I Didn’t Know How to Say Goodbye to My Beloved Dog
In this deeply poignant essay, the award-winning novelist-memoirist perfectly evokes that gutting feeling when your best friend knows it's time to go before you're ready to accept it.
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I fought Dingo’s death for three days after he had accepted it. I didn’t know how I would live without the dog who’d been with me through everything for more than 12 years—all of it, the last years of my first marriage and its end, the lonely time when I lived in sublets and he went back and forth, the heady joy of falling in love with my husband, Brendan, then the complete readjustment of leaving Brooklyn and moving to Portland, Maine. Dingo was my touchstone, my one constant familiar and companion, through heartache and grief, stress and confusion and loneliness, incredulous happiness, and finally settled calm.
He was an adult street dog of about 3-1/2, according to the shelter, when I first found him in June 2005, once I’d finally realized that my then-husband and I were never going to have children. I named him Dingo because he looked like one—a primordial mid-size beige village dog with enormous bat ears and a black muzzle and strong chest and fluffy pantaloons and fishhook tail. He was a handsome, dignified gentleman, soulful, stalwart, and loyal. He was also damaged, abused, half-feral, and mistrustful of men, especially older men with white hair. He loved to have his velvet ears massaged, loved a good backrub, was great with eye contact and sheer full-hearted presence, but he didn’t cuddle. He couldn’t. But he soaked in the love and care I lavished on him in lieu of a baby. He learned to live in a house with lightning speed—we only had to tell him anything once. He seemed to say, “Tell me what I need to do to stay here with you and I’m on it.”
While I mothered Dingo, he set about trying to father me in return. He was like the conservative dad I never had, emotional but never sentimental, an old-school, pragmatic bootstraps survivor who brooked no whimsy and had no truck with soppiness. He was fiercely protective of me, but also judged and corrected me when I acted wrongly. He scowled at me when I drank too much. He slit his eyes at me when I got too full of myself. He grunted with disapproval, lying back on his haunches on the floor, staring unhappily at me, when I danced wildly around the living room to loud music. I heard him loud and clear: “Don’t get too big for your britches!” and “Behave yourself, missy!”
Along with humility and propriety, he demanded of me a consistent daily schedule that gave my life a shape and sense it had never had before. Every morning at 8 a.m., no matter what, he had his morning walk and his breakfast. At 11 a.m., we took our long walk, and then a shorter one at 3 p.m. His dinner and a bathroom break around the block came at 6. His night walk at bedtime settled him for his solitary sleep. Dingo’s adherence to this non-negotiable schedule held me steady through the dramatic upheavals of my midlife, all of which he experienced alongside me.
He collapsed on the morning of September 30, 2017. It was a very hot morning. We’d started off for his walk. At the end of the driveway, having given it his best, he sighed, lay down, and looked up at me, calm and matter-of fact: He was done. His walks were over. He was going now.
There was no reason for this to surprise or shock me. He was almost 16 years old. His muzzle had long since gone grey. His shanks were spindly, his gait was stiff, his skin lumpy with growths. He probably had some kind of cancer. But he’d just had a hell of a summer, hiking, falling in love (twice), fully present, as alive as any creature has ever been.
Instead of listening to him, instead of acknowledging the truth of what he was telling me, I burst with wild and entirely selfish panic. He couldn’t go. It wasn’t time! I wasn’t ready! I didn’t know how I would go on without him. He lay under the table, panting, his eyes far away. His hind end had suddenly become mostly paralyzed. For the first time since I’d known him, he didn’t want to eat. Brendan, who understood what I couldn’t, urged me to let him go, let him die in peace. But instead, I fought his resigned detachment, did everything I could to bring him back. I hauled him that night to the emergency vet and subjected him to an exam.
The next day, he continued to slip away. I drove him to the daytime vet and had them examine him and begged them to do or prescribe anything that might save him. Maybe he just had Lyme disease, I thought. Maybe he had been poisoned by eating something toxic. Even though Dingo knew perfectly well what the deal was, he did his best to rise to my needs, as he always had. He gamely succumbed to the probing hands, wagged his tail politely at the invasive strangers. At home, he acquiesced further, swallowing the pills I forced down his throat, obligingly returning from his necessary leave-taking to try to assuage my human grief.
That had been his life’s work—being with me through everything. He had always taken this job very seriously, given it his utmost. I wasn’t ready for him to quit. I couldn’t bear it. Sensing this, always on the job, he tried to stay with me even as he left me. And for the first time ever, he failed.
All day on the second day after his collapse, I lay with him in the shady grass. All that night, inside, he cried out, restless and agitated, begging me to take him back outside and leave him under the trees so he could track the full moon crossing the night sky, swivel his ears to the sounds of the coyotes on the hunt. Instead, Brendan and I took turns staying up with him, bringing him warm bone broth to sip when he was thirsty, stroking his head, changing his bedding for him when he peed. He was a domesticated animal. We couldn’t turn him loose to die in the wild. He was dying on our terms, not his own—that was the deal.
Brendan stayed up with him on the last night. When I got up at dawn, he said, “It’s time, he needs to go, we can’t do this to him anymore.” We drove Dingo to the vet at eight, when they opened. In the backseat of our car, all the doors open to the grey autumn morning, while the vet administered the shots, Brendan stroked him and I talked to him, saying good-bye. His dimming eyes looked directly into mine, black, fathomless, completely at peace, going far away from me. “Thank you,” I said over and over until he was gone. The vet carried his stiff, bony little body inside to be cremated. Then we drove home without him.
Like most people my age, I’ve lost a lot through the years. I’ve been present at the deaths of people I loved, I’ve cried at memorials and funerals and burials. My first marriage died. I’ve lost everyone in my family at least twice, some to actual death, but most to rifts and estrangement and rejection. I’ve lost friends, lovers, even myself.
But no grief has ever hit me as hard as the first time I came downstairs in the morning to find Dingo gone. My day loomed, shapeless and empty. The house was bereft of his presence in it—he had been the center of it. Now everything spun, untethered. I stood there, lost, and then I caved in around the emptiness. I howled his name, crouched on the kitchen floor by the cupboard where I’d kept his food. My mouth made shapes it had never made before. My face was so slick with tears it felt like it might dissolve.
Even now, 16 months later, I’m crying hard tears as I write this. Our new dog, Angus, is lying at my feet, but this has nothing to do with him. I couldn’t love Angus more; he couldn’t be a better dog. But this is a specific, primal, tender, deep heartache—Dingo. No other dog will fill the hole he left—and their deaths will create new holes, and that’s the way it goes when you love a dog.
I didn’t know this before, but now I do. When Angus dies, I’ll have to go through it again, but this time, it won’t be as hard—I will understand it better, and I hope I’ll be more thoughtful in letting him go. Dingo taught me how to do it. I learned, thanks to him, how to love another being with all my heart, and then to let him go and continue on without him. Is this a valuable thing to know? Is it useful? All I know is that it was worth it, every second I had with him.
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