For the last 15 years my parents have owned a black lab. Today we put it down. I was always annoyed when sportswriters or columnists or anyone with a pulpit would turn it into a eulogy for their pets when they died. I never understood why they felt compelled to do it or why anyone else would want to read it. But then, I never understood why my family liked this stupid dog.
I always hated it. They got Igor (pronounced Eye-gore, from Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein) not long after I went away to college for the first time. He was a clear replacement for gap I left, a fact underlined by my father’s delight in drawing comparisons between both our volume and our inability to listen to instructions. I made a brief effort to like the dumb animal, but he pissed everywhere, destroyed the couch, car interiors and any other upholstered surface with its endless shedding and, most memorably, once purposely pissed on me while I was sitting on the floor.
He never got any better. Igor never got any smarter, he never stopped ruining the house, he never learned a single goddamn command, and as the years went by he developed an astounding range of headache-inducing health issues. Like an odd, self-fulfilling prophecy he developed the massive hunchback of his namesake, there were the surgeries (that came out of my inheritance!), the indigestion that required complex multipart meals just to get him to eat, the mange. But for reasons that always remained completely inexplicable to me, the rest of the family loved him and Dolly, the second Labrador who followed him a year or two later (and was no better). Even my old man who was against the idea of owning them in the first place.
But my mother always loved them the most. With one kid in Hawaii and the other perpetually bouncing around between New York and other continents, they filled her empty nest. And in the last few years as Alzheimer’s stripped away more and more of the person she was, they became an incredibly important source of comfort for her. She could forget where she was, she could forget what she was doing and in her worst moment she can forget things that I can’t yet bear to write down, but even then the sight of those dogs never failed to bring instantly her joy. She might forget their genders or give them far too many treats because she didn’t realize she doing it for the second or third time, but in a world that increasingly is scary and unrecognizable to her, the dogs were always a warm and safe place, a security blanket.
Yesterday, after Igor puked up his food for the second time (ruining the third carpet in their bedroom in just the short time I’ve been home) the Old Man said it might be time to take him to the vet. My mother – who will ask you ten times on a five minute drive where you are going and who can struggle at times with the basics of eating a hamburger – was able to instantly infer what that meant. Her leg started shaking; she started wringing her hands as she looked at him. “Then it’ll just be us and Dolly,” she said. The tears started to well up in my eyes almost as fast as hers.
It was a moment of cognizance that I haven’t seen from her in years. The kind I desperately search for in all my interactions with her, little flashes of the person she used to be. And it destroyed me to see it – that the closest I can get to my real mom is this fleeting glimpse – visible only through her profound grief. Those moments came periodically through the rest of the day. Then this morning came and it was time. She cried, peeking from the door as the Old Man and I loaded Igor into the car. She cried when he came back with an empty leash. I cried because she cried.
I’m not a stoic. My Old Man and my brother are. My Old Man is like a rock. It’s how he is able to handle a Sisyphean task like this disease on his own, day after day. He had the mildest catch in his voice when he came back and yet it carried the same weight as if some other person were to rend their garments in grief. It’s incredible to witness. It’s daunting, because I can’t imagine ever being able to be that strong. Mom’s grief at the dog destroys me like I am made of paper. It just rips me apart. I hugged her and she said, “I’m gonna be so sad,” and I thought I would break into a million pieces. I couldn’t even write that down without crying.
I couldn’t give two shits for that dog. In the early days I used to joke about roasting and eating it when it finally kicked the bucket. But it’s been there, providing comfort for my mom as she slowly loses pieces of herself while I am a thousand miles away. And now it’s gone and my mom is sad and there is not a fucking thing I can do about it. She even more alone on a terrifying journey and I am devastated by that. So the damn animal got me one last time. It forced me to care about its death, if only because it made my mother so happy. So fuck you dog, and thank you for all you did, for her if not for me.