I grew up in a home where we always had dogs. I never entirely related to those kids who were always begging for a puppy, because the existence of dogs as part of our every day lives was just natural to me. What do you mean you don't have a dog? How can you not have a dog?
When I was born, there were two dogs in the family. A ridiculously clownish and overweight black short-haired Dachshund named Elsa and her best friend, a small (but not teacup) buttery yellow short-haired Chihuahua named Gaby. Gaby was also overweight, due in part to her favorite food - smarties.
Those were different times. There were none of the dire warnings about feeding your dog chocolate and there was no such thing as the Dog Whisperer, dog spas or luxury doggie clothing. Despite this lack of pampering, our dogs were very much considered part of the family - fat, drooling siblings who loved unconditionally and who would never really grow up.
Although I was too young to remember, my grandmother loves to tell me the story of how Elsa adopted me on the day I came home from the hospital. On that cold February day over thirty years ago, I was sleeping in my car seat and my mom put me on the floor near the radiator - I'm from Saskatchewan, which is mind numbingly cold in the winter. When she came back a few minutes later, the fat Dachshund was laying next to me, her big head resting on my lap. Pretty much from that day forward, Elsa never left my side and would growl and bar her teeth at anyone who tried to get near me, immediate family included.
Every birthday was celebrated with a Safeway chocolate cake and the dogs were no exception. I can still picture Elsa sitting on a chair next to the kitchen table propped up on her hind legs like a gopher, a party hat on her head, waiting for her bit of cake. My childhood stories are all woven up with memories of the dogs. Gaby and the bright red cloth she loved to chase around and around, Elsa trying to dig up badger holes on our walks - her snout tar black from the dirt, Elsa hiding in the basement whenever there was a thunder storm or fireworks - me opening the door to see only the whites of her eyes as she sat in the darkness, her black coat making her almost invisible. Sometimes I would sit with her while we waited for the storm to pass.
The really horrible truth about integrating pets into your life like this is that they live such short lives. They feel as close as human beings, but their expiration date is a decade, maybe 15 years if you are really lucky. And as your years inch by slowly, theirs fast forwards until they are no longer the siblings and children you once thought of them as, but rather these little old creatures with legs that barely work, missing teeth and glossy white eyes that barely see anymore.
Elsa died when I was five and I can remember the terrible shock of it. Some people don't remember their childhood, but mine comes to me in still images that are incredibly clear. She had been chronically ill and my grandmother decided we needed to put her to sleep. I was sent off to my mother's house for the weekend, having said goodbye to Elsa one last time. It was summer and I wandered around Gladmar, a low income housing tenement that had a bit of the community feeling of Sesame Street, sobbing. I remember passing a man who was working on his motorcycle who said, "Those are some pretty big tears for such a little girl."
"Mmmm-my dddd-dog dddddied," I barely managed to snort, gasping. My heart felt truly broken and at the time, I don't think I could really imagine what it would take for the world to ever be okay again.
Gaby died a few years later, her time with us crossing with that of another dog we had named Lady - a miniature poodle we'd rescued from some people down the block who were neglecting her. All of these animals are gone now, all buried in a pet cemetery located beneath a katakana tree in the yard at our summer cottage at Regina Beach. To this day, if I see a nice stone laying on the ground, I sometimes pick it up and send it to my grandmother so she can add it to the collection of rocks that mark the graves of the pets we loved so much.
I am writing this because yesterday I found out that my grandparent's 14 year old tiny poodle Janie died. She had been sick for a long time and it was no surprise to hear the news but still incredibly sad. We got Janie the summer after I graduated from high school and I think for my grandparents, who were now living with only each other, she came to represent the children and grandchildren that had moved out into the world. My grandfather in particular adored her. This rather gruff man could now be seen walking his obscenely tiny dog around the neighborhood in her pink jumper, at meals he would talk to her and feed her scraps off his own plate.
Now in their late seventies, I doubt my grandparents will ever get another dog. They would be too afraid that it wouldn't be properly cared for if anything ever happened to them.
When I think back on my life, the animals that have been a part of our family feel as central to my memories as the people. They were my best friends, they protected me and showed concern whenever I cried, they were always waiting excitedly for me when I came home and they taught me an incredible lesson about loss and risk. When you decide to get a dog you know, almost certainly, that it will die long before you will and that you will have to watch it age and care for it when it is ill. But most of us decide to go ahead anyway because it's worth it. It's cheesy, but I think love always is.