My labrador used to let me paint her fingernails when she was sleeping and for weeks she would look incredibly sophisticated. She woke me up every morning by whacking open the door with her face and then nosing my hair until I assured her I was alive and able to feed her. Sometimes she burped and then barked at the smell.
She had a tiny fold behind her ears that we said she kept love letters in. My dad Photoshopped her, flying like a reindeer, into our Christmas cards. Watching her chew grapes was hilarious. She liked lying under the piano when my mom played and was the only audience member she could ever perform for without nerves locking up her fingers. She hated mushrooms and the smell of sponges. I once watched her poop out an entire human sock.
When we talked to her, she would raise up her ears so that they would be perfect triangles next to her velveteen head. She looked like she was straining to understand, like she was so close to understanding English, if we could just slow down a little and only use the words she knew. She abhorred the treadmill and people hugging. When she violently kicked off all the couch pillows to make room for herself she always had a look of satisfaction on her face as she clicked her mouth together in order situate her tongue right in her mouth. I’m pretty sure The Simpsons was her favorite show.
I’m not really handling the whole thing well.
The thing is, I knew it was going to be bad. I knew from the moment that sand started clogging the gears of her wiggly hips that it was coming, and it would be unimaginably horrible. But I didn’t know I was going to be two thousand miles from home, that a goodbye months before would be goodbye forever. I didn’t know the physical falling feeling that kept happening in my palms and stomach would reappear for months whenever I saw a dog.
Part of it is just the actual pain of her somehow just evaporating, but it’s mixed with a heavy dose of guilt for feeling destroyed by the loss of a pet. Most of the sick sadness is just missing the way I could press my ear to her belly and hear the gargling of digesting Alpo. It’s regular, losing a labrador sadness.
The other kind of sadness is something I can’t really explain well. I didn’t know her dying would somehow be the first concrete evidence that time is something real and completely uncontrollable. I didn’t understand that her chasing a tennis ball up to heaven would also mean staring 11 years right in the face and confirming in a deeper way that, yes, everything ends.
Because when you get puppy, a squirmy brown puppy who smells like puppy chow and falls asleep in your fourth grade arms, you don’t think about the day she’ll die and you’ll be alone in a foreign country unsure of absolutely everything. You don’t think about how one day the hair between the puppy’s paw pads will gray and cancer will spread like mold on bread in her spleen. All you can think about is how the future with the puppy is unlimited and free, how nothing has a time limit and her tail will wag forever.
My labrador used to sit with me when I had the flu, even when no one else would come near me. Dogs can’t get sick from humans and vice versa, which makes sense for a lot of reasons. As I puked and coughed and sneezed she would just gaze at me with her big, honey colored eyes. For hours she sat patiently, clicked her mouth together and sniffed the bottom of her paws. In my fever-induced confusion I used curl up to her and wonder how she could stand just sitting with miserable me, why she didn’t have anything better to do.
But my sweet labrador didn’t live in the messed up world where there’s always something better to do. She didn’t mind just laying with her sick friend while the rest of the world spun around her. She didn’t know there were time limits. I think it’s better that way.