What is a dog?

A cuddly bundle of fur and tongue, tail and paw, beating heart, breathing lungs.

He’s a romp in the sand, a reading companion, a reminder that delight is nearly always simple.

He’s a heartbreaker. Of course he is. From the day your story with him begins, heartbreak is the only way it can end. (It’s the end of every love story, isn’t it? One way or another.)

“You’re going to regret those dogs,” my ex-husband said not long after I got them. “Biggest mistake you’ve ever made.”

When my family was unraveling, when the most important dreams I’d realized were coming undone, I saw in a flash one day that in the new life I needed to make, the kids and I could have a dog. We could have two dogs! One for each kid! (We could have new dreams. We could. And I could make them come true. By myself.)

“They’re your divorce guilt dogs,” my daughter said to me later. She assumed I’d gotten them to assuage my guilt for what I’d done to her, to her life. She wasn’t wrong, but hers wasn’t the whole truth. I got those dogs for me, too.

I knew there would be nights–too many–when there would be no one to take care of but myself. I knew I needed a tether, something to ground me, something to come home to. I needed company. I needed unconditional love. I needed a dog.

I got two of them.

I had pictured a mid-sized dog, with shortish hair. A mutt. That’s not what I got. I didn’t really know what I was doing, how to find the dogs I thought I wanted. When I was growing up, dogs were different. They happened into your life and you’d keep them until they got hit by a car or something. As a kid I had three dogs in two years, until we got the one who stuck and lived until after I left home. We got him as a puppy from some friends who had a dog who’d gotten knocked up. There were no leash laws in my part of the world in the 1970s.

I ended up finding them through craigslist, from an older woman who’d recently divorced and said she didn’t want to be tied down in the evenings. They weren’t mutts, but miniature Dachshunds named Rocky and Daisy. I read some things about the breed having potty issues and bad teeth, but I brushed that off. They were just dogs, right? I was flying by the seat of my pants on a lot of things then, patching together a home from garage sales and thrift stores, trying to figure out how to be a grownup on my own. One day my son, fed up with all I had been putting him through, looked around the house that didn’t yet feel like home (let’s be honest: that wasn’t home, not the only one he’d ever known) and yelled, “Everything we have is used! Even our dogs are used!”

They were. Rocky had a rib that poked out in a funny way, and he shrieked any time a foot brushed near his side. We learned early and quickly that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers. He was anxious, always. He was damaged goods. (Maybe that’s why I came to love him so. Maybe loving Rocky is how I started to learn to love myself.) It took him years to relax, and he never did entirely until he lost some essential part of himself to dementia.

When I decided that maybe I could make dreams come true with someone else again, and Cane and I joined our kids and our lives, the dogs were a tie that helped bind us; our kids didn’t love each other, but they all loved the dogs and that was something to build on.

Until it wasn’t. A fight over a dog was the straw that broke the camel’s back of our second-chance dreams. It seemed unbelievable at the time, but now it makes a perfect sense. A dog is never just a dog; sometimes he is a symbol, a test, and a territory–or a stake with which to claim it.

Perhaps more than anything else, a dog is a constant. The kids left home, and then Cane was gone too, but the dogs remained. We belonged even more to each other then, with our pack so scattered. Some nights I’d lie on the couch with one dog nestled against my belly and the other in the crook of my bent knees, so damn grateful for their presence, wishing that they had, indeed, been my biggest mistake, hating the way the empty, drafty house let me know that if a mistake was what they were, I’d made others far larger.

Though I’d never want to admit it to him, there were times when I wondered if my kids’ dad had been a little bit right, because a dog is also a money-suck, a burden, a duty. Those nights in my lonely house, I understood why the dogs’ original owner hadn’t wanted them calling her home to hers. And those articles that had warned me about Dachshunds’ difficulties with housebreaking and dental issues were spot-on. Rocky and Daisy have ruined carpets and rugs and sections of cork flooring. I’ve spent enough on dental surgeries to have bought a good used car, or to have taken a really nice vacation, or to have bought all-new living room furniture (rather than new flooring). Not that travel has been much of an option in recent years. A few summers back, I made elaborate plans to house them in a kennel near my parents’ house while on a visit home, so that I could spend a night away to attend a gathering of old high school friends. I got a call early in the morning after their night there, telling me to come right away, that Daisy was ill. That was the end of kenneling, and any trips I couldn’t take them on. I knew they were too old and fragile to be boarded any more.

We’ll never know what happened there, but we thought that whatever Daisy had caught at the kennel had put her on a quick path to her end. She lost weight she didn’t have to spare, and she was horribly sick for weeks. As she lingered in a diminished state for months, never fully recovering, we thought she would surely be the dog to go first. As it’s turned out, we were wrong.

Back in May, my vet gently pointed out what should have been obvious to me, that “there’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky any more,” and gave me a flyer on knowing when it’s time to end a pet’s life. As summer passed and then turned to fall, and I got ready for my daughter to leave home again, Rocky slowly (but steadily) declined. It got harder to care for him, and as more and more of my day became dictated by his needs, I thought I was prepared for him to go, too. I asked him more than once to just hang on until she started her new life, told him and myself that I would be just fine if he could only do that one thing. Turns out, I was wrong about that, too.

Denial is a funny thing. Every time I had taken him to the vet since May, I did it thinking I might not be bringing him home, but that’s not what I thought on what turned out to be our last visit. He wasn’t that much worse than the other times, was he?

(Yeah, he was.)

And so, on the morning of a day I had planned to fill with many other tasks, I instead found myself, surprised and heartbroken, holding my old dog–my companion, my anchor, my albatross, my dream–while he went to his last sleep.

After the vet gave him a sedative, Rocky and I were alone in the exam room, just the two of us, which was as it seemed it should be. His breathing was easy, his body soft. I cradled him as I once cradled my babies, and stroked his old-man paws and his now-threadbare coat, and whispered to him a list of all the things I knew he had loved best: his hedgehog stuffy, his braided rope toy, chasing Daisy in circles around the house or beach, napping on the couch with one of his humans, lying in a patch of sun, being loved by his kids.

His eyes closed, and the vet returned with another needle. And then he was gone.

Later that day, Cane and my daughter and I shared photos to a joint album, and as we added image after image I could see they were testament not just to Rocky’s life, but also to the one we have all lived together—one that, in spite of being messy, painful, and fractured, was also (is also) its own kind of whole. While many of the ties that once bound us have frayed and broken, our common love of our dogs is a thread that’s held.

Late in the afternoon of the day we let Rocky go, Cane and I sat at my kitchen table and drank whiskey and told each other our stories about him. Then we went for a long walk, and then we came back and drank a little more whiskey, and told more stories, and finally ate small sandwiches that neither of us had any appetite for. As the windows we sat in front of turned dark and we mourned by telling each other the story of our dog, I understood that what we were really telling each other was the story of our life and of all that we have had and lost, and that the telling was, somehow, part of a way of holding on to what remains and keeping it as we continue to live forward, together.

What is an old dog, one at the end of his life?

He is memory. He is history. He is family. He is love.

May Rockwell Augustus Maximus Ramstad rest in peace.

He was a good boy.

18 thoughts on “What is a dog?

  1. Kate says:

    Oh Rita. When Jesse and I lost our first dog, I spent a week in my mom’s basement craft room listening to Jack Johnson and putting together a scrapbook of Lucy. So to hear that you compiled a shared album of Rocky makes sense to me on a very deep level. Seeing all that they have been through with us, all the ways we have loved them and been loved by them is hard. And necessary.

    I’m sorry for your loss. Even when you know it’s coming, it doesn’t really lessen the blow.


    • Rita says:

      I love this, Kate. Yes. I suppose writing this post was my way of making a scrapbook. I went through our album (and my other photos) over and over again. It would have been better if I’d been listening to Jack Johnson while I did it.

  2. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    He was SUCH a good boy. We truly don’t deserve dogs, do we? Or maybe we do. Thank the Universe for them though, especially now. During all of what we are going through. I am so sorry that this is the week he had to leave you. I am sending you love and though it seems hollow on this page, I really hope you can feel it. I love you, Rita. And I love these words.

    Rocky was such a good boy.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…New York City, Baby! (Bethenny Doesn’t Know Who The Hell I Am)My Profile

    • Rita says:

      I do feel it, Kari, and I’m so grateful for it. And Rocky really was a good boy. (That Daisy, now–not so much. Daisy does what Daisy wants. 🙂 But Rocky tried hard to please us. He was an earnest little guy.) I don’t know if we deserve dogs. Some of us sure don’t. But I’m glad for all the ones I’ve been lucky enough to have.

  3. Laura Millsaps says:

    Rita, I’m so sorry. I think the worst part of fresh grief is the clarity it gives one about the things that we cherish– the presence, rituals, routines, and gestures that added so much to our lives, and now are missing. That the having is now over, and the longing for them has begun. There’s so much regret wrapped up in that, and it hurts. I’m so sorry this hurts.

    • Rita says:

      “That the having is now over, and the longing for them has begun.” That right there. So much of this year–the past several, really–has been about that. What I’m working on, though, is paying more attention to what I’m still in the having of. I wish I’d been able to do that more when I was younger. But, of course, I didn’t know then how much I’d someday miss people and things I was taking for granted.

  4. TD says:

    Dear Rita, Your family has created a beautiful memorial for Rockie!

    Well wishes to paying attention to your feelings of loss of precious Rockie; and please allow yourself generous grace with time and patience a head with Miss Dachshund Daisy as she grieves the loss of her life best friend. The two of them attached says it all in their two argyle sweaters.

    Please know that I’m here to listen anytime.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, TD. I do think I’m seeing signs of an impact on Daisy. The first two days I didn’t; she was used to being separated from Rocky for a day or two when one of them went to visit at Cane’s and the other stayed with me. But by Thursday she was unusually clingy, and she had a LOT of messes in the house over the weekend. Giving her lots of lap time, patience, and love.

  5. Lisa in Seattle says:

    Rita, I’m bawling my head off for you and Rocky and Daisy and everything you’ve had and lost and had to try to find again. Every one of us who have said goodbye to a beloved companion animal can only listen and be a witness to this particular grief. We carry part of his memory for you from the stories you’ve told here, and the memories intermingle with our own – the four dachshunds I loved and lost growing up in my case.

    Tomorrow I take my beloved and ancient ferret Jasper in for his last appointment. For his kind, he is even older than Rocky, and it will not take much to help him cross the Bridge. I made this terrible bargain when I adopted him five years ago, and now the payment is due.

    Everything is about to reach a crescendo in this whole stupid week. In a horrible way, maybe now is the best time to go through this – to cry, wail, get it all out.

    Thinking of you all tonight.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, and I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow. What a day to have to do such a thing—but like you said, maybe the best time. The whole week is stupid. The whole year. Why tarnish an otherwise good period of time with a hard loss? Let’s get all the losses over with at once. Or maybe tomorrow will be a turning point to another direction, and then the loss can fuse with something hopeful. The day can be a letting go of pain for the animal you love, and maybe of a kind that many of us have been carrying for years now. I hope you can find some peace, but I know first it will just hurt. Take care—

    • Rita says:

      You’re right: Inviting them in was a great thing. For us, for sure–and I hope for them, too. Doing the right thing by those dependent upon is sometimes not the thing that feels good, is it?

  6. Marcie says:

    Hi Rita. I’m so sorry at your loss of Rocky. Losing a special, beloved dog is so very hard. We lost our German shepherd, Hans, in August and our house is empty without him. We are getting a shepherd puppy in a month, so that will be a new chapter in our dog ownership saga.

    I read your blog faithfully and still feel in touch through your words.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marcie,
      Thank you for these kind words. And congratulations on the new puppy! (to be) We are settling in to our house’s new normal, and now that I’ve got a little distance from that initial pain/change, I’m able to be more and more glad that Rocky isn’t struggling any more.

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