If I had kept my vet appointment earlier, Stretch would be dead now. I would have driven home in an empty car and walked into an empty house. All the tarps, blankets, and towels, strewn all over the floors to guard against accidents and to make him comfortable, could be picked up and put away. As could his middle-body and back-leg harnesses and size 6 Pampers.

But I canceled the appointment to have the dog euthanized. For that day, and most likely the next few days, he could continue as usual. Luckily for him, he does not know how close he came to having his life ended. He does not have to think about this, as I do.

Stretch is just turning 15, which is quite old for a dog. Some live longer - I had a golden retriever mix, Jenny, who made it to 18, and she jogged with me every day until she was 17. I have a lump in my throat writing this.

It is my seventh time going through a beloved dog's end of life (due mainly to old age). I did not have all these pets one at a time. As I am 75 now, mathematically, this would be impossible if each dog had had a complete life of, say, 12 to 15 years. I would have to have started having dog companions before I was born. No, I had multiple dogs for quite a few years. At one time I had four.

From that pack of four, which also included Pearl, Evie, and Lily, Stretch is the only one left. I rescued Stretch and Lily within a week of each other when Stretch was about six months old and Lily about nine months. Pearl and Evie were already in residence at that time and were a lot older.

Lily had been severely neglected, which may account for why she only lived to be 12. Someone called my attention to Lily's situation. She was living in a house where the people were addicts. The family next door saw a scrawny puppy in the next-door back yard and after months of watching, the daughter of the family couldn't stand it anymore. She found her way to me, and I took Lily out of the house. That little dog was a bony skeleton covered in fleas. The girl next door saved Lily's life by persuading me to take a look.

Stretch, at six months, was healthy, cheerful, and adorable, but alone on the street. He must have escaped from a yard. I put up signs and tried to find his owner. Secretly, I did not want to find the owner, because Stretch was truly appealing.

The best thing happened when I introduced Stretch and Lily to one other. I was keeping Lily isolated from my other dogs, housing her in a pen at another dog rescuer's house until she became stronger. Lily clearly had never socialized with other dogs, as she shivered and barked whenever she saw any.

A week after rescuing Lily, I found Stretch and needed to figure out what to do with him while searching for his owner. I decided to bring him to the pen where I was keeping Lily.

I opened the door to the pen and brought Stretch inside, as Lily shrank back and barked furiously. I was afraid Lily would actually attack Stretch, but he wasn't worried. He went right up to Lily and started licking her. Lily stopped barking, stopped everything. She stood still as Stretch assiduously licked her whole head, and I watched her muscles relax and her demeanor change completely.

And that is how Lily learned about kindness from another dog. Of course, they became close companions, and eventually I brought both into the house with the other two dogs.

The years went by. I am skipping over a lot of problems that arose between Stretch and Pearl as Stretch matured and turned into the alpha dog. Eventually Pearl died, Evie died, and then a couple of years ago, Lily died. And now it is Stretch's time.

I hate it, but I will have to let him go. I have no choice, except whether to wait until tomorrow or next week.

Caroline Wiseblood Meline is a writer and philosophy teacher. carolinem1@verizon.net