A friend once told me that when you bring home a puppy you bring home a tragedy, as a dog rarely outlives its owners. When we got our chocolate Labrador, Jake, he was just six weeks old. Over the years Jake suffered serious illnesses, but in between he remained a happy, healthy dog with spirit to spare. Still, as he aged, I found myself practicing for the dreaded day. When Jake got sick or didn't come to the door to greet me, I would imagine that his time had come and try to experience the void. I gave my grief dry runs, thinking it would desensitize me to the real thing. I was wrong.
At 12½ years old, Jake became weak. Within a few days, the dog who'd once dragged me down the street couldn't make it outside to relieve himself. I'd always believed when this time came I would collapse from heartache and need mind-numbing drugs. I warned my husband to be strong—someone would have to be there for our young children. Instead, he had to fly across the country for a funeral the day we put Jake down. The night before, we explained to the children that Jake's heart was old and tired; it was time for him to go to doggie heaven. I suggested that they give him something to take on his journey. My 9-year-old daughter gave him a soft cloth she'd loomed in class. My 5-year-old son wrote I LOVE JAKE on a homemade card. "Will Jake make new friends in doggie heaven?" my son asked. "Definitely," I said. "Will he still be sick?" "No," I said. "He'll be happy, running and jumping again with all his new friends." "Mommy?" my son asked as he tried to fall asleep that night, "Who's going to take care of me when you and Daddy go to heaven?" On television, these moments are foreshadowed with appropriate music; in real life, they come without such luxury. I wondered, should I tell him the truth? Should I explain that no one knows how or when he or she is going to die? Or should I lie and tell him Mommy and Daddy are going to live until he's very old with his own children and maybe even grandchildren? My instincts told me he needed a sense of security, however false, and I gave it to him. If my predictions are wrong and the future exposes me as a liar, I hope my son will be old enough to recognize my fib as well-intentioned.
Like the ones we all tell about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, this was an attempt to prolong my child's innocence. The next morning after dropping the kids off at school, we took Jake to the vet. We couldn't bear to watch our dog die, so we waited outside. As we sat in our car, I exploded with grief. I screamed, pounded the car seats with my fists, ordered my husband to go back in and bring Jake out. I couldn't accept the finality. My husband had to catch his plane, and I was left in my car alone and heartbroken. I went home to my quiet house where Jake no longer greeted me at the door with wet kisses. I started to put my shoes inside the closet until I realized Jake was no longer there to steal them. I curled up with my other dog, Madison, and cried. As I thought about my husband going to a funeral it dawned on me that when a person dies we gather not only to mourn their passing but also to celebrate their life.
Thinking about Jake's life made me stop crying and start smiling. I picked up my children from school that afternoon and told them we were throwing a party. They selected a cake at Baskin-Robbins. As we carried the cheerful pink and white box from the store, we ran into some friends. My children announced that our dog had just died and we were having a party.
Eyebrows raised and heads cocked before the idea sunk in and our friends smiled. At home, we sat around the cake and lit a candle. We each shared something that we loved about Jake. The kids blew out the candle and gave a small piece to Madison who licked her plate clean. (What's a little chocolate to a dog who's just lost her best friend?) For the next few days we talked about how strange it was with Jake gone. The kids had only one bowl of dog food to fill and one dog begging for table scraps. Madison gave up looking for Jake and didn't move from the couch. I cried while reading bedtime stories. It's been months since Jake died, and life is back to normal. We survived a difficult time because we embraced it. My husband and I shared our grief with our children. We answered every question we could with patience and sensitivity and admitted ignorance to those we couldn't. I discovered in myself a strength I didn't know I had and was able to model it for my kids. Yes, my friend was right: when you bring home a puppy you bring home a tragedy. But you also bring home a life, and we wouldn't have traded that for the world.