We were one of the families that adopted a dog just after 9/11. Matt and I were just starting our life together. We had planned to visit my family in India around our one year anniversary. Instead, like many Americans, we sat in front of the TV in shock. Our trip was no longer possible. Then we saw a funny looking mutt named Snoopy flash on our TV screen during a public service announcement.
Weeks later, we took Snoopy home from the Humane Society. We renamed him Kochi, after the place in India that we were no longer able to visit. Instead, we experienced our first lessons in parenting. The dog (like us) was one year old. He was hyper and endlessly curious. At obedience class, we learned that we had to be consistent in our messaging, or all hell would break loose.
Gradually the dog fell into familiar patterns, and so did we. There was something deeply comforting about daily routines revolving around our new (slightly freakish) family member.
Inside the house Kochi displayed the affection of a kitty cat. He rubbed up against your leg, sat at your feet, straddled any part of you he could get close to. After a dog-sitting stint, my mother said she had never before known a dog to wake her up in the morning by rubbing against her bed.
Outside, the dog lost all loyalties. Life in the outdoors was totally governed by scent. Kochi’s MO was find-and-conquer. (This may go back to his hardscrabble days living on a farm, before we adopted him, and his mixed Husky heritage.) Walking with us downtown, Kochi always sniffed out the chicken bones and pizza crusts hidden under the bushes. The fleeting scent, sight, and sound of a deer running through the park or neighborhood set him off at a fast pace. And always at the most inopportune times, he found and attempted to kill skunks. He must have been sprayed at least 7 times. The most embarrassing tale involved bringing him to a nature preserve and him immediately clobbering a duck (who survived). Then again, there was also the time he jumped out of the half-open car window (while I was driving) to catch a squirrel; another uncomfortable memory I immediately repressed.
Given the dog’s unpredictability, we wondered how he’d be with a baby in the house. We followed everyone’s advice; Matt brought the baby hat back from the hospital, which he sniffed readily. When baby came home, he licked her face. The baby then became a child who pulled at his tail, teased, and dropped lots of delicious food crumbs. With her, Kochi was cautious, but affectionate. In six years only once did he bark at her; when she accidentally jumped on his foot doing gymnastics. The rest of the time Kochi was a gentle friend and brother, utterly patient and forgiving. L became his primary playmate and caretaker, whistling for him to come, letting him outside, and planning his birthday parties.
Fast-forward to Kochi-dog’s thirteenth birthday. He ambled up the stairs, after the line of treats carefully set out for him. That year he almost missed the bone at the end of the path of treats. And getting up the stairs wasn’t easy. I started to refer to him as the elder in our house. We compared him to Great-Gramps, the other elder in our family whom my daughter loved dearly. Both were a bit lazy. They moved slower. They had little aches and pains. Both were near the end of their lives. We talked about making sure to give them lots of love before they go.
Around that time, our daughter set up a “salon” in the corner of the living room. Next to the hairbrush and the spray bottle was a pile of rawhide bones. All types of salon customers were welcome, and all went away happy.
Six months later our dear pup no longer lived for food, companionship, and exercise. He walked with pain, barely ate, and slept for longer and longer periods. As my mother-in-law said, “Kochi is only 10% here.” This was a shocking reality, coming from the dog who seemingly had a million lives; he always bounced back. But a non-wagging tail raised questions about his quality of life. And when he stopped eating for good we knew we needed to call his vet.
Kochi’s vet did something extraordinary. She came to the house to help Kochi die peacefully. This decision was and still is especially hard for me. As a hospice volunteer, I help to make human lives comfortable during the dying process. But I never end a life. I was prepared to continue giving comfort care to our dog Kochi. But what was the point, if a few days of pain and suffering could be avoided?
Comfort care at the end of Kochi’s life looked like this: Matt and I peacefully saying goodbye (petting and consoling), as he relaxed in his favorite bed in the living room, by the fireplace. I say relaxed, because the vet made sure he was drowsy with sedative. But even with his eyes closed, his nose was still sniffing away, sensing that someone new and interesting was in the room. While renal failure and arthritis slowed him down, dear Kochi never lost his curious spirit.
As I write this, I think I hear a deep sigh coming from the living room, by the fireplace. Smacking teeth and deep sighs have for years been part of my writing process, I now realize. During my working at home days, when Kochi relaxed, I did too, and vice versa. And that’s how it was in the end too.
That first night he was gone, we put on headlamps and tramped out into the dark and snowy backyard to find the holes he had dug the summer before. Each hole got decorated with his favorite bones. Later we joked about the squirrels having a field day. Inside, we hung his dogtag on a nail by the door. We lit a candle, and we looked at pictures and reminisced.
For anyone who has lost a beloved pet/family member, you know how hard it is. I still want to feed Kochi the leftover scrambled eggs and Matt still wants to let him out at night. Three weeks later, we persevere, but there is a huge hole in our lives. We talk about missing him; that’s all we can do.
Of course there is comfort in a life well-lived and the gifts he gave. And relief. Today, thunderstorms are in the forecast, and I am relieved that Kochi will never again have to endure that trauma.
Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.