You’ll write about this one day. People said the sentence to me over and over again during that week and I knew they were correct. But I also knew even then that it would take me a while before I allowed myself to wade into a moment so memory-ridden, so soul-demolishing. Even now – even as I craft this particular sentence – I can feel a restraint inside that’s beginning to tug and pull. This is going to hurt, that thudding thing that’s still caught in the back of my throat is whispering hoarsely.
Most of my writing, even if it originates from a place of despair or confusion, eventually yields something that I can somehow view with a lens of positivity. I can achieve a momentary catharsis. I can tread through waves of memory and come up for air with the present appearing suddenly clearer. This piece, though, brings me no joy. This piece is an emotional debt, and it’s one I need to pay.
I’m one of those people who still writes letters. I guess part of it is that my parents were excellent letter writers. I would literally jump up and down every single time an envelope came my way back when I was just a kid at summer camp, away from home for eight weeks starting from the June when I turned six years old. Part of my affinity for communicating the old-fashioned way probably also stems directly from what I consider to be my most prized possession. Each year, my father wrote a letter to me on the eve of my birthday. He’d recount who I was over the last year and what I liked and what I’d learned and it’s the closest thing I have to an oral history about the formative years of my life, much of which I’ve protectively repressed. He sealed those letters firmly, signed and dated them, and placed them into a locked file cabinet. I got to open my letters on the night of my thirteenth birthday, when I was old enough to understand the significance of what they contained.
My father died when I was fourteen. The night he gave me those letters – only a year before his passing – remains in my mind as a time when I felt a singularly pure love radiating out of another person, beaming into me like the sun. Those letters still serve as the closest thing I have to his insights about who I was and who he was to me and I treasure them more than I think he even expected that I would.
Over the years, I’ve written letters to friends and letters to men and there are a few I really wish I hadn’t sent. But I think there are more I just wish I’d never had to write in the first place, and this is one of them.
This letter makes it real.
This letter makes a goodbye forever.
And this letter will never be enough to convey what it is I want to say, but I’m going to try:
On the night that you died, I slept with your stuffed duck. Each time I thought about you, I’d clench that yellow rag in my hands and remember when it was actually filled with stuffing and how you’d start each dawn for over a decade by trotting around with it in your mouth before setting it down lovingly in your bed. One of the ways I was finally able to admit to myself that something was very wrong with you was because that duck went ignored for well over a year, the last year. I didn’t sleep soundly the first night after I lost you and I didn’t get any luckier the second night. When I finally was able to drift off into fitful sleep, I’d awake with a start and for a moment everything felt fine – normal – until I felt the flat fabric gripped inside of my hand and I had to acknowledge again that you were gone.
It was probably a few days later when I Googled “how to cope with the loss of a pet,” and I saw that, in fact, it is quite common for grieving owners to sleep with one of their dog’s toys. I was comforted to know that I was not going fully insane, but I was also disappointed to learn that I had briefly become a total cliché. The site also told me that it’s common for the human left behind to berate herself for not giving the dog enough love or attention when she was alive and I did that, too. I was furious with myself for not being with you every waking moment. I was terrified to consider the possibility that you never knew quite how much I loved you.
I can recall the day I brought you home like it was yesterday. Looking back now, I don’t think I had any idea what I was in for. I didn’t really comprehend the level of responsibility or affection a fluffy companion would bring to my life, but I think we both adapted quickly. I came home often to walk you. You rejected the crate everyone told me you were going to love and instead slept in my bed. You also rejected wee wee pads and, to prove your point that you were a dog who should go to the bathroom outside, you ate the wee wee pad in a manner that settled the discussion for good. From the beginning, I admired your ingrained sense of fortitude.
You quickly became the quickest peeing dog in the land and our walks were usually over in mere minutes. You just never had that much of a desire to run around outside. You liked being on the couch and going for rides in my car, though you would shriek bloody murder if I pulled into a gas station. If it turned out to be a full-service deal, you would bark like you could actually be considered a threat when the guy approached my window. Most of the time those men just chuckled at you, but I’d watch as you’d bare your teeth and I knew you meant business. On the days I’d get out of the car to pump the gas myself, you’d hop from the passenger seat into the driver’s seat and you’d look worried because I wasn’t right next to you. “Don’t worry, Wookie,” I’d yell through the rolled-up window. “Mommy’s right here!” I got odd looks more than a few hundred times but I just ignored them. All that mattered was making you feel safe.
Every single thing the puppy books told me you’d do never happened. You ignored completely the commitment to not peeing in your crate and that’s one of the reasons I tossed it before you were a year old. You showed no interest, even when you were a baby, of chewing on shoes or furniture. I never once had to save you from shocking yourself after you stuck your tongue into an electrical outlet because you could care less about electrical outlets. I tried to socialize you with other dogs, but you’d either growl at them, shrink away from them, or blithely ignore them. You didn’t quite mind a bulldog you knew and you learned to tolerate your cousin, Spot, as long as she didn’t try to cuddle too close to me when she spent the weekend at our place. Listen, that guttural growl used to indicate, I’ll deign to let you sleep in this bed and we can run around together and play until I grow tired of you. But if you try to nuzzle against that lady in the dead of night, I will rip you limb from limb. Spot, to her sweet credit, abided by your rules and spent the majority of her energy instead by barking at squirrels.
I took you everywhere with me for the first fifteen years of your life. The people at the bank loved you. We went on road trips upstate and you sat happily beside me in the passenger seat for eight long hours. I would walk you at a rest stop and give you some water, but you never ate on those trips. You liked to wait until we arrived at our destination. You came to every single holiday and had your own seat at the table one year for Passover, but you jumped down and sat instead under my stepfather because he frequently dropped food on the ground and you, my Wookie, were no dummy. You’d eat brisket and turkey until you were appropriately stuffed and then you’d hop on the couch and climb atop a throw pillow where you’d recline as the rest of us indulged in some dessert. Sweets were never really your thing.
I was a nervous pet owner at first. One night when you were just a few months old, I was giving you a bath and noticed these marks all over your back. Terrified of what those dark spots could be (Please don’t let it be cancer, I prayed), I threw you sopping wet into the car and hightailed it to the vet. He unwrapped you from the towel I’d swaddled you in, looked down at your body, and announced that those were just doggie birthmarks. Then he charged me eighty dollars for the emergency visit.
You liked coming to the city with me and you enjoyed walking around downtown. Every now and then, though, you’d decide to squat as we were crossing 3rd Avenue, and well, that was a terrible idea on your part so I’d all but drag you to safety. When my sister lived in Brooklyn, you loved going for long walks in Prospect Park. On that first walk, people sitting on three consecutive benches oohed and ahhed over you and you liked the attention. From that point forward, you would stop in front of any person sitting on any bench in any park and just wait patiently until you were sufficiently admired before moving on.
I bought you an array of toys, but you ignored everything except for your duck and those bully sticks that smell like urine. You’d shove them between the cushions of my couch and I’d find them stabbing into me every now and again when I’d sit down. I was terrible at allowing you to beg for food and I’d slip you something more frequently than I should have. Your favorite meal by far was rotisserie chicken. You became almost possessed by the stuff and your eyes would grow glassy at the sight of it and you always wanted more, more, more. Once, you pulled my entire garbage down when I wasn’t home just to snag the small specks of chicken I’d thrown away. I arrived home to find trash strewn across the entire living room and I was furious. I had to first pick it up and then scrub the floor and finally do some vacuuming to eliminate the last of the mess. As I cleaned, I berated you for being a bad girl and I watched as you yawned widely and then went to sleep because you didn’t really care about what I thought just then. You wanted some chicken, you got yourself some chicken, and now you needed a little nap.
On the last day of your life, I served you a bowl filled to the brim with rotisserie chicken.
You loved people, but you were cautious in your affection in the way I perhaps should have been, too. You loved my mother and my brother and my brother-in-law, but you didn’t care too much about anybody else. If you had your choice to sit next to me on the couch or recline next to the guy who was over, you often chose the guy. You’d sniff him for a while and then curl up beside him before plopping your head on his knee. If he was petting you and then stopped, you’d take his hand and pull it back on top of you while I would laugh and maintain that I had no idea where you’d gotten this trait of neediness even though the answer was more than crystal clear. Speaking of those men, you met them all – almost – and I often wondered if you were concerned by my taste in the opposite sex. If so, you wouldn’t be the first one to have that concern. To their collective credit, not one of those guys ever objected to you sleeping in the bed, which was just intelligent behavior on their part since I’d sooner part with any of them than with you. Still, they all had a point when they’d momentarily freak out about how you would watch as we had sex. You’d keep away from us, but you’d literally stare and I think it’s a very good thing that I have a bit of exhibitionism inside of me because otherwise I might have come off as shy and that’s just not really who I am in any room of the house.
I liked to bring you to events. I smuggled you into state parks and onto beaches and into school and you’d join me on charity walks. I was most excited for Hounds on the Sound, which benefitted animals in need. I even got you groomed the day before and had them stick festive pink bows in your hair. Sure, you removed them yourself the next day by rubbing your head against the bottom of the couch until they came free, but on that day where the sun sparkled brightly in the sky, you pranced through that charity walk happily and beautifully accessorized. You ignored every other hound in the vicinity and I saw our opportunity for puppy playdates fading fast, but you did enjoy the brisk walk and you slept for almost a day straight when it was over.
I brought you on my friend’s boat and you shook violently, frazzled by the unfamiliar motion and the droplets of water coming aboard. My friend John offered to hold you and you repaid him for the kindness by shitting all over his lap. Speaking of poo, the groomer kindly asked that I not feed you before any appointment due to the time you thought it would be an excellent idea to poop on the grooming table, turn around, glance over your shoulder, and kick it straight at him. When I went to pick you up and heard the story, I was mortified and I tipped him handsomely so maybe he’d allow us to return one day.
You were never interested in wearing clothing and I was never really the kind of girl who wanted to dress my dog like a person so I was fully okay with your choices. Still, when it would become freezing outside and I would try to throw a sweater onto your shivering body, you were never all that compliant. It would take forever for you to let me pull your legs through the holes and I never once figured out what made you so averse to it all. I eventually found a hoodie you didn’t really mind and you loved your satin Yankee jacket, but when my mother suggested buying you some snow boots, I just stared at her blankly, knowing that if a Halloween costume was out of the question, footwear probably was, too. I used to get a kick out of watching you greet Spot because I’m relatively certain that you actually rolled your eyes a few times when she would happily toddle by, clad in the one-shouldered dress my sister managed to pull onto her pet’s body.
I often allowed you to get away with too much. I would try to clean the gunk from near your eyes and you would pull away. Since I was afraid I would hurt you, I let the issue slide and that ended up causing problems later. By the end of your life, I would strap a teeny tiny muzzle onto your snout daily and apply three medications to your eyes that had grown weary by cataracts, eventual blindness, and the numbing passage of time. I gave you a treat after it was over and I always smiled when you would run right over to the kitchen because you wanted some payback for what you’d just endured.
I saw you through a lot. You were always kind of a vomity dog and you were eventually diagnosed with acid reflux. I bought a pill cutter and gave you an eighth of a Pepcid every single day. You were in the hospital once because you were stricken with the canine version of vertigo and my mother refused to leave my side during the first night you spent there because she’d never had a dog who made it home after an overnight emergency trip to an animal hospital and she wanted to be beside me in case I received devastating news. You stayed at that hospital for three whole days and I visited you as often as they would let me. I’d hold you tight and whisper that you needed to get better and I brought you your duck so you would maybe feel like you were surrounded by something that felt loving and familiar. You made it through that illness with no residual effects and I marveled at your strength. I liked to think that maybe you got some of that grit from me.
I started noticing some physical problems somewhere around the time you turned thirteen. Your eyesight was definitely fading and you began to react uncomfortably to the glares from the sun. It took you longer to go up and down stairs. You went from being the World’s Greatest Jumper to needing to be picked up to get on and off the couch. Each and every one of those realizations was battered in fear and then fried in sadness. I hated watching you get older. I hated acknowledging that one day you wouldn’t be here anymore. Because the thing is, you saw me through so much, Wookie. You were sometimes my only audience as I experienced heartbreak or encountered realizations that were hard for me to swallow. You would be home waiting for me when I returned from visiting sick family members in hospitals. And you were curled on my lap the first time I spoke to a man I fell desperately in love with on a warm summer evening. Through you, I learned responsibility, selflessness, and complete devotion. You changed me into a far kinder person and I will never be able to adequately thank you for that. You watched me almost fully break a few times – and you loved me anyway.
You had this quiet presence. You were not a yippy dog. You were careful not to show too much affection unless someone had earned it and you came to that knowledge more quickly than I did. I loved that your breed officially hailed from Malta and I sometimes considered writing a children’s book about the two of us visiting your homeland only to find out that you were The Chosen One and it was your destiny to move there so you could take your place as proper royalty. Since I would never even consider denying you your fate, in the story I would move there with you and we would live in the palace and I would sleep in a luxurious bed while you reclined beside me in your very own bone-shaped bed that came equipped with a canopy. You would relax and recline at night and rule all of Malta by day. I never ended up writing that book because I cannot imagine ever having children as my target audience for anything, but still, I always enjoyed thinking about you donning a ruby-encrusted crown. I think you would have worn it well.
I began to feel a pulsating dread bubbling up inside of me when people started asking your age and I’d have to answer fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. I worked up the nerve once to research your breed’s expected lifespan only to discover that several sites claimed you’d already achieved it. That’s right around the time when the dreams started. We would be in the woods or near a body of dark water and you would disappear and I would have to fight to save you. And I did save you; I saved you every single time, but that outcome doesn’t mean that any of those dreams were enjoyable. During the day, I would pretend that you were just fine, your ailments minor. I convinced myself that your fur wasn’t thinning and that you were always aware of your setting, but at some point I knew it wasn’t true anymore. At some point, I started to believe you had also lost your sense of smell. You just stopped begging for people food one day and the moment I realized it felt crushing.
I ran into someone once I hadn’t seen in a while and I mentioned you. “Wookie is still alive?” he asked, stunned. The question – and the manner in which it was posed – felt scalding and all I wanted to do in that second was project the pain right back and I almost responded with, “Yes! Is your child still alive, too?” I did not end up saying such a thing because to do so would have been both cruel and crazy and I have that little thing inside of me called decency, but I can’t say I wasn’t tempted or that the temptation stemmed from anything other than fear that this person had the right to be surprised my dog was still with me.
It was probably during this last summer that I knew you didn’t have much more time left. You didn’t like being outside anymore. The sun caused you to recoil in discomfort. You couldn’t climb up or down my staircase anymore and twice you fell down the stairs and I felt my heart stop. I began keeping a baby gate at the top and bottom of my staircase and that’s when my sister first voiced her opinion that maybe it was time to start considering putting you down because you were no longer fully safe in your own surroundings anymore. I would say those words in my head (I’m putting Wookie down soon), but I couldn’t bring myself to say them aloud. I started to look at calendars in order to consider when would be the best time, should it all come to that. I brought you into the vet’s office in August while I shook with panic as forcefully as you did and, with a catch in my voice, I asked how much time you had left. That was the day it was confirmed you were almost fully blind and you had a growth coming out of your behind.
I knew it was just a matter of time and, for the first time ever, I considered the possibility that I might not be strong enough to handle something. The fear and the sadness I started to inhale daily felt staggering in its weight. I began to stare at you and your movements so I could figure out if you were feeling any pain. I knew that I would ultimately never allow you to have less of a life than you deserved, so I decided to take the cues about what I should do – and when – from you.
It all happened somewhat quickly then. You fell out of the bed one night and appeared disoriented. Your tail didn’t wag anymore. You never chewed on your bones and your duck sat ignored on the bed you never wandered towards. I drove home from work one day and tried to mentally put myself in the place where I had made the decision and quiet tears streamed down my face more quickly than I was able to wipe them away, but I also felt the swelling of unconditional love inside of me and I knew that I couldn’t keep you around anymore for my benefit. I knew I would have to let you go.
I’m crying right now as I write this and it makes me want to stop, put the piece aside, and instead shoot out some post about how much I want to see 10 Cloverfield Lane or why I hate David Schwimmer’s performance on The People vs. OJ Simpson. Even now, I don’t want to feel the emotions tied into what came next.
I called the vet. I made an appointment through racking sobs. I listened as they told me the procedure would be peaceful. I asked my mother and my brother to be with me on the day that it was to happen. I arranged for a personal day so I could be with you as much as possible.
I don’t quite have it in me to go into that day, but I can say that you slept perfectly the night before and I was so relieved that you had a good, comfortable night. I did consider that maybe that night meant that you were okay and the vet would take one look at you and send me home, telling me that you would live to be thirty, but I also knew I was grasping at fantasy. I walked around for much of the day in a fog. I fielded phone calls and text messages. I wailed to my sister that I felt like I was lying to you in some terrible way, that I was bringing you to a place to die and you had no idea what would be happening. The idea that I was somehow betraying you did not sit well. I tried to explain to you what would be happening – and why – but you would just nestle against my chest, giving no indication that you understood. I took video of you constantly those last few days because I knew that I needed reminders of who you were and I needed them to be as vivid as possible. I spoke to you in many of those videos and I can hear the clenching in my voice every single time.
My friend Michael sent me a text that morning that told me to be strong for you. My friend Adam called to offer his support and I heard him start to cry as he talked to me about his experience with putting his cat down. I heard from everyone I expected to hear from, their voices a collective symphony of sadness and support.
The moment itself was awful and I won’t discuss it. The only thing that matters is that you left this world knowing that you were loved and valued.
Returning home was jarring because of the almost deafening silence that greeted me. I chose to embrace it. I turned down all offers people made to come be with me that night because I felt it was important to be alone and really feel what life would be like without you. And how it felt was devastating on a level that I cannot even quantify. I went upstairs and slowly took a hot shower and I looked through the glass doors, almost expecting you to wander by like you usually did. I saw nothing but empty space and I leaned against the tile and began to weep.
My mother came by the next day with some food but I couldn’t eat. I felt almost guilty consuming anything, even the gigantic Cookie Monster cupcake she’d bought to cheer me up. I cut a thin slice and put the rest back inside of my refrigerator as my mother watched me with pained eyes. I packed away your things immediately. I threw away nothing, but I couldn’t stand to see your leash, your bowls, your bed. The only thing I kept out was your duck and I’d keep in in my pocket during the day so I could touch it every time I thought about you. Your collar also stayed out. I kept it on the kitchen counter and, during my most despairing moments, I would close my eyes and jiggle it so I could hear the tinkling of the tags I’d grown so accustomed to after almost eighteen years. Even today, that collar is still on my counter.
I thought about you every second in those first days you were gone. “Do you think she knew how much I loved her?” I asked my best friend over the phone and I heard her take a sharp breath before she whispered, “You’re killing me here.” She was worried about me. I was a little worried about myself. Certain realizations started setting in: I had never been an adult without you; you had been in my life longer than my own father; and had I given you everything you deserved – because you deserved the absolute best. I shared my concerns with one of my friends who soothingly assured me that you had the best life. She explained that you were always warm and safe and right beside me and I made the decision for my own sanity to believe what she said since I knew that it was true.
But there was this thought during those first days that I couldn’t get to leave my head, a thought so unlike me to have that I couldn’t help but seize upon it: Could there really be an afterlife? I’ve never been particularly spiritual and I’ve certainly never been conventionally religious. I might speak to my father periodically and pretend that he can maybe hear me, but I’ve never contemplated him dancing through the heavens until you were gone. I became almost fixated by the image of him standing there as you crossed over, waiting to bring you into the safe fold of that elusive other side. I imagined him crouching down to explain to you, “I’m Nell’s father,” and scooping you up into his arms where you would remain forever. I could see flashes of you curled beside him and I teared up every single time I pictured it because it was an image I wanted so desperately to be real.
Two days after you passed, it was Thanksgiving. I joined my family for dinner and found myself breaking into silent sobs every fifteen minutes. It was the first holiday without you in a very long time and I missed everything about you. At a certain point, my mother walked over to me and put her arms around me and whispered, “I’m going to get you the best Christmas present.” “Will it be a puppy?” I asked as though I was twelve years old. “Yes,” she told me and I began to cry again. Sure, I knew that one day I might get another dog, but I figured I’d wait until summer, go to a shelter, and have the time to train it properly. It seemed that summer was about to come early in a choice made entirely out of emotion, devoid completely of logic. By the end of the Thanksgiving meal, I’d located a breeder, put down a deposit on a baby Maltipoo, and had an almost total emotional breakdown. What was I doing? How could I get another dog so quickly? Wasn’t that a betrayal of all you had meant to me? I didn’t do rebound relationships with men, so how could I jump into one with a dog? And a Maltipoo? You hated the Maltipoo who once lived near us!
“Wookie would want you to be happy, hun,” a sweet guy I know texted when I told him my very real fears. “She loved you.” And see, I knew he was correct that you loved me – he’d seen it with his very own eyes – but I also knew you so well and I wasn’t sure you’d be okay with some other ball of fluff invading a turf that had been yours, one you’d even peed all over to make your point. I moved forward anyway, scared out of my mind. I had no idea how to train a puppy because it had been so long since I’d attempted it and you had taken to the rules so easily. I went to the store and bought a crate and new bowls and new toys and I felt excitement, but it was an excitement shadowed with regret and fear.
I brought Tallulah home one week and a day after you passed. She was 2.7 pounds and she was in a playpen the first time I saw her. She jumped up and down in excitement and my heart melted and broke all at the same time. She is five months old now and she is completely different than you. She plays with every single one of her toys and her favorite is a purple octopus that now only has seven legs because she happily ripped one off. The first time I brought her into my bedroom, she lunged at my shoe display and decided that the pink wedges were her favorite and she tries to snipe one every single day. She enjoys sticking her tongue into electrical outlets, loves to eat leaves, and only wants to be taken outside for long walks. She loves other dogs. I have told her all about you.
One recent night, we were sitting on the floor of the living room. I was throwing her monkey toy as far as I could so she could chase it and at a certain point she suddenly stopped short. She stared up into the air and fell still, transfixed by something I couldn’t see.
“Do you see something, Tallulah?”
I actually asked her the question and she looked over at me very calmly before turning her gaze back to the empty space that appeared to fascinate her. I felt in that moment something real and rare begin to tingle inside of me, something I didn’t even try to explain. Instead I said – aloud and clear as day – “If you’re here right now, Wookie, know that you can stay forever.”
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.