What haunts me most had absolutely no effect on anyone but me. It did not hurt anyone, or change anyone else’s life. But the scene still replays in my head, as though I tore out the heart of my best friend.
My dog, Rowdy, was almost fifteen years old. He had black and white fur, and was on the larger side. His dark eyes were a bit filmy with age, but they still glittered. He would eat absolutely anything, including paper towels. Once, he ate several pounds of dark, imported chocolate. We called the vet, who told us to make him sick to his stomach. Rowdy and his sister, Chessie, had a strange quirk where, if they ate anything frozen, be it ice cream or an ice cube, they would get sick. So we put out a bowl of vanilla ice cream, which Rowdy ate happily. And that did it. He was saved.
When he was angry at us for going out and leaving him alone, he would destroy something in the house, usually our mail. When we came home, he would get so excited and rush at the door. One of my first words was “Back!” spoken as soon as the front door opened.
He had been my only dog for quite some time, as Chessie had died, when I was three, from lymphoma, gained through our ignorance in letting her walk on pesticide-soaked grass. At that time, Rowdy’s eyes lost their sparkle. He moped around the house and ate only about half of his food. For him, that was akin to a hunger strike. We had to do something to shake him out of his grief and bewilderment.
But we never thought that a brief trip we took to Philadelphia would be what did it.
Rowdy had fallen asleep in the back of the car, like always. But just as we were driving into the city, he woke up and looked around. His head snapped from one window to another, his eyes widening. He gave a short bark. He was amazed. He regained the jaunt in his walk, and the gleam in his eye. Philadelphia saved him.
But five years later, I couldn’t.
Rowdy was past his best years. His kidney was failing, and it was time. I was eight years old and begged for more time, more nights when Rowdy would come into my room and lick my hand, more days where we would go on walks. I did not understand what home would be without a dog, and I didn’t want to understand.
But my parents were adults and less selfish. They explained that Rowdy would suffer if we let him continue on as he was, and the kindest thing for him would be to put him to sleep.
I remembered watching him get shots (benign ones), boosters, and vaccines at the vet before. The vet would put a dollop of spray cheese on a tongue depressor, and Rowdy would lick it up without the slightest idea that a needle was entering his flesh. I wondered if it would be the same way this time.
But I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t be there. I had to go to theatre camp, though I had no thespian talents to speak of. Our play was almost ready for production, and I needed to be there for the dress rehearsal, though I would have gladly skipped the entire show.
The last morning, we had plans for me to stay at a neighbor’s while my parents went to the vet, and she would drive me to camp when it was time. I woke up, dressed, and felt the little time I had left pressing upon me like a vise, so that I couldn’t savor any of it.
The neighbor came over to get me. She, my parents, and I were standing in our front hall. Rowdy was sitting in the middle, looking curiously at us all.
Everybody was watching me, knowing this would be the last time Rowdy and I saw each other. It was our goodbye, our final moment. I knelt down, scratched his ears and his head for a few seconds, looked into his eyes, and went out the door.
That was it.
In the midst of my conglomeration of eight-year-old feelings, from awkwardness to sadness to stress to confusion, I did not say goodbye. I did not tell him he was a good boy one last time. I did not tell him I loved him.
Maybe I didn’t say anything more because of all the people watching me, and I felt embarrassed. Maybe it was because I had to go to camp, act in a play, and like a normal person in general, and I didn’t want to start crying. Maybe I just wanted to pretend none of this was happening. But whatever the reason, I did not tell my moribund dog that I loved him.
That did not matter at all. It had no effect. Rowdy didn’t understand, and my parents were probably so distracted by their own grief that they weren’t really listening. Rowdy understood a few words, of course, like “sit” and “treat,” but he had no idea of what I had said or not said to him his last day on Earth. I could have recited a poem in his honor, and he would not have felt any differently.
Yet, I regret my final meeting with him more than almost anything else.
At camp that day, the grade above mine did their dress rehearsal while we watched. I couldn’t believe it, but the star of their show was a kid — boy or girl, I’m not sure — dressed as a dog, which depressed and annoyed me at the same time. And there was a maudlin song in their play called “Memories” (not the one from Cats.) All the while, I was unsure whether or not Rowdy was still alive and wondered if I should somehow sense the moment he died.
My failure to make the most of my last moment with Rowdy is a strange thing to be so fixated on. It’s insignificant and compared to the other problems in the world, ridiculously minor. But thanks to me, something that should have happened didn’t.
Rowdy never knew that I hadn’t said goodbye that day, but maybe he somehow hears the goodbye that I carry within me every day since.