Editor’s note: This is a long one, Mamas. Three photos and 2010 words. I’m pretty sure it breaks all kinds of “how to gain and maintain readers with short attention spans” guidelines, but screw the rules. Hang in there until the end if you can. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Six years ago, we lived in a three-story townhouse for a year. It was our middle place – the place we lived between selling one house and buying another. It was lovely, actually, and after the anxiety and drama of selling a house just as the real estate bubble of 2007 popped imploded, it was relief to be a white-wall renter for a little while. The rooms were bright, modern, and spacious, we were walking distance from shops and restaurants, and we made some lovely memories. Dylan celebrated his first birthday and took his first steps, I had a (mostly) successful work/life balance, and I discovered I was pregnant with Riley, who would complete our family (and make me very nauseous), in that townhouse. For the most part, it was a happy time for all of us.
Except for Harry. Harry hated the townhouse because we uprooted him from everything he knew and loved. The house we sold had an enormous, shady, and gated front yard where Harry alternated between chasing lizards, taunting snails (and occasionally snakes), and monitoring any and all neighborhood activity. He was the King of the World in that yard, and every passerby, car, and dog on a walk was an adventure waiting to happen.
We called the year we spent living in the townhouse Harry’s Great Depression. His disappointment with the new digs – dirty looks, sad puppy dog eyes, frequent nighttime wake-ups (out of spite, of course) and general lethargy – was unmistakable. Our unit was in the far back of the property. It had two large flights of stairs, which made it hard for Harry to be in the center of anything, and while it had a small fenced yard in the back, it offered no view of the street or other houses. In fact, it was nothing more than a confined area for Harry to pee and poop. Ironically, we chose the townhouse for Harry because no other place we looked at had any yard at all. All he knew, though, was what he lost.
To put it mildly, Harry was a flight risk. This was the case everywhere we lived or visited, but it was especially true at the townhouse. No matter how much we doted on him or how many treats we gave him or how many steaks we fed him, if given the chance, he would take off. He was lighting fast and reckless with no street smarts at all, and he would run straight into oncoming traffic if something or someone caught his eye. Since we lived on a busy street and close to downtown traffic, we were very careful about the front door.
Most of the time.
One day, I arrived home juggling several bags of groceries, a diaper bag, a ringing cell phone, a set of keys, and a heavy, sleeping Dylan in an even heavier car seat. As soon as I opened the front door, Harry flew out. I quickly put the car seat and other bags down in the front entryway and went back outside where Harry was circling my car like a lunatic. After a few failed attempts to nab him, I got a hold of his collar and wrangled him back inside. Then, I went back to the car to get the last few bags of groceries.
About an hour later, after I transferred Dylan to his crib for his nap, unloaded the groceries, and prepped dinner, the doorbell rang. Harry didn’t beat me to the door, but I didn’t think anything of it because I knew exactly where he was. He was up on the third floor with Mike, who was working from home that afternoon. Nothing made Harry happier, especially during the year of his Great Depression, than when Mike worked from home.
I opened the front door to find a man standing on the doorstep holding a dog. A Boston Terrier, actually. “Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m your neighbor. To the left.” He gestured in the direction of his apartment next door. Is this your dog?”
“No,” I said. “My dog is upstairs with my husband.”
“Well, I was working outside and noticed him running around the building, barking, and trying to jump over the fence in back. He doesn’t have a tag on, but I recognized him because I sometimes see you walking him in the mornings.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, “But my dog is upstairs with my husband.” Then, I said, “Hang on,” and I yelled up to Mike, “MIKE! IS HARRY WITH YOU?”
Then, I heard, “NO!”
My heart skipped a beat.
“Let me see his tail,” I demanded in a panic.
Boston Terriers have short, stubby tails. Sometimes, though, they’re born with long tails. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them or that they’re not purebred. It just means they’re “pet quality” vs. “show quality.” Harry had a long tail with a kink at the top, and we loved every inch of it. It matched his quirky personality perfectly, and we joked that we’d always be able to pick him out of a line-up (and, apparently, identify him as a lost dog at our front door).
The dog in our neighbor’s arms was Harry. Holy crap! He was outside! On a busy street! In an unfamiliar neighborhood! With no tag on his collar! For over an hour! He could’ve been hit by a car, lost, or kidnapped! I burst into tears, thanked our neighbor profusely, who, by the way, must’ve thought I was from another planet, and kept Harry as close to me as possible for the rest of the day eternity.
When Harry was a puppy, he squirmed in and out of my arms, and I accidentally dropped him on his head on the concrete in front of our house. An x-ray showed no fracture and our doctor said he would be fine, but I’d never felt so guilty or scared in my entire life. That is, until that afternoon when I accidentally locked Harry out of the townhouse with no tag on his collar. The thought of losing him terrified me, and the idea that it would’ve been my fault was simply unbearable.
Last fall, that dread returned when Harry was diagnosed with insulinoma. His last night and the morning we put him down were the most difficult hours and minutes I’d ever experienced. My very last memory is of him drifting away at the vet’s office cradled in his favorite blanket while Mike stroked his head and I gently rubbed his front legs, something I’d done since he was a puppy that always eased him into sleep.
Right at the end, he did something I’ll never forget. He farted. Harry was always a gassy dog, but this fart was no ordinary fart. It was quite possibly the stinkiest fart ever recorded since the dawn of time. So there we were, soothing our dying dog and drowning in heartbreak, and I couldn’t help but laugh for a moment through my tears. I know it was just a fart (and a horrendous one at that), but we’d been telling him for days, It’s okay, Harry, let go, just let go, and in the very end, he did. That fart symbolized his release from pain and suffering, and it was a (smelly) relief to receive his message.
After that, though, there was silence.
In the weeks that followed Harry’s death, he was everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere because the boys drew, wrote, and spoke about him all the time. (They still do! I envy their ability to believe so concretely in heaven and to feel Harry’s presence so easily and often.) Nowhere because I couldn’t feel him no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to be knocked down by a strong wind, silenced by the beauty of a rainbow, startled by a boom of thunder, or stunned by sunlight seeping out from behind a dark cloud in the sky. I desperately needed to see or hear or feel something that would help me heal, but there was nothing.
By early December, Mike and the boys began talking about getting another puppy. Everyone said it would help us heal. That it would help us move forward. I wasn’t convinced. I was so traumatized – physically and emotionally – from his death and the weeks that preceded it that I went into therapy to get my anxiety under control.
I told myself I wasn’t ready for another dog, yet I found myself researching local breeders. I knew if or when we brought a new dog into the family, it had to be another Boston Terrier because I loved the breed as much as I loved Harry. I began corresponding with a breeder in north Florida who coincidentally had a litter of six puppies that were born in late November. I told her our story and that we’d be interested in adopting a girl (so as not to “replace” Harry) if she decided to put them up for adoption. She never responded, and I put it in the back of my mind.
Just after the New Year, I received an unexpected email from her that said: “They’re seven weeks old and doing great. I’ll send pictures soon!” And just like that, we were getting a puppy, which put me in a complete panic. It was one thing to think about getting a new puppy, but to actually get one?! I made Mike promise to keep it a secret. I didn’t dare tell the kids – or anyone – until we knew for sure that it was really going to happen.
A week later, the breeder sent me an email with pictures of two male puppies. They were beautiful, but I was crushed because we’d discussed adopting a girl, and the boys looked so much like Harry that I didn’t think I could handle it. It was like looking at a ghost.
Thankfully, it turned out to be a mix-up. “I’m so sorry,” the breeder said when she called. “You see, there’s another Jennifer who wants a boy and I mixed up your email addresses.” She went on, “The girls are just as cute, but I should warn you that one of them has a long tail. I don’t know where it came from. It must’ve come from the father’s side. She’s perfectly healthy and sweet as can be. She’s just got this long, funny tail.”
And there it was. The message I’d been waiting for.
I finally felt him, and I knew for sure that the baby girl with the long, funny tail – just like Harry’s – was meant to be ours. I responded immediately that we wanted the puppy with the long tail.
Harry’s been gone for nearly three months, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about him. I still can’t believe how quickly he became sick and died and yet how excruciatingly long the ordeal felt, and I still can’t fathom how we got through it while maintaining a sense of normalcy at home (although I’m not sure we did).
I’m in perpetual awe at the grace and poise my boys demonstrated as they watched their beloved “big brother” decline.
At such young and impressionable ages, Harry’s death was confusing and most certainly unfair, but the experience has without a doubt made them more compassionate, patient, empathetic, and caring human beings. They’ll carry the burden of Harry’s loss with them throughout their lives, but they’ll also carry with them the lessons that Harry’s life and death taught them.
When Dylan and Riley were born, Harry was already a member of our family. He was the first loved one they each met when they came home from the hospital, and he’ll be their big brother forever.
Now, it’s the boys’ turn to be big brothers to a new family member. They’ll be the first loved ones our new puppy meets when we bring her home, and I can’t wait for a new long tale about a long tail to unfold.
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading.