Let’s be honest, you’ve always been kind of a pain in the ass. Even your arrival was inconvenient: handed to me in a stocking Christmas morning of 1999 (dogs aren’t gifts, people!) Somewhere deep in storage is a non-digital photo of the horror on my face at that moment. You immediately peed on me. You needed food every two hours because you weren’t even close to the legally required age of 8 weeks old. I had to microwave kibble in water to make it soft enough for you to chew. Your papers gave you a November birthday, but the vet guessed more like the first week of December — so I gave you mine, and we shared it.
Your timing was kind of shit, too. Shortly afterward, I broke up with the guy who’d given you to me. I was suddenly a single dog-parent in a bad situation — my tech job required long hours and you were alone too much, even with me coming home at lunch. The first six months I was pretty haggard because you had to be walked every night around 3 am or I woke up with wet toes.
Speaking of pee, you were impossible to train. You peed so often it was hard to believe you really needed to go out again, but you showed me the flaw in that logic many times. I had the genius idea of teaching you to ring a bell when you wanted to go outside. You rang it incessantly to go sniff things and play, making it useless as a potty signal. No one has ever called you a stupid dog.
You also hated the crate, digging at the door and howling incessantly when I left, prompting more than one passive-aggressive note by “concerned neighbors” about my lonely dog. I was fucking lonely too; it was only ever just you and me. No amount of training, pheromones, or dog-prozac ever alleviated this separation anxiety. Once, I came home to you with your paw three times its normal size and turning black, tangled in strings from the ragged towel you’d been digging at. I rushed you to the emergency vet and cried because I thought you’d lose your paw. (This becomes a pattern, me crying at the vet.)
I stopped crating you then. Later the same year, I opened the door to a horror movie trail of blood — you’d torn a nail jumping off the bed. Another trip to the emergency vet, because you never managed these things during business hours. I was getting deeper in debt back then, waiting tables but sinking under the cost of student loans and debt from the house I’d owned less than a year before being laid off. I never had a “cushion” for these emergency expenses. These were our hardest years, but you were my bright spot. I can still see your face peering down at me from our 3rd floor window whenever I left for class or work, howling your devotion and misery at me from your perch on the bed. I hated your loneliness, but your love erased some of the crushing weight of my own.
When I landed my dream job in the game industry, I hoped for better times for us. You did not make the drive from Florida to Seattle particularly fun, but I was glad to not go alone. Two days in, I had to ask the hotel concierge to find me a vet, so we could get dog sedatives. You insisted on being in my lap, and even an 18 lb dog gets really heavy over 14-hours of driving (I didn’t understand how unsafe this was for you until much later.) We discovered your love of McDonald’s french fries; they were the only thing that could distract you from your constant “why are we still driving?” freakout. We both gained weight on that trip; I couldn’t leave you in the car longer than it took to pee, so all of our food came from a window.
I got my money’s worth out of those sedatives though, since you also lost your mind at the sound of thunder or fireworks. The only way for both of us to survive those nights was getting a pill in you and forcing you to lie on my chest under a blanket until you fell asleep. And boy do you hate pills. You were too smart for cheese or pill pockets. Most pills were administered The Hard Way, which was as fun for both of us as it sounds.
It was a thing of beauty to watch you run around the dog park. You liked to run with the big dogs, and you were so fast. Sometimes you got so excited you would barf. Your other favorite activity was smelling everything. When it was time to leave, you had the selective hearing of a kid not wanting to get out of the pool. I had to say, “Bye Cricket!” and start walking away before you’d freeze and then run toward me, ears flying in the wind. It was funny at the time, like our little joke, but I’m devastated now by the idea you might’ve thought I’d really leave you.
If we’re being honest, I was a shit mom sometimes. I have deep regret for yelling at you in the early days for carpet incidents, raw from a breakup and worn out from trying to “get everything right,” train you properly, feeling guilty for the hours I worked as though I had any choice about it. I am so ashamed of the day I “spanked” you for howling, because I’d gotten a letter threatening to evict us over the noise and I couldn’t get you to stop. I’ve rarely felt like such a garbage human being as that day. I hit you for loving me too much. Many years later in our new condo we tried a citronella collar which worked until you figured out how to bark it out of juice. The static collar finally did the trick but made us feel like monsters. But oh my God, I miss your adorable high-pitched howl and how you used to get riled up and bay at me during playtime. And now I wonder, if we hadn’t killed your sweet howl, would you have been stuck on the floor so long that Friday, waiting for me to wake up and hear the sound of claws scrabbling on the floor?
You adopted more passive-aggressive tactics to express your displeasure at being left. When people got in the shower, you picked a visible spot to lie with your head on your paws, looking as sad as possible. You’re the only dog I’ve ever known to withhold kisses because you were “too sad,” turning your head away to avoid even an accidental lick. The sad would last until a treat came out of the jar.
I was single most of our time together, working full-time. You deserved more of my time, and I grieved for your loneliness. I tried bringing you to work but you were never one of those “sleep peacefully under the desk” work-dogs. You wanted to roam the floor finding crumbs under every desk and begging everyone to pet you.
Your failure to be crate trained is probably my fault. You should have slept in it at night but I wanted you next to me, a warm ball of fur in the crook of my arm or between my knees. You demanded to be under the covers, pulling them entirely off of me if I didn’t help you. I learned to lift them up for you without waking up.
Eight years ago I got you a cat; I wanted you to have a friend. Based on previous cat-visitors I expected you to play happily together. You, however, immediately sensed that this one wasn’t going home and became jealous and standoffish. Tigermisu adored you but you never once played with her for more than a second, no matter how she tried to get you to chase her. You were such a jerk in the beginning that I had serious conversations about applying peanut butter to the cat to get you to show interest. The only thing you liked about her was the litter box, you disgusting animal. Occasionally I found you two sort of snuggling, but I’m fairly sure you were just too lazy to move when she curled around you. She meowed pitifully at the door whenever you left for a potty walk — not when either of the humans left. Adored you, you pain in the ass.
Let’s go back to your shit timing with medical stuff. When your tail was broken in 2009, I had terrible credit and less than $100 in checking. I had to ugly cry and beg ER techs who were pretty sure I’d abused you to sell me $25 worth of pain meds to get you through the night so I could take you to Banfield in the morning. I had a monthly plan with them because I knew my finances were shit. That was one of the absolute worst moments in my life: a being that loved me unconditionally and depended on me for everything was in pain and I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t afford the surgery you needed the next day either, so I borrowed money from a guy I had just started dating. He offered before I could ask, but debt was the last thing I wanted to saddle a new relationship with. I paid him back monthly, but never closed the balance because we were living together by then, and he loved you. They shaved your whole tail for the procedure, and you looked like a rat until it grew back.
He’s the best thing to ever happen to us. He was endlessly patient with both of us. You found a sucker to wake up and take you out early on weekends instead of making you sleep in. I found someone to share the burden of loving an older dog, who can only beat the odds for so long. He and I are paying a heavy price for that now, but I’m so glad it’s not me alone who will remember every wonderful, infuriating detail of your stubborn little existence.
It wasn’t until someone else joined us that I realized we’d evolved an odd way of communicating. When you wanted something you’d stare intently at me until I asked the Questions, pausing to give you the opportunity to lie down for the correct one. These included “Do you need to go potty?”, “Do you want dinner?”, “Are you thirsty dog?” and I forget what else because it was usually one of the first two. I never thought about it until your dad commented on it, amazed by your little brain. It wasn’t something I set out to teach you; it just happened. I eventually ruined it by “testing” you a few too many times with the red herring “Is Timmy in the well?” because it amused me. You got impatient and soon “Timmy” was just another word for “potty.” This system fell out of favor when we read that making older dogs sit/lie down on command is hard on their joints. But by then the answer was always “yes, I want all of the things,” anyway.
We included you as much as possible in travel. You flew home with us every Christmas. For our first anniversary we brought you and the cat to the pet-friendly hotel where we’d honeymooned. We took you both to a B&B on Orcas Island, where between the lace tablecloth easily snagged by dog nails and the saloon-style kitchen door that was no barrier to you, the weekend was anything but relaxing. The cat is welcome back anytime. For our third anniversary we brought you to Salish Lodge, which is so pet-friendly they have dog room service. It might be the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever done, but it was the same price as the “romantic” add-on package we’d been considering for ourselves. We enjoyed watching you blissfully inhale that meal in your little spa robe much more than champagne and chocolates. Ridiculous or not, I’m glad we did it, now.
Pet insurance would have been great, but you were “too old” when it first became a thing ten years ago. We spent more on your medical needs than on my undergraduate degree. I’m really conflicted about that — that only the financially stable can keep their pets into old age, because even treatable issues that maintain quality of life can cost thousands of dollars. I felt guilty every time we spent money to “fix” you, when children still die from lack of food or adequate health care. But I can never forget sobbing over your painfully broken tail and the shame of not being able to pay, so I’m mostly grateful your dad and I found each other and better jobs and made it work when you needed back, neck, and liver surgery in 2011, 2013, 2015. (We also shared our newfound resources with sponsor children and organizations like Doctors Without Borders.) You always bounced back to the perky little dog who got asked weekly if you were still a puppy. You were 13, then 14, then 15. All of the dogs you knew as a pup had long since passed on, but you were bulletproof.
Until late 2015. You recovered quickly from liver surgery, but ended up in the hospital three months later with a serious kidney infection. After treatment you didn’t immediately improve. For the first time I was afraid you wouldn’t come home. You refused all food, lying in my arms while I sobbed on the hospital floor. We brought a “picnic” of chicken and rice in people bowls to eat in front of you (even cat) in the hopes of driving you to eat, and thankfully you did. We came home with orders to feed you whatever you’d eat, so when you turned up your nose at chicken and rice, I made crock pot beef stew. It was extremely bland for the humans without onion, garlic, or seasoning, but you loved it. We just loved watching you eat again.
Last December you turned 16. I made you a driver’s license. That birthday was a big deal to us.
Your slow decline started after October, however much we were in denial about it. You walked a bit slower, stopped wanting to sleep with us. You weren’t comfortable using the dog-stairs in the dark anymore. I have pictures of you curled up on my giant sleigh bed from years past, and can barely believe you used to jump up there so easily. Your medical issues weren’t going away anymore. Grade II heart murmur. Cushing’s. Kidney degeneration. Disc degeneration. Your fur didn’t grow back like it used to; you were a patchwork of varying lengths from catheters and blood draws and ultrasounds. We bought disc and joint supplements. We wanted to extend the quality of your life as long as we could.
It was like trying to bail a boat with a teaspoon, solving the most urgent issue without making the other issues worse. In early 2016 you stopped jogging, and your hind legs started slipping. We got you rubber toe grips and joked about your “snow tires.” They helped for a bit. Then you started falling, but usually got up on your own. The saddest thing was that you could no longer wag your tail; it was perpetually in a neutral sort of hang. I missed your tail wag even more than your howl — especially the one where just the tip would twitch when you were lying down, too lazy to move but still happy to see us.
When our sitter found you splayed out and laying in pee, we immediately tried another MRI, but your blood pressure dropped and they had to abort. The vet recommended treating your UTI before another attempt. You were content to eat, sleep, and hang out. We got puppuccinos. Life was still good.
Days before the UTI meds ended, your dad found you in another puddle on a Thursday morning. You seemed fine after a bath, so he left for work travel. I called your specialists, scheduled the soonest MRI available, ordered a bed that would be easier for you to climb in and out of, and a gate to keep you on the carpet. It was all too late.
Friday I woke to the sound of you scrabbling on the floor, unable to get up. I’m still tormented by not knowing how long you’d been waiting for me to notice. You’d rubbed raw patches on your legs that left fur stuck to the floor. I rushed you to the vet. They clipped your fur, cleaned you up, and gave you pain meds. I cried looking at your poor legs. The narcotic let you rest and I thought we’d be okay, that we’d make it to Tuesday’s MRI.
But when you woke, your legs kept giving out. I didn’t think you could squat to do any of your business. We drove to a new vet clinic because they had the only neurology department that could see you before Tuesday.
They made you comfortable in back while I waited for the doctor to deal with urgent cases. I held it together until one of those cases walked by, bitten by another dog. He bled on my shoe and I lost it, because he was a beagle and he looked like you, and I was scared for you both. (It was a nicked ear, he’s fine.)
Your timing was awful, again. Your dad was out of town. We were facing the end like we faced the beginning: the two of us alone doing the best we could.
Saturday and Sunday blurred together. The eventual verdict was that one or more things were failing, and further diagnostic tests were a risk with no benefit. I told your dad to come home. Monday I sat with you for 12 hours straight. You weren’t really here, though. You weren’t suffering, but you weren’t at peace, either. I took you outside to smell grass and feel the sun. I covered your fur-less wounds so they wouldn’t get sunburned, as though that would matter. You lay mostly peacefully while I cried on your fur. When the sun went behind a cloud, we went back to the room where I alternately held you or followed you around while you paced, catching you when you fell. Thankfully you had a few naps. Those killed me, because your dog snores sounded so normal, like nothing was wrong.
I was more than ready to be done, but we had to endure until your dad’s plane landed and he got a chance to see you. Eventually I stopped letting you pace and just held you on my lap, stroking your neck until you slumped down again. You weren’t getting up for any reason; the pacing was a purposeless impulse you couldn’t control. I spoke or sang to you as much as I could bear, in case hearing my voice meant something. Your dad finally arrived and had some time holding you, but it didn’t take long to say goodbye because you never really saw him, either.
The doctor explained what would happen, and a tech took you away to place the IV. Of course you made that part as difficult as possible, too — when you came back you looked up for the first time all day and seemed to clearly see us. My second-to-last words to you were, ”Dammit, Cricket.” There was a moment of panicked indecision before the tech said adrenaline from the poke was only temporarily making you alert. You immediately sank into the floor — and you never laid on the floor when there was a lap or bed available. You were just done.
I thought I was as ready as anyone could be. I’d spent 12+ hours with a dog-who-was-not-my-dog-anymore, wishing she could find peace. I couldn’t bear to hold you as it happened, so we laid you on the floor and knelt over you, my hand cradling your face, stroking your fur for the last time.
My last words to you were “I love you, Cricket.” Because someone once told me dogs like hearing their own name. Because I used to sing entire songs to you where all the words were “Cricket.”
I was unprepared for the deafening silence as the vet said you were gone: no breathing, no heartbeat. It was the loudest, most profound and awful silence I’ve ever experienced. I felt a surprising revulsion toward the thing that was no longer you, checking the impulse to shove it away. I no longer cared about my nose running everywhere. I wanted to rewind time, reverse the decision we’d just made. I didn’t want you to suffer, but I wanted you back, even just the shell of you, because grief is selfish.
We couldn’t bear to stay with your body when you weren’t in it, so she bundled you up and took you away. She tried not to let your head flop and we tried not to notice.
I knew I couldn’t be prepared for your loss, but I didn’t know how just how bad it would be. I was shattered. The encounter with death unnerved me badly. The immediate, horrible silence and your too-still face were stuck on instant replay in my brain. The only thing that helped was looking at pictures of you. They were terribly sad but they filled my brain with something else.
Without you, there were a thousand tiny holes in our lives. The absent click of your nails. The way we used to mess with you and pretend to hide around corners. The absence of dog snores while watching TV or falling asleep. The extra time in the morning because no one needed to go outside. The restaurant downstairs where people fawned over you when the windows were open in summer. The lonely cat. The constant frustration of you under my feet while cooking. I was always telling you to go away because I didn’t want to drop a knife on you or let you burn your nose. I wish I had never told you to go away.
The truth is, I never deserved you. You drove me up the wall, but you were mostly just being a dog. I wish I’d pulled at the leash less and let you sniff more. Your wagging tail was the joy of my evenings, your heartbeat the reminder I wasn’t alone. You were the only constant in the chaos of my 20’s and beyond: through three states, three careers, two long-term relationships, and 16 years. I made so many mistakes, but you never withheld your love or forgiveness. You’ve shown me my weaknesses in temper and patience; if I’m ever a parent, I will be a better one because of you. I’ve wrestled with many facets of faith over the last 20+ years, and one of the hardest has been wondering if I’ll see you again. At this point I believe so, but faith lacks the comfort of certainty — and so sometimes feels lacking altogether.
If or when we meet again, I hope you’ll forgive me for everything I got wrong in the beginning and the end. I’m trying to forgive myself. I finally believe in grace and forgiveness, in part due to your dogged determination to love me no matter what. I use that word on purpose — dogs don’t give up. I love you like a piece of my own soul.
I feel like I took for granted you would always be here, even though I cried at each incremental step on the way to this parting. I feel like I should have loved on you more, even though every day ended with mandatory cuddling because I knew we didn’t have forever. I miss the spot on your cheek with the super-soft fur I used to kiss. I am still having such a hard time accepting that you’re just…gone.
There is a void in my heart the exact shape of you. Somewhere you are young and running again, with your whole tail and your beautiful howl, and I hope with everything I have that one day I’ll be there, too.