Back in March, Linus went through a rough patch that landed us, late one night, at the emergency vet’s office. The situation didn’t look promising. In discussing treatment with the doctor, there were a lot of qualifiers—“if he even makes it through the night” or “if we can administer his medication”—that kind of thing. Before departing, the vet warned me of the “difficult decision” I would likely be faced with in the morning, if nature hadn’t run its course. It was devastating. I was a disaster.
For me, grief tends to take one of two forms. There’s the more typical version: a lot of crying, wallowing in general despair, foggily moving through the motions of everyday life when loss is all you can really think about. And then there’s the arguably more productive kind, wherein I distract myself with some large but detailed task in order to fleetingly create the illusion that something in this terrible fucking situation is within my control and that things may, eventually, return to normal. On this night I gravitated toward the latter. I’d recently read the majority of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo—a 200+ page self-help volume that could (ironically, perhaps) easily be condensed to a set of bullet points in a pamphlet. Kondo’s book promises a better life if you can train yourself to abide by the simple principle of keeping only that which “sparks joy” and disposing of, literally, anything else. This is a person who threw her hammer into the trash but found that a cast iron skillet worked just as effectively for driving nails into the wall if she felt compelled to hang up a picture—so maybe take it with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, with Crisis Zone emotions coursing through me, I started in on my entire wardrobe. That’s how I found myself months later getting dressed for a wedding, only for a vague recollection of donating my joyless suit pants to surface. Grief messes you up.
He did make it through the night. In Brooklyn there were emergency vet offices that remained open 24 hours a day, but no such option exists here—meaning that for real round-the-clock care, you have to transfer back and forth between the vet that’s open during the day and the vet that’s open at night. We did this for a few days. Having dealt with my clothing, I moved onto my books.
His situation hadn’t improved, medical options beyond his normal regimen of pills had been exhausted, and the doctors felt that there was nothing left to be done. And that if I wasn’t ready to make that Tough Decision, I should consider taking him home for one last night—where, they warned, he was likely to pass on his own accord. So that’s what I did. I wasn’t ready, not remotely. And in spite of his condition—unable to stand or walk and exhibiting no appetite—something inside me felt that he wasn’t, either. Maybe he’d turn a corner. And so I bundled my roughly 15 year old dog in my sweatshirt, hoping for just a little more time.
Within 24 hours, Linus stood up. He walked around a little, and started to accept food in the form of boiled chicken breast and rice. He wasn’t keen on returning to his regular food, so in the ensuing days and weeks and—to the shock and awe of the staff at the animal hospital—months, he gained back the weight he’d lost on an increasingly elaborate diet of chicken and rice and raw beef tripe and human baby food and the occasional can of sardines. Long ago, I’d made a simple pact with this dog: as long as he wanted to stick around, I would do whatever it took to take care of him. Which, honestly, is a helpful thing to remind yourself of when handling raw beef trip first thing in the morning.
We needed more time, and we got it. Remember how I said this was back in March? That’s March 2016. A year and a half ago.
Linus stumbled into my life at the ripe age of around 10 (I’m taking for granted that you’ve read everything I’ve ever written, which is maybe unrealistic, so here’s that whole story) back in 2012. The gist of the story is this: a tiny dog in horrible condition was mid-capture by Brooklyn police; a woman interrupted the encounter because she believed the dog lived on my block; I happened to pass this woman while she was trying to return the dog home; the dog didn’t live there after all; she couldn’t keep the dog; I volunteered to take care of the situation; I did so by eventually deciding to keep the dog. That night, I sat with him on the bathroom floor in my Brooklyn apartment and, for seven hours, worked to free his little body from what looked like years of matted fur and filth. Looking back later, this struck me as a bad idea on a number of levels. Imagine it: being taken off the streets by a strange person, brought to a strange place, and being subjected to hours of what was surely uncomfortable and painful grooming and bathing at the hands of that strange person. He should have bit me, and I couldn’t have blamed him. He should have cowered in fear and confusion. He could have given me rabies, or infested the apartment with fleas or bedbugs. But he didn’t do any of those things—instead I remember his patience and seeming understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. I remember him starting to lick me with this determined fervor, like he was trying to return the favor. When I nicked his paper-thin skin, he yelped once and licked my face, as though he knew it was an accident and forgave me immediately. After it was over and time for bed, we tried to confine him to the kitchen for the night but instead he stood by the door and barked until I let him into the bedroom. All he wanted was to be close.
I didn’t know how much I would grow to love him. I’d always had big goofy dogs, but after getting cleaned up Linus looked like he might have fallen out of some rich lady’s Prada on the Upper East Side. He didn’t chew or fetch or tug or really play at all. At the dog park he just sort of trotted around on his own. And despite what people will argue, teaching a dog that old new tricks is…well, he wasn’t interested, so I didn’t push it.
His joys were simple and small. Occasionally if he was feeling particularly active, he might start humping a throw pillow. He liked shredding (but not really eating) leafy greens like kale and lettuce. Sometimes he could really get going on gnawing a pizza crust—a rawhide for the dentally disadvantaged. But mostly, he just wanted to be close to me—really close—at all times. Even as his faculties dissipated, he somehow maintained the ability to detect my absence and track my whereabouts as soon as I would leave him alone in a room, even if he seemed to be sleeping soundly. Evidently, this is a common trait with small dogs—to bond really strongly to one person, even in a family setting—but I couldn’t help but feel like he was abnormally fanatical about me. Maybe because the feeling was mutual.
Without question, he was the most good-natured animal I’ve ever known. One thing that always stuck in my mind about the account of his rescue was that allegedly officers were afraid to approach him because they didn’t want to get bit. Because he was showing his teeth and snarling. “He looked mean.” I literally cannot imagine this, because Linus greeted everyone—man, woman, child, dog, cat, rabbit, etc.—the same way: eyes bright, head upright on his stocky little shoulders, ears alert, scraggly little tail wagging in this circular helicopter motion that pretty much defines that phrase “I can’t even.” Exquisite cuteness aside, I think this is what I most love and cherish about Linus. That thing, right there—that approach to the world—that even now I have a hard time articulating.
I never got to know what the first decade of Linus’s life looked like, and I highly doubt I ever will. All I know is what I can surmise from the condition he was in when he found me, which remains hard to think about. That somehow my little man ended up that way. That someone allowed him to. It’s the kind of shit that can fuck someone up—human or animal. That can make the world seem scary, or threatening. That can make people seem bad and untrustworthy. That can make the task of survival feel like an extended exercise in fear and reclusion and anger. It seems to me that it takes a certain rare and resilient kind of character to bounce back from that. To move on from it all with love and kindness and the ability to trust when experience has taught you the opposite. I think that’s called grace. I think that’s strength. And bravery. I think that’s being a total badass. I never thought a 12 pound dog could show me that.
As anyone who’s reached this point with a pet can likely attest, caring for a geriatric dog can be challenging, particularly when the health issues begin accumulating. Due to his background, we’ve always had our share of medical challenges—starting with probably never having seen a vet, been vaccinated, neutered, trained to live in a house or eat dog food; the list goes on. His teeth were so badly rotted that nearly half of them came out during his first cleaning. His first night off the street, Max and I quickly noticed a muffled, huffy kind of cough that we feared might be contagious to Mekko, but learned was actually symptomatic of a collapsing trachea—a condition evidently common among small dogs. “Imagine your throat is like a camping tent,” I remember the doctor telling me, “and then all of a sudden the poles collapse. That’s more or less what’s happening.” Great.
Shortly thereafter, a heart murmur was detected, and then congestive heart failure entered the picture with an attending handful of prescription medications designed to keep his ventricles pumping and fluid from building up in his lungs. His liver and kidneys began to struggle—difficult to treat because those medications would interact poorly with the ones for his heart. At some point, any advances we’d managed to make with potty training went out the window, and the composition of my trash can became about 50% used diapers (or, more specifically, an unbelievably absorbent female incontinence product called Poise Pads that I bought by the hundreds, which happen to be the perfect size to line a “tinkle belt” made for dogs). Gradually he lost the great majority of his hearing, reacting only to very loud sounds. His sight, too: the left eye was declared worthless, while the right seemed able to detect changes in light and the movement of large shapes. He began to have a difficult time with his right front paw—arthritis, perhaps. He lost a few more teeth. The doctor thought he might have emphysema. At home, I wondered if he was afflicted by canine dementia, since he seemed unable to recall why—other than sunbathing—we spent time outside at various points in the day.
I realize to some people this all might sound crazy. Like I’m a Crazy McCrazy dog person who couldn’t accept what was plainly obvious. And at various times, I struggled with this—because I don’t see myself as a Crazy McCrazy dog person who would prioritize my own selfishness over the suffering of an animal. Quality of life is a hard thing to evaluate, particularly when the one living that life can’t speak for themselves. But he really did still seem like a happy dog, content to live out his golden years with his ten pills a day and his diapers and his collection of plush beds scattered around the house.
There are people who adopt elderly dogs on purpose, which I find exceedingly admirable. At 22, I know I wasn’t one of those people, and at 28, I’m still not sure that I am, though I wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. If you’re a dog person, I probably don’t have to tell you what terrific companions old dogs can make. But the inconvenient and surprisingly taboo fundamental truth about adopting an older dog almost goes without saying : the more time that’s behind them, the less they’re likely to have ahead. So in taking responsibility for that life, you’re also sort of immediately confronted with the inevitability of death. Which, of course, could apply to all living things, but I think is much easier to ignore when you take home a puppy instead. I realize this probably sounds miserable—to live constantly with this sort of unpredictable specter of death, looming ahead at a distance that feels impossible to gauge. But I think in some ways it’s the opposite. You’re forced to face the thought of it, and as a result it becomes less scary. Less threatening. Another part of being alive. Time is precious and beautiful because of its limited quantity. Because it runs out.
Blunt as it might sound, I sort of hoped but also fully expected Linus would someday die in his sleep. It just seemed to fit with the order of things: this dog that slyly worked his way into my life, who followed his own rules and never seemed interested in observing mine. Who could bark endlessly—never, not once, out of fear or aggression, but because he wanted something and “no” did not register as an acceptable answer. Linus’s way or the highway. I always had this idea that I didn’t really own him, that he wasn’t really my dog. He had this whole past that belonged only to him. He might live in my home and accept my care and affections, but he’d still never really be mine. The idea of choosing to end his life for him seemed, for a long time, like an impossibility. It just didn’t fit.
After that scare in March 2016, it seemed apparent that our time left together might be very short. He’d go through a few difficult days, and then he’d bounce back, and part of me began to believe that maybe he really would outlive us all. But the other part of me—the part more acquainted with reality—recognized that the time we had left, at this point, was borrowed, and I had to accept that it would soon come to a close. That he’d no longer be here. I think he fought for so long to make sure I was ready to handle that. That I’d be OK.
About a month ago, Linus’s slow decline seemed to speed up rapidly. It started out essentially the same as episodes we’d weathered before, but this time just felt different. I can’t really explain it. We went to the vet, who calmly and quietly confirmed what I already knew. It still hits you hard, to hear it. It’s still shocking to be presented the option of either doing it right there and then or waiting. I realized I’d spent more time trying to ready myself for the time after this—going home to one dog, filling one food bowl, being alone on the sofa while I wrote or watched TV—than the moment that precipitates it. The one where you have to say goodbye, the one that I hadn’t anticipated because I still expected to find him one bright morning, lifeless in his bed, gone on his own time. And again, I found myself unprepared.
There’s a Yiddish phrase that translates to “the way it begins is the way it ends,” and maybe the reason I deluded myself into expecting a different ending to this story originates from my misreading of the beginning. We decided to go home. The doctor could come to the house the next day. I held him all night and into the next morning, which turned into one of those perfectly crisp but sunny fall days where you’re warm as long as you stay out of the shade. We bundled up and sat in the sun for a while, and he seemed content. It’s weird, trying to fill that time when there’s an actual countdown. It feels really fast and really slow at the same time.
The doctor arrived. Mekko settled into a chair across the room. I held him close to me, and it ended the way it began—with him in my arms, safe, and granting me all the trust in the world that whatever I was doing was the right thing.
Choosing this conclusion wasn’t a punishment, I realize now. It was a privilege—one that he extended my way the night he walked into my life and chose to trust me. Chose to love me. Chose to be my dog.
Being your person was one of the great honors of my life, my handsome little man. I miss you more than words, and I’ll love you forever.