In early June, I saw a posting on my neighborhood blog about overcrowding at the Dallas Animal Shelter. I don’t know what I was thinking when I clicked the link and began scrolling through the pictures; we have two dogs already, and a year ago my husband and I sat our children down and said, “Listen. There will be no pets of any kind between now and your college. No fish, no hamster, no frog in the backyard. We are at care-taking capacity so take this as a forever firm no.”
Then I saw her: black lab mix, enormous white paws, even bigger eyes. “Dot,” they called her, for the white mark on her chest. I tried to forget about her, until one day the following week when I was very far from my normal Target and realized I was right next to the PetSmart where Dot was staying…to avoid euthanasia for another week. I said to my husband, “I found a dog. I think we should get her when I get back from my trip next week.” I showed him the picture. I could tell it in his eyes. He knew it, too. Dot was ours.
And so she was. While I was still traveling, my husband ventured down to the animal shelter and called me frantically. “She has kennel cough and an upper respiratory infection. She’s on the list for tomorrow.” I paced outside a coffee shop in Colorado, thinking I should have just grabbed her that day a few weeks ago, regardless of the strategic mess of a new puppy in a month of near-constant travel. “Don’t let them take her in that van,” I say pleadingly. My husband adopts her, texts me smiling pictures of the kids with her as they leave the shelter, bathe her, settle her into her crate. He texts me later from the vet, who discovered pneumonia and prescribed quarantine from our other dogs. We both Google “dog pneumonia” for I don’t know how many hours, and feel good about the chances. For the next week, we gave her supplements, fanned her with eucalyptus oil, fretted over her when she would run for 50 feet only to rest from exhaustion. We made sure she ate her food, even though she never wanted to eat her food. I don’t think we left her alone at all, taking shifts to nap with her and check on her and pat her sides like the vet taught us to break up the mucus in her lungs. She was getting better, slowly but surely.
Nine days later, the four of us left for family vacation, leaving Dot with a sweet caregiver who would keep an eye on her all day. The kids and I snuggled her and kissed her and promised we’d be back in no time.
I was laughing and exhausted from a full day at the beach when I got the call. Dot had taken a turn for the worse. She could hardly breathe, needed to go to the animal hospital, needed oxygen overnight. I shook my head as I spoke to the attending physician, tried to make sense of the options.
It all happened very quickly. She was okay, and then she was really not okay, and then she stopped breathing.
Of all the things I’ve had to do as a parent, telling our children that their puppy has died while we were traveling home from vacation is not one I ever want to repeat.
We cried a lot. We talked about death a lot. They wanted to know why the doctors can’t fix pneumonia, did we try everything, why did she get better and then get worse, did Dot think we abandoned her? They asked me whether I thought God made room for dogs after death, and I said yes. Over and over I said yes, as they asked pleadingly whether love would win, even over death. I would whisper Easter, and mean it.
We still cried a lot, because death is final even when love is not.
They asked why we couldn’t have seen her one more time, just so we could say goodbye, just so she would know we were there, and she was loved. They asked if love was enough, and I said yes, because it is. And I told them death is part of life, because it is, even though nobody really wants it to be. There’s life and there’s death and there’s love, and they are all tied up together in a ball of meaning that can be equal parts beautiful and harrowing.
We talked about remembering, which is how we make love real even when death is real, too. We painted a rock, mint green with multicolored polka dots, and set it in the backyard under our favorite big oak tree. We cried when we needed to, and got mad about how unfair it was that Dot didn’t get the life she was supposed to have. And then we tried to find an honest place to give thanks that we could give her a small glimpse of that life for even as little as nine days. When we told my daughter, the first thing she said after she finished crying was that Dot deserved to be loved, and she was glad she got the chance to love her. Because Mom, she said red and puffy-eyed, what if nobody had ever loved Dot?
Love is never lost and it is never in vain, I told them over and over again. I told it to myself, as I stifled sobs amid the flock of regretful “what ifs” that circled me like blood-thirsty hawks when I hit the pillow at night. What if I had adopted her immediately? What if I had demanded more intensive treatment up front? What if we hadn’t left her? Love is never lost, and true love is never in vain. We echoed the truth of that through the house like prayers, like dove’s wings, as we tried to settle into peace. Love is what stays, it is the eternal thing that remains.
Why wasn’t love enough to save Dot? my son asked me, teary-eyed one day on the couch. Honey, I said, death is not equal to love. Death and life go together; it’s just the way of things in this world. But love is so big that it is not even in the same category as death. Life happens sometimes and death happens sometimes, and we have to find a way to accept them both in equal measure, even when it’s hard. But love? Love is bigger than them both. Love has no boundaries and goes where even life and death cannot travel. Dot can be with us, or Dot can be far away from us, but our love will always keep us together.
The thing about death is that we want to run from it, deny it, pass over it, bury it deep in a flurry of mindless distraction. I didn’t want my children to practice any of those things, not even related to the death of a puppy. None of us wanted this; none of us asked for death to visit us on our summer vacation in the eyes of an overgrown-pawed puppy. But since it did, perhaps we could be brave enough to practice holy grieving, which is hard and messy before it ever has the slightest chance of being sanctified or redeemed into anything else at all. Maybe we sit in our grief instead of excusing it. Maybe we admit that no, it’s never going to be okay what happened to Dot. It was tragic and sad and it shouldn’t have been that way for her, or for anything. It’s not okay, but it is what happened.
I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and he asked if my faith was tied to anxiety about death, because in his mind, it is for most people. Religion is a way to ease the anxiety of death for a world of uneasy people. He’s right about that, and he’s in a long line of philosophers and theologians who have said it. I said no, I don’t really have anxiety about death. And that’s because of my faith, but not because my faith helps me overstep death or put cotton candy around it like protective batting. It’s because I follow a person who looked death in the face and took a sip from its cup. He didn’t like death much either, but he accepted it.
Easter is not an excuse, and it’s not pablum, and it doesn’t take away all of the sadness and suffering and grief and loss, not for loved ones and not for puppies. Easter provides a way through. Death is final, even when love is not. But in the end, love is never lost and never wasted.
We weren’t sure about whether to open our hearts up to another puppy, after all of that. I sure didn’t want to tell the kids a puppy would make them feel better, and I sure didn’t want to use a puppy as a distraction. The question for us was whether we thought we could love and miss Dot, and still find room in our hearts to love and cherish a new puppy. Kids, we said, you wouldn’t believe how much love the heart can hold.
This week, we ventured out to see a lady who rescued a pregnant stray. She had lost her son earlier this year, she said, and one day a dog just like the one her son loved showed up at her gate, just waiting for her. She took the dog in, and tended all eleven puppies that eventually came with her. Love and loss and dogs, all jumbled up together in their lives and in ours. Her husband grabbed one of the furry blurs at my feet and placed it in my arms. Here, he said. We call this one Dot.
I looked at the children, and our eyes started to brim.
Something gave us the sense that we were in the right place.