Seamus, my 13-year old Labrador, died today.
Having suffered with arthritis for too long, this 125-pound brute was finally brought down by a cancerous tumor on his spleen.
The vet sent Seamus on to the angels with humanity and understanding for him, my wife and me.
Even at death’s door Seamus still sported that shiny, soft, black sable coat, outstanding by even Labrador standards, which contrasted so well with the bright red collar we put on him each Christmas.
Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of Meriwether Lewis, on his famous expedition up the Missouri River with William Clark, in which three Indians stole his dog, Seaman, a Newfoundland for which he had paid $20. This “sent him into a rage.”
Lewis sent three of his men to follow the thieves and told them, “if they made the least resistance or difficulty in surrendering the dog to fire on them.” Fortunately, the Indians released the dog. “Lewis may have been ready to kill to get Seaman back, but the Indians weren’t ready to die for the dog,” said Ambrose.
Lewis had it right. A dog is more than just a mere possession. He is a friend worth fighting for.
In a famous closing argument to a jury in Johnson County, Missouri, on September 23, 1870, U.S. Senator George Graham Vest, representing the plaintiff in a $50 claim for the death of his beloved dog, Old Drum, spoke for all dog lovers when he declared, “a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness.”
“When all other friends desert, he remains,” said Senator Vest, who also served in the Confederate Congress.
Vest brought the jury to tears with his concluding argument:
If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of his company to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in his embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.
Senator Vest’s jury argument has appeared in legal publications in Missouri over the years and was included in William Safire’s collection, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (1992).
IF YOU HAVE BEEN to Edinburgh, Scotland, you may have seen the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a Skye Terrier owned by a local constable who died in 1958. However, Bobby continued to visit the constable’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years, which caused quite a sensation and vindicated Senator Vest completely.
We have 7 children, 8 grandchildren, and countless cousins at the cottage Up North in Wisconsin; but not once did Seamus growl or snarl or show anything but joy toward the countless little ones loving, hugging and piling on top of him. Of course, there was the occasional ice cream cone or hot dog that he pilfered right out of the hand of this or that unsuspecting child.
Seamus was the first water retriever I ever owned. As with the larger breed of Labs, the ones with big wide, webbed paws, a chock-a-block head and a barrel chest, he was an impressive swimmer. Diving off the dock with a huge splash, he would follow the kids canoeing or greet them water skiing back to the pier.
One time he swam out to intercept a small flotilla of ducks, his head jutting out of the water, paws working furiously beneath the surface, pursuing either curiosity or a snack. The kids on the pier were screaming at Seamus, fearing a massacre of the duck family was in progress.
The mother duck, waiting until the last minute, transmitted an indiscernible signal to the ducklings sending them in all directions. She turned on Seamus, waving her wings, quacking loudly and generally raising a racket. Seamus executed an immediate 180-degree turn and headed back to shore never to trouble a duck again.
Seamus’s size, bulk and handsome head, dimensions loved by goose hunters, often caused us to joke about his search for his “inner Newfoundland.” Whether crashing through the snow or chasing deer near our former home in Michigan, he was the embodiment of tremendous mass and momentum.
His mother, a diminutive Chocolate Lab, was a great hunter, but Seamus was not a very good “gun” dog. In fact, lightning and thunder scared him terribly. More than once, my wife and I were awakened in the middle of a stormy night as a large dark, dense form tried to get into our bed.
Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” We brought Seamus to town and found that he made friends very quickly, be they kids in the neighborhood or the dog lovers who would call us when he showed up at their front door several blocks away, having enjoyed a good stretch of his four legs.
A FRIEND’S ITALIAN grandfather used to say, “The more I get to know people, the more I like dogs.” Yet, the more I am around dogs, the more I appreciate people. Dogs seem to bring out the best in Homo sapiens. Search dogs serve their masters who are trying to find survivors in collapsed buildings. Kennel clubs bring their dogs to entertain, engage or distract senior citizens in retirement centers. Seeing-eye dogs testify to the indomitable spirit of those without sight. Whenever I took Seamus for a walk or to a public event, I encountered innumerable friends who simply shared our affection for dogs. We’re all for dogs.
This is not the first time I have had to undertake this sorry duty of putting down a loyal and loving hound. But it seems harder as I get older. Reminders of mortality, I suppose.
Inevitably, such a sad event prompts spirited theological debates in the family as to whether or not dogs go to heaven. Orthodox opinion says they do not, but the Heterodox push back hard. In the salvation of the world there must be a place for dear, beloved canine friends such as Seamus.
I miss the beast mightily. I hope I get to see Seamus again.