My dog was 14 years old when she died last week. That is very old for a dog, even a small breed like she was (Maltese). In the past two and a half years, I had seen her once. That’s what happens with family dogs — as your life pulls you in other directions, time spent with them is collateral damage. You can’t even really Skype with them. (You can, occasionally, when they’re held up to the screen, but you’re never really sure what they’re getting out of the experience.)
We had a scare when I was there last Christmas. We thought we were going to have to put her down, and it seemed like she was in too much pain to justify anything else. I spent a day rocking back and forth on the couch, until the veterinarian told us that she would just have to take some steroids that would largely resolve the problem — that it was common for her breed, and easy to fix. She got another year and a half of being more or less herself, even if she followed my dad around everywhere in the house. (The vet said it was separation anxiety, which was something I had never previously imagined dogs suffering from.)
When I got the call last week, though, it was time. While my family was in Europe over Christmas, being in a kennel had kick-started whatever it was the previous year. The best guess was a tumor on the spine. While on the phone with my mom, I heard one of her little cries of pain. It was the saddest, most awful thing I’d ever heard. It sounded like someone was stepping on her foot and not letting up. My mom said that she was too scared to eat much of anything, but that she did manage to get down a little bit of my mom’s bolognese. It was nice to hear that she was getting special food.
Everyone cried in the little room at the vet’s office, my mom said. I did, too, but I wasn’t there.
I think about her a lot more now than I did before. I think that’s probably natural, but it doesn’t make it any less hard to accept. Dogs are very special, in their endless capacity for love and trust. My cat-person friends would (maybe jokingly) say, “Dogs are the pets of the weak. You don’t need to work to earn their love.” And that’s true, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. When we got Lily, we went to a breeder an hour or so away from our house. It wasn’t a puppy mill, per se, but the lady was not taking good care of them. You could tell that they were scared — separated from their mothers too early, kept in cages much too small, maybe not given enough to eat. The runt of the litter was pretty severely deformed, likely from inbreeding. When people try to keep the little breeds pure, they often cut as many corners as possible.
You could tell Lily had a hard time when she was small. She got scared a little too easily, she had a hard time learning rules, and she was slow to trust new people. She never liked loud noises. But she became, over the time she lived with us, a dog that someone loved. When my mother was pulling into the driveway, my dad would get her riled up by saying “Who is it? Who is it??” and sometimes she would literally trip over her own paws trying to run out of the house to greet her. Thinking about it now, we probably didn’t do enough to deserve that kind of love. We never do.
We come home late and yell at our dogs for making a mess. We shoo them off the couch or step on their paws. We forget to give them treats when we said we were going to. We just let them fall into the hum of our everyday lives, and know that they will always be running in crazy little circles with excitement to see us when we get home. They always love us, even when we don’t deserve it. Their hearts know no limit to the amount of attention or affection someone should get, and they are made almost entirely of joy and anticipation. They are always waiting for the best thing ever to happen, or enjoying the current best thing ever. Nothing is dull or stupid; no one is not worth loving.
When you lose a dog, you lose a certain constant in your life that you never quite realized was holding you up. It’s as if a bit of your hot air balloon had deflated, and it was just that much easier to stay afloat. You realize how important it is to love everything the way a dog loves you, but you learn it just a few minutes too late. If I could see my dog now, I would tell her that I was sorry for all the times I didn’t pet her when I was coming home from a hard day at school. I would give her a bone to chew on and maybe sneak her a scrap off the table even though I know I’m not allowed to. I would tell her that she has always been a very good dog, even if I can’t always remember to be the very good owner she deserves.