A few days ago, my dog died. It was fast and unexpected, and I’ll never know what caused it. I was stroking his ears and telling him I loved him as he took his last breaths. He was not quite 6 years old. Mostly, people are kind. They say, “How sad.” They say, “I ’m sorry for your loss.” This terminology has been bothering me, loss. I did not lose Jasper. I did not misplace him like a cell phone, he did not slip off unnoticed like a loose earring backing, and no matter how hard I look I will not find him. But this morning on my run, while my baby daughter grinned at me and batted her gorgeous eyelashes, I bawled. Because the truth is, it is a loss, and the truth is, on these neighborhood streets where he loved to run and, later, when his arthritis started to get the best of him, to slowly stroll and always, always, sniff, I look for him everywhere. I look for him when I see a discarded sandwich wrapper on the sidewalk, which would have been a gourmet feast for his nose, and when I run past the corner lot where I always had to tug his leash because he would have stayed and smelled the frequently-peed-upon bushes all day long if I’d let him. When I get home, I look for him out the kitchen window as I wash dishes. He is not in his sleeping spot by the back steps. He is not sneaking past the fence to lie in my garden bed. What I wouldn’t give to see him crushing my garden, which I yelled at him for a few short hours before he died.
Dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend. I am not a man, and he was not my best friend, though he may well have been my husband’s. I have been told many times in the past few days what a good dog he was, and I have said it myself. But he was not my best friend, and quite often he was not a good dog, and I did not enjoy every moment I had with him. He was loyal and sweet and friendly, sure. He was affectionate to a fault. He played well with kids and with other dogs. He was also 135 pounds of stubborn will. He pulled on his leash so much I was often afraid to walk him. His barks resounded through the neighborhood at inopportune times. He knew how to sit and stay and be quiet, but he made calculated decisions as to when he was willing to do so. He irritated me and got underfoot and woke the baby and crushed half the plants I tried to grow, and sometimes I wished I’d never brought such a raucous troublemaker into my home. He was my family. It is with guilt and remorse that I must admit how ungenerous I can be towards my family, how easily and pointlessly angered, how petty. I bopped him on the nose more than he would have liked, and muttered curses at him under my breath more than I would have liked. And I loved him fiercely.
Jasper came into our lives about a week before my husband and I moved into our house. Our first order of business after signing all the paperwork was to find a dog, and as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with the squirming yellow ball of fur we’d chosen from a rescue organization’s adoption fair, we felt like the luckiest people in the world. Jasper was there with us as we moved into our house, and our life was to a large extent arranged around him. I mean this physically, as we arranged the furniture to allow open spaces for a big dog to romp, and bought a counter-height table to keep inquiring noses out of our food. I also mean it (dare I, as a semantics-fearing atheist, say it?) spiritually, as the presence of a bounding puppy, and later, a prematurely-arthritic dog, changed and expanded our hearts. He helped us get to know our neighbors, because when you’re walking with that many pounds of furry enthusiasm, everyone wants to stop and say hello. He influenced our social circles: I have friends I first grew to love because of how they loved my dog, and friends I lost respect for because they couldn’t love him. He made camping trips and beach runs and even driving to the hardware store into lively adventures. When my husband was away at school for long evenings, he made me feel safe, protecting me from threats both real (when the police were chasing a burglar through the neighborhood) and real only to him (his suspicion of balloons was life-long and, on his side at least, adversarial).
As I look around the house and start to think about putting his things away, I realize what an inconvenience Jasper was. I guess I can now put away the ugly, dirt-catching throw rugs that kept doggy paws from slipping on the wood floors. I can go away on the weekend camping trips I’ve pined for but have not been able to take with dog in tow. I can stay out late and not worry about getting home in time for dinner or the evening walk. I can take down the garden fencing that never quite worked anyway. I don’t want to do any of these things. I want to sit and cry and look through photographs. I want to play “remember when” with my husband, and to tell my daughter stories she’ll never remember and doesn’t understand about the giant yellow dog she used to know, and how silly and sweet he was, and how sorry I am she will never ride around on his back or yank his tail. I do not believe in an afterlife, though I sometimes wish I did. I suspect it would be consoling to be able to believe that Jasper is off in some doggy heaven prancing through pee-scented fields with doggy friends. Instead I try to console myself that the loss of death, at least, is not a loss to the one who died. Jasper is not sorry he didn’t live to enjoy one more walk or bone or sunny day. He is not anything anymore. He enjoyed his life, and he is not sad or in pain, though I am both. In his absence, my family becomes that much smaller, as it contracts around the giant, yellow place he used to fill.