When Your Dog’s Life Ends

Around dinner time, Marilyn and I watch TV. Lately, we’ve been watching Humans and As Time Goes By. Normally, while we sitting on the couch, Pepper walks by every minute or so (she does laps around our apartment). She walks in a very odd way because her hips are completely stiff and she can no longer hear and barely see.

I walk into the kitchen and notice the porch door open. I wonder if Pepper will want to go back out, one last time. I remember she’s no longer with us. Before leaving the kitchen I wonder if I should turn off the light, or if Pepper wants it on. These and similar thoughts cross my mind before I do many things around the apartment.

I cried a bit in bed with a pillow over my head. It wasn’t as bad I thought it would be, but course, even as I write this, it has only been six hours since.

What saddens me most is I don’t remember when Pepper made that turn into old age. When she stopped wanting to chase squirrels in the park. When she stopped pulling on the leash. Barking at any dog she saw. Tring to get a nibble on any human that approached me, or I approached them.

Was it weeks or months ago? Winter? Fall? I rack my brain and can’t remember.

She never wanted anyone to pet her. She would play with some dogs, here and there, but she bored quickly. She wasn’t a foodie. I couldn’t elicit good behavior from a doggie treat. She followed me around everywhere. If I laid down on the bed within two minutes she jumped up and lay on my stomach.

But when? When was the last time she did that? I can’t remember. Seems a lifetime ago.

That saddens me most of all. That I didn’t notice when she made that final turn. Have I made the turn with her? I didn’t notice when I stopped worrying about whether she was happy or not. Because I used to do that — from the moment I got up to the moment I went to sleep. She hated being alone. For the past eight years I never went out for more than a few hours because I knew she would become distressed.

Sometime in the last weeks or months she no longer noticed if I came or went. She slept in one her beds. Marilyn was always washing one of them because she was incontinent.

I bought Pepper for my middle child, when said-child was 11 and said we “didn’t love her because she’s the middle child”. She’s a crafty one. That was 17 years ago. I drew up a contract about walking, feeding, etc.

I had trauma about family dogs but I never said trauma to my family and I only write it now. Maybe trauma is too strong word? During my childhood, we had found a stray dog. My father made us take it to a shelter, because we never walked it, where I assume it was put down (what they did in those days). I remember my mother and brother standing in my sister’s room, hugging each other as if an atom bomb was about to drop, both crying their eyes out.

That image of them has stayed with me for 50 years, as clear today as it was then. Did I mention my Mom was seldom emotional?

My daughter is like that too. She went off to college and had no interest in taking Pepper back. It said in the contract that if she didn’t take care of Pepper I had the right to give Pepper away. So she just said I should do that. What I would have said when young.

She’s now married, has a two year old son, with another child on the way. She believes adulthood can be achieved by checking off certain boxes. I wish I could say I know better, but I never figured it out. She’s happy. But eventually she’ll see the world helplessly, as we all must when our children age.

If you’ve held your kid’s dog in the way I’m talking about, and your kid is off somewhere else, I probably don’t need to explain the above (I couldn’t, even if I wanted).

Every two hours, when I felt compelled to walk Pepper, who stood at the door, I often got angry with my daughter. For the past eight years I have been a prisoner to Pepper’s well-being (Marilyn went back to work and I work at home).

A couple of years ago my daughter stopped talking to me on a regular basis. I don’t blame her. That’s a long story but if you have a dog and kids you know how they are tied together. My daughter will one day understand when she gets a dog for her child.

I am 60. I take care of my Mom who is 87. She’s not doing well. If she was twenty years younger she’d say she should join Pepper I know that because she said that ten years ago when she could at least go out every weekend.

When will I make that turn? When will Marilyn? Have I made it already? Will I be a burden to my kids?

I’m not one of those people who say they love their dog and loved taking care of them. I never wanted Pepper. But if you have, or had a dog, you won’t listen to anything I say — because you know the truth.

Dogs bring out the humanity in us. No matter how furious I might get, at having to walk Pepper, I knew she was good for me.

Dogs and their humans take care of each other though words are never spoken. The moment we get a dog we must accept the shortness of their lives. That’s always with us. I wish I had never given in and bought Pepper for my daughter. But of course. I had to. Then someone had to take care of Pepper. I had to. Then I had to accept that my daughter would cut me out of her life so she could focus on hers. She has to.

It’s all okay. For many years Pepper and I would go out and give the stink eye to any dog or person who crossed our path. No one else would have put up with Pepper. No dog would have appreciated me like Pepper.

And yet I have made many friends over the years. Friends are not easy for me. I am not easy for them.

Pepper made me do what I didn’t want to do. Like all dogs, she never wasted a moment. She never let me sink into myself. And when she did play with dogs, I exaggerate — she could be quite the charmer.

I must relocate the memories of the Pepper I’ve forgotten. All the reasons everyone didn’t like her but I understood. I must forget the zombie dog she became these past few weeks, months?

There is no human on Earth who isn’t a better human after taking care of a dog. I can thank my daughter for that. Have I already made the turn in old, old age? Pepper never thought about it. I shouldn’t either.

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Max Rottersman

Max Rottersman

I try to write stories that go where the general media doesn’t.