rib. She wagged her tail weakly.

I reminded her that she was a good girl, and then I begged my good girl to make the decision that I didn't want to have to make for her.

In the end, though, she couldn't bring herself to leave me alone. I couldn't bring myself to let her suffer anymore.

And, as it turned out, the second she was gone was the moment I needed her Kirby-comfort most of all.