A thousand dog-sized holes

Our dog Lucy died unexpectedly on Sunday. She gave us more than we could ever give her.

A few years ago, I noticed a trend on Facebook: all of my friends’ dogs were dying. In the innocent early days of social media, my friends always posted when they went out. Then the trend changed. Many of my friends got engaged. Then they got married. Around the same time, they got dogs.

I was flooded with dog pictures. Dogs on hikes. Dogs on walks. Dogs getting belly rubs. Dogs relaxing at home. On a dog bed. On a lap. In a chair.

Then my friends had kids. The kids were in all of the posts. The dogs were still there, but usually in a picture with the children, or in the background. Usually another kid came, sometimes a third, and there was less of the dog, it seemed.

My posts generally followed theirs. Engagement, marriage, dog, kids. But then, the dog remembrance posts started. They all had the same pattern. My friends’ dogs were good dogs. Loyal dogs. Family dogs. But they were all old dogs now.

I wondered, sometimes, when this trend would come for me. At those moments, I’d look down at Lucy, who had her head nestled in my lap at the end of a long day, and try to prepare myself for a time when she would no longer be with us. She turned 9 in March, but was in good shape. A little whiter in the muzzle than she used to be. Still fast as a puppy, though. Still sneaky enough to get food that I thought I’d placed far enough away from the edge of the counter. Bossier, even. She’d grumble when she was hungry, or sit directly in front of me and stare with her deep brown eyes and demand that I pet her. I’d rub her behind her big floppy ears and fail to come to grips with that hard-to-imagine concept: a day when this dog that was always there would, suddenly, not be.

And then, that day came.

While we were driving back from Ohio on Sunday, Lucy was in my in-laws’ yard and saw an Amazon delivery truck coming down the street. Usually, she’d bark at it. Run alongside it in the yard. Put on a big show but ultimately just watch it go on down the road. Except on Sunday, she ran in front of the truck. She was gone within minutes. My father-in-law, who ran up moments after it happened, saw her wagging her tail in her final moments.

We were still on the road when he called. My wife gasped. She silently mouthed what happened to Lucy so the kids wouldn’t hear. I started to cry, biting my lip, trying to stay steady for another two hours. When we got to the house, my wife explained to our son and daughter what had happened. Both of the kids slouched and snuggled into her. My daughter, who’s 4, processed the news by talking out loud. “She won’t lick me anymore,” she said, before saying that it also meant that she didn’t have to put food in Lucy’s bowl in the morning. My son, who’s 7, mostly went silent, and said he wanted to think about other things, because he wanted to get the thought of Lucy being killed out of his head.

My wife was shaken but had the steadiest nerves, and delayed her grief until she did what had to be done. She drove to my father-in-law’s house to help take Lucy’s body to the vet, and to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. I stayed with the kids and unloaded the minivan. As I carried our bags upstairs, my daughter asked when Lucy would be in heaven, and I said she was in heaven now. Then I went into the bedroom, shut the door behind me, and wailed.

To bring a dog home with you is to bring yourself a delayed appointment with grief. A dog’s average life span is no more than a quarter of ours at most, which means that the puppy you adopt is going to grow old and will eventually die, and you will mourn it, and have to grapple with it, and deal with it. Grief is a part of life that we’ll all have to encounter. People die. Friends die. Family members die. If you’re lucky, the people who love you will live long, fruitful lives. But a dog is always living on a different timeline, one that’s hard to understand when puppy walks into your house for the first time. At the beginning, adopting a dog is a sure-fire investment. You put your love into a dog, and the dog gives you even more love back in return. And before you know it, that puppy will be older than you in dog years, then gone before you are, and you will wonder where all of that love went.

Owning a dog is selfish. Sure, we give our love to a dog, but a dog is still an animal. It is not a person. But we can’t help but assign human qualities to it, to think of it as part of our family, to treat it like a fur baby, to talk at it like an infant. A dog makes us feel better. It’s always so happy to see you when you come home. It always seems to want to play when you’re feeling a little down. We take care of the dog, of course. Feed it. Walk it. Pet it. Play with it. Take it to the vet when it’s sick or hurt. We try to give our dogs a good life, but we get so much more from a dog than we give. We take. We always take.

It’s easy for a dog to become a vessel for our emotional selves, a metaphor for an easy relationship. Suddenly, this animal that only responds to a few commands — sit, stay, shake — has a superpower. It’s less complicated than a person. It wags its tail when it’s happy. Growls when it’s mad. Shows its belly when it trusts you. Their simplicity is invigorating in a complex world. People change. Dogs are steady. They’re incredible, really. And what do we do for them in return? Well, many of us have kids, and we share our love with them too and the dog gets noticed a little less. But the dog is still there, just wanting a little attention every once in a while. A walk would be nice. A new toy sure would be great. Please give me a belly rub.

And then, one day, the dog is gone, and instead of one big hole, there are a thousand, smaller, dog-shaped holes in your family’s life.

A package came yesterday, and my wife noticed that there was no barking, no scurrying to the front door. This morning, Lucy wasn’t lying on the edge of my son’s bed, looking out the window. She wasn’t curled up on our old yellow couch, trying to get some sleep. The bowl in the utility room was full of water, but there was no dog to drink it. I stepped on a squeaky toy, but nothing happened. There was no sound of a jangling collar, or flapping ears, or a paw scratching a jaw. I woke up and instinctively put my hand down next to the bed to pet a furry head that wasn’t there. I went for a morning jog by myself, down to the pond where Lucy had recently scared away some geese. I walked down the stairs and instinctively looked out the back door, to see if her black form was waiting there for me to let her in. There have been dozens of little missing moments like this — no dog licking up the crumbs off the floor, no shooing of the dog away from the open dishwasher — and there will be dozens more, all coming when I try to do a normal thing and realize there’s a tiny vacuum in my routine.

I cried again yesterday morning and, in a futile effort to stop, tried to rationalize things. Lucy is not my child. She was a very good dog, but still, a dog. The vacuums in my routine will, in time, be filled. I’ll always remember Lucy, but grief doesn’t last forever. I put on my clothes and drove to work, and the phone rang, and I answered emails, and talked to my colleagues about normal work things, shot a video, heated up some pizza, made a few phone calls, and was mostly okay. Then my wife called to tell me that Lucy’s ashes were ready to be picked up at the vet’s office, and I was right back where I started.

In many ways, this pandemic hasn’t taken the toll on me that it’s taken on many other people. Nobody in my family has struggled with or died from COVID. I didn’t lose my job. My kids were extremely resilient. We were privileged enough to be able to stay at home.

But it still took a toll. Over the last year-and-a-half I’ve wavered between extreme stress and unexplainable depression, feeling like a world that once felt so big had become claustrophobic. I’d sit behind a computer for hours at a time in my upstairs office, feeling like a drone, but also with an unceasing feeling of dread. I’d feel panicked in any situation where I felt even remotely unsafe. My wife, who was my rock throughout all of these things, was strong when I was weak. I owe everything to her for listening to me trying to talk out a million cascading mental problems in real time.

After a few months, my wife went back to the office. A few months later, my kids returned to school. But through the fall, winter, and spring, I continued to work from home. Except, I wasn’t alone. Lucy was always there, whining to be let out, barking when a package came in the morning, and resting on a bevy of soft surfaces. I noticed her routines, her personality, and her presence more than I had in years. And, like clockwork, Lucy would always come over and plop down next to me at my desk in the late morning. Maybe you should pet me, she’d seem to be saying. Maybe you should take me for a walk. Or, even better, get me a treat. And then I’d get up, break out of my trance for a moment, and do something nice for the dog. She would wag her tail, and I’d feel a little better.

In April, I started an exciting new job and began to leave the house more. By then, every adult in my family had been vaccinated. The weather had finally warmed up. My wife and I bought an outdoor couch from Target, and we’d spend the loveliest evenings outside, just talking, recuperating, having a beer, and just enjoying the temperature and the conversation. We’d turned a corner. Sometimes, we’d invite Lucy up on the couch with us, since we’d long given up the rule that she wasn’t allowed on furniture. But mostly, she was content to sit on the edge of the deck, staring out across the yard that she loved to run in so much, listening to the crickets, just happy to be within the sound of our voices. She’d receded into the background a little more, but she was always nearby, content to have her family so close.

I thought about all of this just before a veterinary technician walked out to my car and handed me a small wooden box with Lucy’s ashes inside. “So sorry for your loss,” she said, and I wept again. I cried because Lucy had been there, consistently, for nearly all of my married life. She was there for the kids. She was there for us. And now she was there, in this box. I knew that this was a chapter of my life closing; a realization that I’m on the side of my existence when dogs, and, eventually, people, will start to disappear. I was crying for her, but also, selfishly, for me.

I drove the whole way back with my hand on that box in the passenger seat, telling Lucy that we all loved her and that we missed her and that we were sorry that this happened. I told her she was a good girl, and that I would take her on one more walk around the neighborhood. I’d let her sit on the yellow couch one more time. And then one day, when we were all ready, we’d say our goodbyes and scatter her ashes in her favorite places. In the yard. At the park. On the beach. I told her thank you for always being there for us. Then I turned into the driveway.

“Lucy, you’re home,” I said, and for the first time, I felt a little better.