As I start writing this, it’s either very late Saturday night or very early Sunday morning, depending on how you look at it. It’s 5 a.m. In 4.5 hours, I will have been awake for 24 hours (“spring ahead” was tonight, but I’ve lost all hours of sleep, apparently). I’m exhausted, but can’t sleep, so I’m here because this has been eating away at me all week and I need to write it out. Writing continues to be cheaper than therapy.
The oldest of our two dogs died on Tuesday. His name was Rocky and he was 11.5 years old. I’m having an embarrassing amount of trouble dealing with it. Just about 100 words into this, and I’m already crying my eyes out all over again. I feel silly, like I’m overreacting, but please keep reading and hopefully I’ll be articulate. This is a eulogy for Rocky, but it’s also something that will hopefully resonate with all pet lovers.
My family got Rocky in September 2002. I’d just returned to college for my sophomore year, so I didn’t make the drive to New Egypt, NJ with them to pick him up. The breeder (we love English Cocker Spaniels) had sent us a picture that summer and we quickly identified Rocky, a lemon roan, as the one we wanted. This was mostly because in the picture, he had giant paws and was standing on top of all of his siblings. I referred to him as The Pulverizer for a while, which was funny to me because he was the most docile dog I have ever known.
After that first week of classes, I headed home to meet Rocky. When I arrived, I joined my family on the back patio, which is where I got my first look at him. He was so tiny, had a ton of extra skin around his neck, and his paws were, true to the picture, enormous. He was at once full of puppy energy and completely chill. I remember how he cried in his kennel in the kitchen (down the hall from my room on the first floor) that night while my family slept upstairs. I felt awful for leaving him in there.
Over the years, Rocky definitely had his ornery moments. Sometimes he would have to go out late at night, and once he was in the backyard, he wouldn’t want to come in. He would run around the yard and we’d have to go out and chase after him. He would sometimes get shoes, newspapers or anything else lying around and make us chase him in circles around the dining room table. All common dog behavior. Two years ago my mom and I came home one day to see him eating Hershey Kisses out of the candy dish, which he’d opened with his nose. Totally unlike him, but I’ll never forget how he just casually looked over his shoulder at us like, “Oh, hey,” and then went right back to the dish (prompting an emergency vet call).
When I’d come home from college (then later, from Virginia where I was teaching) he would greet me at the door, tail wagging. I’d scratch his ears, and once I got settled, I’d go out to the couch and flop down. He’d jump up and stretch himself out across me, his face in my face, and fall asleep while I petted him. It had a calming effect on me (someone who is, by nature, high strung and anxious).
He was always mellow, but as he got older, he became even more so, and that’s when I really needed him. When I was 25 (2008) and it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it doing what I was doing, nor living where I was living, I packed up and moved back in with my parents. It was a culture shock, to be sure, and I felt like an absolute life failure. I got a one year job as a long-term sub, and then nothing. Just an abnormally long, incredibly depressing period of unemployment (technically about 2.5-3 years, during which time I just applied to job after job and got nothing because it was the recession and 8 zillion other people were competing for the same openings). And while I was sprawled out on the floor writing resumes and cover letters, Rocky was right there next to me, listening to me try to figure out my life.
In 2009, we got a second dog, Macy, who was 7 years younger than Rocky. He didn’t take to her very well at first. In fact, in his whole life, Macy is the only other living thing I’ve ever seen him growl at. But after a few weeks, he got used to sharing his space with her. He was content to let her kind of take the lead (she has a very distinct personality, so she took it). One thing he would absolutely not concede, however, was who got to sit on me/right next to me (or, any of us, really) on the couch.
See, during that period of unemployment when I had nothing to do, I would just go into a vegetative state on the couch for most of the day home alone. Sometimes I’d watch TV. Mostly I’d read books. I’d look for jobs. But the dogs were always there. And Rocky was always either sprawled out across me, his face in my face, asleep, or, in later years, cuddled up right next to me (see left, late 2013). Even toward the end when he was too weak to jump up, I’d lift him up, and he’d step over Macy, edging her out to get to me.
And when I was home all day long by myself for those years, I talked to the dogs. Talking to dogs is, like writing, also cheaper than therapy. They don’t judge you. They don’t care if you can’t find a job. They don’t care if you’ve been wearing pajamas for days. They just listen and let you get it all out. You pet them, they listen to you, and everyone wins. This went on for a long time, but I was always grateful for them being there. Rocky’s ultra-mellow, gentle personality continued to have a calming effect on me. I know the common saying is that dog is man’s best friend. In my case, it was true. Dogs are so loyal. They are the best friends in that sense because they stick by you. Unwaveringly. Unconditionally.
People thought I was nuts (in an amusing way) because I’d have conversations with the dogs, but then I’d give them personalities and make them talk to other people too. So naturally the next step was to operate a snarky Facebook account on their behalf. I mean… I was SUPER attached to my dogs. When I moved to Philly, I really missed them. You never realize how much you appreciate a dog’s presence until you’re without it.
At his heaviest, Rocky weighed about 40 lbs – a lot for a medium-sized dog. But he was diabetic and had a thyroid condition. As soon as he started getting two insulin shots a day and taking thyroid pills, he dropped down to a normal weight. But in the last two years, he’d begun having these spasms that were like mini-seizures almost. His cataracts got bad. His ears were bad. He started having a lot of trouble controlling his bladder… especially when we were eating and he could smell the food (his nose was amazing. AMAZING). Then he started pooping everywhere too. And yet, throughout this, he almost seemed to gain more energy than he’d displayed in years (I attribute this to Macy, who kept him young. It’s what she prefers to believe, as well, because she takes full credit for everything good). He was constantly eating and constantly begging for food.
But it all started to get worse, and he started to lose weight. Eventually the weight loss became rapid, despite the fact that he was eating constantly. As we headed into fall, he weighed about 20 pounds. After Christmas, that dropped down to 15. You could count his ribs and he was having trouble supporting himself, but he was still getting around and didn’t seem to be in any kind of pain at all. When I was home at the end of January, he sat curled up next to me, sleeping while I petted him, noting how many of his bones I could feel as I did so.
They kept telling me the time was coming soon. And I kept telling them to stop saying such things, to not talk to me about it. Three weeks ago, they called and asked if I wanted to know before or after it happened, because he just seemed sick, despite what his personality indicated. I was really sad for days after that call, but then nothing happened, so I thought maybe he was getting better.
I kept hoping and praying every single night that he would just go in his sleep, comfortable and at home.
And then this past Tuesday came. It should have been one of the dogs’ favorite days of the year (Rocky because it’s Fat Tuesday and he can eat everything and Macy because she can get Mardi Gras beads for rolling over … [see what I mean about getting too attached to my dogs? Hyper-personification and characterization as a result of a LOT of love and a BIG imagination]. Instead, my family called me via Google Hangouts.
And as soon as my mom greeted me by saying, “Rocky, come here. Come see Renee,” my heart dropped. He only weighed 8 pounds. His pancreas was shutting down. And you know what he was doing? He was circling my dad and barking at the refrigerator (cue for “Give me cheese”). She told me that it was time. They had the appointment in an hour and they called me so I could say goodbye.
I immediately burst into tears and started begging them to wait until next weekend when I could come home and see him. But she said they couldn’t. He was too sick. Patches of his fur had begun to fall out.
This is where it gets hard though. Because his personality was what it was, he didn’t SEEM like he was suffering. He was begging for food while they were looking for a box to take along to the vet’s. I couldn’t (and can’t) stop feeling like we were just giving up on him, which he would never do to us, even though I know that’s not true. I just feel awful.
And somehow in the midst of all of that, it happened that we ended up, me via video-call this time, back on the back patio where once, more than 11 years ago, I had met little Rocky and his big paws. Now I was saying goodbye. But of course he had no idea what was happening, and I felt even worse about that. He probably thought he was going for a walk. He probably was excited to see his leash, having no idea what it meant this time. That he wouldn’t be coming back. At least, not really. This crushes my soul every time I think about it. It won’t stop popping into my head when I’m trying to sleep or concentrate. I’ll think, “I’m not going to cry today,” and then it happens and I do anyway. This makes my mom feel bad, but it shouldn’t. It’s not her fault.
It seems so unfair to love something so much and then ultimately you have to be responsible for its end. I can’t imagine how my mom and grandfather felt taking him. And this isn’t the first dog we’ve had to put to sleep. It’s actually the 4th. But this is the most difficult for me, probably because I was so attached, and because Rocky was such a good friend to me (to all of us). He was so loving and loyal and always knew when I needed him to be there for me. And he always was. It feels like I let him down somehow. He was a member of our family. Truth be told, I feel closer to Rocky than I do to my brother.
Further, my heart is breaking for Macy. My mom said she wouldn’t settle down Tuesday night because she kept looking for Rocky. Keeps looking for him. She’s never been by herself and is lost. She doesn’t know how close he actually is, buried right outside, under the window. Then I think of poor Rocky himself. I’ll have these moments where I imagine him waking up in Heaven and just being totally lost, confused, scared, and pissed that he was missing dinner. And a lot of people have pointed out to me that that wouldn’t be the case. I understand that. But it hasn’t stopped me from worrying that, wherever he is, he’s ok. Hopefully with my Gram and an old pug-friend he once knew named Toby. And the cycle just continues.
Since Tuesday, I’ve noticed an abundance of dog-related blog posts showing up on my Twitter feed. Pictures and statuses about dogs on Facebook. Although I certainly see nothing wrong with this, it doesn’t make it any easier. I don’t cry about much, but I feel like I haven’t stopped this week. I guess that makes me feel weak, even though it shouldn’t.
It’s almost 6:30 a.m. now, and at 2400+ words, this might be my longest post ever. I plan to edit before I publish, but suspect pretty much no one read the whole thing anyway. That’s ok. This one was more about writing it out for myself; about hoping I could get my thoughts out, quiet my mind a little, and maybe get some sleep.
It’s going to be rough when I walk through my parents’ door and he’s not there to sniff my bags and greet me. But even though I miss him and feel terrible about the whole thing, I know he’s not sick anymore. He’s in a better place. If you aren’t a pet owner (or lover), you probably think I’m crazy. You might think that anyway.
But Rocky was a wonderful dog and an even better friend. There will never be another one like him, and it’s a loss that will be greatly felt.
Rest in peace, Spanielpants. Thank you for being such a loving, loyal friend.