If you have ever lost a pet you can empathize with my good friend who recently had to put down her extremely lovable, if high maintenance, sheep dog. The dog had been in declining health, but the final decision had to be made during spring break week when none of my friend’s kids were around to be with her in the final moments. Worse yet, one of them later accused her of “killing” the beloved family pet of 12 years whose quality of life had declined precipitously. She sat sobbing alone at the vet’s office before finally realizing she truly had to put the pup down. No one should have to do that alone as it is one of life’s most heart breaking moments.
At the grief group I attended for several months we had a new couple one week. Everyone went around introducing themselves and saying who they had lost. The new couple was there because they had lost their cat. I will admit openly that my very first instinct, of which I am not proud, was to burst out laughing. It seemed like a staged scene from Best in Show, the terrific satirical movie about pet owners. But this couple had no children, were obviously grieving and deserved the same respect and compassion as others at the table who had lost children, parents, siblings or spouses. I bit my lip, suppressed my black comedy instinct and listened carefully as the facilitator validated their feelings.
I also thought of Sadie. Like nearly every other kid on the planet, I had always wanted a dog. My family had an extremely naughty little mutt named Taffy when I was a pre-schooler, but when we moved they gave her away as our new community had leash laws that they thought Taffy could not honor. Within a few years we somehow acquired an equally badly behaved Beagle named Snuggles. My sister and I both loved her but did not live up to the agreement to assume responsibility for her care and she was gone in just a few weeks. She was replaced by a series of turtles—all named Petey—who regularly escaped from their little turtle pad never to be seen again.
Many years went by until I was married and living in Grand Rapids when an adorable mutt followed me home from church. I waited to make sure she crossed the busy streets safely and that was all it took for her to decide she’d found her home. She had no tags and I tried placing ads, calling the Humane Society and anything else I could think of to find her rightful owner. No luck, so we let her hang around the house, but let her out each night to wander, hoping she would go back to where she belonged.
This street walking had consequences. She seemed a little plump and was acting strangely. A visit to the vet revealed she was pregnant. At this point I panicked. I wasn’t sure we could handle one dog—what would we do with a litter?!?! The vet assured me dog litters run small and usually include a couple still births. At her appointed time Sadie started “nesting” in the couch and we gently relocated her to a box lined with old sheets and blankets. I was prepared to take a crash course in puppy delivery but the vet assured me she’d do fine on her own. I was able to see the first pup born before leaving my husband in charge as I had an opera rehearsal. She did, indeed, do fine and watching the process was an incredible, life-affirming experience. It felt like a NOVA episode right in our kitchen.
Sadie gave birth to NINE healthy pups. Only because they were so varied in coloring did I learn that dog litters can have multiple fathers. Apparently Sadie made good use of the free nights when she was supposed to be finding her owners. Promiscuity aside, she was a darling dog, loving and sweet with brown eyes rimmed in black like a canine Cleopatra. We wanted to keep her but not the entire 10 member family! The vet said we need only place an ad and the pups would be snapped up. He advised not making them free as even a tiny purchase price would yield more invested/ higher quality owners. He was right. We charged $10 each and every family who came seemed very nice. The 6 weeks before they were weaned and ready for sale was an entire comedy show in itself, especially the week we had booked a non-refundable vacation and had to transport Sadie and the pups to a friend’s farm. We had no good way to contain them and I still remember driving with them nipping at my toes.
Sadie stayed with us through our marriage and was one of the only things I wanted when we divorced. I really only hired a lawyer because I was afraid the Sadie question might get ugly, but Bill was leaving town and had no place to keep her anyway. She had always slept in a dog bed in our bedroom and was never allowed on the actual bed or any other furniture. The night Bill left she came to the side of the bed, looked up at me, jumped into his spot and stayed there for several years.
When I remarried, my new husband was not a Sadie fan but she wore a big white bow and walked down the aisle with us at our outdoor wedding and eventually she wormed her way into his heart (and trust me, that wasn’t easy.) He would walk past her muttering “dumber than dirt” but when it was finally time to put her down as a very old, blind, lame, incontinent but still sweet girl he went with me to the vet and we both cried like babies. For weeks I swore I heard her step on the hard wood floors or saw her walking by a doorway. I missed her to the core, but could not fathom ever finding a replacement and never did. Instead we had two daughters together who kept us plenty busy.
I noticed that many families seemed to get a pet after a divorce. When I divorced my girls’ dad I planned to do that too. Sort of a very lame “sorry your dad’s not here anymore but here’s that dog you always wanted!” But we were renting at first and then I was teaching piano in our tiny bungalow and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to add a dog to the mix. I was smart enough to know the care and feeding would fall to me despite all promises to the contrary and I just wasn’t up to it. But the girls begged on and I finally allowed an online Humane Society search during their annual “find your best friend” campaign.
Despite a life-long loathing of cats, I agreed to get one because no one would have to walk it, it wouldn’t bark during piano lessons and litter box clean up seemed manageable. Franny and I went and chose a tiny gray Tabby and after a little in-house debate named her Lucy. She was a terror. We now suspect she was weaned far too early, never knew her siblings and got no family training in proper play and interaction. She would sit in my lap purring contentedly and then in a flash bite my arm or scratch me. Tom actually had a scar from his first encounter with her, but declawing seemed inhumane. The girls kept trying but she didn’t really take to them as I had (foolishly) been the first one to feed her thus winning the dubious honor of favorite human. Franny let her sleep in her room, but none of us could ever trust that her snuggling and purring would not end in a surprise attack. When she stopped using the litter box I finally pulled the plug.
We loved the stupid little thing despite her many flaws and wanted to find her a good home where her bathroom habits and unreliable interactions would not be an issue. This is a tall order. After crying on the phone to various organizations for a week I finally found The Devoted Barn run by a saint who takes every animal she can accommodate in her big old barn on a large piece of land as she can’t bear the thought of them being killed. I took Lucy and a big donation and went back a few weeks later to visit but she had already grown a huge winter coat and completely undomesticated herself. I hardly recognized her and she wouldn’t come near me. I was more relieved than sad and think the girls ultimately felt the same. Since then we have been petless.
Most of my friends and family members are dog people. I was once, too and think I will be again, but not right now. My only motivation would be to have a reason to walk and to make Alyssa happy—but she is two years from flying the coop and too busy to even think about taking on another chore and I don’t want to be tied down from travel or possible relocation. But if I move north I will want a furry four-legged companion, though I’m not sure what kind. My first in-laws were German Shepherd people and I watched the series of dogs come and go, Heidi, Gretchen, Liebchen—as old age and/or hip problems set in. Two college friends have Goldens who are sweet but a little hairy and slobbery for my taste. On one visit I asked my friend if her two dogs really HAD to go with us to her mountain house. She said, “Love me, love my dogs” and I know she is not alone in that sentiment.
I know several childless couples and empty nesters who are extremely devoted to their dogs. Kids take up a lot of space in life and when there aren’t any around animals can fill the void. My brother and his wife were so saddened by the loss of their dog that they booked a trip to Australia at the last minute just to get out of Dodge and not face the empty house. I am convinced my octogenarian neighbor willed his death following that of his beloved pup. Another friend cancelled a trip when her dog died unexpectedly because she and her husband were just too sad. The friends they had planned to visit were dog people themselves and understood completely.
When Alyssa was in third grade the teacher gave each child a goldfish in a bag of water on the last day of school as her parting gift. We were headed straight to the cottage and had to quickly transfer “Victoria” to a larger container and pray she survived. She weathered the trip but was floating belly up by the next morning. Alyssa was heart-broken to lose her very first pet and we staged an elaborate funeral and burial at the edge of the bluff. Years later she and friends were walking the beach and discovered an injured bird. They ran to the house and Tom agreed to go and have a look. I think he decided it was a Plover and they named it and begged him to try to save it. He called experts, fed it as best he could, made it a little nest box and drove it to a bird rescue woman the next day. She had to confess a few days later that the bird had not made it and the girls were sad. The lesson for all of us was let nature take its course in the wild.
But losing an animal can leave a huge hole. It can cause grief deeper than we might expect. After all, they are not PEOPLE. We have not shared laughter and conversation, told stories and shed tears with them. But still we have been in relationship. Sadie climbed up to comfort me when Bill left. She followed me home instead of someone else. She came into my life for a reason. Maybe they all do. When I first told my therapist about Tom and how much I liked him she asked me a battery of questions, having concluded years before that I was an exceptionally bad picker of men. She was troubled that he did not have children but moved right on to ask about pets. When that answer was also no she pretty much advised against going forward. She felt demonstrating loving care of some person or animal was on the non-negotiable list for a partner. She turned out to be wrong about Tom (he had basically kept an unmedicated bi-polar wife on a functioning plane for 30 years with his care and attention) but I get her point.
Animals teach us important things and they weave themselves into the fabric of our lives, adding texture and context and joy. They are family as surely as the human members. When they are gone it is wrenching and who am I to say it is any less so than losing a person? Maybe the sympathy cards for those losing a pet are not so silly after all. Maybe all grief groups should welcome pet owners. Maybe we should have more pet funerals and not leave people weeping alone at the vet’s office. Pet owners have a thousand stories of special times with their animal, funny things they did, special moments where they seemed almost human. Maybe we need to pay closer attention and do more to honor those losses, those lives.
Tom and I always said we would get a dog when we retired. Maybe I still will. Maybe there is another Sadie out there. A walking friend who might sleep at my feet at night. That might be nice. The find your best friend day is coming up again I think. Hmmmmmm…….