Did you know that February 20th was International Love Your Pet Day? Two weeks ago this would have made me smile but today it makes me sob.
Our family recently said goodbye to a beloved pet, our first baby and best friend. Scout survived a seizure condition, countless backyard escapes and leukemia before succumbing to a post-surgical infection two weeks ago. The surgery was to remove a gym sock she’d swallowed a few days before.
"See?" I told my husband through tears, "This is why I don't work out."
Joking aside, I write this post with a lead heart.
Many people, myself included, will admit they cried more after losing a pet than losing a parent. I think this is because when humans die, we miss them and grieve for something that can never be replaced. When animals die we do both those things AND we feel like we've failed them. In return for their love and affection, our pets ask only that we look after them, and for days I’ve been obsessing over how she got the sock and what might have been if we sought treatment sooner.
Socks were Scout’s weakness. She couldn’t resist them and ate, on average, two or three a week. Every other time they’ve ended up on the carpet or in the backyard. Having a dog is like having a kid: you have to protect them from themselves and the dozens of ways they inadvertently try to kill themselves every day. “Chase that car and try to bite its tires? I’m in!”. So on top of my grief there is a mountain of guilt. My best friend needed me to protect her and I failed. I failed big time.
Like all animal lovers, I could spend hours telling you how incredible my dog was. I want to tell you every funny story, every adorable and crazy thing she ever did. I want to tell you all the times I yelled at her for getting under my feet in the kitchen, or refusing to get off the duvet, or stealing food off the counter. I want to tell you how these memories are breaking my heart over and over again because all she really wanted was to be close to me. Also the occasional steak. And maybe to never wear a Santa hat again. Her dreams were simple.
I want to tell you what it felt like when I met her for the first time. How my eyes were closed and my arms outstretched, ready to receive a snuggly, stinky bundle of fur and razor-sharp teeth. How after three kitchen escapes we brought her into bed with us “just this once”, where she stayed for ten years. Or the time I was sick in the hospital and had to be pushed outside in a wheelchair to see her.
I want to tell you how she sat in “her” wingback chair at the window and acted like every three year-old on a tricycle was coming to murder us in our beds, but shook like a leaf during fireworks and thunderstorms. And how she used to sleep on my pillow, curled up like a potato bug. Now, when I reach over to stroke her silky ears I find my husband's stubbly face instead. Sorry honey, but this is a bit of a disappointment.
But I can't tell you any of these things because I'm not ready to reduce my dog to a memory. I'm not ready to admit she's gone and not coming back, or to accept that she's not just out with our dog walker. The fact that she's never going to lick my face, nuzzle my neck or greet me at the door is one of the loneliest feelings I've ever experienced.
My dog was smart, sweet and completely mentally unstable. She was a herder and disliked kids because they move fast, talk loud and refuse to stand in a circle. But she learned to love our first daughter, whom we adopted at age four, because she knew it was important to us. We actually paid a doggy therapist $800 to help us deal with her anxiety only to be told “your dog might be happier in another home.” But with some patience, creativity and a whole lot of wine and anti-depressants (for the dog), we made it work. Sort of.
To love a pet is to know that one day you're going to lose that pet. That's the deal we will keep making over and over again. Pets are something to love and cherish and they don't ask for an iPhone or a ride to the mall in return for their affection. They are calming, wise and wonderfully therapeutic. It's tough to be grumpy when there's something warm and furry pawing its way into your lap, even if it weighs 60 pounds.
Some people treat their pets like family, and some people treat their pets like pets. I’m sure you’ve figured out which category I fall into. And while I don't judge the latter group, I do feel sorry for them because to never really love, worship and appreciate your pet is to miss out on great joy and a really special relationship. Without pets, you probably have clean carpets, a healthy bank account and fur-free clothes. These things are nice but they won't comfort you when you're sad or make you laugh when they fall in the pool.
And don't even get me started on puppies. I think puppies were designed by someone brilliant, like maybe Steve Jobs or the guy who invented Zac Efron. Because even though puppies are utterly stupid and horribly inconvenient, that soft fur, tiny body and magical scent keep us coming back again and again.
But that moment when you look into your dog's eyes and realize every part of her is tuned into you, waiting for her next chance to please you? That is love (and a good bit of instruction for men everywhere).
So if you missed International Love Your Pet Day, please call your dog over right now. Take his face in your hands, look into his eyes and tell him you love him. For me.
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