“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
My husband said that he knew he liked me when he saw me walking my elderly dog in the streets of our neighborhood in New Haven. Mona, a brindled beagle and pit bull mix, had found her way into my life in the winter before I knew that I was moving to the East Coast. She was an older dog with an injured knee. A friend of mine was dating a veterinarian who saved stray dogs and she asked me if I’d be willing to adopt her. Now that I look back on it, it was kind of an impetuous decision but I said sure.
My dad took one look at her and said one of the most profound things that he has ever said to me, It looks like you have the same taste in dogs as you do in men. I guess I could have been insulted but instead I realized that he was right. I had been dating a lot of wounded bird types (one even asked me out while he was in drug rehab). In that moment I decided that I was going to dedicate all my nurturing energy to this injured dog and I wasn’t going to make myself available to take care of any more wounded men.
Six months later I moved from Berkeley to New Haven, CT with a paltry few possessions and my dog Mona. Two months later I was dating my future husband. I always believed that she brought us together. The following summer he and I packed up my VW Golf and drove across the country to visit my family in California with Mona in tow. We looked back on this trip as our summer of love.
On our way back to New Haven in August, we decided to do some camping in the West. One morning, upon waking at place called Snow Canyon in Utah, we heard some shrill whining. It continued for a while so we decided to hike up towards the noise. It turned out to be a fuzzy little white puppy (and her mom) that kept slipping while trying to descend. We brought her and her mom to the park ranger and asked if someone had lost some dogs. He informed us that they must have been abandoned because there were no other patrons in the campground. I always wondered where how the heck somebody came to leave them there, practically in the middle of nowhere. The park ranger offered to take the mom, which left us the puppy. Again, the decision felt a bit nuts, but what else could we do? She had found us, and we were animal lovers.
We finished the trip across country with two dogs now. The puppy, which we named Utah, was as loud as when we first met her. She never barked but whined incessantly whenever we left her behind or tried to get some privacy by closing a door. She was fast, frisky and a bit naughty (she chewed my brand new eyeglasses one evening). When we walked her and old Mona, Utah pulled so hard that my ex would be a few steps ahead every time. She was a spirited and challenging dog. Those of you who have seen her as a rickety old dog would have been surprised to see her then.
Utah and Mona became our kids. They even traveled to Puerto Rico and California with us (pretty good life, huh?). Three years later, after our wedding, my sister and her husband came to visit us in New Haven and accidentally left our front door ajar. We came home an hour later and Mona was gone. By this time she was nearly completely deaf and blind. We spent an epic week searching for her in brambles by the river, behind and under people’s houses, anywhere that we thought she might have gotten trapped. I even called the street service that picks up dead animals from the road. Nothing. We never found her. We were devastated. We comforted ourselves with the story that she had walked away to die, by herself, that it was her time to go.
Utah became our only child, until of course, Jonah was born when she was seven. I always felt a little sorry that her central position in our lives had been usurped, but what can you do? Kids require a heck of a lot of attention and dedication. Utah made the move with us to Rhode Island and then to Northampton where she became this very sedentary house dog, appropriately tolerant with young kids.
When my ex and I broke up, I kept Utah because he moved to an apartment. I remember the first time I had another guy spend the night. Utah reverted back to her puppy self and whined incessantly on the first floor (where she remained as she got older and steps became difficult for her). He was annoyed but I had to laugh a bit at the memory of her doing the same thing with my ex and me.
Yesterday afternoon, after fifteen years of life, Utah died. I came home from a quick errand run and found her hiding in a corner on our deck facing the house and panting really hard. Something seemed different. Her back legs could no longer sustain her weight and I kept trying to help her walk back into the house. I got her as far as the spot right in front of the slider and then she refused to budge. I immediately called my ex who was due to arrive pretty soon anyway and asked him to come over and help me get her into the house. Jonah was in the bath so he said it would take a little while. While I prepared food in the kitchen I watched Utah pant. Her tongue started hanging out really heavily. Then the panting started slowing down. I sat down next to her and noticed that her eyes looked different. They were cloudy and starting to roll into the back of her head. While I petted her, her breathing kept slowing down and then it just stopped. It happened really quickly.
My ex and the kids arrived about five minutes after she died. They had called and said they were on their way while she was still alive but my ex forgot his glasses and had to turn back. I couldn’t hide my sobs from them and we had a cathartic cry together. I couldn’t believe that it had happened so quickly and that they had missed it, but my ex reminded me of Mona and how devastated I had been about not being with her at the end. He surmised that Utah was helping me get that closure.
My ex buried Utah in our backyard, which ironically is adjacent to a cemetery. He put a big rock as a lovely headstone. Mona left us right after our wedding and Utah died a day after our twelfth anniversary. I’m not sure what that synchronicity means, but I do know that a big part of our history just died and I am sure appreciative that I have a peaceful relationship with my ex so that we have each other to lean on.
The kids, of course, are clamoring to get a puppy, but I know that dogs, like husbands, are not easily replaced, even with a younger and perkier model.