I almost cried when my girlfriend’s dog died 2000 miles away.
I barely knew this dog, having only seen it a few times while visiting Rita’s parents and interacted with it even less. The dog was smart enough to know her name, but so afraid of all human kind that when she heard her name called, she skittered under the bed and out of reach. She had a litany of physical ailments and defects, and had on multiple occasions picked fights with and been torn apart by other dogs.
Every time Rita would tell me a new story about their obese chihuahua Faith, she would reveal some new horrible thing about the dog that made it seem more disgusting and unlovable. And yet Rita loved Faith all the more for her faults. Before I realized how likely it was that Faith would die soon, I would often make jokes about putting her out of her misery. It seemed to me any creature living with such constant fear and pain needed to be put to rest, but I still was brought to the verge of tears when, as I was writing on my computer, I noticed that Rita, who had been talking on the phone with someone, had sat down on the couch and started sobbing.
You’d think I would be accustomed to the deaths of animals. Once, I found the carcass of a chipmunk by the pond, so I picked it up and placed it on a boat of dead Japanese knotweed. I piled some twigs and leaves on top before setting them on fire and pushing the whole thing into the water. But you don’t always get the chance to give animals the sendoff they deserve.
I lived on a farm during my teenaged years, and it seemed like the animals always chose to kick the bucket when it was my turn to go to the pastures. I’ve seen beheaded chicken corpses the morning after a skunk massacre. In their haste to escape, they had beaten paths through the tall grasses, and at the end of each, I would find another spray of feathers on the ground. I witnessed the deaths of a couple lambs from hypothermia. They get so cold they can’t move their muscles properly. I tried picking one up and setting it on its feet so it could nurse from its mother, but its knees buckled and it fell into the frosted straw in the barn. One year, I found one of our rams had received a cut on his leg that got infected, and maggots and other creatures had festered in it, killing him. Another year, the same thing happened to another ram, and he was too far decomposed by the time we found him. We tried to pick him up by his legs and throw him into a cart, but he had become heavy and bloated, and pieces of him fell away as we picked him up.
After I moved to a new apartment after college, I saw a stray cat playing with a wounded mouse. I waited for the cat to kill the poor thing, but when it wouldn’t I had to bludgeon it with a heavy piece of metal so it could die quickly.
I couldn’t just sit in my chair, watching Rita choke out words to her mother over the phone. I got up and joined her on the couch, holding her as she kept talking and crying, learning the details of Faith’s passing. Though I couldn’t hear most of the conversation, I still found myself with watery eyes. I didn’t want to cry, though. I felt I didn’t have the right to cry for a dog I barely knew, and hadn’t even liked.
I never shed a tear for Faith or any other animal, except when my own dog died. That may have even been my reason for tears that day with Rita, remembering Buster.
He had been in arthritic pain for a long time before he died, but he had more recently developed some sort of intestinal problem that I didn’t understand at the time, and might not even understand now, if it were explained to me again. I held him in my arms as our family vet euthanized him. I kept petting him and holding back tears until he stopped breathing. Even then, I didn’t cry. I watched as the vet put him in a body bag and took him away, then I ran to my room and I cried for a long time.
I haven’t cried for him since, but I came close when I was comforting Rita. I refrained for two reasons, I guess. The first was that I wanted to be supportive and comforting, and if I was crying too, I wouldn’t be much help. I also knew that if I started crying, it would be for the wrong dog. Faith had died that day, and I wouldn’t disrespect her memory by crying for Buster.
I’m not sure I’ll ever cry for him again. I still have dreams that he’s been alive all this time, just lost, and that he’s finally found his way back to us so he can sit so close to the fire that his hair starts to burn.