There's an old joke that goes, life begins when the kids move out and the dog dies. It used to make me laugh. Even after our son and daughter took their first steps towards leaving the nest this past fall. That part of the joke - the endless possibilities that open up when the nest has fewer feathers -- actually made me giggle and smile and kick up my heels. However I have since found out that freshmen at college don't really move out; they migrate. And like the swallows of Capistrano, they keep coming back. Ours came back once in October, then they came back for Thanksgiving. And naturally they came back for Christmas. Just in time for our oldest dog to die. Which I guess is why that old joke is not so funny anymore. And yet in a way it is because this is not a eulogy for Old Yeller or my dog Skip. This is one for Cujo or Cerberus, our darling dog from hell.

We had three dogs, now we have two. The dead one's name is Charlie. Charlie came into our lives in 1996. He was two years old, a retired show dog, good looking, smart and feisty. And by feisty I mean, not very nice. He was known to nip at other dogs and small blond children, to go through the garbage, to pee inside when it was raining outside, to come when he was called if he felt like it. But he was loyal to us and we loved him in spite of all his faults and he stayed with us through elementary school, middle school, high school. He was fifteen and a half when he moved on to that Elysian dog park where he is no doubt acting as devilishly as he did down here (up here?) on earth. My daughter summed it up for all of us when she said, Charlie won't be missed, but he will be remembered.

Highlights I recall of Charlie's life are of him standing on his back legs, ‘inspecting' objects in our living room (he seemed particularly fond of family photographs and small antiques.) sleeping in front of our son's bedroom door on guard and waiting for his playmate to awake, leaping straight up in the air and into my husband's arms every night as if they'd been apart for fifteen years, not fifteen hours. Lowlights include him standing on the dining room table, eating a wheel of brie, biting the ear of a sweet Labrador who had the temerity to sniff Charlie's backside, nipping the finger of my daughter's best friend, peeing on my in-law's carpet one fine Christmas morning, regularly bullying our other two dogs, - I could go on, but you get the idea. The lowlight list is longer than the highlight one.

Charlie's end was far from splendid, it wasn't even particularly dignified, but it was tenacious. He was a fighter to the finish. Had he started his descent at any other time of year I would have him put down (terminated with extreme prejudice?) sooner, but his timing was bad, or maybe good, depending on how you look at it. He was ill for two weeks, starting on the evening of December 15th, ending on the morning of December 28th. On Christmas Eve morning the end seemed imminent. I called my vet and was told the office was closing at noon and wouldn't reopen until the following Monday. But I couldn't pull the plug so to speak the day before Christmas. And I couldn't let myself be influenced about so irreversible a decision by my vet's hours of operation. Besides my vet and I have saved Charlie from the brink on several occasions. Our vet is a kind, good man and a wonderful animal doctor. He and I discussed our options and decided that Charlie was better off at home with us than boarded (or worse) with him. Dr. Meglino let me know I could call him day or night if there was a problem. We figured either Charlie would make it through the weekend or he wouldn't. And by golly he did.

But on Monday it was clear that he was not bouncing back this time. So I took him to Tuckahoe for one final visit. Dr. Meglino and I sat with Charlie for a while. I cried. Dr. Meglino even shed a tear or two. And then he took Charlie in his arms and said, come on pal, you know the way.

Our last year with Charlie was not great. He was an old, unpleasant, high maintenance dog, difficult to the end. Do I miss him? You betcha. And I'm glad we have the other dogs. They've made the transition much easier for their two footed friends. One of them is only a year younger than Charlie and though she's in much better shape - physically and mentally - than he was at her age, we all know in the so-called natural course of things she's next. It's only a matter of when. Our youngest dog turns six this year. Time marches on and on. As do we all.

So does life really begin when the kids move out and the dogs die? Maybe it does. But maybe the joke is on me. The memory of Charlie is a lot more pleasant than the actual animal ever was. With every passing day he gets sweeter temperamentally and olfactoraly, at least in recollection.

And I do believe with all my heart that life has more in store for me (and for all of us with aging dogs) than nurse maid to an incontinent animal, who still managed to bite me (and draw blood, thank goodness for up to date rabies shots) three days before his demise. And I think it's important to remember our loved ones, dogs and humans alike, as they were, not as we wish they had been.

But I also believe we can have it both ways. We can be honest and we can be kind, sometimes even simultaneously. It's the only way for us all to rest in peace.

And that opening joke still holds true I guess, but in an edited form. Life begins every day. With or without the dogs and the kids.

So I'll say it one more time, with apologies to Shakespeare. I come to bury Charlie not to praise him. Charlie was an awful dog. And we miss him an awful lot.

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