I lost my best friend yesterday, after fifteen long and happy years together. The name he joined our family with was Dancin’ DeRossett, but we called him Rusty. He died peacefully at a ripe old age, but still I mourn for him. He was, in my clearly unbiased opinion, the best dog who ever lived.
This is the thing nobody tells you about your childhood dog. A dog is a member of any family, important and loved and ever affectionate. And when he dies, you will grieve for him for as long and as hard as you would for the human members of your pack. And while you do, you will likely tell yourself that “he was just a dog.” After all, there is no bereavement leave from work. No Family Medical Leave Act that permits you to take time off to care for the dog at the end.
But Rusty was not just a dog. He was the best friend I have ever had, my support system, running buddy, and substitute vacuum cleaner (truth: I have never picked food up off my floor. Nary a dropped pizza crust nor an asparagus spear. Rusty took care of it for me). He saw me through middle school, the most difficult years of my life. For part of that span, he was my only friend. And oh boy, did he ever make our lives exciting. The highlights of the damage toll from his puppy days were his own puppy pictures (he ate them off the fridge), an entire pound cake (he looked especially satisfied after that one), our linoleum floors, and our kitchen wall (he tunneled, in one night, straight through the drywall and insulation, and was working on the outer siding when we woke up in the morning. I can still see the gleeful look in his eyes. He was digging for freedom). The young Rusty was a hurricane, adorable and destructive, who could go for an 8 mile run with me and then come home with enough energy to do serious property damage. It was during this phase that he taught us patience, unconditional love, and the value of crate training.
Then came high school, when Rusty calmed down, and taught me to be a good judge of character. He was there for my very first date (Rusty tackled him when he walked in the door, barking, and persisted in doing that every time my date came within three feet of me. If we sat on the couch, my dog sat between us, looking balefully at my date. “I don’t think he likes me,” my date said. I was surprised, because Rusty liked everybody. This pattern persisted with everyone I dated, until the first time I brought my husband home – Rusty loved him instantly, and greeted him like an old friend. Rusty had excellent instincts about people).
For several years of my early adult life, I lived outside the US, and Rusty stayed with my parents, and taught me the value of faith in the ones we love. While I was gone, he waited patiently for my return, always believing I would come back to him. I would see him each Christmas. He was very fond of napping at our feet – I have a picture from almost every Christmas of Rusty sleeping contentedly under the paper that accumulated as we unwrapped gifts.
He was always delighted to see me walking in the door with my suitcase. No one has ever been as consistently joyful to see me walk in the door as Rusty was. The same was true when I went to college, and still he stayed with my parents. Every time I drove down to visit them, Rusty and I went for a walk together on the beach. This was another thing he taught me: to appreciate the great outdoors, the sun on my face, the wind in the winter at the ocean.
When I finished college and moved into a house, Rusty came to live with me in North Carolina. He was part of the festivities when I got married, entertaining the house full of people who came to stay with us during the wedding. Three days into our honeymoon, I got a call from my housemates. He’s stopped eating, they said. We’ve tried everything, but he won’t eat. We think he misses you. We talked it over and decided to go home to Rusty, cutting our honeymoon short by a day. I’ve never regretted it – he was so glad to see us come home, and we moved into a cabin out in the countryside where he could run around outdoors. He loved that cabin, and I did too – it was where we became our own family, where my husband and I started our married life together, and began the traditions we carry with us to this day: cooking dinner together every evening, making pancake breakfasts on Valentine’s day, taking a family portrait with the pets each Christmas. This was our very first:
When we moved to Chapel Hill for graduate school, Rusty was already beginning his long decline. He was a little less vivacious, a little more tired. Eventually he was no longer able to climb the stairs to sleep next to our bed at night. We carried him upstairs in our arms most nights, and life went on. But he started getting confused and trying to go up and down the stairs on his own, frequently falling. So we got a baby gate, relegating Rusty to the downstairs part of our house. My husband gave him one of his old t-shirts to cuddle up with so he wouldn’t be lonely downstairs at night, and I fell in love with my husband all over again, watching him tenderly care for my childhood dog.
To the very end, we did the best we could to take care of him. We were close to being on a first name basis with the vet, since we saw her every few weeks for the last months of his life. When Rusty lost interest in dog food, we cooked for him – his very last meal was an egg and some toast, two of his favorite things in the world. But death is a part of life, no matter how much we love the ones around us, no matter how hard we try to prolong their lives and give them the best care. Rusty was suffering. I am not ashamed to say that letting him go was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make, and I cried my eyes out. Our vet was wonderful, reassured us that we were doing the right thing, and gave us a lot of time to say goodbye. We were both right there with him when he took his last breath. And when he did, I knew what his last great gift to me was.
Rusty taught me how to know when it’s time to let go, and how to say goodbye. I have lost people and pets that I have loved deeply, but I’ve never had to be the one to make the choice to let them go. The last thing I could do for my dog was make that decision, and so I did, because I loved him. Of all the things he epitomized in my life, that last is the greatest. Rusty loved deeply and wholeheartedly, with a loyalty that never wavered. It was from his wonderful and beautiful example that I learned to do the same.
Farewell, old friend. I’ll see you on the other side.