“We’re thinking of getting a dog,” she said. “But … it’s such a big commitment. What do you think? Do you have one?”
I looked up from the table where I was helping my daughters decorate mini-pumpkins. The mom across from me smiled. I would call her a friend, but really she was more like an acquaintance plus. Our lives had been circling ‘round each other for nearly a decade, and I always enjoyed bumping into her at parties or the gym, but obviously we weren’t close. She was clearly uninformed about our pet status.
“Um …” I started. I looked down at the table of small children around me and then back into the inquiring face of my acquaintance.
“She’s dead.” My four-year-old piped up. She didn’t even lift her paintbrush off the pumpkin. She delicately smoothed hot pink glitter paint across the top of the petite orange gourd in her hand. “She went to the vet and got a die shot. Now she’s dead.” My daughter delivered her morbid news without even looking up.
A few other mothers who were not participating in this conversation looked over at me quizzically. Pet death really wasn’t the best birthday party craft table conversation.
“Yeah,” I said. I placed my hand gently on my daughter’s head and smoothed back her hair.
My acquaintance put her hand to her chest. “Oh gosh. I’m so sorry. When did you put her down?”
“Yesterday,” I said. The other mother’s eyes grew wide. “You didn’t know.” I said. “We’re really doing okay.”
She apologized three or four more times, and as she offered her condolences I realized that I was lying. We weren’t okay. I continued to smile but tears filled my eyes, and I felt thankful for my sunglasses. Weeping about a dead dog is a real party foul.
Here’s the thing about this death: it seemed trivial. Rather, I felt like it should feel trivial. She wasn’t a member of my family. I never referred to her as my furbaby. She wasn’t in family pictures. She didn’t sleep in our bed; she didn’t even sleep in our room. In fact, for the better part of the last two years, that dog had been driving me crazy.
A few weeks ago, she peed in the kitchen, and I actually kicked her. Not hard but, like, with the side of my foot. Just enough to send her sliding down the hallway a few feet. Then, of course, I felt sick about it, and my children looked at me like I was a monster, and three hours later when the babysitter showed up they confessed my malevolent outburst to her the moment she walked in the door.
“And then mommy kicked Lily, and she went FLYING.”
“No no no. Not flying, Viv. It was like a super fast scoot.”
“Mason! She went in the air!”
“Viv. She did not go in the air. Mom is only a little mean. Not super mean.”
“But Mom hates Lily.”
All three of my children nodded. I rolled my eyes in order to save face. “I do not hate Lily. I was angry. I handled it badly. Everything is fine.” I said a silent prayer that the babysitter wouldn’t judge me.
In her final days, we learned that our dog had liver failure and a bladder full of stones. Her increased urination around our house was, in fact, not her way of retaliating for the time I sent her on a “fast scoot” down the hallway. This revelation increased my guilt and deepened my grief.
As it turns out, for all the times I said I wanted to kill her, I actually didn’t want her to die.
When my husband and I had been married for a little over year, I decided that I wanted a dog. We weren’t ready for a baby, so getting a dog seemed like the appropriately adult thing to do. Plus, I was working from home and wanted a buddy. My husband did not share my perspective, but I didn’t let his dissent discourage me.
“Just a little dog!” I cajoled. “A tiny little fluff. Her poop will be so small. You’ll barely know she’s here.” I’m not sure what I was thinking with this argument. These were not good points, but despite my ridiculous needling, my husband acquiesced. And for five years she was my tiny little fluff.
I loved her so much … and then we had a baby.
One of the things that consistently surprises me is some people still really love their dog after they have children. This is the trait that separates the dog owner from the dog lover. Becoming a mother changed me in numerous ways, but it also made clear to me that I am firmly, exclusively, a dog owner. Before having children, I thought I was maybe a dog lover. I cuddled the pets of my friends. I willingly dog sat for people. Once I watched four additional dogs for an entire weekend, and I liked it. I used to play with my dog, snuggle her while we watched movies, talk to her while I made dinner. Then a social worker set a perfect 10lb baby boy in my arms, and I was all “Dog? Who dat?”
It seemed like Lily knew she was replaced in my heart, so she set about replacing me. Instead of sleeping outside of my bedroom door, she slept in front of Mason’s. She greeted him first whenever we came home from an outing. She licked his feet and followed him around as he learned to crawl. Like most smart dogs, she spent mealtime curled up under his high chair awaiting scraps.
Several years ago something stung Lily, a wasp or a bee, I’m still not entirely sure which. But we came home from a morning out and found her chewing on her leg in the bathtub. I won’t go into details, but please know that was one of the more gruesome pet-related experiences of my life. As it turns out, the stinger was embedded in her ankle, and she required immediate (and expensive) medical attention. At two-and-a-half, Mason was already deeply invested in the love and care of animals. I wrapped Lily in an old beach towel, and he sang “Jesus Loves Me” to her as we drove to the vet. He cried as the technician rolled her away for her procedure, and it occurred to me in that moment that at some point Lily would be rolled away forever, and I wasn’t sure how to handle that for him.
None of us anticipated Lily’s last day. I took her to the vet for a physical, an updated vaccine, and to chat about what I thought was probably old-age-induced incontinence. I worried I would need to purchase doggie diapers, and I felt annoyed that they would probably cost an arm and a leg. I had just potty-trained a toddler; adding diapers back into the budget for my dog seemed real inconvenient. But as the vet palpated Lily’s abdomen, her face changed. She glanced at my daughters who were quietly drawing in the armchairs behind me.
“I want to run a few tests,” she whispered. My stomach turned, and I felt tears prick my eyes.
Mason, I thought.
I held him on the back porch, his chest heaving with sobs, as I told him about our appointment and what to expect the next day. Mason’s lanky, first-grader body normally dangled off my lap from all sides, but this day he wanted to be small. He balled his legs up and pressed his face into my neck.
“What will I do when I’m a boy who doesn’t have a dog?” he cried. “Who will I love?”
I hated not having answers for his questions. Telling him that he still had me or his sisters wouldn’t be helpful. I could not run to the store and snag the first puppy I saw just to stop the tears for a moment. There were no solutions here. There was no silver lining. He loved deeply, and now he was experiencing loss.
As his tears covered my shoulder and dripped down my arm, I cried too. I hated that I couldn’t save him from this.
When I took Lily back to the vet the next morning, I went alone. She lay motionless in my arms as I carried her through the sliding double doors of the clinic, as though she knew we were coming to the end. The vet led me to a quiet back room. A small lamp cast a golden light on the otherwise dim space. A cozy dog bed was set up on the exam table.
As the vet administered the anesthesia, she encouraged me to set my hands on Lily’s body. After a few moments, the vet laid her hands on top of mine. My tears came harder and faster than I expected, and when I looked up I noticed the vet was teary too. For the all the numerous times she’d likely performed this procedure, she still saw and felt my pain—my children’s pain—and it moved her.
As I stood at the birthday party art table, awkwardly fighting tears in front of a woman I barely knew, I thought about the way I cried when I broke the news to my son. I thought about the way our vet cried as she put my dog down. And in that moment my tears about this death felt less trivial.
Our vet, a true animal lover, relished seeing families bring new pets into their lives. She took great joy in caring for us as we cared for Lily, ultimately knowing what I just learned, the pain that comes when this great joy ends.
There are people who knowingly put themselves in the middle of situations that are inevitably painful. This is not my natural inclination. I would never seek out this opportunity. I want to solve the pain. I want to re-route the heartache. But motherhood has not afforded me this luxury. In becoming a mother I wholeheartedly embraced the joy, knowing that I will cry every time we come to the inevitably painful parts. If I’m going to foster the joy, I have to be ready to embrace the sadness.
Some of my greatest delights in motherhood have come from watching my son love our dog, and as such, one of my greatest sorrows came from shepherding him through her death. Yet, I know that this is not an isolated experience. We will have many more moments in life where I will choose to delight in his joy, while knowing that ultimately I may need to sit with him in his pain. And if I’ve learned anything from the death of our sweet dog, it’s that both experiences are a gift.
Words and photo of Mason and Lily by Anna Jordan.