Dogs. And mine in particular. He turns 14 tomorrow.

 

Life is a little different when you’ve shared it with a dog. You become more vulnerable because you’ve opened your heart to a creature over whom you don’t have complete control, and who, in most cases, will not outlive you. You bring them home as a puppy, or a young dog, or an adult dog, a rescue pup–however you find them—and you care for them.  You make a promise to meet their needs and to love them and to let them love you. And one day you come to the horrible realization that their absence will tear a huge hole in your heart. And the worst part is that, unlike with human children, you know that their demise will come before your own. You complete each day with your fur-child knowing that love and suffering run a parallel course over your heart. Grief is the bill that comes due for love.

But oh, do they ever make it worth it. Us dog people have had varying relationships with our dogs, depending on when they came into our lives. For those of us who have never lived a day without a dog, we might recall the dogs of our infancy. These are the dogs we were raised with, from the day our parents brought us home from the hospital. We owe the most to these dogs because, if you were like me, you were the baby that replaced your parents’ first “baby.” We kicked these dogs off of their pedestal in the worst way possible, but they still loved us. They licked us when we cried. They grudgingly tolerated our uncoordinated and primal urges to grasp whatever was in reach, and to pull it hard.  When they heard our first cries, they ran to our parents with looks and whines of distress, as if they really felt our pain. “The pink thing is upset,” they barked. “You must fix it. NOW!” they insisted, with an urgency that our parents certainly didn’t experience when our younger siblings came along. These dogs passed when we were 7, 8, 9, maybe 10 years old. We might remember their death as the first somewhat traumatic experience of our lives–the first notion that something could be taken from us with permanence; something that we could not get back with good behavior.  My dog of my infancy, Muffin, died when I was in 2nd grade. I have vague memories of her, but I know I loved her, and the finality of death became real to me for the first time when she passed.

The dogs of our childhood occupied a different space than those of our infancy. We might remember the day these dogs came into our lives like younger siblings. For those of us who had not experienced an actual younger sibling, this was our first taste of not being at the bottom of the household hierarchy anymore. Our growth from child to adult tracked their journey from puppy to senior.  We actively played with them, dressed them up, had some responsibility for caring for them—much as one would a younger sibling. We were their packmates, and quite often they were our partners in crime.

Coco is the dog of my childhood. We got her—a neurotic little cockapoo—when I was 5 years old. She was a great dog, despite her poodle-oriented neuroses. Coco and I grew up together. Although she was an insolent teenager several years before I was, we still got each other. She wasn’t “my” dog by any means, but she and I had an understanding that we would tolerate each other, and possibly that we would plot against my parents. I loved her, but I was still too self-centered and young to dread her demise, although I certainly knew it was not far off by the time I left for college. Coco died that fall, my freshman year at Emory. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her since I was half a continent away, and maybe that spared me from some of the grief, but it was still raw and real, and I felt her loss for a long time.

What of the dogs we have as young adults? These dogs become our rocks. Whatever trials and tribulations we faced as children and teens were dwarfed by those of our adulthood. For many of us, this period in our lives was the first time we navigated the world completely on our own. We were out of our parents’ homes and out from under their watch. Our mistakes were real and bore true consequences. It could be an exciting time, but there was always an element of fear attached to this new independence. We had real responsibility for the first time. And with that, we felt adult enough to care for another living being on our own, so we invited these puppies along for the ride. They became a constant in a period otherwise marked by big changes. We loved them so deeply because they were truly ours and we were truly theirs. They depended solely on us. We made lots of mistakes with them and felt bad for those mistakes, and they didn’t even have to forgive us because they were just that faithful and trusting that they were blissfully accepting of our mess-ups (more so than we were of theirs—RIP at least 8 pairs of shoes, one pair of glasses, countless books, one paycheck, one CD (?!), several area rugs, and mornings of sleeping in).

These are the ones whose demise inflicts real pain. The hole they rip in our hearts is huge and gaping, because we fully turned those hearts over to them. The love is full, deep, and unconditional, as is the grief when they leave us. It just can’t be any other way, or you’re not really experiencing all there is to life as a dog owner.

Nathan is the dog of my young adulthood. He is a dog among dogs. Nathan has been there for all of my major life events as an adult. I adopted him from the Atlanta Humane Society right after I graduated from Emory. I was 22 years old. He was 6 weeks old, and weighed just south of 5 pounds. I could hold him in one hand, except for his ears, which were about the same size as his body. Kenny raised him too. When I was at work during the summer after college, Kenny watched him, and grew to love him. He’s the dog of both of our young adulthoods. Nathan was there when I started grad school. I cried for hours into Nathan’s fur when I missed Kenny while I lived in Tennessee and Kenny lived in New York. And cried even harder into that fur when Kenny and I broke up.  But life came full-circle, and when Nathan and I moved to Austin so I could start law school, Kenny also moved there to start architecture school, he and I, and he and Nathan, found each other again. And we were a family again—a family of dog-people and a dog.  And then Kenny and I got married. And then we had Jackie and Ben.

Nathan is the dog of Jackie’s infancy. She will remember him in the same way that I remember Muffin—fondly, but without as much emotional attachment. She loves him, I’m certain. But he loves her more than she even knows. Nathan created a job for himself on the day we brought her home from the hospital. He was her protector. I’ll never forget when she was back in our room at 4 days old in her bassinet, when my sister-in-law entered the room late at night to see her for the first time. Nathan was perched on our bed, and when Lauren entered, he leaped at her with teeth bared and growling until he realized who she was and backed down. Kenny and I realized then that Nathan had adopted Jackie as his own baby. He slept next to or under her crib or bed every single night from that day until she was 5 ½ years old and we moved her into a room with her toddler brother. She is back in her own room now, and Nathan is back to sleeping on or under her bed. Nathan has never been as protective of Ben as he has been of Jackie, but I think he still considers the two of them his “pack” and watches over them accordingly—and then some.

Nathan has developed a tumor on his adrenal gland that has spread into his vena cava and renal artery. Jackie is 6 ½, and Ben is almost 3. Ben is blissfully unaware of Nathan’s mortality, and may not remember him at all when he’s older. Jackie will be quite sad when Nathan dies, I’m certain, but she’s still too young to feel the dread that we feel leading up to that day—the dread that comes along with sharing your life with a dog.  The fact that he will not outlive her is shocking news to her that I’m not sure she has totally comprehended, so the pain is a bit more momentary, perhaps, than the pain that Kenny and I feel.  With every oncologist appointment, every sonogram, every blood test, my heart sinks a little because I know we’re now on borrowed time. But the beauty of knowing that is that we are granted the opportunity to make the most of it and savor every minute we have with our little corgie mutt. We have a chance to give him a beautiful end of life, where he is spoiled to all ends, gets table scraps and home-cooked meals, gets to sleep on (and shed his hair all over) our pillows, and gets a lot of extra scratches behind the ears, belly rubs, and car rides, and I fully realize how lucky we are, as not everyone gets that opportunity. We are sort of managing our grief through this process—focusing on and savoring the opportunities that we have with him rather than dwelling what we’re losing in the end, and I love that.

Nathan is 14 years old today. Happy birthday buddy, and I am so grateful for the role you play in all of our lives.