I said goodbye to Tucker yesterday, our 14 year old Labrador – although by the time I post this, a few more days will pass. The kids are at their dad’s until Friday, and it feels weird to tell others before telling them, so I’m writing now and posting later. But, as usual, I’ve got to write it down to bring all the threads together in a way that makes sense for me and to build a narrative of what happened so that I understand it for myself.
I got him from a rescue organization when I was 26 and he was a year old. I was young and married and had no children yet. We had one puppy together already, and I wanted one more. Sometimes in a family, a pet will attach himself to a particular family member above all others. Our terrier had done that with my ex-husband, and so when we got Tucker, he somehow did the same for me. He followed me for 13 years, from room to room around the house, from house to house to yet another house, from whatever I was before to the new terrain of motherhood to what I became, and eventually from a marriage to a life on my own.
When a couple divorces and moves through the inventory of things in the home, you see what matters to you and what doesn’t, and sometimes the answers surprise you. I moved into this house without a single plate to eat on and without a television, but I brought tea cups from my parents’ 1979 wedding registry, my stand mixer in the kitchen, stacks of blankets, shelves of books, and my dog. In the storm of the divorce itself when we were sorting the details of what was next, my ex explained he didn’t have the time to care for a pet with his heavy travel schedule, and I knew my limitations. Single mom with a full-time job and two preschoolers. Two large dogs would tip the scales financially and in every other way, so I found a rescue organization to re-home our terrier, and then I took Tucker with me without hesitation. I suppose their situation soon changed because by the end of that year, they’d adopted a puppy together.
So while they started over, I took Tucker with me and watched him grow old. He got even better with age, and we tried our best to love him well. He was patient and slow always, but especially at the end without much energy left. He would curl up next to the kids as they watched television, and every time I rolled out my yoga mat, he’d lay down wide right next to it, and I’d watch his belly rise and fall with my own breath. He would follow me from room to room just as he followed me from house to house and from one life to another.
He’s declined a good bit these last few years, and I knew this was coming. He had laryngeal paralysis, and his breathing became labored. A couple weeks ago, he had an episode that led me to an emergency vet with him (and with both kids and lots of tears), but he recovered. When I followed up with our regular vet a couple days later, we had the conversation. I knew my choices were to do the inevitable during a scary and desperate moment or during his good days in between. The kids wanted to be home when I took him, so I was holding out for the first of July when they are here, but as fate would have it, he had another episode on Father’s Day, and as he stumbled around in the back yard, I tried to calm him down, and I promised him if he made it through that one, I’d call the vet in the morning.
I just finished Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and the night before Tucker passed, I read the narrator’s description of helping his own grandmother to the other side. He says, “We try to preserve life– even when we know it has no chance of enduring its body. We feed it, keep it comfortable, bathe it, medicate it, caress it, even sing to it. We tend to these basic functions not because we are brave or selfless but because, like breath, it is the most fundamental act of our species: to sustain the body until time leaves it behind.”
The vet gave me the option of going in the room with him or staying outside. I wasn’t sure what I could bring myself to do, but when it became an actuality and I arrived at the vet office on Monday afternoon, it seemed there was no other choice but to sit with him until the very end. I thought it would tear me apart, but it didn’t. Animals have a presence and an instinct and a way of knowing. And perhaps Tucker knew it needed to end this way. As he’d walked with me from room to room for years and then from one life to another, now he wanted only me to walk that last bit with him, and so I did. It was fast. He just fell asleep, then deeper still until he was gone. I cried a lot, of course, but they were tears of release and not of resistance. I can feel that this is the end of more than just his life, the subtle end of some kind of chapter for me as well. But as it always goes with endings, you cannot tell what thing is beginning and where these sliding doors are headed until much later when you piece it all together. Even still, I feel it. Plates shifting like fault lines, refiguring some piece of me.
I know I’ve written about this before, but the hardest thing about being single is that you lack a witness to your life. There is no one there every day to say I see you — all the hard things and all the little things, too. There is no one to assure you that the details of your life are not going unnoticed. I know he was only an animal, but I am feeling so clearly in this loud stillness of an empty house without another breathing thing that his presence has been my witness across countless evolutions and especially in this last five years. So I guess in the end, I am grateful that I was a witness to him as well. Just there and patiently watching and waiting and assuring him that his presence did not go unnoticed.
In Vuong’s book, he also explains that as a writer, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” That is all I am doing here today, I suppose, as I write this. Preserving that physical presence, that witness that Tucker was for me, to know he was here inside this work and inside my life, lending his quiet presence to all of the evolutions, the big days, and the little things, too. All of it.