Loss: A Dog’s Life

I was listening to sports talk radio, an interview with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who characterized an athlete’s career as “a dog’s life,” meaning that career is short.

And this spoke to me in the wake of having just lost our first family dog, Hershey, a chocolate lab we had for about 14 years.

On the Sunday night just after the U.S. World Cup match with Portugal, Hershey began to bark and moan non-stop, starting about 8 pm and lasting until after midnight. My wife and I could not figure out why, but Hershey would stop if one of us stood in the garage beside him. As soon as we left him, however, the barking continued.

As labs are prone to do, Hershey had been in decline since the winter, his rear hips deteriorating. But during that soccer match, Hershey had been walking in the back yard with our black lab, Scout, and my daughter’s white lab, Sasha.

Around 12:15 am, I couldn’t just lie in bed anymore so I tried again to calm Hershey, but had no luck. My wife also tried again, and when she returned to bed and Hershey was no longer barking, I assumed all was somehow calmed.

Early the next morning, however, my wife told me she had discovered that Hershey could no longer stand. We lifted him into the car and my wife took him to the vet on her way to work. Soon after she arrived, I received a text that Hershey was out of his misery, and sadly, out of our family.

Hershey RIP

Hershey RIP

I cried alone while working before heading to my university to teach my summer grad class. And I immediately began to worry about my daughter pregnant with her first child (Hershey was technically her first dog, although the labs had become clearly very dear parts of my wife’s life) and our remaining lab, Scout, who is much younger than Hershey and who had never been without his companionship.

Scout sleeping on Hershey's blanket

Scout sleeping on Hershey’s blanket

Hershey and Scout have always been eerie and powerful representations for me, more than pets. I envied Hershey’s calm and gentle demeanor. The world seemed to move slowly and patiently for and around Hershey.

That is an existence that I cannot fathom.

Scout is anxious, like me. She seems always on the edge or terror, often not quite lying down and with her back to the wall—her eyes alert and her head darting back and forth.

What seemed to be—Scout was smarter than Hershey—I think, is misleading because Scout is just more sensitive to the world around her. And it is that sensitivity that I share with Scout, that anxiousness that makes living in the moment impossible.

We anxious creatures feel too deeply, and as a result, we are probably simultaneously that soul who will love you more intensely than anyone else (and we love so entirely that few make that list) and also love you very badly.

There is an inevitability of failure in such intensity.

It seems now that we always had Hershey, and it seems now that we never had him nearly long enough.

So I will do (have already begun to do) what we anxious do: Try very hard to appreciate Scout, who seems somewhat lost but not entirely shaken by Hershey no longer being there beside her.

And as we anxious are prone to do also, I continue to care and feel deeply while doing a truly poor job showing that and fulfilling those obligations.

All the people we love and all the people we fail become mirrors of our love and our failures. That is both the beauty and torture of being human.

The dogs we love, however, even that dog like Scout who shares my anxiousness for the world, are entirely without the sort of judgment we see, we fear in the people around us, the people who have known us in the fullness of our inadequacies.

I pet and scratch Scout, talk to her, and she leans into my hands, closes her eyes, and hasn’t a single thing to offer me except just that. We are an anxious pair, us two, save those few seconds when we allow that moment just to be that moment.

Hershey was damned good at that, by the way, his huge box-head weighing your hands like no tomorrow.

It is all but a dog’s life, each moment to be touched, each moment we can never hold.

UPDATE: We have now lost Scout only about a month after Hershey. A terrible summer for pets in our home. RIP Scout:

scout rip

Scout RIP

 

For Hershey and Scout:

The Heaven of Animals, James Dickey

And …

Zoe

Welcome to our home, Zoe.

6 comments

  1. Nancy Bailey

    Thank you for sharing this as I know it must have been difficult to write. Our 15 year old Corgi is having health problems now too. She has always been so active, I guess I thought she would live forever. So I can identify and very much appreciate your words. With all the school issues we have to take time to enjoy the other stuff that matters. Our pets provide us with fun-loving memories we can always hold on to. Best to you and your daughter.

  2. Peter

    Sorry for your loss. My previous dog, a collie shepherd, was with me for fourteen years. He was a humane society dog and was never comfortable in the house. Winters were hard on him, even with his luxurious shed, but a few winters ago, it was just too much for him. One day, he could no longer stand and would not be comforted. I was heartbroken that I did not see it coming on, but my vet said, “Dogs aren’t like people. They don’t complain or struggle through. They can either do it or they can’t. He can’t any more.” My wife came equipped with a lab puppy who is now calm and almost wise, who does that exact “Here, hold my head up for me” game. Your piece brought my old dog back to me and reminded me how much I love the current one. Thank you for a personal, thoughtful, and moving piece.

  3. Margaret Benson

    I’m so sorry for your loss Paul, and for your description of your grief. I am a cat person myself. Nine years ago now I had to drive our cat 200 miles through a snowstorm to have some tests done at the Cornell Vet School. It was an awful drive, and I probably forgot to breath, and tied my stomach in knots the whole way up. But when the going was bad I would put my hand on the back seat, to feel Bruno’s carrier, and talk to him, and I could feel his confidence in me, and his love.

    We made the trip too late. He had congestive heart disease and died two weeks later. After three years we got another cat, who is wonderful, though he just is not Bruno. But anytime I have to drive a long distance in tricky winter, I put my hand behind me where Bruno’s carrier ought to be, and feel his presence, trusting me to get us through.

    I guess I’m rambling, but what I am trying to say is that we don’t completely lose those we love. Love does not die.

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