I got my dog, Emily Monkeybutt, when I was just entering my 30s. She was born in a transient’s camper in San Francisco, and I “purchased” her for $10 and a jug of wine. She looked like a seal pup and could fit in a cat carrier. Her first year was spent splitting her time between my apartment, which did not allow dogs, and my friend’s flat, where she made great efforts to destroy anything she could get her mouth on: an electric blanket, snowboarding boots, a bathroom rug.
Full-grown, she looked like a white German Shepherd, though she had no pedigree. She camped and rode her way back and forth across the United States. She survived and rebounded from nerve compression. She swallowed a pair of my underwear, which she regurgitated whole onto the console, the slimy mess sitting on the gear shift. She swam the lakes of Washington state. She eviscerated hundreds of stuffed animals in an effort to surgically remove the squeaker. She shed enough fur to build a thousand likenesses of her.
For 12 and a half years, she was my constant. I moved (she lived in San Francisco, Seattle, Connecticut, Seattle again and Los Angeles). I broke up (she saw one man move out and another in). I got married (she’s in the wedding pictures). I gave birth (she didn’t know what to make of the hairless puppy). And I witnessed death (she couldn’t be with me when I traveled to New York to sit vigil for my grandmother). Though it took me a while for my adulthood to settle into a recognizable arrangement, she was always there, always the same: big, white, neurotic, excitable, affectionate, intelligent, kind-eyed.
Except, really, she wasn’t the same. Her eyes developed that milky cast, and she gained weight so that, in later years, she had a grandmother’s shape. She no longer ran, could no longer jump. Her last year was hard, and her dignity eroded. Her legs stopped working. Her bowels. She panted night and day even as we tried to manage her pain with medication.
How do you make the decision? When do you make the decision? I will never forget. On her final day, sore and soldier-walking, she trembled through the late hours, had another accident at 2 a.m., and only settled into sleep when exhaustion overtook the aching. In her last minutes, the fear was palpable as the vet techs shaved her forepaw and inserted the IV, and we could not talk her down, could not hug her into a place of comfort. Then the vet inserted the sedative into the IV, and by the time the tube was empty, Emily was still. I chose to let my young son stay in the room, but he was unnerved by my weeping and so he wept too. He said, “I don’t want a gone-away dog.”
We are beset by wrenching decisions in adulthood: choosing to euthanize a pet and being there when it happens, that’s one of them; wanting to smash the vet in the face, wanting to yell, stop, stop, just please stop; wanting to grab your dog and run as far away as possible but knowing you can’t. It wouldn’t change anything. It’s a terrible lesson in maturity. It’s a rite of passage. Someday, we will all have to decide when to hold on and when to let go, whether it be a pet, parent or spouse. It’s a summer later, and our other dog is getting gray around her muzzle.
I still find Emily’s fur in closets and trunks. I keep her collar in a drawer. It was the most adult thing I ever had to do, and I still want to believe in dog heaven just like a little girl.