As a child I feared dogs. I am not sure about the origins of this fear, but I had it from a very young age, to the point that I cannot remember when I was not afraid of them. It did not help that I grew up in a place where trashy people kept their miserable dogs tied to a tree in their back yards, where they would bark and growl menacingly. Or that people let their dogs run wild, like the house on the corner with a massive doberman. There was also the time that I went to the park about age nine and some idiot had their huge dog running unleashed. I ran out of fear and the dog chased me and tackled me to the ground. My friends who had dogs would mock me for my demands that the dog be kept away from me. I interpreted their attempts to jump up and greet me as threats.
In adulthood I learned to be able to barely tolerate dogs since my outright fear was too embarrassing. It was thus an unpleasant surprise ten years ago when I found out that the woman I was wooing long distance had a big dog. (We had met in a third location.) I knew for our relationship to work I would have to be able to deal with the dog, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to.
To my surprise, I fell in love with the dog. She was a border collie-Bernese mountain dog mix, a big furry friendly animal who did not bark or jump. Instead, she would just come up to me and nudge my hand with her snout, encouraging me to give her some attention. Hannah melted my heart and made it possible for me to love dogs, something that I never thought that I would ever be capable of doing.
I'm sure you know the rest of the story. I ended up marrying her owner. After two years in long-distance marriage limbo, I was able to move to New Jersey and live with my wife and our dog. I am not sure how it happened, but at some point the first year I arrived I became the primary dog walker. Every morning the first thing I did was to take Hannah on a walk around our Newark neighborhood. She was a local celebrity, especially when I walked her after work. Little kids would run up and beg to pet her, or look out the windows of their cars and shout "bow wow!" She also made a new improbable friend: my cat Stella. The two kept each other company while my wife and I were out at work, and when I came home neither animal seemed starved for attention.
Hannah was ecstatic to have two parents rather than one. Her nightly ritual was to take a flying leap into our bed and nestle herself between the two of us, despite her sixty pound weight. The next year, that changed in ways I still feel guilty about. As we welcomed two girls into our life, Hannah was now permanently demoted. The first night we had them at home she was at least fiercely protective of the girls. However, as they grew older and started crawling, we had to keep her separate with a baby gate, something that she very obviously resented. I still kept walking her, and would slyly brag to my spouse that Hannah had switched her primary allegiance to me.
At least when our children were a year and a half old we moved out of our Newark apartment into a house. Hannah obviously enjoyed having more space, both indoors and outdoors, but sadly her feline companion died a year later. Her health took a deep dip, to the point that we thought Hannah was going to follow her into the grave. She managed to recover, and my daughters even began to develope a more sympathetic relationship with her.
Unfortunately, Hannah's health went into decline, as your would expect from a old dog. She had issues with incontinence that often frayed my patience and meant some very unpleasant surprises when I came home from work, stressed and exhausted. Some medicine helped with this, but she was not the enthusiastic dog she used to be. Instead of dragging me down the block on our walks, I had to cajole her to get out of the house. Last Thanksgiving I was seriously frightened at her health, but she managed to rebound to give us another year together.
Sluggish but cheerful, I hoped that Hannah was going to see another spring. But it was not to be. On Wednesday, as I was riding the train home from work, my wife let me know that she could suddenly barely stand, and was going into seizures. We both knew it was time. At the vet's office, it was obvious that she felt the same way too. In those horrible minutes of having to wait for the doctor to come in, I just kept petting and petting her, all while her face held the same panting grin that had melted my heart years ago. Her eyes had were now clouded, but she was still the same loving dog I'd known for a decade. I soon gazed into that face for the last time. When we came home we had to tell our daughters the news. One was nonplussed, the other shrieked a shriek of grief and despair that let me know that she understood what death meant, probably for the first time in her young life.
I'm trying not to let those last moments dominate my memory. Today, as the time for our usual late afternoon walk came around, I felt such an absence. I remembered all those walks with Hannah dragging me around. I remember her delighting all the neighborhood kids. I remembered a dog companion who made me capable of loving dogs. I do not think I will be able to love another one the same.