We had to put Quincy down two days ago. Today, Luke is flying to California for work in San Bernardino where there was just a mass shooting. I woke up to a dim house, silent except for the hiss of the heater. I said a quick, barely-prayer for Luke's safety. I slipped Anna's hearing aids in while she watched with folded hands. I keep looking at the spot on the floor where Quincy always slept. There is a rawness here now, an internal sinkhole-type feeling, but I feel kind of sheepish being so sad about Quincy. How can the death of a dog matter in the face of so many more significant deaths?
Quincy started to fail a few days ago at my parents' house where we'd left him so we could have Thanksgiving in the mountains with Luke's family. He had stopped eating and couldn't put weight on his legs when we returned. On Tuesday, my dad and I slid him onto a towel and lifted his 80-pound frame into the back of my car by hoisting him up, hammock-like, from the four corners of fabric. As we were laying him down, my parents' neighbor of 26 years, Mike, came out to give his daily greeting.
Mike is the father of my good friend, Karen, whom I played with every day growing up. We spent eight hours a day at the pool, perfecting back dives and eating my mom's PB&J's. Karen had a big backyard playground and once, while swinging, one of the bolts came out of the beam holding up the swings and nailed me in the eye. Immediately it turned blue and Mike was pissed. "Holy shit, Megs, your parents are going to kill me." Mike had an irreverent mouth but a huge heart. Karen's parents always had a dog, and sometimes, maybe, they paid more attention to their dogs than to us. We ate bowls of brown sugar, unwatched, we took two-hour baths in our swimsuits at Karen's when the pool closed. We weren't neglected at her house, just trusted. Whenever we were playing, there was a dog at our sides, and it's why I liked her house better than mine.
In high school, Karen and I worked at the stables together, mucking out stalls and drinking cups of cheap coffee between shit-shoveling sessions, our cups steaming alongside horses' noses in the cold. We took two horses out on the canal near Kent on Saturday mornings, cantering them through tall, icy grasses like queens living out our childhood dreams. My experiences of animals all go back to my experiences of humans--Karen's family, mostly. Because my mom was allergic to fur, Karen's dogs and our adopted horses were the closest things I had to pets growing up. Their family taught me to experience life deeply through the living things. I remember when their dog Samson died, Karen's mom put her head down on the staircase and openly sobbed. I had never lost a family member. In their house was a waterfall of grief and I could feel its moisture, its pounding, its noticeability.
About a year ago, I started to notice changes in Karen's dad. He called me "young lady" instead of my name. He took my parents' newspaper. Though he still walked their dog, Izzy, four times a day, he had stopped driving. Mike has early onset Alzheimer's, we know now. He does not know who I am anymore. When we loaded Quincy up (unknowingly for the last time, en route to the animal hospital on Tuesday), Mike called out from his driveway: "Y'all have a good day now. Best of luck to you and your family." This is what he has always said, Alzheimer's or not. A genuine wishing of goodness. My friend Beth told me recently the intellect is always in tact. "We don't even know where it lives," she said, which I took to mean: so much is beyond our knowing--even physiologically--that we cannot label missing faculties as entirely gone.
Which is, maybe, why the concrete loss of a pet is so hard. Quincy, as an ever-present fixture of our home, is gone for real. The gone-ness of his body keeps recurring to me as a revelation, as odd as the disappearance of a couch. Gone, just gone. "Isn't it weird?" I keep asking Luke as I stand in front of the dog bowls, the dog bed, the leash. Quincy was a reminder, as all pets are, of the qualities that waver in us humans. Quincy's happy demeanor reminded me of my dad's reserved acceptance of almost all things. It is no wonder my dad was Quincy's favorite person, that losing Quincy might have hurt my dad most of all. Quincy also forgave Luke and me for years of less petting (thanks to having babies) than we wish we had given him in hindsight. When the vet told me Quincy had a tumor that had likely bled out, given his pendulous belly and pale gums, I asked her how we couldn't have known. I expected that we'd have had a week of cooking Quincy steaks, but the day his legs stopped working was the day he died. "They hide it well till the very end," the vet said. Quincy's dying reminded me how silent the struggle always is.
Of the essay, Adam Gopnik writes that there must be an apparent object and a buried subject. Of life, this must be the case, too. Our pets are the objects; what it is to be human is the subject. Quincy reminded me of mortality, of the hidden pain of aging, of my dad, of Mike, of the conscious act it takes for us to treat everything well now rather than waiting till later.
Recently, Karen told me she just wants people to remember what her dad was like. I remember. When Karen had an allergic reaction to nuts in their kitchen and got loaded onto an emergency gurney with her tongue all swollen up, I looked over and saw Mike welling up with tears. He jumped rope in their basement and ate Hungry Man dinners while watching the Nightly Business Report. He cussed wickedly during Nebraska games and we giggled. No matter the weather, Mike walked his dog at the time at least four times a day. People all over the Centennial suburbs know Mike by name, he has walked so far with so many dogs and with his confident voice and sharp wave. "How the hell are ya, Megs!"
He and his wife loved each other with a fierce permanence I can still see fighting its way into daily life when I bring my girls down to my parents' house. There go Mike and Carolyn, walking with each other and their dog in the mornings and there they go, later in the day, the three of them at a clip, and again, as the light is leaving the neighborhood and you can see the green shine of my parents' dining room from the street.
Quincy's dying made me realize that I probably got Quincy 13 years ago because I wanted what I saw in Karen's house, growing up--a being who would procure a long-lasting form of sacrificial love.
Now, Karen spends Saturdays taking care of her dad while her saintly mom takes a break. Karen reads Mike the Wall Street Journal. She makes sure he gets to watch the Nebraska games (once, recently, resorting to a bar for the first half and to my parents' for the second half because her parents' TV had broken).
A lot of generous people offered to learn sign language when we learned Anna was deaf. Karen was the only person who truly did it. Every Tuesday during rush hour starting in July, Karen drove down to the Rocky Mountain School for the Deaf to learn how to speak to my daughter.
Karen, if you are reading, you don't need to tell people what your dad was like. You have his integrity, his kindness. He taught me how to care for a dog. He taught us both something about how to love.