I said goodbye to my first dog earlier this week. She was the puppy that my husband and I rescued after we had been trying to get pregnant for about 9 months. Writing that makes me recognize the synchronicity of it…9 months after we consciously decided to start our family, we adopted Satchmo.
For about a year she came to happy hours and afternoons in the park, camping trips and even a flight to visit family in Massachusetts. It’s true that dogs are a great precursor to human babies, teaching self-centered eager parents-to-be about responsibility and nurturing. Satchmo did that for us.
Four years after we adopted her she was in a car driving home to New England with my mom. I then had three babies of my own and I just didn’t have enough to give my first baby. Fortunately for me (and for Satchmo), my mom is the best dog mama in the whole world. They were partners for 12 years. Finally saying goodbye to Satchmo caused me to reflect on the animals we invite into our lives and how we remember them.
It’s such a unique relationship, dogs and humans. I have cats too, and I love them, but dogs are something different. They’re so loyal and committed and eager to please. I thought about Riley, the blood hound mix that my dad got when he was diagnosed with cancer. Riley went from a floppy-eared little pup to a 140 pound gentle giant, riding shotgun with my dad as he drove around town to break up the monotony of managing the symptoms of his treatment at home. When my dad died a little over a year later, Riley destroyed my mom’s Christmas decorations while we were at his wake. He was hurting.
Riley was my mom’s closest companion for years later, generously welcoming Satchmo into their healing household when I called. Losing Riley opened up the old wounds of losing my dad. But we were all soothed by visions of his tongue and ears flapping in the wind riding shotgun with my dad again.
Erin was the Irish Setter that my parents got before they became parents–their first baby. Most of my baby pictures have Erin in them. She was always there. She was a gentle girl who ended up having pretty bad allergies, causing her to lose the hair on her back and tail. I still remember her greying face and silky soft ears. She had weird habits like pooping in the middle of the street. My adolescent memories recall the tumors she developed that would sometimes pop and make a mess in the hallway. Then one day she was just gone. I think us kids were so busy with our own lives that we didn’t realize my parents had taken Erin to the vet and finally put her to rest.
Abigail the Dalmation followed. The chunk of time I associate with Abby was my teenage years. I was in and out, and she wasn’t a particularly cuddly dog. She bit the UPS guy. The neighbors didn’t trust her with their kids, for good reason. She was unpredictable. Someone in my family, maybe my brother, build a run in the yard so she could be outside but not cause harm. Lots of white spiky hair in the furniture and on my clothes. I don’t remember when Abby left us. I might have left for college before that happened. I’m sure my mom could more easily recall that block of years with her. She was the mom, after all.
We have these dogs for 10-15 years usually. Sometimes longer, like Satchmo, sometimes shorter in the tragic cases of accidents or illnesses. Our relationships with them are real, although they’re like shadows to the human lives we’re living for these periods. They love us unconditionally. Although the details of our memories are not as vivid with our dogs as they are with our parents, teachers, or friends, we remember the moments very clearly. Being smothered with kisses as little kids getting home from school. Sensing your teenage broken heart, the closeness and attentiveness that lifted your spirits for a moment. The excitement and silly laps around the house when the family’s energy is celebratory. Our dogs just sense how we feel and respond in kind. They match us…because they love us.
When we bring them into our lives and our families we understand that we’re doing it for a finite amount of time. In most instances we’re going to outlive our dogs, and we agree to care for them as best we can even as they age and get smelly and ugly. We love them right back. And when it’s time for them to leave us, they give us the very special gift of packaging up a season of our human lives for reflection.
We have Gracie now. She’s a multi-poo we rescued on New Year’s Eve. My kids were entering their own adolescence and to be honest, I was missing having someone around who needed me to take care of them. We’ve had her for about 2-1/2 years and I think now about how different our household would have been without her. She is just the perky spirit our family needed as we’re growing up. She makes us laugh every day, is the first on your lap if you need a snuggle (or if you don’t), and she reminds us to get out of our own heads and give some love.