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The Yankee Express

I’m only human

LINCOLN VETO LECLAIRE December 26, 2010 – April 16, 2021 “Live Life to the Fullest. Love Openly. Grab a Ball.”

By Amy Palumbo-LeClaire
My house is not the same. I sit out on the deck to write, to remember him. The birds chirp and call to each other beneath a pale blue sky. They sing songs of spring and life and new beginnings. A neighborhood dog barks from a few houses away. Something is missing. I sit awkwardly and wait for Lincoln to lift his nose to the flutter of life around us. Satisfied, he’ll collapse by my side to do what he always does in April—wait for the bunnies to appear. But he’s not here and, instead, I’m left with all that’s left, his memory. My heart aches. Simple joys have been my winning lottery ticket for the past ten years while living with Lincoln. Now it’s time to go on living without him. How did this happen? 
His presence, like shreds of petal swirling through the air, are close enough to touch. His passing is a fresh wound. I want to grab our time together, clutch it in my hand and bring it back to life like a genie from a bottle. I want my dog back. Alas, I’ve gone dark. I’m supposed to honor Lincoln’s spirit and focus only on the good parts (he and I are optimists) but I’m human. I know we’ve been blessed. I know he had a good life!  “I just miss you so much,” I whisper, and in my mind’s eye, he faces me with his “professor-serious” expression. Then he breaks into that easy, boxy smile.  “I’m with you. I’m okay. But go ahead and tell your story, Mom.”  
***
Lincoln defied an ultra- sound report that he only had one to three months to live back in October, 2020. Pardon the male dog expression, but he chose to grab life by the balls and live each day as though it’s his last. All winter long he played outside like a child on a snow day. He played Bury & Find with his ball, lapped up cups and cups of farm-fresh goat’s milk, and hiked along trails in Sturbridge. He took his final swim at Wells State Park during an exceptionally warm Saturday in late March. He sniffed the shoreline, felt the water with a knowing paw, and waded in. His best friend, Bruno, watched him swim with the indulgence of a dog whose full name, Lincoln Veto, means lake and love. “Look at him go!”
Winter drew to a close and along came a mild spring. The days became warmer and longer while Lincoln’s panting grew more pronounced. We discussed summer plans for keeping him cool and healthy. We would get him a kid’s pool for the yard, make up an “apartment” for him in the cool finished basement, and continue to cook his favorite beef stews, salmon, and steak dishes. We arranged another vet appointment to discuss more possibilities. We had plans for Lincoln. He knew how much we loved him and he loved us right back with zero complaint about his health. The decline in his breathing (more panting, more hacking, more discomfort) seemed overshadowed by his thirst to go on living. He still climbed the stairs to greet us with his human smile, grabbed our socks, wiggled with joy when we came home, and played fetch in the yard. Then something happened a few weeks after Easter Sunday. 
We couldn’t allow Lincoln to play ball anymore. Mild breathing issues worsened. Small sessions of play led to heavy panting and, more recently, wheezing. That’s when we knew. He wouldn’t choose to stop on his own. Taking away a game of ball felt like murder. But we had to do what was best for Lincoln. 
A neighborhood walk foreshadowed all of this. The truth passed through me like a lump of cold ice cream midway through the walk, one that began as it usually does, with off-the-leash time followed by my favorite routine: Lincoln lost track of time while distracted by his favorite grassy smells. Meanwhile, I walked ahead of him for, say, fifty feet before he realized that we had been separated. He lifted his head and froze to the sight of me. Then, as though we’d been apart for an eternity, he raced back to me, full-speed, to reunite and sat at my heels, smiling wildly. We are the greatest team ever! 
I’ve since read The Rainbow Bridge poem, a replica of this experience to help explain to dog owners what it’s like to cross over to heaven and reunite with our dogs “to never be separated again.” I felt like I had experienced heaven on earth every time we walked the neighborhood. 
His final sprint led to the final stretch of our walk. I leashed him back up and, understandably, his pace softened to a leisurely stroll. We stopped at the corner of Cedar Hill Road and McClellan. “You want to turn around and go home, Lincoln?” He sat, thought about it, and tugged me forward. “Let’s go.” We strolled past the field where the apple orchard used to be. He paused as he always does, recalling days past, when he’d nose through rows and rows of thick field and fallen apples. We kept going. But something was different. The truth hit me. This would be our last walk.
A driver appeared behind us suddenly, shaking his head in frustration, obviously in a hurry. I tugged Lincoln to the side of the road so that the driver had more space to pass. The irony that we’d come full circle to my first column written (Why I Like Dogs More than Humans) settled cruelly in my chest. 
I wiped tears from my cheeks. My thoughts addressed a driver now gone. “You don’t understand. This is Lincoln. He sprung from the ground like a dolphin to catch a fly ball only weeks ago. He’s just not himself. This is the dog in the paper. He’s just feeling—” 
Tears blurred my thoughts. I pressed on. “You coming?” Lincoln glanced back to check on me. “Don’t worry about him. He’s human. This walk is so much fun! Let’s just be happy!”
I unleashed him for a second time at the edge of our neighborhood. He visited Sonoma, a friendly yellow lab, then found an old faded tennis ball in the Campbell’s yard, one I didn’t have the heart to throw back. A squirrel erected itself from a patch of woods, and stared up at us. Lincoln froze. A familiar outdoor friend! Ball in mouth, he launched forward for a quick, yet tired chase. “Good boy, Lincoln!” He trampled back to me, thoroughly proud of himself. “Still got it.”
More days passed. I fought with my intuition. Maybe it’s not the end? Maybe there’s something I’m just not seeing. His love for life, his will to go on, was so strong. I reached out to dear Golden friends and invited them over for a visit. Please. Just tell me he’s going to be fine. Talk me out of what’s happening. You know more.
***
The skies produced a rare snowstorm on Friday, April 16, a mirror to the day he was born on December 26, 2010. He laid vulnerable in the foyer upstairs; paws outstretched amid heavy breathing. He needed help. Panic pressed against my forehead while I made phone calls. Everyone was busy, booked, overwhelmed. Everyone except his former veterinarian, Dr. Golden of Sutton Animal Hospital. She was available at 12:30. Finally. A bright light.
My husband got the car started. Lincoln grabbed his ball, waited for me to grab my pocketbook and tap danced to the prospect of going for a ride. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm. We’re going for a ride! He could hardly wait.  
Due to COVID restrictions, the office staff banned us from attending the preliminary exam. “Please,” I begged. “His condition is critical. He will get stressed and won’t be able to breathe.” My over-the-phone request was declined. 
He was led on a short leash from our backseat. My husband and I held on. We could barely breathe ourselves. Within minutes, Lincoln arrived back at the car, gasping for air. He collapsed in a slush puddle, panting and smiling like a wolf, paws forward. “He’s far too distressed to come in,” the vet tech said. I swallowed the bitter taste of “I knew that” and opened the back door for Lincoln to jump back in. Home. He pasted his eyes to mine and struggled to calm down. But he was relieved. That much I was sure of. We’re together again. Raw, blustery wind and rain rushed into the car. Dr. Golden appeared at the passenger window within minutes. She told us what to expect.  
***
I sit in the backseat beside Lincoln. He’s calmed down nicely. He lifts a big, strong paw for me to hold. Our eyes lock. I cannot find words. Fresh tears rain and rain down my face. My dog, my dog. Why this? Lincoln licks away a steady stream of tears.  “I’m okay, Mom. I’m so happy we’re together. This is the right thing.” 
“I’m not ready, Lincoln. Please. Please, hold on.” My pain is excruciating, irrational. 
“Thank you for loving me always. Thank you for understanding me and taking me for rides and pouring me goat’s milk. I’m okay, Mom. You are the best. I feel so relieved to be with you right now.” He rests his head on my lap and calms down to a peaceful awareness. The dark of our plight recedes back like a wave at the shoreline, breaking then unfolding to an intense beauty. I pet his soft head while he rests comfortably on my lap. “Lincoln can come too,” I speak his language. I repeat the phrase over and over again. He listens, raises a sleepy eye. “Lincoln can come too. Where do you want to go next? You are a good boy.” All that’s wrong crumbles around us like a falling tower while the two of us, kindred spirits, rest in final moments of peace and I’m blessed a thousand times by my dog’s unconditional love. Lincoln goes to sleep.
***
Lincoln never asked for much, only to be together. Like me, he was always up for adventure. I’m so honored and proud to have given him exactly what he needed, over and over again. I’ll go on Living with Lincoln in my heart and writing about him in honor of so many who loved him and saw their own dogs through a story told in the voice of a true Dog Person. He was the first pick of the litter, the largest male and last surviving pup, son of Sox and Tickles of Twin Beau D Kennel. I imagine him crossing over to miles and miles of glistening lake and baseball fields of rich greens and golds. I imagine that someday he’ll freeze to the sight of me, only this time he’ll find me seated on the ground, arms wide open. He’ll race towards me until we meet again. Then I’ll fold my arms around him, collapse and, this time, he’ll lick away tears of joy. 
Stay tuned for Lincoln’s upcoming book, a compilation of columns (first published here!) that have made you laugh, cry, and nod your head knowingly. Please write to me at [email protected]