Kim and I got married in January of 2005. I was brand new to Austin. She was returning after two years in Denver. In many ways we were starting from scratch. We were newlyweds without jobs, without deep friendships, without a church, without our favorite places to eat or hang out. We had the exciting, yet terrifying, opportunity to start making “home.”
We began learning the neighborhood around our apartment complex. I delivered pizzas for a few weeks before finding a job as the appointment scheduler at a doctors office. Kim found an office job too. We fought about the kinds of things that newlyweds who’ve known each other less than a year fight about. We ate more tacos than I ever had before. Then after a couple of months of trying to get settled in, we took a weekend trip to see some of my family in Louisiana.
We hadn’t talked at all about getting a dog. We were both dog people, from families that had always had dogs. It just hadn’t come up yet. It seemed like there were so many other things to square away first. But at some point that weekend my dad was taking my sister to buy a dog. And he asked if we wanted to come along. I remember Kim getting giddy with the idea of going to see Labrador puppies. And I remember saying something like “Ok, we’ll go. But just so we’re on the same page, I don’t think now’s the right time for us to get a dog.”
We made the drive from Benton to Shreveport, and pulled up to a house with lots of yelping going on behind it. We walked around to the chain link fenced yard, and were greeted by a litter of the cutest black and yellow lab puppies you’d ever seen. We walked in and bent down to start playing with them. And one little yellow guy ran up to Kim and put his face in her lap. I don’t remember us even playing with the others. After twenty or thirty minutes, it was time to go. Kim looked at me and said, “Can we get him?” I replied, “Of course.”
Our family piled back into my dad’s truck with three puppies. My sister had found one she wanted; but so had we, and so had my dad. We discussed potential names on the ride back. I had the idea of calling him “Nolan.” After all, I lived in Texas now. Why not name him after my favorite Texan from childhood, Nolan Ryan? I knew I’d probably never get to name a kid that, but it seemed like an easier discussion to have for a dog. Soon we were driving back to Austin with a dog - our dog - in the backseat.
People talk sometimes about their pet being their child. And it’s not an entirely fair comparison. You realize that once you have a human child. But for the first two and a half years of our marriage, Nolan was our only child. And even after Ada and David were born, he always remained our child of sorts. I’ll put it this way. Nolan didn’t have as elevated a position once our children were born. But I always liked him more than I liked your kids.
Nolan quickly became a big part of “home” for us. Before we had Mosaic. Before I was a pastor. Before Ada & David. Before our incredible small group and the deep friendships that sprang from it. Before we bought our first house. Before I discovered brisket. Before all that and more, first there was Nolan.
We did everything with him. We’d hike in the greenbelt near our apartment. We’d take him on trips to the park, or to go swimming at Bull Creek. If you remember Bull Creek getting shut down for cleaning several years back because of too much fecal bacteria present, that was largely Nolan’s fault. We always took bags to pick up after him when we were out. But when he would get out of the car at Bull Creek, he’d be so excited he’d just shit everywhere. And it was never the kind you could pick up. We’re sorry.
We moved from our first apartment off of Southwest Parkway up to Far West Boulevard. Then later we moved again over to St. John’s. Nolan would get used to the new places, and the new walks pretty quickly. But he had a rough day a few months after we moved into St. John’s.
We only had one car then, and I commuted by bike. But Kim had picked me up after work this particular day. So we pulled into our driveway together a little after 5:00. As we walked up to our front door I saw that it had been broken into and was slightly ajar. We looked at each other, and both said “Nolan!” Our first thought was him, not our house or stuff inside. I told Kim to get back in the car and call the police. I know the smart thing to do would have been to get in the car with her and wait for the police. But I had to know if he was ok. Was he still in there, and if so, was he hurt? Did they take him? Did he run out while the door was open?
I ran in calling for him, but didn’t see or hear him among the overturned furniture downstairs. I took the stairs in two or three bounds, but I couldn’t find him in our bedroom or Ada’s nursery either. Then I noticed the upstairs bathroom door was closed. I opened it and there was Nolan, huddled in the bathtub shaking. I hugged him and told him everything was ok. Then I ran out to tell Kim it was safe to come in and that Nolan was there. He was always a little skittish after that, especially with other men. But we were always so grateful that the jerks who broke in put him in that bathroom and shut the door.
Soon Ada showed up, and we couldn’t have asked for a better dog to bring her home to. He’d sniff her a little, give her a playful nudge, then lay down right by her. She was tugging on his fur and ears within no time. But he never seemed to even think about growling or snapping at her. He was the same way with David. The bark and the rage he’d seem to be slave to while chasing squirrels around the backyard never showed itself with the kids, or any other person.
When we bought our first house and moved up to Cedar Park, he learned what would be his final home layout. He stopped sleeping in a crate because we needed the room it took up. He started sleeping beside our bed, or Ada’s bed, or David’s bed. We figured out that on his last night, we saw him at different points of the night beside each of our places. He loved and protected us equally.
Nolan had never had any health problems. We kept him fit by only ever feeding him dog food, and making sure he got plenty of time outside. But last week we noticed that he wasn’t eating as much. We would feed him twice a day, and he was either leaving his breakfast until dinner time or not eating dinner at all. We didn’t think much of it, sometimes dogs just don’t eat as much. He’d done that before. But then a few days ago, he started coughing some. It was like he was trying to get something up, or had sniffed or eaten something funny in the backyard. “Must be allergies,” we thought. We were all struggling with the weather changes and new things in the air.
But Saturday morning we woke up to find him with a severely swollen neck, and what appeared to be labored breathing. I immediately got ready to take him to the vet. Kim and Ada were crying. On our way out, Kim said “He’s got cancer.” I told her we didn’t know anything yet, and it might just be an allergic reaction or something had bitten him. His brother, Mac, just had similar symptoms in Louisiana a week or two before. And it turned out to be just some type of infection.
However, the veterinarian was immediately visibly worried. There was no fever or infection. No visible bite marks. He did a chest and neck X-ray, and asked me to come to the back to look at results with him. “Damn it,” I thought. “They don’t have you come back if everything’s ok. He would just tell me the good news here.”
He showed me the large mass in Nolan’s chest. “Here are his lungs, but here’s where they ought to be... Here’s his airway, but here’s where it ought to be… It doesn’t look good... It looks like cancer to me, but it could be something else… There’s a very small chance it could be something treatable… I recommend an ultrasound to know for sure.”
I went home. It was going to be a few hours before they could get the technician in to perform the ultrasound. And I couldn’t be with Nolan anyway while he was in the back, on oxygen and being observed. They would call me with results, so I should go be with my family. I hugged Kim and the kids and told them everything I knew, and then we waited.
After an hour and a half, my phone rang. “Mr. Myrick, we just completed the ultrasound. And we’re sorry to report it’s bad news.” It turns out that the mass was fluid buildup related to the real culprit - a tumor in his aorta. “What are our options now?” I asked. They outlined three. Nolan could have surgery, but the tumor was large enough that a surgery couldn’t remove it all. It would just be buying him some more time. The second option was to drain the fluid and help his breathing some, but the doctor said we would be back soon. “It might be two weeks, or it might be tomorrow. But you’ll be back here - the fluid will build up again, and his breathing problems will return.” I said “And the third option is…” but then trailed off. The vet finished my sentence, “euthanasia.” “I’ll have to call you back. I need to talk to my wife.”
Kim, David, Ada, my mother-in-law Brenda, and I waited there staring at the door- the door that the doctor and Nolan would be walking through any minute. We’d been lead to this small room by a nice woman (everyone there was so kind and empathetic) after I had signed up for a new credit card that would finance all they had done that day, and what they were about to do.
I had thumbed through my Book of Common Prayer before leaving home, thinking I remembered a prayer there for the death of a pet. But I couldn’t find it. So I stood in that room with my iPhone in hand, open to a prayer I’d found online. Kim wiped her eyes with some of the Kleenex that had been provided to us. Ada just stared at the ground or the wall. David kept saying “I miss Nolan. Is he in Heaven with God yet?” “No buddy, we’re about to tell him bye. Then you’ll go home with Granny while Mommy and I stay here for a bit.
We heard the steps outside, and the door handle started to turn. This was it. Our poor boy was going to shuffle in or be carried by the doctor, and we’d tell him bye. It would be hard, but it was for the best. He was suffering, and he wasn’t going to get any better.
We weren’t prepared for what happened next. Nolan came bounding into the room, sniffing and nudging each of us as we hugged him and kissed him. It felt like he was thinking “My people! My people are here to take me home again!” I looked at the doctor and said “This would have been hard no matter what, but he’s acting so normal.” She pointed out that he was probably glad to see us, but that he was very sick, Sure enough, within a minute or two, he was stretched out on the floor again fighting to breathe. The vet brought oxygen in for him to make him more comfortable and give us a few good minutes. I asked everyone to put their hands on him, so we could say a prayer then tell him our goodbyes:
Let us pray.
This we know: every living thing is yours and returns to you.
As we ponder this mystery we give you thanks for the life of Nolan
and we now commit him into your loving hands.
Gentle God: fragile is your world, delicate are your creatures,
and costly is your love which bears and redeems us all.
Holy Creator, give us eyes to see and ears to hear
how every living thing speaks to us of your love.
Let us be awestruck at your creation and daily sing your praises.
Especially create within us a spirit of gratitude for the life of this beloved pet
who has lived among us and given us freely of his love.
Even in our sorrow we have cause for joy
for we know that all creatures who died on earth
shall live again in your new creation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brenda shook his hand and hugged him. Ada wrapped her arms around his neck and said she loved him. David kissed him on the top of his back and said he would miss him. Then they walked out the door, and Nolan shuffled to go out with them. It was agony.
Kim and I sat in the floor with him, like we first had in that yard in Shreveport. As the doctor explained what each of the two syringes in her hand would do, we held him. Our sweet boy that had put his face in Kim’s lap and claimed her almost ten years earlier sat with his face in her lap again now. I had my hands on his stomach, feeling every gasp for air he was taking. I told him that he had made us very happy, and that I loved him. Kim held his face and just kept looking into his eyes and saying “I love you, Nolan. I love you, Nolan. I love you, Nolan.” I realized those were the last words she wanted him to hear.
The white syringe was first. Within seconds of it being administered, he was asleep. Then the pink one right behind it. I felt a few more breaths under my hands, then...nothing. The dr pulled out her stethoscope and listened for a pulse. “He’s passed. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
We had cried off and on all day. But we completely lost it when she said that. I don’t remember ever seeing Kim cry as hard and as violently as she did. She might say the same thing of me. I don’t know how long this lasted, but I know that at some point it felt like I didn’t have any more tears left.
I looked at the still beast in front of me, and said “It sucks that we just read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE with the kids, because all I can think of right now is Aslan on the Stone Table.” Kim said she was thinking the same thing. Our sweet boy had been shaved in multiple places that day for tests and IVs, like Aslan the Great Lion. He lay still and dead, like Aslan the Great Lion. But unlike Aslan the Great Lion, he wasn’t going to get up.
After several minutes of the quiet, we agreed that we needed to leave. The kids needed us, and we couldn’t do anything more for Nolan now. So we petted him one more time. Then we got up, opened the door, and walked out.
It’s too soon for there to be a happy ending to this story. I don’t know yet what to make of it all. I know that our house hasn’t felt like “home” the last few days. It’s too quiet. It’s too still. It’s less dusty and hairy.
We’re grateful for the time we had with Nolan. We’re grateful that he didn’t suffer very long. We’re grateful that he had such kind and good people caring for him all day on Saturday. We know time will heal some of our hurt, and that there’s still much beauty and good to find in this world.
But this hurts like hell. And we miss our boy.