I love pets. I have literally never lived a day in my life without at least one pet, on hand, to service my need to nurture another living thing (excluding vacations). Not only do they let me smother something with love, they just listen when you speak. More or less; I mean, they don’t understand what you’re saying, but it’s cathartic to say it anyway (much like blogging to random strangers on the internet).
Pets provide us with unconditional love. Even when we don’t deserve it, they really want nothing more than to just be with us. And part of the reason that I’ve latched on to that so much is because I spent a lot of my childhood feeling underfoot. I relate better to animals, and I need them just as much as they need me.
However, the many, many benefits of having a pet come with one terrible drawback: the pet will most likely die before you do (unless you have something weird and awesome like tortoise or macaw or lobster or something). Dogs and cats, especially, die what feels like much too early. And losing a pet is really hard. It’s really hard.
But it’s inevitable. It’s hard, too, to see a once vivacious little brat wither and slow down, to see pain in those adoring eyes. And it’s hard to know when the right time to say “goodbye” is. You don’t want to cut short what could have been weeks of good life, but you don’t want to prolong abject, incurable suffering. So you learn to read the signs and, as a final act of love, you tear out your own heart to give something you love dearly peace.
I’m at that point right now with my dog Toby. Toby is a mutt, 1/4 Australian Cattle Dog, 1/4 Dachshund, 1/4 Carin Terrier, 1/4 unknown. We got Toby over 13 years ago at a crappy little petstore in a crappy little mall. We were wandering through, and a little guy caught our eyes.
Nowadays, I’m wiser to the evils of petstores and puppy mills. But at the time, we just knew that he was the cutest puppy either of us (my mom and I) had ever seen, so we looked at each other and said, “It wouldn’t hurt to just hold him.” This has turned out to be a lesson I refuse to learn, over and over. So many animals adopted with this mindset…
Anyway, another family was also looking at him. We walked away for a little while, but the other family decided to go with a little bit larger of a dog, so their small boy carried Toby over and very carefully placed him in my arms. From that moment on, Toby was ours.
And he turned out to be a little hellion. He refused to eat, as a puppy, because it interfered with playtime. He would play so hard that he would just topple over asleep. He liked to chew on everything, especially the cat. He was always a smart dog, but he used it in the naughtiest manner possible. He has also proven to be a good judge of character, and never warmed up to my dad once.
We added another puppy to the family when Toby was about 6 months old; that puppy was/is so submissive that he has been the consummate beta to Toby’s alpha for the 13 years we’ve had him. In their middle-aged years, they both swelled up to be quite chunky, so the days of Toby’s refusal to eat have been long forgotten. It’s been a good relationship, and a good, long, happy life.
But now Toby is suffering. He doesn’t want to eat because he hurts. Not even treats, not even his pain medicine. He just sleeps and stares balefully at us. So today we came to the realization that it is, sadly, time to say goodbye soon.
If this can, in any way, be good, it’s that he has had such a long, good life. It’s his time, he’s old. I’ve lost pets in the past very young, and that felt so unfair. With Toby, it doesn’t feel unfair, but it still hurts in a different way. The other thing that I appreciate about the timing is that we have time. He isn’t all of a sudden keeling over and seizing up, or anything like that, so we don’t have to make any rushed, rash decisions. We have time to say goodbye and ensure that he is pampered. And who knows? He might die in his sleep before then; part of me hopes that he does.
And that, in its own way, is the most awful part. The knowing that these are going to be the last happy memories, that time is ticking away. You grieve before you even lose them. You cry before you say goodbye, so that you can say goodbye with a sad smile. So that you can say, “thank you for being there for me.”
Of all the lessons that pets can teach – forgiveness, unspoiled affection, responsibility, humor, patience, unconditional love – how to grieve and let go is one of the most important. It’s the final lesson, the final, bittersweet memory. You carry that with you for a while, but then you begin to see them in the good things, you remember the good times, and gradually the memory of saying goodbye fades, leaving only the happy times. And you learn that you can survive loss, that life can be good again.
So it’s a little early, Toby dog, and I’m sorry for that. But thank you for being my snotty little shit of a dog, for always making me laugh and always wanting to be with me. I have loved you so much, and I will miss you so much. Goodbye my friend. You are a good, good dog.