As a child, I was not allowed to watch Lassie. Oh, at first it seemed like a perfect match, coming on after Disney on Sunday nights when my child mind was still filled with magic. But, after a few episodes that left me sobbing in an uncontrollable tyke puddle on our multi-colored shag carpet, my mother, wisely, put an end to it.
It seems I can rationalize all evil in the world except for sad stories with animals. To this day, The Goose will shout out “For crying out, DON’T LOOK” when we pass an animal dead on the road.
Yesterday, I played hooky from The Boy’s lacrosse game and, unwisely, watched Lassie. I don’t know why, it was just on. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, hooked. By the time my son and his friend got home, I was a mess.
Trying to explain this caused typical guffaws of laughter from my family, but my son’s good buddy, inexplicably named Mad Dog, understood. He had just lost his family dog last week.
Pulling up pictures of his friend, Lucy, in her last moments, brought sympathetic sighs from all of us. It reminded me of all those little loves who I’ve lost. Who, among us, hasn’t had to make that terrible decision to end the life of what we call a pet, but is really more like a fuzzy chunk of our heart?
I had a Golden Retriever, unimaginatively named Brandy, that I got when I was 11. I can still smell his puppy breath, see his wiggly little body wrapped in a beach towel and feel the disbelief that I was lucky enough to get him. He went absolutely everywhere with me, from childhood through my teen years. He was a well known dog. When I spoke to him, he talked loudly back in whines and barks that were just his frustrated way of saying “Damn this snout, I’ve got something to SAY!”
While Brandy was with me, I met The Goose, got married and moved three times. We added Maddy, who we called our “first child” and she became Brandy’s bride, becoming the mother of 10 outstanding puppies whose new families sent home Christmas cards and update letters about their perfection. For eight years, they were our family, and when our friends bragged about their slobbery hairless babies, we boasted the fact that our kids could hold a treat on their nose until we told them to flip them into their mouth. All other Oskoshbgosh clad kids paled in comparison.
By the time I was 27, Brandy was skinny, lumpy and smelled like parmesan cheese gone bad. Not once but twice did someone stop, ring my doorbell and sadly try to break the news that there was a dead dog in my yard. Since he could no longer hear, I would walk over and touch his shoulder and his cloudy eyes would look up at me and he would wag knowing I was his constant and he was my always there.
Everyone knows when that moment comes. Our’s came on Christmas Eve and we had a vet kind enough to help us out. It was the first tragedy of my young life. I remember The Goose telling me it was just preparing me for worse things to come as we got older, and, sure enough, even in a life as wonderful as mine, there have been some heart-wrenching losses. Losing that dog, though, was like losing a brother, companion, son and friend all in one, just on a slightly smaller, hairier scale.
I’ve had some other dogs who I’ve loved just as much, and who surely occupied just as much of my heart, but none with the uncomplicated love that an 11 year old can give a dog.
And so, I’m sad for Mad Dog and his family. It has caused me to observe my Matilda, who has been stiff and elderly since she was a puppy, with a worried eye. She’s 9. Because she’s my first small dog, I have great hopes that she’ll live even longer than Brandy’s span of 16 years, amazing for a big dog. I don’t ever want to have to sleep without her curled up behind my knees. I have observed our Finn, shoe chewer extraordinaire, and pictured him elderly. At least once a day I hear his Jack Russell feet pounding through the house, like he’s being chased by a demon, until at last, he finds me, puts his head on me and gazes as me as if to say, “I here, Mom. Whew. I here”. In my mind, he speaks in a voice that hasn’t quite mastered grammar. It is too horrible to think of him getting old.
My dad had a terrible dog, Boo, who no one liked except my dad. She loathed me with raw, exposed sibling rivalry. When my dad was dying, Boo began failing. She pined and wasted when he was in the hospital and died, just one day before my dad. Although I cannot imagine a Heaven that contains that despicable hellion, I know, begrudgingly, that she was there, glossy and black, wagging her stump of a tail, joyful at my Dad’s arrival. I don’t know how my Mom has reconciled the fact of Boo in their celestial home, but I know that for Dad, she makes his afterlife complete.
It’s hard to remember when a puppy has chewed up a favorite shoe that the unfairness of a dog’s love is that their lives are way too short. It’s surely a cosmic mix-up that they can’t be our companions for life. No one loves us more than our dogs, their love undiluted by our fallibilities. They are children who never grow up, never get sassy, never know it all and never leave us. Just our appearance through the door is a miracle to them every single time.
While I was reading books on Heaven not too long ago, I was so happy to read about tales of animals there told by those brought back from the brink. When Brandy died, I had him cremated and found a beautiful antique box for his remains. He sits, unobtrusively, on a chest in my foyer. No one would know what the box was unless they stopped to read the poem there, which I think sums it all up:
I said to St. Peter, I’d rather stay here, outside the pearly gate.
I won’t be a nuisance, I won’t even bark. I’ll be very patient and wait.
I’ll be here, chewing on a celestial bone,
no matter how long you may be.
I’d miss you so much if I went in alone;
it wouldn’t be Heaven for me.