Few relationships survive the transient life of a Foreign Service family. We were always leaving. Even when we were arriving, it was to replace someone else who was on their way to another post, just as it would sooner or later be our turn to go. Our apartment, our school, our friends were all temporary. So, too, were pets.
“So, how’d you like to have a dog?” That’s how my sister and I found out we were moving from Italy to Colombia in 1963.
I didn’t need a dog: in fact, I was terrorized by a longhaired daschund puppy someone had in our Rome apartment complex. Perhaps, Susie and I had asked if we could have a dog to be like kids in the exotic world of America, where Mom and Dad were from. Mom’s stories of growing up in Minnesota included Jack, the wire-haired terrier who followed her down the block when she walked to school with her friends (we couldn’t image walking to school, much less going out without an adult). The Little House books Mom read to us about Laura and Mary on the prairie had another Jack; and then there were Snap, the Bobbsey Twins’ retired circus dog, and Waggo, their energetic puppy. Spot was the dog in the Dick- and-Jane books Susie’s class was reading at the International School of Rome.
At any rate, we took the bait, and in January 1964 we were at a farm outside Bogota holding a cuddly black and brown brindle boxer puppy that we named Caesar Augustus, Italian nerds that we were. My fear of dogs evaporated, and Caesar took over our walled-in back yard. He was too aggressive to be walked, and we only played at training him when we paid him much attention at all. His birth home, the Finca La Perla, became a headline in family lore for blowing up a couple of months later, killing members of the dissident student underground that were building bombs. Explosions punctuated our two-and-a-half years in Bogota. Having a mean-looking guard dog was a good idea.
Like all things in every post, Caesar stayed behind when we moved to the States in 1966. If there was conversation about bringing him with us, I don’t recall it. He went to Dad’s Embassy chauffeur and died of a heart attack a few years later. I received that information with little emotion.
We were savvy teenagers when we moved back overseas in 1971, resisting the notion of going to Spain until a dog was again offered. Susie and I found an English cocker in a pet shop while Dad’s Embassy chauffeur idled the sedan curbside. She was as passive as Caesar had been aggressive. We named her Tori, and we didn’t walk her either, although the Franco’s Guardia Civil and night time serenos kept the streets secure. Two years later, Tori moved to Rome with my family when I left for college. There, she managed to break Dad’s finger, or rather he slammed his finger onto the marble floor when swatting her for peeing in the foyer, to the muffled
amusement of Mom, Susie and me. When Dad was re-assigned to the Foreign Service chair at Tufts, Tori stayed behind with another Embassy family whose children adoring children had tea parties with her. I don’t recall ever learning about the rest of her life, nor having any curiosity.
So it would be safe to say that, apart from the initial excitement about the idea of a dog, I had never invested much emotion in the actual owning of a dog, much less caring. My husband, however, had once deeply loved a dog. The youngest child in a large family, Ray found a playmate and loyal companion in Bullet, a black-and-white dog he raised from a puppy in Brooklyn; he was heartbroken when his family moved to the Bronx, leaving Bullet behind. The fantasy of finding a new Bullet had lurked in his heart for years, and we tried and failed three times to adopt shelter dogs when we lived in upstate New York.
Twelve years ago, Ray retired and our daughter was in Middle School: they convinced me that they were ready to raise a dog we knew “from scratch.” And so, another farm puppy, a Nestle’s-colored Labrador Retriever, made his way into our home and into our hearts. We named him Django. Bullet’s soul found a new body. And I learned how to love a dog.
Django did not disappoint. He graduated at the top of his training class, learning the good behavior he would follow for the rest of his life: wait for the “okay” before eating; sit, stay, wait; no jumping on people or pulling on leash; and no stealing food from humans. He was fluent in English. He jogged with me every morning and sauntered along with us on slow Sunday afternoon walks.
He hurled himself across empty school fields in the pursuit of a thrown tennis ball and leapt into Ray’s SUV like a hobo riding the rails, whether it was a trip to the hardware store or the 2,800 mile trek to and from our part-time home in Florida, where he discovered his Happy Place: Dog Beach, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of leash-free canine heaven.
He bounded down the dune stairs and across the wide beach to stand in the surf, ears blown back and hair ruffled by the wind, ready to race for the tennis ball. When we made Florida our permanent home, the salt water and sun turned Django’s hair a surfer-dude burnished auburn.
Django grew into a strong and handsome 80 pounds of polished mahogany, the picture of calm and self-assurance.
About year ago, when he was eleven, Django began sliding onto his left hip occasionally when chasing the ball on grass. We thought it was arthritis. Ray threw the ball less frequently and closer, then not at all, but the slipping slowly escalated. I cut the distance of our walks by half, and then by half again, until we were barely getting down the block, Django’s back feet scuffing on the sidewalk. Ray tried one more trip to Dog Beach, but Django could no longer negotiate the sand, and it took the help of kind strangers to carry our dog up across the dune. He needed help standing, and walking on grass was easier on his feet but harder on his balance. He lost weight, all in the hips, though we were feeding him more than ever.
Two months ago, the vet updated her diagnosis: Django had a progressive and incurable neuropathy, something similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Steroids might extend his life, but could lead to other problems. Pain medication might help. Nothing was going to avoid making a very difficult decision: letting our dog go in order to end his suffering.
Still, we were not ready to have him gone.
By mid-November, Django had lost nearly a quarter of his weight. He was completely dependent on us, unable to get to his feet, and, once standing, his hind legs slid out from under him. The pain meds weren’t working; the once calm boy was agitated and barking every few minutes to signal his misery. We made the appointment to euthanize Django on the day after Thanksgiving, but when we got home, my husband was overcome by despair: he couldn’t imagine life without Django, and he wanted to do anything that would keep his puppy with him.
Over the Thanksgiving table, our daughter helped us through our sorrow and into compassion for our dear dog whose suffering had overcome his life. We stroked Django, crying, telling him how grateful we were that he’d come into our lives and how sorry we were that we had to let him go. We fed him turkey morsels. We took lots of pictures. We cried some more.
Never has a day moved so slowly as that Friday.
Finally, it was time. I put Django’s collar on him for the first time in weeks: it slipped right over his big bony head. I buckled it three holes smaller. The skin around his neck was as soft as a grandma’s upper arm. We clipped on the leash and helped him to his feet and toward the front door. Django uncharacteristically pulled away. We hadn’t had him on a leash in weeks.
We waited in the examination room while a tech inserted a port into Django’s front left leg for the sedative that would end Django’s life. When he brought the dog back and lowered him to a blanket, I knelt next to Django and took his face in my hands. Those soulful eyes were dim and dark. Ray passed me the box of Kleenex on the examination table. We blew our noses.
The vet came in, spoke with us for a few minutes, and then asked if we were ready. We nodded and gave Django some room. She depressed the plunger.
For a second, nothing. Then Django’s face swiveled slightly to the right, his mouth opened for two quick breaths, and his head dropped gently onto his right paw.
In that moment, the tension and exhaustion that had ravaged Django’s body and mind disappeared. He was at rest.
It was so fast. Ray and I sat on our knees, our hands on our puppy’s head, and wept.After a while, the vet and tech gently lifted Django’s body up by the corners of the blanket and carried him away. They closed the door.
We sat alone in the room for a while. At some point, Ray asked for my phone. I turned it on and handed it to him; Victoria would be waiting for our call. They spoke without the speaker. He paused several times. I knew our daughter was crying. We were all crying.
Somehow, we made it home. Waves of grief washed over me, the chemicals of the emotion making the insides of my wrists tingle like I hadn’t felt since the death of my father. Victoria texted that she’d made an homage to Django on Facebook. I thanked her. I didn’t have words yet.
Ray sat. I wandered around the house. We went to bed. We talked quietly in the dark, both of us blowing our noses. Tears dripped into my ears. Periodically, shocks of sorrow flowed into my wrists. Eventually, we went to sleep.
If you are lucky enough to have loved, you will grieve. It took me a year of living to begin the fill the emptiness left by my father’s sudden death 11 years ago, and my mother lived in sorrow another two years before a stroke took her life. My sister and I are the remaining Foreign Service family.
We have both been fortunate, though: two men worked their way into the tight family circle, becoming our husbands and our children’s fathers, and those children are flourishing as young adults. Our extended family surrounds us with love. We cherish them.
I am grateful to have left the nomadic life behind and to have allowed in permanence, even though letting in love means letting go before you’re ready.
You’re never ready.