Neil fancied himself a Doctor Doolittle and if he had his druthers. would have made our house into a menagerie. Although I was never a cat person, he persuaded me to adopt a total of 3 in our first year together in Croatia. During our stint of living in Italy, he once rescued an owl from a barbed wire fence, and regularly welcomed ratty dogs to our villa until he could find homes for them. I found this endearing until we moved to Connecticut and I struggled to pay the bills. A full grown Golden Retriever needed to be spayed and ate weird things then left putrid puddles that as the early riser, I always got to clean up. After someone told me about a friend who spent $10,000 on their Retriever for surgery after it ate socks and a Brillo pad, I nixed this Golden – and any more dogs. Anyway, we had Katty who’d moved in on us when we first arrived back in the States. No dog, we agreed. So I thought.
On a December night, second grader Molly sprawled across the foot of our bed watching television. I was reading, propped up against my pillows when Neil, blustered into the room, just home from work, his coat damp from the snowy night. I knew he was hiding something. After a quick kiss, Molly turned her attention back to her show. I peered suspiciously over my glasses and he opened his coat revealing a tiny gray dog. I couldn’t believe it. “No!”, I mouthed, gesturing for him to go downstairs so we’d be out of Molly’s earshot.
Neil handled the tiny, bedraggled puppy to me. “I’ll take him back if you want.” But he knew, he knew that as soon as I held that little beating heart to mine, I’d fall in love. We went back upstairs and presented Tetley to Molly who burst into tears of joy. Neil trained him brilliantly and this sweet Cairn loved us fiercely. Our corner plot surrounded by a hedge was his kingdom. I have lived in this neighborhood for close to 20 years and Tetley lived for 14 and I wager, more people know his name than mine.
He’s been gone 2 weeks and still I expect him to greet me when I come home from work, I look down, expecting to see his hopeful gaze as my knife hits the chopping board. My feet search for the warm lump of him at the foot of my bed. I think I hear the clicking of his nails against the hardwood floors. I leave time in the morning to take him for his walk before going to work and in the afternoon, I look out the window forlornly, missing our jaunt up the hilly streets, him proudly strutting beside me. What will I do without my guy?
Tetley faded fast. Molly and I had been bracing ourselves for years – we know loss well and this time, hoped to be prepared. He’d stopped eating his own food 2 weeks earlier, swallowing only the most savory treats: a rotisserie chicken was a big hit, steak, bacon – everything drenched in beef broth. He still loved a walk – even as he barely managed to step over the threshold, he wagged his tail furiously and announced himself to the squirrels with a few barks. But eventually, it was all he could do to toddle drunkenly into the yard, take care of his business before collapsing in exhaustion on the damp lawn.
Molly came down from college to spend the night that Sunday, knowing it would be her last opportunity to hold her beloved dog. When I returned home Monday afternoon, he still lay in his bed – the egg and bacon I’d left him in the morning, untouched. With my fingers, I offered a tidbit but he turned his head away and I knew this was the end. Molly and I had agreed that if he became like Katty – unable to even stand, I would bring him to be euthanized. The thought of his terror of the vet, the coldness of the metal table and scrubbed floors, made me ill. I didn’t want that to be his lot. Kneeling before him weeping, stroking his sweet head, I pleaded with Neil, gone 12 years this May, “He’s yours now! Please take our dog, please take him, Neil, please take him!”
With night, his breathing grew more labored and I thought – this is it. Finally, life is about breath. I counted his. In the early hours of the morning, I woke to hear him making his way under my bed so lifted and held him, smelling his fur, his now knobby spine against my chest. After a few minutes, he seemed to pull away, straining to get off the bed so I put him back down and again, he dragged himself as much under my bed as he could.
As a child, I loved a series of books about Collies – and recalled reading how the dogs knew when it was time to die and disappeared into the woods, under houses. They hid, wanting to be alone. Remembering these stories, I resisted the urge to hold him, to touch him, to let him know I was there – that’s not what he wanted. Instead, I listened to his inhales and exhales until there was silence. Then, I sat and said a kind of prayer, filling my own lungs, counting my own breaths, and with every beat of my broken heart, realizing his absence. And I thanked Neil for taking as he brought to us, this beautiful creature, finding comfort in imagining somewhere, somehow, him with the little Cairn and perfect love he delivered into our lives one snowy December night.