Twenty-five years ago, at my college reunion dinner, classmates pulled snapshots of their kids out of their wallets. This year, at my thirty-fifth, it was cell phone photos of their dogs that made the rounds after dessert. In retrospect, I wonder why it is that dogs have now taken over the spots in our lives that our children once held. We used to display our sons and daughters in their sports uniforms holding trophies; now we show off our dogs with balls in their mouths, as if they were exhibiting similar accomplishments.
After a few years of empty nest, when our kids have moved on to college and the dogs of their childhoods have passed on, we often don’t remain dog less. For the first time in over two decades, we finally have the freedom (and perhaps the financial wherewithal) to travel, stay out late, or even just to sleep in on the weekends, yet we nevertheless tie ourselves down once again to the schedule, desires and needs of another.
Two years ago, I got a Dalmatian puppy to keep company with my boy Gulliver, whom I had whelped eleven years before. At least, giving him a companion as I bought Breeze was the excuse I dreamed up just when the reign of dog hairs and stinky cow hooves was near its end.
I confessed to a friend that I had acquired this new puppy because I was really satisfying some remnant of the desire to get pregnant once again—one which had me drooling over infants in their carriages even at this late date. I had baby lust, so I got a puppy instead. In introducing this joyous youngster into our home, I traded toilet training for housebreaking, obedience classes rather than detention, a dog nanny instead of a baby sitter. And then came puppy kindergarten, a modern invention that socialized my new dog just as the same institution had made my children able to cope with their peers.
Perhaps we have dogs because they fulfill our need to nurture, tapping into that part of maternal instinct that might go into hibernation when the kids take off for their own apartments—that particular aspect of our personality that we don’t always lavish on our partners or our human friends. Or maybe, it is also the reverse. Dogs provide us with the special kind of love and companionship that we now often experience only at a distance with humans. They are radically different than partners who give up on marriages, or the friends who get angry over real or imagined slights and turn their backs on relationships. Dogs never get up and leave of their own volition.
In my forties, I grew clinically depressed and suicidal. Life had become overwhelming. As I lay bedridden and despondent, Gulliver stretched out by my side like a sentinel. He built a wall between death and me. Vigilant, he licked away my tears and used the warmth of his long body, keeping me anchored to reality.
I curled around him every day and every night during a time when human contact was rare. He provided the comfort a child or partner could not, even when, after my divorce, I recovered enough to start dating. I learned something important: the lively countenances of dogs keep us at a remove from our mortality and in touch with our humanity. With Gulliver’s help, I decided to go on living.
He was my best friend: someone I could commune with; someone who loved me, no matter how far I had fallen or how unattractive I had become; and someone whom I could love back, no matter how imperfect the love I offered. He never fought with me and he never talked back. He was always attuned to my moods. Though Gulliver never visited an old age home or made his way down the corridors of a hospital to comfort a sick stranger, he was nevertheless a therapy dog. A wise old soul, he guarded me as I moved through the labyrinth of self-destruction.
Just before his thirteenth birthday several weeks ago, Gulliver grew ill and my new husband and I brought the entire arsenal of modern medicine to bear upon his case. When I was a child, there were no such alternatives for prolonging a pet’s life. He was diagnosed with an intestinal disorder, and a canine nutritionist from Cornell University designed a special diet for him, one with which I happily complied, baking twenty pounds of sweet potato and peeling fifty-six eggs a week.
After he died that day, I began to cry and have not been able to stop since. I weep several times daily, huddled over the empty spot in my heart, remembering the endearing things about him. They come in a flood, each moment’s memory more intricate than the last.
While pouring my morning coffee, I remember how he ran in circles, impatient for his food bowl in the morning, often sacking me from behind in a rugby tackle as he urged me to the kitchen. On the way to my computer, I look at the empty sofa in the family room and remember him laying in a particular spot atop all the pillows piled high, the pasha of our days. When I get ready for sleep each night and sink back under my comforter, I picture him, lying with me watching prime time, his chin tucked up under my armpit. In flipping through the wedding photos from my second marriage, I see him gazing back at me with a collar of flowers around his neck as our ring bearer, taking on a role usually assigned to humans. Perhaps it sounds blasphemous, but I love him as much as I have ever loved any member of my family.
Some do not seem to understand the depths of my loss, and counsel me to put my grief aside, but there are others who put their arms around me in strong embrace. They know that dogs can make us better human beings, and they recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that the part dogs play in our lives is a way to stay connected with life itself. They are the ones who swore they were never going to get another dog when the first one died because they couldn’t stand the pain of a future loss, and then found themselves with a puppy and an accident on the bedroom rug. They are the ones who give me time to grieve.
I know that when the time is right, I will be getting Breeze a younger brother—to keep her company now, and me company later. I had bought her with the mistaken idea that it would assuage the pain when Gulliver passed. How wrong I was. While Gulliver only wanted to cuddle and sleep, Breeze is vivacious and never wants to sit still. Just as my friends are all different in the topics they choose to discuss and the depths on which they touch, just as my children engage with me in different ways, just my second husband is different than my first—I have learned that our dogs are not any more interchangeable than our human loved ones.
And so I put a photo of Gulliver on the table beside my bed, and each night before sleeping we have a little talk. I bring his woolen throw into the bed with me and hold it against my body to approximate the feeling of him in my arms—even though I know cuddling with an old dog’s blanket is pretty extreme. And I realize that perhaps I hold on to the pain of losing him because it is all I have left, just as I had once held on to the pain of losing my mother because it was all I had left. I know that in time these feelings will dim and that will be a second loss in and of itself, albeit one that brings me to life again, in a new way, having been influenced and altered by my bond with the dog I so loved.
Despite these efforts, he worsened. In the animal hospital, we enlisted the care of a canine internal medicine specialist who ordered x-rays and blood panels. There were ultrasound sonograms, too, but instead of being pregnant and looking eagerly for a heartbeat and all four limbs, we were searching desperately for a picture that displayed no masses, no shadows, nothing out of the ordinary. When Gulliver developed aspiration pneumonia as well as the ravages of a now severe gastrointestinal upset, we discussed oxygen and tracheal washes, and administered IVs for every antibiotic money could buy.
In the emergency room, I crawled into the crate with him and held him just the way he had once held me. For hours my husband and I sat with him, petting his head and speaking to him in soft tones, until they kicked us out because visiting hours were over. But he worsened and we had a terrible decision to make within only a few hours: risky surgery on an elderly dog to determine the source of the problem, or euthanasia. He had had a life both happy and full, and we couldn’t ignore or forget that: this was what we wanted both him and us to remember. It took three hours to find our way to a solution, one that meant creating terrible pain for ourselves in order to bring Gulliver to a painless peace. His selflessness with me some thirteen years earlier enabled me to be selfless with him then.
When my mother died, I did not believe in either heaven or a sentimental spiritual afterlife. I did not believe that people might be reborn as dogs, or dogs as people. But now, thirty-six years later, I realize that this distinction does not matter. It would break my heart not to imagine Gulliver up there, somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, trotting around on his newly young legs, frolicking with those friends who passed before him and—most importantly—waiting for me.