Preface: I wrote this piece for a new blogger friend across the country, Katie Jameson, who will be sharing it as a guest post on her site. Katie is a photographer who writes beautifully about grief in the context of having lost a child, and I highly recommend you check out her site and work here.
I woke up one day, and for some reason decided that was the day I’d get a dog. I didn’t grow up with any canine companions, after all, I was allergic, but I’d always wanted a dog. I was twenty-ish years old with a nineteen-year-old boyfriend and maybe a bit compulsive. We were second year university students with no business getting a dog together, a commitment that lasts over a dozen years. We lasted two more months – the boyfriend and I, that is – while my relationship with Oreo lasted a lifetime.
Oreo, a fourteen-pound black and white Shih tzu, was my first baby and taste at real responsibility, though I owe my parents – Oreo’s grandparents – for plenty of babysitting. Oreo and I saw each other through life’s ups and downs. If she ran away, I would go find her; if I wanted to run away, she was a good reason to keep me home. She was more than a furry friend. Dogs have this way of looking into your soul and seeing who you really are. Oreo saw me.
She was there when I found out my baby was going to be born with Down syndrome. We had been through one pregnancy before, as I had one beautiful baby girl already. I was twenty-eight years old and Down syndrome was an unexpected deviation from my first experience with pregnancy. My baby’s prenatal diagnosis brought a heavy grief down on my shoulders, the weight of which was all I did not know. Usually, if I cried, Oreo would ditch the spot next to me if we were sitting on the couch together in favour of a quiet corner of a bed. Alternatively, she would curl in beside her best friend, Sumo, on a dog bed tucked to the side of our living room. Sumo was a large black lab that came with my husband, they were a package deal. Luckily, I had grown out of my allergies. Did I mention my husband and I met walking our dogs? While Oreo mostly avoided me when I was sad, there were a few times she stayed by my side, and the time period during which I found out my baby had Down syndrome was one of those times. I remember Oreo standing her ground and looking deep into my eyes, slightly cocking her head. Why are you crying? She let me pet her, self-soothe. Oreo saw who I was before our daughter Elyse came into my life, and she saw the person I grew into afterwards. Oreo oversaw my education of what it means to be human and to embrace the human spirit in all its uniqueness. She watched me grow as a person and become the mother of three lively girls, an advocate and a writer. On her walks, Oreo held her head high, proud of our little family.
Universally loved and adored by children, Oreo was understanding of the abuses she received from our girls as babies and toddlers. She never bit them when they grabbed and pulled on her tail or stepped on her or fell on top of her though she sometimes warned them with a sharp turn of her head, like a glaring mother, and would nip at them when they were old enough to know better. Oreo loved to steal the kids’ food – that, I will never deny. As my girls grew, they were eager to make Oreo perform tricks for treats. I shared a similar enthusiasm to work with dogs as a child, and my affinity for animals has never waned. Elyse, especially, who can show indifference toward many activities, giving way to her two boisterous sisters who are known to take over, never let a dog training session go by without being the trainer. Even though Elyse was afraid that Oreo would put her paws up onto her chest (and Oreo would, to grab the treat, given the chance) six-year old Elyse never backed down from being included in Oreo’s care. Elyse clutched Oreo’s treat to her chest like she was feeding a lion then threw it wildly to the ground for Oreo to give chase. This routine never failed to bring a smile to Elyse’s face and mine. Oreo brought many children great happiness. She brought me great happiness.
For years, Oreo was a regular staple on our walks to school. She was somewhat of a celebrity with the neighbourhood kids. My girls sometimes fought over who would get to hold her leash. That was a responsibility Elyse seldom relinquished. She loved walking Oreo and getting to hold that leash was a small taste of power and freedom so seldomly afforded to her. The only catch about Elyse walking Oreo was that I’d have to keep an extra eye on them both. While trained on her leash, Oreo would occasionally pull, but more so, when Elyse grew tired of the task, she would simply drop the leash with a casual all done.
For a while, my husband and I got into the bad habit of using our feet as barriers to shoo Oreo away from the kids’ food as our hands were often multi-tasking. We stopped doing that when Elyse also adopted the habit but actually tried to kick Oreo. Despite this aggression, and Oreo being a bit hyper and overbearing, and Elyse being a tiny bit frightened of her, Oreo and Elyse were buddies. You could say they were tight.
How do you explain the death of a beloved pet to a child? Worst still, how do you explain that you are going to be putting an animal to sleep? Forever. Time and tenses have never been Elyse’s strength, who I find at seven years old today is very much in the moment. Elyse shines her light in other ways.
I woke up one day, and knew it was time to put Oreo to sleep.
At fourteen years old, Oreo’s health had been rapidly declining. We left on a six-week family vacation around the world, where she stayed with my parents (thank you, yet again), and when we got back, though Oreo had been well cared for and received much love, there wasn’t much left of her, the dog she had once been. While she bounced back upon being home in the week or two following our return, she couldn’t find her rhythm or ward off the effects of old age, including incontinency. She was frequently confused and shivering. The worst was the sound she made at bedtime as she paced, looking lost, from room to room. She whimpered and moaned and there was no consoling her. Oreo’s cries were heart-wrenching. Of course, we took her to the vet, but there isn’t much they can do for an aging animal, except bring them pain relief through drugs. We did that, but still, Oreo was in pain.
I woke up and took Oreo for a decent walk on the last full day of her life. And after that walk, I knew. When I stopped moving, Oreo paced around me in circles. All she had done day after day was pace herself until complete and utter exhaustion. She would collapse into an uneasy sleep for a few hours then begin her pacing again. She was in pain and I knew it was time to let her go. She’d had a full life.
I tried my best to prepare the children for what we would do the next day. I tried to tell Elyse that her buddy would be gone, while also trying to console myself, but Elyse just sat on her bed with her book gripped tightly in both hands, eyes fixed to the page.
I didn’t want to put any pressure on the girls to feel or act a certain way toward death. I wanted them to come to terms with their own emotions of the experience. My husband and I decided the girls would come to the veterinary office and have the chance to say goodbye, but then I would stay in the room alone with Oreo while she received the injection to put her to sleep.
The morning of our final goodbye, tears glistened down my cheeks. My toddler pointed out that mommy was sad, while my eight-year-old noted “that’s because Oreo is going to die today,” but Elyse for her part showed no awareness of what was to come. She stayed upstairs in her room, reading her books. That is until we arrived inside the veterinary office.
With the fragile and fraying Oreo in my arms, our family was ushered to a comfortable back room. While the girls were somewhat hyper in the car ride over, they sensed the magnitude and solemnity of the moment at hand now.
My husband gently reiterated to the girls, now in context, “it’s time to say goodbye to Oreo girls.” They each took a turn caressing Oreo and stroking her softly, but it was Elyse’s reaction that will forever stand out in my mind because I thought she didn’t understand.
“We’re saying goodbye to Oreo,” Elyse repeated in a whisper. Then she pat Oreo ever so gently and leaned in for one last hug and kiss. “Goodbye, Oreo.” She had compassion and love in her voice. Elyse had been listening the whole time. She understood and she directed the full force of her love unto her dog.
In the immediate aftermath of the experience, my youngest had a hard time processing our family’s loss, choosing to view Oreo’s absence as temporary, perhaps – “Oreo is at the vet’s”, while my oldest contemplated the reality, “We put Oreo to sleep and that means she’s dead.” Elyse seemed to grieve the loss of our pet the most readily.
Two weeks after we put Oreo to sleep, Elyse said, “Oreo is sad. We had to put Oreo to sleep and say byebye.” That Oreo was sad clearly made Elyse sad and she remembered that pain. Grief is never a straight line, is it? Even when it comes to our pets. I gave her a hug, and we reminisced about the good ol’ days with Oreo.
One day, I will wake up again, and it will be time for our family to bring home a new dog. This dog will exasperate us, undoubtedly, as well as bring us great joy and happiness, as Oreo so often did. I won’t be surprised, if when we do decide to get a dog, Elyse is the one to bring Oreo up. I know with certainty that Oreo is a dog none of us will soon forget.
Summer 2005 – Sunday, December 29th, 2019