A Love Story about a Dog

I’m a mom to two young boys, but my first baby was furry. We had her for 8 years, and then 10 days ago we held her while she took her last breath.

Dogs die everyday. We are supposed to outlive our dogs. We know the day will come. And yet.

Bowery Jane Pearson (what did you think her name was — Bowery the dog?) was not important to the world. But she was as important as hell to our world. She was folded into every waking moment of our days, starting every morning when we woke to find her between us in our bed until we followed her up the stairs to our room at the end of each night. Bowery is wrapped up in the story of my marriage to Bill. She is a central part of nearly every memory we have from our 5 years living in San Francisco. She was by our sides when we said goodbye to that beautiful city and made a new life in Iowa. She watched us become parents. She loved everyone we loved, and even people we didn’t. She was a silent witness to our lives, and a not-so-silent greeter to everyone who came to our house. Bowery was, quite simply, the perfect dog.

This is her story.

Act 1: Thick skull and tiny brain

Sometime in March 2009, I reached out to a housecall vet to see if he was taking new clients. He said yes, and then asked how old our dog was.

“She isn’t born yet,” I said.

Oh yes, I secured a vet while our dog was still in utero. As Bill liked to say, I had puppy fever. We had moved to San Francisco from New York just one month earlier, and the minute we got there I started researching breeders. I had always dreamed of having a happy-go-lucky, beautiful golden retriever.

I got my wish.

Our first family photo, the night we picked her up in Lodi.

On a Friday night in May 2009, we rented a car and drove to Lodi, California to pick up 7-week old Bowery (named after where we lived in Manhattan at the start of our marriage). She was “Miss Yellow,” the last remaining girl in the litter of 9 puppies. She weighed 6 pounds.

During the two hour drive back to San Francisco, I sat in the backseat and held her on my lap while she panted nervously. Her breath smelled like poop. Naturally, I worried something was wrong with her. (It turned out to be the brand of dog food.) When we pulled up to our apartment building, I set her down to pee, and she ran under the car. We both frantically tried to coax her back out, wondering how we had managed to lose our brand new puppy the minute we brought her home. Clearly, we were going to make awful parents someday. That night, she whined when she looked in our bedroom mirror, thinking she was seeing one of her litter mates.

In the weeks that followed, we spent our days and nights taking her back and forth to pee outside, and then sitting on the floor watching her romp around and chew up everything in sight. I worked from home for two weeks so we didn’t have to leave her alone. This was a huge shift for us. Before Bowery, we were a childless couple used to being completely carefree — happy hours after work, out-of-town trips on a whim.

Sibling rivalry in action.

Essentially homebound, our lives revolved Bowery. As moms often do, my mom had some wonderful advice. She suggested we reach out to our breeder to see if any other puppies from the litter ended up in San Francisco. We got connected with a couple who got Bowery’s brother, Satchel. We had them over to reunite the pups, just a few weeks after we brought Bowery home. The instant they walked in the door, Bowery pounced on Satchel and they wrestled for the next hour and a half until they got too tired and then lay down and just barked at each other. Satchel’s parents became our close friends, and we spent nearly every weekend with them during the rest of our five years in San Francisco.

In the early days, we had to take Bowery outside or clean up messes more than 20 times per day. I know because I kept a chart. This might be evidence that I went temporarily insane, but I read puppy training books saying it is important to recognize a pattern in their habits. The problem was that it was almost constant, and there was no pattern.

There must have been gallons of pee soaked into the hardwood floors of our old apartment. And, according to my trusty charts, countless poops. One morning, Bowery started to poop on the hallway floor and I rushed over to scoop her up. In the process, I managed to step in the poop without realizing it. As I hurried down the stairs in the foyer of the apartment building carrying Bowery, I slipped on the poop on the bottom of my shoe. After what felt like many seconds being airborne, I landed on my back on the stairs. I had a line of poop on the back of my shirt and an awful bruise, but Bowery was safely in my arms. (Months after Bowery was finally house trained, our friends told us Satchel never once pooped in their apartment. If we had known that then, we might have never spoken to them again.)

Bowery wasn’t easy to train, though maybe we were the problem. To stop her from tearing up the rug or nipping at our fingers, we tried spraying her with a water bottle. She loved it and thought it was a game. The trainer from our puppy class suggested spraying her with Bitter Apple spray. This worked, and it became a running joke that Bitter Apple was that trainer’s solution for all problems. Puppy won’t sleep at night? Spray her with Bitter Apple. Puppy has separation anxiety? Spray her with Bitter Apple.

Bowery chewed up anything and everything — in our apartment and on the street. Over the course of that first year, she ate discarded chewing tobacco (“Mommy, why does that dog stink?” a little kid said after petting her), cigarette butts, and Bill’s watch band, among other things. She had wild bursts of energy, sprinting around our apartment and then collapsing in a heap when it was over. During one of those romps while the vet was at our house, she tried jumping on the couch and missed, hitting her head pretty hard on the side. I gasped.

“It’s okay,” Dr. B said. “She’s got a thick skull and a tiny brain.”

She may have had a tiny brain, but Bowery was so cute that she literally stopped traffic. One time a woman stopped her car in the middle of our street in Russian Hill, and then she yelled out the window asking me not to move. She double-parked her car and ran over to us, saying she had heard about this puppy from a friend and was dying to see her in person.

Bowery got so used to attention on the streets of San Francisco that she would act confused if someone walked by without acknowledging her. At the time, especially when we were outside waiting for her to pee, this was infuriating. Rather than doing her business, once someone started walking toward her on the street, she would face them and wag her tail until they got to her. Nine times out of ten, the person would stop.

Before we got her, we never met anyone in our neighborhood, but suddenly we met everyone. People never remembered our names, but they always remembered Bowery. She remembered them, too. Every time she saw someone again after a time away, she would whimper and cry when they were reunited. Even getting home from work was grounds for a mini-reunion with us. Some days I would work from home, and Bowery and I would walk to meet Bill on his walk home from downtown. As soon as we saw Bill, I’d say “go get Daddy” and she would sprint at full speed to meet him.

Bowery had a solid set of priorities in life, and people were first. She only cared about a handful of other dogs, but she was undiscriminating in her love of people. A guy in a bar once told us golden retrievers didn’t have any street cred. He was right. Even if Bowery had wanted to play it cool, her tail would give her away every time. As soon as anyone got within a certain proximity, her tail started wagging like crazy. We called it her “tail radius,” and it was in full effect until her dying day.

Act 2: Easy like Sunday morning

Satchel (left) and Bowery (right) on their birthday.

While her puppy days were a bit of a shitshow (literally), in less than a year Bowery hit her stride and became the easiest member of our small family. Her needs were simple: food, water, exercise, sleep, and love. She thrived on predictability, so our days became structured around her daily rituals. Morning walks, evening trips to the dog park, late night leash-free strolls through the neighborhood with Bill.

We (well, mostly Bill) spent a lot of time working to train Bowery. She would eventually go to a down-stay with a simple hand motion, even from hundreds of feet away. Admittedly, some of that was because we were usually holding a tennis ball when we did it, and she had a laser-like focus on the ball as she waited to fetch. While her first priority in life was always people, the tennis ball was a close second.

At the park, people often asked what we did to get Bowery to fetch. But if anything, we had to work to stop her from fetching. She was ball-obsessed from day one. Bowery’s signature move was to quietly drop the ball on your lap while you sat on the couch. Then she would slowly back away, perched low ready to pounce, staring intensely. If you ignored her, she would just wait. And stare. We always wondered if she was secretly relieved when we put the ball away because then she could finally rest.

Most weekends we met Satchel and his parents at the beach. On our way there, once Bowery figured out where we were going, she would start shaking and whining with anticipation. Then, there would be nothing but unbridled joy while she swam to fetch the ball. I can count on my hands the number of times we actually conquered her by getting her to willingly stop dropping the ball for us to throw at the beach.

When we eventually moved from San Francisco to my hometown in Iowa, the saddest part for us was knowing Bowery was unlikely to see Satchel or his parents again. But there was also something poetic about her last swim in the ocean. It was her greatest joy, aside, of course, from being with her people.

For Bowery (or the Bows, as we often called her), home was wherever we were. About a year after we had moved across town to be closer to the commuter train in San Francisco, we took Bowery back to her old stomping grounds in Russian Hill. Though she had at one time memorized the pee on every bush on the block, she trotted right past our old apartment building without even stopping for a sniff. When we transplanted to the Midwest and immediately experienced one of the coldest winters on record, Bowery seemed unfazed. We moved into our new house, and she sunk into her same old tan chair like nothing had changed.

When our son Jonah was born, Bowery became the d-o-g, just as we had been warned she would. There were a handful of days we realized we forgot to feed Bowery her breakfast. But our neglect was temporary, and Bowery was patient. She never regained her place as the center of our attention, but she did pretty quickly reassume her position as an equal member of the family. She slept in our bed. She traveled with us whenever possible. She walked with us several times a day and played fetch like her life depended on it every night. She lay under the table while we ate every meal, and she shared popcorn with Bill and me several times a week late in the evening. She slept a good 18 hours a day.

Sarah (Satchel’s mom) says the states of being for a golden retriever are pretty limited — asleep, expectant waiting, and complete ecstasy. Bowery fit all of that into just about every day, usually with the simple pleasures of a few minutes of fetch or some snuggle time on the couch in the evening with one of her humans. For Bowery, nearly every day was a good day.

Act 3: A dying dog reminds us how to live

On January 2nd this year, we drove back from visiting Bill’s family in Michigan for the holidays. Bowery had gone on the road trip with us, and she had been a little groggy over the weekend. On the way to our bedroom that night, Bowery collapsed. The next day at a series of vet appointments, we got the worst news we ever could have imagined — hemangiosarcoma, bleeding tumors, blood pooling around her heart, days or weeks to live.

The day of her terminal diagnosis.

At the last appointment, a young vet we had never met sat with us while we cried in a dark room looking at her x-rays. With solemn and caring eyes, he told us that if we were lucky, Bowery might live a couple more weeks. He also told us that exercise might accelerate her decline, but that we had to think about what gave her joy.

Without hesitation, we drove home and got the chuck-it, and then drove her to the park. My parents, my sister, my four nieces and nephews all came rushing to the park to watch her fetch, thinking maybe this would be the last time. Like always, she chased the ball like it was her god-given mission. We hugged and cried and took videos of our beautiful beast running in the cold.

The next several nights were mostly sleepless — checking to make sure she was breathing several times a night, researching hemangiosarcoma on our phones, laying awake thinking about how we would know when it was time to let her go. I called every vet I knew and even ones I didn’t, trying to find out if we had any options. As a Hail Mary, I made an appointment with a specialist at a renowned veterinary school about 45 minutes away.

At the appointment, the vet said they could try draining the blood that was pooling in the sac around her heart. While it was possible it would immediately fill back up, it was also possible it would buy her another month or two. I asked the vet if he would do the procedure if it was his dog, and he said yes without a second thought. We decided to try it.

The next day at home, Bowery was more lethargic than ever. We felt sick for putting her through the stress of more poking and prodding, all for nothing. But then, 24 hours later, she woke up and jumped out of bed like nothing was wrong. Every day that followed, we expected the worse but witnessed what felt like a miracle. She acted just like she had before she got sick. Eventually, enough time passed that it started to feel normal again. There were even days we would forget she was dying. Six weeks after they first drained her pericardium, Bill took her back to the vet cardiologist and they checked it again. They said Bowery was essentially having the best case scenario given her diagnosis. There was no new blood pooling, nothing to drain. They said not to come back until her symptoms appeared again. We cried with joy.

We got almost four months of this borrowed time. We spoiled Bowery worse than ever during that time — meatloaf dinners, sleeping between us even from the start of each night. It was the best real-life lesson in savoring every day.

Years ago, one of Bill’s coworkers made a snide comment when he told him our dog was a golden retriever.

“Well, she’s not doing any astrophysics in her spare time, is she?”

Indeed, Bowery was not doing astrophysics in her spare time. (Though, for the record, either was that lawyer.) But the implication of his joke was a sad commentary about life. Goldens are notoriously happy, loving, and easy dogs. Therefore, the logic goes, they must be dumb. Golden retrievers are actually one of the smartest dog breeds, but still, there is some truth to his joke. The simplicity of the needs and wants of a dog makes life easier. This was never more evident than when Bowery was facing terminal illness and her days were numbered. She had the gift of not having to contemplate her own mortality. She just lived — and loved — her days.

Eventually, our luck ran out. When I was on a work trip, Bill texted to say he was worried about Bowery. The morning I was heading to the airport to come home, he said Bowery never got out of bed, even for breakfast. When I got home around 2:30 in the afternoon, Bowery got out of bed for the first time all day and ran down the stairs barking. She nearly fell over from exhaustion. Bill and I drove her to the specialist to see if there was anything we could do. There wasn’t. There was blood pooling in her chest and her stomach. The vet told us what we had to do. We agreed, but said we had to take her home one last time so people could say goodbye.

After we left the vet, we drove straight to McDonalds. Bowery had 3 cheeseburgers and 6 chicken nuggets. Then, just like the first night we brought Bowery home from Lodi, I sat in the backseat holding her while Bill drove. When we got home, Jonah wanted to go for a bike ride around the block, and to our surprise, Bowery got up to go with us. We took one last [slow] walk around the block as a family. As soon as the kids went to bed, we sat on the floor and petted Bowery while she lay in her chair. Bill made popcorn. My entire family drove over to say goodbye. All evening, Bowery had multiple hands petting her and all eyes on her, most filled with tears.

After my sister and her family left, my parents stayed at our house and Bill carried Bowery to the car. We drove to the vet. For a few minutes, we lay with her on the floor in a private room. By then, she was struggling to breathe. The vet and a nurse came in. They gave her a shot, while Bill held her head in his lap and I held her body. We were both sobbing, but Bowery was peaceful. In just 5 short seconds after they delivered the shot, the life left her body. Bowery was gone.

Bowery’s last night on earth.

Though I know it to be true, I still can’t quite believe that what is left of Bowery is sitting in a box on our kitchen table, waiting to be sprinkled into the San Francisco Bay this summer. Losing Bowery leaves a gaping void in our daily lives. Every time the door opens, the absence of barking that follows is louder than a train. Every time I go down to the kitchen and pass by her empty chair, the house feels like it’s broken and can never be fixed.

Bill and I aren’t religious. At times like this, I wish we were. The thought that Bowery is just gone forever makes life feel a little hollow. Rational thought doesn’t quite fill the hole. I can tell myself that dogs die every day. That this is nature. That to know love means someday also knowing loss. But losing Bowery also reminds us of the passage of time, that life is fleeting. Faced with thoughts of mortality, I’ve always found the line between gratitude and despair to be narrow and slippery. It takes just one careless step for me to go from being grateful for what I have and had, to despair that we can count on nothing besides this moment. Both are logical reactions to the human condition. But the latter washes away joy like it’s sidewalk chalk. Gratitude warms us like hot tea.

In 37 years of life, I’ve learned enough to know I should choose gratitude. If we accept that we only get one life to live, then finding contentment in life is the highest pinnacle. Bowery reached it. I may have a bigger brain (a liability in this case), but I’m going to try like hell to reach it, too.

I am grateful we didn’t have to wonder if it was time to let her go.

I am grateful I got to hold Bill’s hand when we left the vet clinic alone the final time.

I am grateful that we do not have real problems. Instead, the pain we feel is nothing more than the pure, uncomplicated grief that comes from missing the perfect dog.

I choose gratitude.

So thank you, Bowery Jane, for letting us be in your pack for 8 wonderful years. You brightened our days and reminded us how to live. We are — and always will be — grateful.