|Photos by V. Haggard, Photo Illustration by Joel Smith|
We were obedience school drop-outs. Never having been a dog owner before I accidentally enrolled in the Marines when I would have preferred the Peace Corps. The general gave us choke-chains and barked orders. We rebelled, dropped out and did it our own way which was pretty much no way at all-- but did involve lots of hotdogs and licking. Rescued from an abusive situation by old friends, I’d agreed to foster Alizé, the red nosed pit named after a malt liquor for one weekend- nearly 13 years ago. It was 2000, I was 24, my future husband and I had been dating for one month and we’d all just finished reading the first in the Harry Potter series. We renamed her Hermione, though that went through a million permutations: Miami, Mione, Her-me-own-ee, Mayan, a detail that did not escape our attention when we made the heart-wrenching decision to have her put down on 12/21/12, the date the Mayans supposedly proclaimed The End of the World.
For us, in many ways, it was. She had been a flower girl in our wedding, a garland nestled between her short blonde and white locks. She’d adopted first our kittens—allowing them to nurse and knead her-- and then a few years later our son, allowing him to ride her and teach her spelling words. As a couple we had few memories separate from her—from the largesse of holidays and anniversaries to the mundane of the everyday—sleeping, eating, walking from one room to another. She was embedded in the blueprint of our lives, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the back, but as constant as the foundation. When I mentioned that she’d ferried me from my early twenties into my late thirties, my eight year old son said, “Think how I feel, mom. I’ve never had a day in my life without her as my dog.”
The impact of this first up close and personal death on our son was profound. Usually disgusted by hugs and kisses he began to seek them out, uncovering a deeply affectionate side of himself that hasn’t vanished since. He elected to orchestrate her funeral, selecting red roses to hand out to each mourner to be placed on her grave. He wrote a eulogy on his new dry erase board: “You were the best sister I ever had. You were so sweat [sic]. I will miss you forever.” My father brought donuts and a roasted chicken. Several friends came with readings for the graveside. My step-father, father and husband wept openly as they shoveled dirt into her grave and through my own tears I was grateful that my son had such remarkable male role models and that every one of us had the chance to love our dog fiercely enough for such grief.
We received a beautiful outpouring of support—phone calls, cards, detailed experiences from others who’d been through this before, an anonymous donor even paid for a portion of our vet bill. Even so, in the days that followed I wrestled with the terrible feeling that I had failed her—not only in her death (a choice I willfully never imagined having to make)-- but in her life. She was the only person I had never once tried to be anyone else around. She saw me at my most selfish, ridiculous, small and ugly--without judgment or recrimination. She was the keeper of my secret selves, a witness to the worst of me—but also at times the best. Discovering what really matters, what’s truly important, what should come first, I feel as if I was just learning how to love her half as well as she loved me and I hadn’t managed to keep her alive long enough to finish learning—in other words, forever. We may have been obedience school drop outs but our dog was one magnificent teacher.