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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Death of a pet

It’s been four months, and yet if somebody asks me about that day, my voice will crack. “that day,” I mean the day I came home from work to find my Doberman, Red, splayed out on my bedroom floor, his head to one side, his body lifeless but still warm. It’s an image I can’t shake, as much as I try.
I’m no stranger to death. I was a mess of anger and confusion when my father, suffering the aftermath of a stroke, took his last gasps one day in 1995, his children gathered around his hospital bed. And three years later, the death of my sweet, beloved sister Bonny after a withering battle with brain cancer was nothing short of heartbreaking. Yet somehow, and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder. I haven’t felt grief quite like this since, well, the death of my previous dog five years ago.


It’s true that I spent so much time taking care of Red, and Gromit before him, that when each one died it didn’t merely leave a hole in my single-person household; it was as if someone had rearranged my life, excising without my permission many of the rituals that had governed it.
Over the course of 13 years, for instance, the same thing would happen with Gromit every morning. I would sit on my bed to put on my shoes, and he would drape himself across my lap. I would scratch his butt and he would reward me with a big sloppy kiss. Recently, I did the math: Accounting for the times I was traveling without him, this interaction happened more than 4,000 times. So it makes sense that when he died, it was months before I could touch my shoelaces without expecting to touch him. And I had no idea what to do with my mornings without my pooch to require that small gesture of me.
About nine months after Gromit died, I knew I didn’t want to replace him but just wanted to consider getting another dog, I signed up as an occasional foster parent at a no-kill shelter in Dupont Circle. My first assignment, Red, was a living, breathing refutation of the portrayal of Dobermans as vicious guard dogs in such movies as “Hugo” and the animated classic “Up.” The first time he ambled over to me when I was sitting on the couch in my apartment and lay his head across my lap so I could stroke his snout, I knew I’d adopt him. 
Keeping it simple My relationships with Red, Gromit and Consuela (the cat who has survived them both) have been, for lack of a better word, simple. Or at least simpler than that with my sister — or with my father, with whom I had constant conflicts over religion and sexuality, and whose love and support seemed to always have strings attached.
And then there is the suddenness factor. Former president Bill Clinton told Newsweek in 2002 that the death of his dog, Buddy, who was hit by a car, was “by far the worst thing” that Clinton had experienced after leaving the White House. 
Gromit’s battle with cancer at age 13 was short, but at least I spent the last few weeks of his life preparing for it. I held him when the vet put him down, and it was horrible, but I knew he was as comfortable as possible — and that having me there was part of his comfort. At age 7, Red had been otherwise healthy when he started wheezing one day last October. The vet thought he had allergies and advised me to return if he didn’t get better within a couple of weeks. Two weeks later, a chest X-ray showed a mild pneumonia, and the vet sent Red and me home with antibiotics that she hoped Red would respond to within a few days. I gave him a dose at about 1 p.m. and went to work; when I returned that evening, he was dead.
More than just a dog Thankfully, many of my closest friends, family members and co-workers have been wonderfully sympathetic, and for that I’m grateful. Others have seemed reluctant to talk about my grief, and I suspect that it’s because they’re trying to stay in denial about the prospect of losing their own animal or trying not to remember the death of a previous one. My least-favourite reaction comes from those who are aiming to be supportive but regularly ask me when I’m going to adopt another dog, a reaction that seems tantamount to saying, “Get over it already. He was just a dog. Isn’t one as good as another?”
There’s one more task ahead of me. Five years ago I buried Gromit’s ashes in the woods outside Rebekah’s house, along with his collar, a note, a photo of us together and one of his favorite things: a bagel. The headstone says, “Thank you.” Red’s box, meanwhile, went up on the shelf when I got here in January, partly because the ground was frozen solid.

The days are getting longer, though. The ground has thawed. I’ve been looking at headstones and, more important, composing the words that will go on Red’s.

Joe Yonan