Our family dog of 12 years passed away a little over a week ago. When I say family dog, I don’t say that as possessive, but as inclusive. He was as much a part of our family as the human members. He was one of the first big life decisions my husband and I made together, shortly after getting engaged. He was the constant in the ebb and flow of our life and our relationship. My boys have never known life without him.
His passing was devastating. It wasn’t a surprise. He had been battling an illness, an illness for which the vet said there was no cure; but I was in denial and believed if I loved him enough and took care of him enough, I could fix him. In the days that followed, there was emptiness where warmth and companionship once settled. Within the emptiness was time for reflection. Because I believe that every interaction in life, whether human to human, human to animal, or human to nature, defines and shapes, my reflection necessarily turned to the things I needed to take away from my time with my dog.
1) Don’t take it personally – When we first brought our dog home, he was the center of our universe, our only “child”. I worked in an environment where I could bring him to the office daily. He would happily jump into the passenger seat next to me each morning for our drive. He enjoyed daily snuggles and playtime and games of fetch. If my husband or I went out for a jog, he was often trotting alongside. But then, our life changed. We had our first son, we both went back to work in a “no dogs allowed” environment, we had our second son, we moved. Three times. Life was one big multi-task. There was barely time to sleep or breathe, let alone play fetch. No longer our focal point, the dog blended into the background of our daily comings and goings. But as far as I could tell, he never once held it against us. He would remind us he loved us and missed us by lying near or dropping his favorite toy at our feet, and he would watch us bustle over him, on to the next disaster that was demanding our attention. He did it over and over again, never undeterred, waiting patiently for the miraculous quiet moment, his moment, and eagerly accepted anything we had left to give him.
Life gets crazy. For everyone. Every. Day. Work blows up. Loved ones get sick. You get sick. Finances crumble. Kids have meltdowns. Cars break down. Credit cards get stolen. In-laws visit. Pipes burst. Sometimes, there are days that stretch into weeks that stretch into months where the crazy just won’t stop, and the force of the unrelenting pressure buries you until you can only see that which is right in front of you. So you miss a birthday, or forget to return a phone call, or don’t send an email, or call off lunch with a friend. If you have never done this, you will. It is only a matter of time. If you have already been to this place, remember it. Someone you care about will inevitably be in this place, soon. As a result, you will be slighted or forgotten. Don’t take it personally. Accept what little, if anything, you are given in those moments with gratitude and be patient for the time you can be given more.
2) It doesn’t matter where you are or what you have, as long as you are with the ones you love – Our dog was a hunting dog by breed. He had a nose on him that you wouldn’t believe, a nose that often got him into trouble, like the time he was picked up by a state trooper on a busy metropolitan freeway after sneaking out in the midst of grocery unloading. He was always on the trail of something, be it a rabbit or the neighbor’s barbeque. I imagine being outdoors was pretty much heaven on earth for him. He loved to sprint in circles around the yard and roll in the grass and dig in the dirt and lie in the sunny spots. When we lived in suburban Midwest it was easy for all these things to be a part of his life. We had a backyard that was his playground and unlimited access to farmland, forests and lakeside lounge areas for field trips. For nine and a half years he lived the good life, and then we brought him to the city.
As much of a culture shock as it was for the rest of us, I can only imagine what the dog was thinking. You want me to poop where? I can only go outside if you take me outside? Um, where’s the grass? Are you going to start carrying me around in your purse? I’m pretty sure life in the city was nowhere near as fun or comfortable for our dog. Sure, there were some upsides, like the squirrels in the park that allowed him to get ridiculously close, always giving him the impression that he was on the verge of a takedown, before deftly scampering up and across the nearest fence. But for the most part, his outdoor exploring days were over. There was no more hanging out in the backyard while I worked in the kitchen or paid bills or folded laundry. Outdoor time now consisted of structured bursts of hurry up and get it done between pickup and drop off and dinner time and bedtime. Yet each summer, at the end of our annual extended trip to the Midwest for time with family and friends, he would eagerly jump back into the car crammed full, take his place on the sliver of the seat that remained between my two sons, and happily make the return trip to the city. His life had lost some of the bells and whistles he was accustomed to, but he still had his people and that was all that seemed to matter.
3) Be welcoming – On his final night, my dog trotted up to our apartment door, tail wagging, my slipper in mouth, and greeted me with his patented low throated “welcome growl” as I arrived home from a meeting. For as long as I can remember, he gave this greeting to everyone who entered our home. Hello. I missed you. I am excited to get to know you. You’re wonderful. Here’s a gift for you. On that night, he was emaciated, he had barely eaten in days, and he was having increasing difficulty standing up and lying down. Yet he got up and greeted me anyways, and he did it with enthusiasm. Without a doubt, I adored him for that, because there wasn’t a day when he didn’t make me feel loved and appreciated, even though there were many days when I certainly didn’t feel worthy of love and appreciation.
Can you imagine the impact on your relationships if you took the time to welcome your loved ones home in that manner, not just after long absences or on special occasions, but every day, every time, they re-entered your life? What if, no matter how crappy a day you just had or how tired you feel, instead of a quick hello and a quicker return to the task at hand, or instead a brief glance up from whatever screen is currently demanding your attention, you stop. You smile. You say, “It’s good to have you back.” What if?
4) Don’t wish away the good things in life, by wishing away the tough things – In the days of suburban dog ownership, I simply let the dog out the back door to do his business, with minimal interruption to my schedule. In the city, I was suddenly faced with several 15-20 minute blocks of dog walking that had to be worked into my day, and those blocks often competed with the needs and desires of my children, and the already limited supply of time my day offered. Plus, walking the dog was never just as simple as walking the dog. It was getting the boys to put shoes and coats (and sometimes clothes) back on. It was refereeing yet another battle over who gets to push the elevator button. It was hollering for a pair of scooter racing boys who forgot the rules again to slow down and GET BACK HERE! It was figuring out how to make the morning walk work when my husband was traveling, the boys were still asleep, and the dog was whining in a way that told me his time was NOW. It was in these moments, I would catch myself thinking, life will be so much easier when we don’t have a dog anymore.
Unfortunately, easier doesn’t equate to fuller, or happier. In this moment, I would gladly trade an annoying 10pm walk for my dog curled up on the couch next to me, head resting in my lap as I scratch behind his ears.
The best I can do now is honor his life, by sharing and living the lessons he taught me. I don’t know if it’s true that all dogs go to heaven, but I’m sure there was a place up there waiting for mine.