This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a dog that I love, and unfortunately it won’t be the last. The death of someone you love, of someone who loves you, sucks, always. And it’s sad.
Yesterday my mom had to “put down” our 13 year old, big fuzzy pup, Marley. I hate the banality of that phrase, “put down,” but I can’t muster a better way to put it. And while maybe there’s more perspective in the mix now than when I was 9, it still makes me feel the loss of every animal friend I’ve ever had.
I found Marley when I was 15 years old, it was a few days after a big hurricane and it was muggy and hot. I was at track practice at my highschool, and he kind of just kind of wandered onto the field one afternoon. I leapt at the opportunity to skip practice and hang with dog, despite protest from the coaches.
He was nota puppy but young, scrawny, friendly, he had fuzzy brown fur. I picked him up. I gave him water. I bought Cheez-Its from the cafeteria vending machine and shared them with him. The language of dog friendship is easy, straight-forward, consistent.
After a half hearted attempt to find him a home, my mom, the only person softer than me, let him join our household. My parents were getting divorced at the time and Marley was a good distraction, ‘the new man of the house’ as my dad joked in poor taste.
Marley was a goofball; he loved going on walks, he loved cheese, he loved barking at people that biked by our house, the universal qualities of a dog. There was also his spotted tongue that stuck out, about two inches too long for his mouth. His soft brown eyes. His unfortunate vengefulness for cats. The way he would lay his entire head into the water bowl when he got back from a walk. The way he got nervous on highways, and would paw you until you held his hand, and then watch the road with you, concerned brown eyes, tongue sticking out.
He was a free spirit too. He had a thing for hopping the fence and going on walks around the neighborhood. I remember looking forward to him getting old and his athleticism slowing down, but that never really happened. Even a few weeks ago, when the bone cancer had taken hold and left him with a severe limp and he was hopped up on pain-killers, I turned my back for a minute and he was two streets away hobbling off on an adventure.
When I went away to college I didn’t take Marley with me. But we both knew he was still “my dog” as much as anyone else's. Even when I eventually got a dog of my own, Yogi, we both still knew.
The fear of losing that relationship is interwoven with the loss of this one. I loved Marley, and losing him sucks, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of the shittyness comes from the fear that one day, in the not so distant future, I’ll lose Yogi too. And that this will always happen for as long as we love dogs.
Not everyone has had a dog, or has experienced real love from and to, a dog. And I can imagine it would be hard to understand it from the outside. I was lucky enough to grow up with it, as a kid I counted animal friends the same as human ones. They have the qualities you know to admire as a child... presentness, honesty, playfulness, loyalty. Sure they can’t operate a can opener, occasionally eat their own poop, and have an affinity for destroying door moldings, but as far as vices go, most of us humans have much worse.
We don’t choose our dogs like we do our mates or our friends. You kind of just meet once and then commit to having them the rest of their life, and it somehow works. I wish I could say this could be a guide on how you cope with the loss of an animal friend, but like all worth while endeavors I guess there’s no quick fix.
When you let go of the shore sometimes the big waves out there will kick your ass. Fighting them doesn’t seem to do much good, not fighting doesn’t make it hurt less either.
But having been through this washing machine a few times, this is my advice - if you can remember to surrender to the disorientation, the muffled ring in your ears, the thousand pounds of pressure submerging you, in that pain, also notice the fiery joy - the realization that you really felt love. You've probably heard some version of that before, so just take this is a reminder. A reminder, to you, and to myself, now and future, that hopefully, eventually, we will make it to the surface. And whatever washing machine it is you're going through, or however long the cycle, when you take those first few painful, gasping breaths, you’ll notice how goddamn sweet that air smells, even the lingering smell of wet dog.