Life is precious. Life is good. And it’s fragile.
Our dumb yet wise, kind yet crass, vulgar yet graceful mutt, Bruno, suffered a massive stroke last month while we were on vacation in Cancun. We are blessed that friends who love him were with him as the vet gently shuffled him off this mortal coil.
“But he won’t be here anymore!” my younger son wails to his father who broke the news. We got Bruno a year before my son was born – Bruno and the boy were a duo for the entirety of my 10-year-old’s life. The broken bond has left my son unmoored.
“What?” my daughter—his older sister—asks over and over again, trying to process her grief through her disbelief. “WHAT?!”
“Is Frida okay?” my son asks. We’ve heard that Frida, Bruno’s ‘sister,’ is discombobulated but physically fine.
My 14 year-old-daughter returns to her refrain, “What?!”
When I was 12-years-old, smack dab between my son’s and daughter’s ages, I missed another chance to say goodbye. I’m a life-long asthmatic and was wheezy and possibly cootie-filled that October day so wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital. But I did accompany my mother and aunt that night when the nurse called to tell us that my father had died.
The loss of the man who loved dogs and wordplay, with the kind blue eyes and sky-high expectations–left me unmoored.
Now my husband and children weep into beer and ice cream, respectively. I handle the logistics — pay the hospital bill, yes, we want his ashes returned to us —my husband, the process. Such is our division of labor. Such are our personalities.
“Eleven years is a long lifespan for a big dog,” a friend comforts, “And you gave him a great life.”
My head is comforted. My heart continues to ache. 11 years is just not long enough.
It is the summer of 2007, soon after losing our dear mutt, Rebeka, who lived to 15, when my husband and I start looking for another dog. Even with a 3.5-year-old toddling about, the house is too quiet. We are dog-less dog-people. We need a pup.
So one lazy Saturday afternoon when our daughter is at a playdate, we venture to the West LA Animal Shelter. There is a plethora of pooches – and cats and bunny rabbits— all manner of mammals in need of homes – yelping, barking, meowing: “Choose me! Choose me!”
And in the corner of a cage with a rope for a collar is a small depressed puppy who dares not even whimper.
“Amy, look,” my husband points. “Look at that one.” It is love at first sight. For him at least.
I am still overwhelmed by the sheer volume of animals in need of real shelter. “He’s cute. For a lump. I think he has issues.”
“We found the little fella on the street just a day or so ago,” the technician tells us. “If he isn’t claimed within three days he’ll be put up for adoption.”
My husband’s eyes light up. “How early do you open on Tuesday?”
Pound puppies are popular. The LA Animal Services has devised a system to see who the pup’s person will be. The folks who want to adopt the animal bid against each other with the winning bidder going home with a new pet.
My night owl husband is up with the sun. But so is another man who shows up first thing on that July morning in search of a puppy.
“Bidding starts at $75, gentlemen,” says the man behind the shelter desk.
My husband, an attorney by trade, and the other would-be-puppy parent, square off.
“My dog just died,” says my husband. “She was 15. $100”
“Mine was poisoned—she was so young,” counters the opponent. “$125.”
“My toddler weeps daily! $200”
“You’re lucky you have children at home—ours have all left. $225.”
“$275…We only have one–my wife had a miscarriage.”
“My daughter has had several—she needs a dog. $300.”
My husband and his puppy opponent are in each other’s faces.
“Gentlemen, please,” whispers the man behind the shelter desk. “I need each of you to take a step back.”
The adversaries oblige. The puppy opponent holds my husband’s gaze with confidence: “I said $300. Heck, I’ll go up to $350. My daughter is worth that. Too rich for your blood, mister?”
My husband just looks at him. “Money, I have,” he declares, as if issuing a royal decree. “A dog I do not. $400.”
My husband stares right through him.
“Gentlemen, please– there are other puppies here at this shelter…”
The opponent looks at my husband and shakes his head. “Fine, you can have him.” The man behind the shelter desk exhales.
My husband writes a $400 check. “The money stays within Animal Services, right?” he asks the man behind the desk, realizing that some sane person—say me and every mommy-and-me parent who will hear this tale— might need an explanation as to why he’d paid $400 for a mutt.
“It does,” is the reply. “Plus, it includes the mandatory neutering and administrative fees.”
“Daddy’s home, daddy is home,” I announce, hearing his key in our front door. I hear paws scamper quickly into the house and there he is—the rescue puppy my husband fell in love with three days prior.
“You spent how much?”
“Plus, it includes mandatory neutering and administrative fees!”
Our toddler serpentines to greet the new arrival. She pets the dog as gently as any toddler does anything and the dog licks her in response. It’s hard to find a big dog who is that gentle with kids. And he is awfully cute.
“What’s his name?” asks Teresa, the nanny, as she packs up to leave for the day.
My husband is nestled on the couch with the dog.
“Good question.” He looks at my daughter, Teresa and me. “Ladies?” As long as he can call the out-of-proportion bundle of paws and ears his, whatever we name him is mostly irrelevant.
“Nah, dated a Taylor.”
“Dated one of those too.”
I am compelled to mention that my husband and I partnered later in life and thus many names of both genders are verboten.
“Bownie,” suggests our toddler as she engulfs the poor pup in a hug. The dog seems oddly comfortable. My daughter is in heaven; it’s as if a cuddly, stuffed animal has come to life.
“He’s a German Shephard,” my beloved suggests. “How about Bruno –brown in German?”
The puppy toddles off and our daughter after him. “Boonie! Boonie!” she shouts.
Life is good.
We fill Rebeka’s old bowl with puppy food. We watch Bruno eat to his heart’s content—then vomit everything he’s just wolfed down, his pound-dog-under-fed eyes much bigger than his tummy.
Our rescue puppy brings us luck. A few months later—after two years of infertility treatments—we finally conceive again. A baby boy.
Life is very good
And now that baby boy is 10 and the dog he’s adored his entire life is gone. I miss how my son’s eyes lit up when he played with his dog. I miss my daughter sneaking him atop her bed. I miss Bruno’s paw on my lap when he wanted a pet. I miss my husband – by whose side he was most of the time – talking in that voice while petting Bruno’s head.
I miss my dog.
Bruno’s presence is ephemeral, constant but un-pet-table. Never again will he embrace his shepherding heritage and herd guests by nipping at their heels. I come home and am still stunned that there is only Frida –who roams about sniffing spots in which Bruno rested — to greet me. Yes, we’ll get another dog. In time. And then Frida, who is four, will grow old and break our hearts. Then our newer dog will do the same. That a single human year ages dogs the equivalent of seven is wrong. Heart-breakingly wrong.
I edit our monthly dog food order with tears in my eyes. Both children fawn over Frida – to comfort her and themselves. All of us are unmoored
Life moves on. One foot propels in front of the other. And with each passing year, forward motion is made heavier by the losses we carry. I miss Bruno. I miss Rebeka. I miss the idea that my father might’ve petted either or both. He too was a dog person. He too walks with me – like the dogs and humans I have loved and lost. And now my children carry Bruno with them. Damn that I couldn’t protect them from loss for even a little longer.
I return home from work one day to find a non-descript USPS box. I take one look and know exactly what it is. “Bruno’s ashes have arrived.”
“Can we open the box?” my son whispers.
I smile. “Sure.”
There is a velvet pouch enveloping the container with what’s left of our family member. And there is a Plaster-of-Paris disk with his paw print.
My son fights back tears. “Can I keep the paw print in my room?”
“It’s alright to cry,” I reassure him, my own eyes welling up.
And as we stare at the tokens that attest to Bruno’s existence, we hold onto each other.
Life is precious. Life is good. And it’s fragile. And it ends.
But a life well-lived is remembered. In ashes. In Plaster-of-Paris.
In our hearts.