By Trisha Oksner
It feels odd to be mourning my dog. After 11 years of having her around the house, around the yard, around underfoot, just around, I am not sure what to make of the empty spaces, empty silences, and just general emptiness.
She was anywhere from 102-120 years old. We don’t really know, because she lived several lifetimes before we adopted her as a full grown dog, around 5 years old, in 2002.
Isn’t a long life something to be celebrated rather than mourned? Shouldn’t I be greeting the end phase of her life with the same appreciation that we had through all the middle stages?
Forgive me, as no one gave me the manual on dog parenting. I didn’t know what to make of her when we first brought her home, and now I don’t know how to make a home without her in it.
That’s the crux of having a dog: once you find your Fur Child, life is never quite the same.
In fall of 2002, I mentioned to a friend that my husband wanted a dog; preferably, a German Shepherd. She happened to know of a couple that had a German Shepherd mix, but it didn’t fit in their home. Their other dog was abusive towards it and they wanted to find it a new family.
“All right,” I sighed. “We’ll go look, but no way am I getting a dog.”
You can imagine where the story goes next.
Anyone who met Rita Jean (the dog so nice, we named her twice), who really looked into her eyes, would have done the same thing. I took one look at this dog and gasped. “She’s beautiful!” But with our new home, my husband and I wanted to find a child-friendly dog. We were building the foundation for our (near) future family.
The couple had a 3 year-old, who (as if answering our question) wandered in the room, grabbed Rita’s tail and pulled until she looked like she wanted to water ski across the wood floor.
The dog looked back at her, sighed, and moved gently out of the way.
We knew we’d adopt her on the spot.
Our home quickly turned into Rita’s castle. We had two therapeutic pet beds strategically placed in the most comfortable spots. Endless toys (which she never played with) were strewn both inside and outside the house. She was walked every night, at the very least, and usually got daily trips to the dog park. She taught us how to be parents, how to care for another creature, and just how deep the love for a pet can run.
After less than a week, she was barking madly and loudly when people came to the door. My husband explained to me that that meant Rita was defending her turf. When annoying salespeople rang the bell, I would open the door to find them standing far away from the doorstep, looking fearful. “DOWN, KILLER!” I’d admonish as I’d grab Rita’s collar in an exaggerated attempt to keep her at bay.
When she was still able to bark, it was infinitely worse than her bite. Except for cats. If you were a cat, all bets were off.
Although Rita began our quest for a family, we knew we needed human offspring to complete it. Throughout my first pregnancy, I worked from home. I could write, make phone calls, send emails, nap, or vomit as the situation warranted. In the first trimester, Rita would push the bathroom door open wide with her nose and come lie down next to my heaving body during bouts of morning sickness. Throughout my pregnancy, she would greet me in the hallway during the wee hours of the morning, as soon as phantom contractions, diminished bladder, or intestinal distress made it necessary for me to get up. We would get a snack—kibble for her, cottage cheese or boiled egg for me—and cuddle up on the couch.
When it came time for Baby #1 to make his appearance, Rita Jean spent about as much time helping me through labor as my husband did. It just sort of happened that way; as it was my first baby, I had no idea that I was actually in labor until the process was well under way. My husband, who got up at 6 a.m. for work each day, needed his sleep. So I figured that until it actually became “Go Time,” I would labor as quietly as possible.
When labor woke me at 1 a.m. on June 10, 2005, I paced and watched television and paced some more. I took a bath. And through it all, I had my devoted dog. She nuzzled me, watched me, and comforted me. As if to say, “it’ll all be okay. I’m here. We’ll do this together.”
And now, we can take some small comfort in knowing that we helped repay the favor. While we couldn’t go on this final journey with her, we at least helped to send her off with our love and presence. Hopefully, that was enough.
I had been told by dog-loving family and friends that when it is time for a dog to leave this Earth, you just know. “She’ll tell you,” my husband’s grandmother told me once, years ago. I had no clue what she meant until the night of August 7, 2013. Rita had been at the vet’s office for a few days, dehydrated, unable to walk, blind and deaf, and likely the victim of a stroke. The vet, a personal friend, let us visit her that night after-hours. And as soon as I looked down at my baby girl, I knew.
My husband held Rita in his lap and I stroked her fur while we gave the final consent and said our final good-byes.
When we buried Rita, each of us wrote a note and buried it with her, under her “like a pillow,” as our older son said.
Our youngest, age 5, said it best:
So, yes, we are mourning our dog, even a month after she died. The house is entirely too quiet without her here. But we also are celebrating and remembering all the moments we have experienced with her, because of her.
Rest in peace, Rita Jean.
Trisha Oksner is a freelance writer living on the Central Coast of California. For more, check out her blog.