A few days ago, I woke up abruptly, catching my breath. I’d had a bad dream that my older son was gone. Like a lot of dreams, there was no reason or deep explanation, he was just gone. As I rubbed my eyes and reality set in, I took a deep breath. This was a dream. I hadn’t lost him. He was already running around downstairs, making noise. Yet I couldn’t shake the deep feeling of loss because, two months ago, we lost Ella, our puppy. She was 11 years old, and we’d had her since she was 10 weeks old. I want to tell you a little bit about Ella.
I met my wife in August 2003. While her family evaluated me on my ability to eat Borscht, cheese, and salami (I did very well, don’t worry), one of her key criteria was whether I would learn to love dogs. I admitted to having a hard time with this, but I made an effort to hug the family German Shepherd and watch a couple of dog TV shows with her. The day after we bought our first couch, she pointed to the empty space on it and mimed petting a medium-sized dog. When I proposed, I knew what I was getting into.
We adopted Ella right after we moved to California and a couple of years before we had kids. She was a mutt from Stockton, the little sister from a litter found in someone’s backyard. She took to my wife early, eating her shoelaces and showing her belly for some rubbing at every occasion. She took to me pretty quickly, too, as I was her primary parent while my wife was a medical resident. I walked Ella 3-4 times a day, went to puppy training classes, taught her some tricks. As my wife was on call once or twice a week, I spent many an evening with Ella, watching movies.
Part cattle dog, her energy level for the first year was daunting. She would wake us in the morning by gently whining and running her claws against the side of her metal crate, an experience not unlike nails on a chalkboard. It turned out to be good training for our kids and their rather extreme sleeping patterns.
I remember bringing her to the vet to get her spayed, and letting out a small gasp as a knot formed in the pit of my stomach when the technician took her from me and carried her into the back room. She was 5 months old and already I couldn’t imagine letting her out of my sight. I remember waiting for her to come out of recovery later that day, being warned I might find her lethargic for a few hours. Instead, she came out and ran towards me with full energy. The tears in my eyes surprised me.
We tried throwing a tennis ball around, but Ella was uninterested. So we tried frisbee, and it was like she was born for the aerodynamics of that sport. She would run across a large field, jump and catch a flying soft frisbee in the air. She’d do this to exhaustion, and to this day it’s one of the most peaceful activities I remember. The rhythm of the frisbee throw, her quiet run and catch, her return, and again the throw.
Around her first birthday, almost overnight, Ella decided that she would be a chill dog after all. She snuggled up with us on the couch, especially with my wife when she returned from overnights at the hospital. She went on calm walks twice a day. But she still had plenty of mischief in her.
We had a family brunch where she surreptitiously got up on the table and ingested 12 ounces of smoked salmon. “Did you take the smoked salmon out to the table?” my wife asked. “I thought I did….” Ella was in the corner, gulping down as much water as she could, looking as guilty as a dog can. If you’ve had a pet or a young child, you know the feeling: you want to scold them, but also you’re laughing and really what’s the big deal.
After we had kids, we paid less attention to Ella, bu she was always a good dog. She became defensive on walks once the children were with us, never letting anyone approach. She took the abuse from our insane toddlers stoically. She loved the children and all the crumbs they left behind. The years went by, the kids started growing up, and she continued to get more mellow, but really it seemed like she would live forever.
Last summer, she had an incident in the house and we took her to the vet, just in case. She weighed in at 25 pounds, which was unusually low. A couple of appointments later and we discovered she had liver cancer. Hopeful at first, inoperable by the next imaging. We were told she had a few weeks left. We canceled our trips, cried our eyes out, pet her incessantly, took pictures of her. She didn’t know any better, so she just kept going, even as she got thinner. 10 months later, long past all the dates we’d been given, she was still going strong, and there were days when I forgot that she was sick.
In early May, rather precipitously, she started getting worse. I’d have to carry her home from some walks she was too tired to finish, her legs shaking. It’s hard to explain the heartbreak you feel carrying your loving puppy, her head resting on your shoulder because she’s too tired to sit up, the same dog who, just a few years earlier, was jumping for frisbees. A few times, I thought we were reaching the end, and then she would regain strength and ask to play catch at home with the ball (her days of frisbee long gone) and run around like a puppy for a couple of days.
How would we know if she’s suffering, I wondered. My wife said we’d know.
And we did. One evening, at the end of a particularly rough day, Ella wouldn’t walk. She sat still on the dramatically overgrown lawn of our new home, her fur pattern almost mimicking the flowing grass around her.
Later that evening, she lay perfectly still on the couch. I washed the dishes and watched her rest. Out of nowhere, she had a seizure. You don’t really want to watch a dog you love have a seizure. It’s a cruel combination of pain, shaking, and reenactment of muscle memory, and you’re trying to comfort her and reassure her while also watching out that she doesn’t involuntarily bite you in the process. So we knew. In a way, because you can’t explain it to her, the decision is easier. Or so I tell myself.
The kids said goodbye. Our 6yo went to the corner of the room and cried. I took Ella to the vet, riding slowly, bawling. I hugged her and told her I loved her as they put her to sleep. She was peaceful. She was gone. She was a good dog to us for 11 years. She loved us unconditionally, probably more than the smoked salmon.
The days since have been disconcertingly quiet. No barking at the neighbors’ dog or the delivery person. I catch myself moving food away from the edge of the table, by instinct, because she would have been all over it. I still close the lid on the dog-proof trash can. I’m reminded of her every day by my own muscle memory. It hurts. There are so many crumbs on the floor… where is my furry spotted four-legged roomba?
A friend once told me that the difference between kids and dogs is that it is expected that you will see your dog die before you do. So obvious, and so brutal. You watch them grow old. They’re puppies, and before you know it they’re not. They get set in their ways. They get grey hair. And they die. And the whole time, they love you, they love every moment they have with you, and you, you silly human, you don’t realize that they’re teaching you to live, to enjoy every stage of life as its own experience to fully embrace. The crazy puppy that doesn’t sit still, the defiant adolescent that steals the smoked salmon, the adult that watches over the kids, and the old dog that sits and watches the world and its incessant energy as their time comes to an end.
I miss you, Ella. Thank you for all the cuddles. I’m so happy I was lucky enough to be your human.