My best friend came into my life ten years ago on a crisp day in October; he was my birthday present to myself. The day he came home, dry leaves skritched over the sidewalks. Jack-o-lanterns and fake spider webs sprouted on every other house in my neighborhood. My friend was younger then, and everything he saw surprised or delighted or, sometimes, scared him. A gaggle of kids walking to school attracted him like light attracts a moth. A tin Real Estate sign clanging in the wind sent him running for cover.
But regular meals, a roof over his head, a soft bed to sleep in, and plenty of affection showed him that he was home. No matter that he had to learn on his third day with us that he should not jump up on the kitchen table to help himself to an entire baked chicken. No matter that his mom had to learn to let go of problems at work earlier than she wanted to because she had somebody at home who needed to go outside.
You’ve guessed that the best friend I’m talking about is my dog, Homer, who died unexpectedly just six days before Christmas of a burst liver tumor.
Until Homer came along, I’d been a cat person. I was afraid of dogs, having been chased by a German Shepherd when I was a kid. Plus, to be honest, I’d never been inclined to own a dog. Dogs were so…needy. They were kind of icky, what with the drool and the doggy stink and the poo—I used to watch my elderly neighbor trot past my house behind her Schnauzer, plastic bag fluttering in her hand, and I’d imagine wrapping my hand in a bag and then wrapping that hand around warm dog droppings. Disgusting!
Then one summer I agreed to dog-sit my friend’s Bichon. I enjoyed it. I began to imagine the unimaginable: maybe I could have a dog.
I approached dog adoption like I approach everything: I studied. I took a 90-question compatibility test and chose the breed that would best suit my lifestyle, the Golden Retriever. I studied costs, life span, energy level. I bought a book so I could learn how to train a dog. I decided on a mixed-breed shelter dog or a Golden rescue rather than a purebred animal, as so many deserving dogs need homes. The last thing the world needs is more puppies, I decided. I haunted Petfinder. I visited shelters. I registered with a rescue group. It took three months to find Homer, who was half Golden Retriever and half Mystery Meat (guesses ranged from Collie to Great Pyrennes).
Unfortunately, a couple of days after I brought the dog home, I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake. Everything about dog-ness was new to me. Certainly, one can make predictions about an animal’s temperament based on breed or upbringing or sex, but studying dog as a concept isn’t the same as living with an individual dog.
Despite my misgivings, there was something about Homer I wanted to know and needed to learn, something this two-minute video captures, although I hadn't learned it yet at the time. And so he stayed.
And on the ninth day, God looked down on his wide-eyed children and said, "They need a companion... Somebody who'll spend all day on a couch with a resting head and supportive eyes to lift the spirits of a broken heart." So God made a dog.
Homer taught me that you learn about yourself when you try to communicate with another species. Wanting to understand my dog forced me to be vulnerable and to truly pay attention rather than insisting the communication be only one-way. Like a mother learning her baby's cries, I had to learn my dog's different barks. About three weeks into my being a new dog mom, Homer tried to tell me that somebody was breaking into my neighbor’s outbuilding. I shushed him, but the next morning, my neighbor discovered her shed lock broken on the ground and a can half-full of gasoline beside it. We’d had a rash of arsons in our town; we believe the dog’s barking scared away whoever had come to burn down her shed. After that, I paid attention when the dog tried to tell me something. I tried to read his eyes. I learned to watch his ears. I learned that his weird, guttural throat noises meant I was supposed to look up because he had something to tell me.
Homer was never one of those dogs that barks at the drop of a hat, but he made other noises. He woofed, under his breath, like that uncle who hangs back at family gatherings listening to everybody and once in a while gruffing out a “Hmph!” which isn’t a clear statement of anything in particular so much as it is a reminder that he’s listening to every word. If anybody knocked on our door—including me with an armful of groceries—Homer gave a bugling “Bwoo-oo-oo!” to let the house know somebody wanted in. If my brother stopped by, Homer made ecstatic mock-whiny puppy noises and groveled at my brother’s feet. Homer wasn’t a Velcro dog with me, but he could never get enough of my brother. “Go eat the cat,” Dan would suggest, but Homer would not leave his side.
As regards the cats, Homer was their buddy. They all grew up together, Homer bridging the gap between one generation of cats and their successors. One day, Homer spent fifteen minutes following his best buddy, Chip, from room to room licking him and wagging his tail, waiting for the cat to settle so they could nap together.
It is nice to reminisce about my dog, but it hurts. While introducing former New York magazine executive editor John Homans's book What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend, Maria Popova talks about “the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway.”
Quite simply, choosing to love means choosing to hurt. A couple of days ago, I ran into a dog park friend whose big hound, Cooper, died three years ago. “I still cry about Cooper,” she said, hugging me. “I had to get therapy when he died. You will never forget Homer, and he’ll always be with you. Homer was your soul mate.”
Initially, “soul mate” sounded too extreme. A soul mate is somebody who loves with a love that passeth understanding, a love that accepts all, endures all. A soul mate loves purely with his whole heart. Soul mates feel such depthless devotion to one another that the sudden exit of the beloved is like the cutting off of a limb: shocking, painful, crippling.
Maybe Homer was my soul mate. I have certainly never felt so deeply and completely loved for my own sake. I have never felt so bereft.
And now Homer's ashes sit on a shelf in my house. I will never see him again.
Like the deepest water in the ocean slowly rolling to the surface to get oxygenated and then slowly rolling back down to the deep, so it is with grief. It comes in waves. Our rhythms change when somebody passes. We have to learn new ways of doing things. For many days, at both breakfast and lunch, I was about to set my plate on the floor to be "pre-washed" until I remembered my pre-washer was gone. When I brought home groceries the other day, as always, I schlepped everything out of the car in several trips to a pile beside the door because a golden ball of fur used to come barreling out the minute the door opened. The other morning, I wondered if I could get away with writing one more page before it was time to walk the dog—then I remembered there was no dog to walk.
When somebody passes, no matter the species, there are rituals that you do only at such a time. Five days before Christmas, I washed Homie's bed and scrubbed his dishes and washed the rugs. Four days before Christmas, I vacuumed up the dog hair in my living room. Three days before Christmas, the vet called to tell me Homie's ashes already had come back from the crematory, so I drove out there to pick up the walnut box containing the physical remains of my friend. Afterward, I took his leftover toys and food to the animal shelter. While I was at the shelter, I wandered into the dog department just to look at who was there. Then it hit me: I wasn't looking for another dog. I was looking for my dog.
EB White writes a lighthearted obituary for his dog, Daisy, and the fact that White applied his greatest gift to his canine friend honors Daisy with the best White had to give her.
John Updike’s poem "Another Dog's Death" is not as light-hearted; it is, rather, a simple elegy that shows how well the man and the dog knew one another:
For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave
in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.
She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.
I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.
They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.
As for me, I put one foot in front of the other. I take it one day at a time. I get up. I eat food. I try to work. I don’t walk the dog. I layer my broken heart in logic and common sense and wait to feel less pain and more gratitude for the incredible blessing that my big, silly boy brought: he made me a better person. Like the lyric from Wicked says, "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good."
Homans says “It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’… Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience.” I laugh, even now, at this video of a dog (whose goofiness reminds me of my boy) when the dog finds out his dad just brought home a kitten.
My dog taught me that I can’t control everything and that I shouldn’t want to. He taught me to enjoy the breeze, to appreciate every meal, to be grateful to be alive. Homer was the best of dogs, gentle and sweet. I hope when I go to heaven he will be the first to greet me, like Katie greets Chris in this clip from What Dreams May Come.
RIP, my beautiful, happy, beloved pup. I will love you for the rest of my life. I will be grateful that I knew you as long as I live.