I started crying when I opened the cereal cupboard this morning. One of the things Vinnie would still eat in his last days was cereal. His favorites were oatmeal, Life (not the Target brand) and Quaker Oat Squares. I don’t think he felt well when he got up and licking the dregs of my cereal bowl and snitching a few crumbs of muffin or toast helped get him started toward eating his own breakfast. On Sunday, when he didn’t finish my oatmeal, I knew we were in trouble.
Unlike cats, dogs are so full of there-ness. Cats slink around, discreetly tending their own business and deigning to interact with humans when it suits them. But dogs are stinky-breathed, crotch-licking, food-stealing creatures of boundless need. You can’t avoid dogs. They are in your face, in your bed and on your favorite chair. They are come-on-get-up-I-have-to-pee-at-1-AM, let’s hunt squirrels and chipmunks, terrorize the cat, chase the Kong toy, hump the dog bed along with certain guests, secretly crap on the dining room rug, eat unrecognizable things off the pavement and bark maniacally at the doorbell. At least that was Vinnie’s version of there-ness, all of which had begun to fade in recent months.
It is the absence of there-ness that makes loss so hard. Not just the terrible physical loss of the animal, but it’s all their stuff and the routines that become so ingrained in us that when they’re suddenly snatched away, we feel like we’ve been cast into another universe.
Caring for Vinnie was a lifestyle. His chronic liver disease required carefully administered medications along with frequent trips to a specialist vet. Our morning conversation usually consisted of one of us asking the other about what, if anything, Vinnie ate for breakfast and the quality of his poop. The wall calendar is marked with red “P’s” to remind us of the alternating days he got prednisone. We rarely traveled because we needed the pet-sitter at least four times a day.
Now the plastic tub of medications that sat on our kitchen counter for four years is gone. There are no more zip-lock bags of cooked ground beef in the refrigerator. My husband dis-assembled Vinnie’s crate that stood beside our bed since we rescued him in 2013 and took it down to the basement. We kept it covered with towels, like a birdcage, so Vinnie wouldn’t erupt in frantic barking if the cat crept into our room at night. I washed his bowls and put them away in the pantry, perhaps for future use, but relieved of the heartbreak of seeing barely eaten bowls of food sitting up on the counter.
There will be no more computer-generated voicemails from CVS informing us that a prescription for “Vinniedog” is ready for pick-up. I threw away the post-its scribbled with his latest liver enzyme numbers and lab results, along with the bulging file folder containing his medical records. I will no longer feel the polite tap of Vinnie’s paw when I’m eating, reminding me that he would like a sample of whatever is on my plate. His collar rests on my husband’s workbench in the garage because we don’t want our other dog to hear its distinctive jingle and think Vinnie is here somewhere. She’s been bossing him around ever since she arrived as a puppy seven years ago and now looks lost.
Dogs ferret out human love with the same intensity they worry a bone or snuffle down a chipmunk hole. They won’t take no for an answer. They urge us out of our complacency and oh-so-busy lives to feed them and take them outside and clean up their messes. Their need for us is all consuming as is ours for them. And when there are finally no more balls to throw or pills to give, we scramble to create an absence of their there-ness, so we don’t turn into puddles of mush at the sight of a worn and faded collar or half-empty bag of treats. But our dogs have nestled into us just like they have the top of the couch cushions which will never really return to their original shape. Neither will we.