It’s my 30th birthday, and Megan and I are walking down Duval Street in Key West. There is a pet store here, which must be the most unlikely place for a pet store in all the world. Everyone here is a tourist. What kind of idiot buys a dog while on vacation?
You are in the window surrounded by other puppies. A tottering orange ball of fuzz with little triangular ears, like a fox who lost its tail. Ink-black eyes and round button nose. My wife, pregnant and hormonal, is instantly in love with you. We go inside to play with the puppies, because why would you not want to play with cute puppies while on vacation? You curl up in my cupped hands, calm and sleepy.
Megan gives me a lingering series of Significant Looks, which I do my best to ignore. I generally try to avoid making dumb decisions, and impulsively buying a puppy while on vacation eight hours away from home is clearly in that category.
I make a silent vow to never let Megan know that I also fell in love with you the moment I saw you.
It’s the next day and Megan and I are sitting at a Burger King across the street from the pet store. She is presenting her case for why we should buy this very cute half-Pomeranian half-Yorkie puppy even though:
We are on vacation.
We are expecting our first child in a couple of months and already have more than enough to keep us busy.
We have absolutely no plans or intentions on getting a pet. Our house is tiny and barely fits the two of us and two cats, much less a baby and a dog.
We are an eight-hour drive from home.
You are, in fact, quite expensive.
Do I even need to write the numbered list here? It’s obviously a terrible idea. Family members that we’re vacationing with look at us like we are idiots when we say we’re considering it.
I think very very hard about my beloved first dog, Snickers, named because she was chocolate brown with swirls of white and caramel. She was a Sheltie, the smallest of her litter, a funny little runt of a puppy who entered my life when I was feeling small and cast out too.
When I was seven, I was playing in a neighbor’s front yard while she was out with me. I got distracted and heard a screech of tires behind me. When I turned around, Snickers was on her back motionless in the street. I carried her limp body all the way back to my house. The shocked look on my mother’s face when she saw me arrive, tears streaming down my face, broken dog in my arms, is my most vivid childhood memory.
I am the kind of person who analyzes 100 steps ahead. Getting a puppy means buying a ticket for the whole ride, including the end of it, in whatever form it takes. I am choosing to break my own heart. What if it’s not worth all that pain?
Megan is driving us north from Miami. You are sleeping in my lap, impossibly warm, cold wet nose pressed against my arm. We talk about names. You almost end up “Dorito” because of your triangular orange ears, but it doesn’t stick. Instead, you become “Ginny”. Not for Ginny Weasely like everyone assumes but short for the liquor genever.
When we buy you, I also buy some books on dog training because I am the kind of person who wants to be a very good dog owner that follows all the dog owning rules. Rule #1 is crate training starts immediately. A dog won’t respect you as the pack leader if they are free to sleep where you do. They’ll think they run the pack.
It’s late at night by the time we get home, and all the pet stores have closed. Next to the bed, I try to improvise some crate-like thing for your first night involving cardboard boxes, a cooler, and anything else I can find around the house. You yowl in terror, or perhaps just disappointment at the poor accommodations.
Eventually, I give up. I pick you up and lay you on my chest. You are asleep instantly, tiny heart fluttering against mine.
You are taking your sweet time exploring every single corner of the jungle that is our backyard, looking for lizards. It is three o’clock in the morning. The green and brown anoles are sleeping under leaves where you never find them. I am shambling after you in pajama pants and old boots telepathically trying to get you to pee with every ounce of willpower I have.
I am keenly aware of my dwindling opportunities to get a good night’s sleep before the baby arrives. Yet here we are. Over the past few weeks Megan and I have mostly learned to tell the difference between your yowl that means “I am a puppy and don’t like being alone in this crate” and the yowl that means “My bladder is too small to last the night and I need to pee right now.” Sorry about the mistakes we made while figuring that out.
I pee in the yard too, hoping you’ll get the hint. I deeply regret ever seeing you in that pet store window. Half-awake, I have vivid fantasies of building a time machine, traveling back in time, and slapping myself in the middle of that Key West Burger King.
After patrolling the perimeter of the yard in tiny puppy steps, twice, you finally pee. I tell you what a good girl you are and give you a treat.
Because you are an adorable tiny puppy and I am a nerd with a DSLR, I take copious photos of you and upload them to Flickr. One day, I get an email from cuteoverload.com asking if they can share some of them. The next day, you are Internet famous. Millions of people look at your butthole.
You are oblivious to your celebrity, as you are to most things in life.
As you grow, your puppy fuzz is replaced by silk, still orange on top and white on the bottom like a fox. The whorls of fur behind your ears are the softest thing I have ever felt in my life. I run my fingers through them constantly, to your delight.
I take you on walks every day, still trying to be some kind of adequate dog owner. The training manuals say that to teach a puppy walk properly on a leash you should stop walking whenever the dog pulls against it. Then wait patiently until the dog turns and makes eye contact with you. That way, they learn that you are in charge of walking and that pulling means the walk ends.
It takes us half an hour to walk a single block. Despite repeating this process hundreds of times, you fail to make the mental connection that if you stop yanking on the leash then we can actually walk where you want to go. You never, ever stop pulling on the damn leash.
I start a running joke of whispering insults in your ear that sound like terms of endearment. It’s not like you speak English, so when I say, “I hate your face,” all you hear is the caring tone I use to say it. “You’re so fucking stupid,” I coo into your ear. I rub your fuzzy belly to make sure you know how much I love your stupid face.
Five weeks earlier than expected, Megan and I become parents. We haven’t had time to set up a nursery yet so we hastily buy a bassinet. The first night the baby is home from the NICU, we realize there isn’t enough room at the foot of the bed for both the bassinet and the crate.
We let you sleep on the bed. You are immensely proud of earning a place on the bed while the new pink hairless dog is relegated to the funny crate.
You are listless and frothing at the mouth. Megan and I are terrified. You had been in the yard stalking all of the various animals that live in the barely-tamed-jungle that is Orlando. This time, you found a toad and you’d managed to get your mouth on it before I could get to you. Did it poison you? Are you going to die?
We rush you to the emergency vet. She takes your vitals while you sit there limp and apathetic. Your blood sugar is dangerously low. She gives you a treat. Then another. You immediately perk up. You’re fine, totally fine.
I remember that a couple of days prior I put my foot down and decided you were ready to graduate from soft puppy food to kibble which is better for your teeth. You were uninterested in the new food. I confidently told Megan, “If she gets hungry enough, she’ll eat. It’s not like she’s going to starve herself.”
Apparently, somehow during the thousands of years humans spent turning a wolf into the strange-colored, tiny, eternally cub-like thing that you are, we broke your survival instinct. Sorry about that. We learn to mix some wet food into your kibble.
It is something like four in the morning and Megan and I are pushing a baby stroller and a luggage cart across the SeaTac airport with you and the cats crammed in pet carriers perched on top of our suitcases. We’ve just flown 3,000 miles to our new home. Our brilliant idea to take a red-eye flight so the baby would sleep through it failed disastrously. Megan and I spent the entire flight taking turns trying to get the baby to sleep on our laps. You seem to have mostly survived the flight intact. The cats were less thrilled by the experience.
We get to the hotel, and I take you out just as the sun starts to come up. The parking lot of an Extended Stay in Redmond is my first view of our new home in the Pacific Northwest. It’s fifty degrees and rainy. I’m beyond tired. You take your sweet time before finding an acceptable spot to pee.
We are on PetFinder looking for a second dog. You are just so… weird. Not food motivated. Impossible to train. High strung. Frankly, not very smart. You bark all the time, at everything. We tell ourselves that a second dog will give you company when we’re out. They will teach you how to dog like a normal dog.
We find a part-Chihuahua part rat terrier that is, in defiance of everything I understand about genetics, practically your twin. We bring you to meet him at a dog park to see if you get along. You bark a lot. He tolerates you admirably well. For the rest of your lives, you will be his asshole boss. You’ll eat the best parts out of his food bowl and steal his treats. When he tries to sit next to us on the couch, you will wedge yourself in the middle and glare at us both.
He will live in fear of your ire which is capricious and often. We name him Benny for “beignet” because he’s golden with a sprinkling of white on top.
Maybe they were right about the crate training.
We rent a house out in the sticks. There is a green belt behind the yard and we get deer sometimes. Occasionally, we hear an owl hoot. Inexplicably, you are absolutely terrified of the sound. Megan and I hoot at you to tease you and you bark back at us, shivering in fear.
Later, we buy a house with a fenced in back yard. You stand proudly in the grass waiting for me to make eye contact with you. The moment I do, you throw your head back in delight and run full tilt to me. Over and over again from Megan to me and back. You wear yourself out and lay in the sun panting “keh keh keh”. When you snuggle with us on the couch later, you still smell like dirt and grass.
I am in the basement awkwardly taking photos of myself. I’m speaking at a conference and they asked for a headshot. You wander in and I pick you up and start taking pictures of us together. They are my favorite photos of myself.
When I finish my writing my book, I put one of them on the back cover. I get email from readers telling me how delighted they are with the cover.
I set that photo as my profile image on all of my various accounts. When ride share drivers pick me up, they joyfully tell me in not-great English that they love my dog. You are still a celebrity.
I am in bed staring at the dark ceiling, doing math in my head. Tonight, you are the same age in dog years that I am in real years. From this moment on, you are older than me. I picture you racing ahead of me into the future. I try not to think of where that path leads or when you’ll get there.
You are sleeping stretched out, pressed against my thigh, trying to get every square millimeter of contact that you can. I run my fingers through the silky fur on your back, feel your breath rise and fall.
We rent a cabin on the Pacific coast. You spend the first half of the drive shaking in excitement and anxiety, paws on the door looking out the window. The whole car smells like your horrid breath and Megan is coated in orange fur. Eventually you wear yourself out and pass out in her lap, head draped over her arm towards me. I rub the fur between your ears while I drive.
After settling in, we go explore tide pools. You sniff everything. Every rock, bit of kelp, rotting fish, even the wind. It’s cold and wet, but you don’t mind. When we get back to the cabin, I wipe sand and seaweed from your paws. You fall asleep in front of the fireplace.
The vet is explaining to us that you have hyperthyroidism and congestive heart disease. That’s why you pee all the time—often in the house—and why you seem so tense and wound up all the time. Well, that and because you are half Pomeranian.
You get put on an expensive pill regimen which you will take for the rest of your life. Since you aren’t interested in food even on a good day, getting you to take them will be a constant battle. At least the peeing inside gets marginally better. The barking does not.
I start writing a second book. I work on my laptop on the couch and you lay pressed against one leg the entire time. Once you’ve fallen asleep and let down your jealous guard over access to me, Benny claims the other side.
We take another trip out to the Olympic Peninsula with friends. You spend much of it sleeping on the couch in front of the fire, like an overweight self-warming throw pillow. You are given affection from everyone, which you regard as your proper due. In return, you grace us with an endless series of farts that leave the cabin smelling like some sort of reptilian tire fire.
It’s six o’clock in the morning. I am barely awake making coffee while you are outside for your morning consitutional. I hear a strange sort of yelp at the back door. I open it just in time to see you collapse. I scoop you up and run into the dining room, yelling out for Megan. I sit on the floor and cradle you, rocking back and forth. If these are your last moments, I want them to be peaceful.
I hold your limp body in my arms. Your tongue hangs out, lifeless and blue. I am seven years old again.
After an endless minute, you come back to us. Your back stiffens. Your legs poke out like a fainting goat and then relax. Your eyes start darting around and eventually you are able to pick your head up. Ten minutes later and you are back to normal, or at least as normal as you ever are. Honestly, a loss in cognitive function would be hard to detect.
The vet begins to use the phrase “congestive heart failure” now. The pill regimen gets more complex. We throw out yet another rug too pee-stained to repair and decide to not have a rug in the dining room “for now”.
You are mostly enjoying your retirement. You spend so much time laying on the back of the couch so that you can look out the back window and bark at anyone with the audacity to walk on the sidewalk that the cushion loses its shape entirely.
We alternate between trying to give you as much affection as we can in the time we have left and cursing your name as we discover another part of the house ruined by your sneaky peeing. I discover right in the middle of a push-up, my nose an inch from the floor, that you and Benny have surreptitiously saturated every inch of the carpet in the office. Megan and I learn how to put in new flooring.
We enter the phase where you take medications to cope with the side effects of other medications. You get over a dozen different pills a day, each on their own specific schedule. I print a chart and put it on the fridge to make sure I don’t miss any.
It is exhausting, but mostly for us. You are still relatively content, lazing around the house. Stealing Benny’s food. Barking at people outside the window.
Sometimes, at night, you crawl between my legs on top of the blankets, pinning me and forcing me to sleep on my back. I tolerate it as best I can. You’re warm and your ears are still velvet-soft.
One morning, I wake up to discover you have leaked little brown droplets all over the blanket. You are sitting up in bed, panting, clearly uncomfortable. (I’m not exactly comfortable with the situation myself.)
A couple of days later, you faint again. Perhaps a stroke. Dog.exe has stopped working. When you finish your reboot cycle, you aren’t the same. You don’t recognize Megan and snap at her viciously. You stand stock still in the middle of the dining room floor, eyes glazed.
It’s clearly time. I feel an unexpected relief. For years, I have held a deep fear that I wouldn’t know when it was over. That I wasn’t adult enough to handle the responsibility of making the call. I’d procrastinate too long and leave you in misery or choose prematurely and cut your life short. Or I would just be wracked in anguish the whole time. Your last gift to me is a swift decline so that there’s no doubt.
I learn there is an entire category of vet-adjacent businesses that specialize in this “transition”. Early on a Tuesday morning, I start calling them to see who can come out today, as soon as possible, right now. The women who answer the phone have well-rehearsed, soothing voices. I stumble over my words. I don’t know the right social protocol to ask, “Can you please come kill my dog?”
You are sitting next to me on the couch, pressed warmly against my side like always. You’ve mostly calmed down but are sitting up and tense. A kind woman radiating Pacific Northwest Earth Mother vibes is sitting on the other side of you with a small array of syringes in front of her on the coffee table. We’ve tucked a blanket under you.
The kids have already said goodbye to you, tears pouring down their faces. Surprisingly, that turns out to be the hardest part, realizing how much you are part of their stories too.
The first shot makes you fall asleep. Literally, not in the “put to sleep” figurative sense. As the woman pushes the plunger, you loll slowly over onto my leg. You’re napping, head on my thigh, more comfortable than I’ve seen you in weeks. Like old times.
I run my fingers through the fur on your back, up to where it gets shorter and velvety between your ears, around your side where it gets thinner and silkier, to your chest where it thickens into whorls. I leave my fingers there where I can feel your heart beating. I want to be here for it, to know that I was with you from beginning to end.
When the second shot goes in, your music stops.
With practiced timing, the woman has your body wrapped up in the blanket and out the door in minutes. The second the door closes, I feel the mask fall off my face and the tears start.
It’s later that day. I’ve thrown out the pills, pill poppers, prescriptions, aftercare instructions, wrecked towels and blankets, every reminder of your failing health.
I am out for a walk to get out of the house. It hits me a few blocks away. The answer to the question I carried since the day we got you. Will the life we have with you outweigh the pain at the end? Will it be worth it?
It is. Every minute.
It’s a couple of years later. Your ashes are in a little box in my nightstand. I remember the stress and exhaustion of the last few months of your life, but it feels vague, like I remember the stories I told people about it but not the actual experience.
I remember all of the good moments with you vividly. The feel of your fur between my fingers, your body pressed against my side, your horrific breath panting in my face. Megan and I talk about your antics.
I still miss you and your stupid face.