They Took My Dog

I told her a bunch of shit about dog heaven that I’m not even sure if I believe or not.

I woke up this morning to a call from my mom. This isn’t a rare occurrence, since I often sleep past the hour when most people deem it appropriate to make a phone call (work doesn't start for me until 1:30 p.m.), and my mom loves making phone calls. When she makes them, she likes to talk about a lot of things, many of them slightly trivial. So, I wasn’t all that worried about it; I didn’t panic and immediately assume something was wrong like many people do when they're awakened by a phone call from a family member.

But then I realized she wasn't speaking in her phone voice: the peppy, cheerful and energized tone she uses every time she speaks on the telephone, regardless of whether she's conversing with one of her children or the customer service woman who takes the orders from the J.C. Penny catalog. It's a complete transformation from her normal voice, and something I picked up on quickly.

She told me, in her normal voice, that she and the other four members of the family (not including me) were all going to the vet early that afternoon to put our dog, Tori, to sleep. I met this with a surprising amount of stoicism, given the fact that Tori was my first real pet and I’d pretty much grown up with her. She’d just turned 14 1/2 the day before, and I'm 22. I told my mom I thought it was the right thing to do. Tori had been sick with an aggressive cancer that had started in her right hind leg sometime during the winter and had been spreading ever since. My mom immediately revealed to me that Tori had begun to bleed that morning. Rectally. This, combined with the fact that she could only barely use three of her legs, had lost more weight than Jared Fogle and would spend a pretty good chunk of her day (when she wasn’t sleeping, which was rarely) either laying in her little bed or barking at things that weren’t there convinced me that what I was telling my mom was what I meant with all my heart. I’d already come to this conclusion when I went home last weekend and had found Tori in a terrible condition. I had to pick her frail, bony body up -- she was sickly skinny, like a supermodel with imperfect bone structure and more hair -- and take her outside to do her business. She struggled greatly even popping a squat, due to her useless leg and low energy levels. I was further convinced that it was time for her long and, I like to think, good life to end when my Dad, who, out of all of us, was the closest to Tori (as soon as he came home from work every evening, she followed him like, well, a puppy), said he thought it was about time to put her to sleep.

All of this confirmed for me what I’d always really known, that my first pet was going to die really soon, but I still had a glimmer of hope that maybe she wasn’t that bad and would continue to stick it out. This changed when my best friend Evan, who has known Tori for almost as long as I have, went over to my parents' house. In the 11 or so years since Evan first moved into the neighborhood and he and Tori met, and in the hundreds of times Evan has walked into my house, Tori has never not given him an unbelievable amount of shit. Since she was a small, indoor dog, Evan had always been her equivalent of the postal worker or paper boy. She sincerely hated Evan with every fiber of her tiny being, and she would bark and bark and bark incessantly at him anytime he was in her domain. She could sense his arrival, and she would find him, no matter which door we tried to sneak him in. This time, though, she acted like she didn’t even know he was around, and I suppose she probably didn’t. When he was near her, she didn’t even bark, except when she would growl or let out a little yelp at the wall, which definitely wasn’t Evan. She was at the point where she didn’t know her best friend from the people she hated the most. If she didn’t want to hassle Evan, I knew she didn’t really want to live anymore. Tori had lost the ability to fight her own fights, realized it, and unlike many bitches the world over, she decided she didn’t want other people to fight them for her. She’d become dependent and docile, and that wasn’t my dog’s personality (dogonality?).

When I said goodbye to her the Monday morning before I headed out of town to go back to my faraway job and, I knew it was probably the last time I would ever see her. I told her a bunch of shit about dog heaven that I’m not even sure if I believe or not. First, I don’t know if there is a heaven, and I’m all right with not knowing for many, many years. Second, I don’t know if, when a dog does go to heaven, they get to eat as many Milk Bones as they want. (Who can really be sure if canine obesity exists in heaven? If it does, there’s got to be a ration on treats and Beggin’ Strips.) But I told her both of these things, and I told her I’d miss her. I gave her a kiss, which consisted of me planting one on her snout, and she returned it, which consisted of her licking my nose. I’d like to think she knew whose nose she was licking at that point, and I do. (If Evan had come that close to her face, she would’ve bit his off, no matter how low her energy level might be or how shitty she was feeling.)

A little while after I got off the phone with my mom, she sent me a picture of Tori. (She was a Lhasa Apso and Poodle mix, but wasn't as ugly as either of those dogs when they're pure-bred. She was her own kind of creature, that one.) She was in the bed she frequented, and she was wrapped in a towel. She looked so skinny, skinnier than I could ever remember her being before, even skinner than just a week ago when I'd seen her, and even skinner than on the night we brought her home, when she was a six-week-old puppy. I remember that night vividly. We played with this little puppy we were so happy to have, that we thought we’d never have because of my mom's previous aversion to pets, and we watched “The Haunted Mask” episode of the short-lived "Goosebumps" television series. When I saw this picture my mom had sent me, I cried a little bit. I’m not ashamed of that, because I think that’s an appropriate action. (Also, it takes absolutely nothing for me to start crying, unlike most self-respecting men, but there’s not a thing I can do about it, so hey.) I cried mostly because I would miss my dog, but also because she was going to die with everyone in the family around except me. I dwelled on this for a bit, wishing I could be there, then went for a run, showered and went to work. I wanted to act status quo, and I wanted to try and not think about the fact that, in a way, I was glad I didn’t have to be there to see the family dog put down.

Most of the day went reasonably well. I knew what was going to happen, and knew it was the right thing. I waited for the text message to come telling me that the deed had been done. My big brother texted me, told me she was dead and that she hadn’t seemed very opposed to a lethal injection. He said she went quietly, and my family took that to mean she was ready. I have no doubts that she was.

Later in the night, I had to go to the conclusion of a little league baseball game for something I was doing at work. When I got there, it was pouring down rain, and the game was delayed. I decided to wait it out in my car. When I was sitting there in the rain, I started thinking a lot about Tori. At first, I was thinking about the times when she was sick, and I got kind of upset. Then, I decided I’d think about all the good things I remembered about her. I got out a notebook and sat in my car writing down some of my fondest memories of her. I thought about how intelligent she was. She could shake with both paws and do all the normal dog tricks like sitting and playing dead and rolling over. I especially remember how, when she wanted something, she would “dance.” She would get up on her hind legs, and drape her front paws out; she looked vaguely like someone dancing without a partner, like she was learning the steps in an introductory ballroom dancing class. She would look at you and continue to dance until she got what she wanted. I thought about the times we’d taken naps on my bed or on the couch, and the time I taught her to modify her normal handshake skills into a “pound” or “daps” fist-to-paw bump. I thought about a lot of things.

Then, I got back to thinking about how I hadn’t been there for her death. I realized after a while that this was a stupid thing to get caught up on, because her death had taught me more about life than maybe her entire life put together had. For years now, I’ve been a pseudo-emo kid who kind of adopted the idea that when every living thing in the world dies, he, she or it dies alone. (I attribute this to way too many sad songs, books and viewings of Donnie Darko.) The important thing about Tori dying was that she was surrounded by almost everyone she’d spent significant amounts of time with. To dwell on the fact that all of my immediate family had been there at the time of her dignified death when I was unable to be was the wrong way to look at it. I needed to look at it as a lesson. Everyone doesn’t die alone, and it’s important to keep a group of people close to you who you might want to have around when you do die, regardless of whether there’s a heaven, a hell, that place the people from LOST were hanging out or anything else.

Tori taught me that, among other things, and so I guess her work here was done.

It just kind of sucks that Evan can come into my house now and not suffer any hysterics or hassles, but so it goes.


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