When we assume responsibility for a pet, we tacitly accept the good and the bad, and like a marriage, the “for better or for worse.” We vow to be there in sickness and in health, until death do us part. We pledge care and protection that ensure a happy, long life. And in the case of a dog, the many years of shared joy and deep connection reflect the abiding trust and love given and received mutually. It is a relationship like no other: unconditional, dependable, and enriching.
Over the past 39 years, my husband, Tim, and I have been fortunate to share our lives with four dogs – Tasha, Taffy, Muffy, and our daughter’s dog, Bailey. Each one of our pets possessed a unique personality that completed our family. Having parented Tasha in the days pre-first baby, we were broken in for the challenges ahead by this boundlessly energetic black Lab mix. She understood her role as the protector as our family grew and she taught us all so many lessons, not the least of which being how to say goodbye. She was our first child as well as my children’s first loss and, at the ages of ten and eight, they mourned their dog despairingly, until we added Taffy soon after Tasha’s passing. The tiny Cairn terrier mix offered a completely different experience. She was portable – versus Tasha, whom they rode like a pony in the early days. She was smart and sassy, with a propensity for nipping at strangers. At the age of nine, Taffy was diagnosed with an invasive tumor and we prepared for her demise. Clearly a misdiagnosis, Taffy persevered another seven years, making for the longest wake on record.
When our daughter, Lisa, married Jeff, we had a feeling that they were on the hunt for a dog since both of them had grown up in dog families. When they found Bailey through a rescue site, her picture with a caption, “Marsha”, captured the essence of her soulful brown eyes and stole their hearts. Renamed forthwith, Bailey, a rescue from Tennessee, was a blend of terrier and possibly coyote (as was the family joke), with a lineage that was unclear from her appearance. She was a pup and may have been anywhere from 14 weeks to six months old at her adoption. Her paperwork was sketchy at best but, as a dog, she was gem. A few months later, we inherited Muffy as a result of the passing of my godmother, Julie, who was her owner. The dog, a peppy little white poodle ball of fluff, needed to be cared for so I volunteered. Against Tim’s initial protests (his angst lasted 2 minutes), she stayed with us for good, where she joined the aging Taffy, who was miffed to say the least. Within the year, we added a non-fur baby, our little Molly, to the family, exponentially increasing our ranks, both human and four-legged.
Bailey and Muffy formed a sibling-like partnership early on while Taffy, too old for the antics, sat back and observed. And when Taff died five months later, we were grateful for the long life we all shared together. The sadness, while not remedied completely, was cushioned by the addition of Bailey and Muffy, just months before, offering a welcome distraction to the hole in our hearts.
Eventually, my daughter and her growing family moved next door to us and, in that setting, the relationship of Muffy and Bailey blossomed. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Lion and the Lamb,’ the dogs had the run of the dual backyards, individually fenced but connected by a gate that, when open, allowed for easy movement to and from either house. Our days were filled with text messages asking, “Is Muffy over there?” or “Have you seen Bailey?” and with this system, we always accounted for an errant pup. Each morning saw a meeting punctuated by a nuzzle, or as we called it, a kiss, and a tandem trot to the grass to assume their positions in various states of recline. A singular unit, Bailey and Muffy always had a sense of the other’s location. They taught each other tricks like sneakily eating sticks (until scolded), feasting on the detritus from the bird feeders (until they got sick), and chasing squirrels (Muffy lacks any killer instinct).
As they aged, things became slower but not very changed. Bailey liked spending time with “the old people” (us) next door since our house was more peaceful minus the activity of kids. Both dogs were clever about securing an extra meal by visiting each other’s house at dinnertime, stealing from the other’s bowl, and then chowing down on the regularly scheduled meal at home. Always underfoot while cooking, the odds of falling over a dog were high, requiring vigilance in the prevention of a tumble. As I worked at my desk, both dogs tucked themselves under my chair, and I reveled in my co-workers, who were compliant, non-complaining, and lovable.
Last week, we said goodbye to our Bailey. Her passing was unexpected; she went to the hospital to have a tumor evaluated and, in the testing, a number of issues came to light. Bailey was seriously anemic and in pain, and the proposed surgery, which included an amputation, would not cure her problems. We anticipated more intervention in the future, if she even survived the operation. Our first instinct was the “at any cost approach” to saving her life, but it was clear to all of us what was humane. The decision, once made, gave us little time to process what was about to happen. We piled into our cars for the fateful journey, knowing that we would be coming home with one less.
As a participant in the euthanasia of our dogs in the past, I have experienced how powerful that moment, at life’s end, is. With each event, an overwhelming, anti-climactic peace pervaded the space. The finality was palpable, the despair piercing.
And, for my family, once we get beyond the emptiness of our home and yard, we will slowly become whole again, but changed. Another dog will not repair the void, even though we entertain the thought, albeit colored by the dread of potty training and puppy teething. No, now is time to mourn, reminisce, and pine.
I knew innately that I had to write a Bailey piece even before my family’s pleas for a ‘Mami’ in her honor. My heavy heart provided a monumental case of “writer’s block” and it took me days to sit at my desk and ponder on our loss. As I watch Muffy, listless and displaying the effects of her loneliness, it is clear that she feels the loss as she misses her friend. We, as the human members of the tribe, mirror Muffy’s feelings, although we understand it all a bit better. Or, in truth, do we?