How to Say Goodbye to Your Best Friend
And what saying goodbye means after that…
The sky in Aalst, Belgium is usually dark and wet. The ancient cathedrals sit empty underneath and above faded grey clouds and cobblestone streets. Sugar cane and dark chocolate scents waft from neighboring regions as monks brew their infamous Lambic framboise beer. Today, I’m writing in America, thinking back on my first days in Belgium. It was when my mother Jenni visited, that the idea of getting a dog became a reality.
Bear is the name of my tricolor Jack Russell. Embarrassingly, I bought him from a puppy mill (I didn’t realize it was until it got shut down) outside Bruxelles. My mother was with me. She can tell you he was the puppy I pointed to immediately. I watched him. Studied him. I came back three times, to make sure he was the dog with the right temperament for me. I didn’t want a bat-shit-crazy dog. I wanted calm obedience. I wanted furry gut-wrenching cuteness. Bear’s markings weren’t symmetrical and he let the puppies nibble on his soft velvet ears. I fell in love with the way his fresh snow white and pure black fur glistened. As the other pups in the litter played around him, he sat stoic, eyeing me through the glass.
It was like we both knew what we wanted.
I was smitten — even after he began eating his own poop and chewing on my remote controls. “Bear. Please stop eating your own poop.” But he didn’t care. He was a rebel puppy, exploring my high rise Belgian flat. The first day, my mother and I took him to the park and he explored voraciously, tree to tree, bush to bush, stick to stick — he always kept an eye on me. As the universe opened its secrets to his genetics, he panted, smiled, rolled in the mud, and dashed through puddles. The first time I threw him a stick, he went after it with reckless abandon. “He has such a lovely temperament,” my mom said. “He will be good for you.”
A mother and father understand and feel things a son will never even see. Love, after all, is a thread woven into a tapestry of emotions and feelings and intuitions that lead you towards something or someone. Even “eating poop” is a minor concern after infatuation’s tipping point. 13 years later, I still gaze upon Bear while he sleeps. I thank him for being with me on my trips. On our adventures. On our explorations of this great, big Earth. I try to bow, honor, and thank him every morning, for being patient with me. Dogs can make you do funny things — like today, I roll on the floor and grunt like a troll as he licks my face. Our love is strange. We understand certain things about one another. About how I like to write or workout for hours upon end; how I drink my espresso — with whip and a spoon of raw sugar. Bear knows when it’s his turn to play fetch in the alley behind my Chicago flat, or turn right towards the Bucktown doggy park.
In the mornings, I watch him meander and track the sunlight from our bay window. He lays in it, sunbathing like a crocodile until the shadows move over him. Then he shifts or crawls forward again, one eye blinking open as he watches me. He knows I get stir crazy after writing 1,000 words. Bear and I have run together, worked out together, hiked together, and trained together. He is fourteen in September. I try not to think about his eyes becoming fuzzy black blotches of glaucoma or about how I have to carry him downstairs at night or pick him up in the morning. I try not to think about the decaying future of his life, just like my parents, just like I had with my grandparents.
Better to put it off, I suppose.
Today, Chicago is cold and wet. I just get up and do my normal routine. I turn on my espresso machine again and glance towards him. He is waiting for me by his food bowl. For his time. The word “walk” will throw my old dog into a tizzy. It’s why I rarely say it out loud. I could whisper it a mile away and he would pop up, smile, and stretch his old legs. Lately, he walks with a limp. He’s already had one ACL surgery. But Bear is always patient with me. He waits for me to feed him. To walk him. To pet him. No dog owner or parent can ever truly love or exercise or cuddle their offspring enough. There’s just not enough time in a day to do that much doting.
I’ll tell you a story. I haven’t been the perfect dog father. I’ve traumatized Bear once or twice (or thrice). He doesn’t think about the future or the past often, but some events trigger those memories. I had been reading Cesar Milan and I decided my dog Bear needed more exercise. I heard about pit bulls pulling weight sleds for exercise and how much they loved it. I decided to give it a try with Bear (or at least my version of it).
I’ll never forget the evening I tried. I tied a 20-pound med ball inside two plastic garbage bags… what the hell Trevor? The contraption looked like a superhero garbage bag cape carrying a boulder, but really, I was trying to make a harness with weight attached to it. For some reason, I thought the 20-pound med ball would slow him down considerably.
Bear started off great. Trotting with it dragging behind him. He was coming towards me when I called, but when I threw the stick, Bear lurched forward and then got spooked. He glanced behind him and immediately thought a demon-ball was trying to catch and eat him. After I realized that he wasn’t coming to me or getting the stick, I started chasing after him. He was in full emergency maneuvers, evading the demon bag-ball (and me). I started yelling, “Come! COME BEAR!” But he was too fast, like a dog burning his fur right out of hell. He weaved, bobbed, bucked, growled, bit, gnashed, and then right at the end, after about three minutes of terrifying enclosed garden running, he laid down. It wasn’t like come-here-Bear-lay-down-for-this-treat. His legs splayed out like a baby tarantula on zamboni-ed ice that couldn’t stand. After calling his name over and over, realizing he was soldered to the ground, it hit me:
“I just traumatized my dog for life.”
“Sorry bud. Sorry,” I said, rushing to him. The nylon rope attached to his harness was twisted and knotted and splayed. I slowly took the demon killer bag ball off and walked away. But he laid there frozen, terror roaming in the whites of his surveying whale eyes. His tail slunk underneath him. “Come here bud.”
He didn’t move.
I went inside and came back with a baba ganoush and a piece of roasted chicken. “Bear? Treat? Come to dad.” Still nothing. Just the sides of his eyes rolling towards the garden like ivory marbles. I knelt. Put the chicken a few feet in front of him to see if he’d go for it. He didn’t.
“C’mon Bear. Go get it. I know you can do it.”
But he didn’t move a muscle. I pull him by the collar, dragging him. He can’t understand that sometimes even a human’s best (or worst) plans go awry. I pick him up and hug him. He still smells like a puppy. We’ll get over this.
“I’m sorry buddy. I’m so sorry.”
My day is almost over. The furry black corners of Bear’s eyes are turning white. I still sip espresso. I think about life. Where will I be? What will I do next? Bear limps over to sleep between my legs while I write. I look down. My brother Damon is calling me.
Something isn’t right. I can hear something different in his voice. “It’s Thor.”
Thor is a bit older than Bear, both dogs, Belgian. Thor was adopted from a Belgian family that spoke fluent Flemish. Thoreke was his real Belgian name. Damon and his wife shortened it to the American version: Thor.
“Oh no. What happened?”
“We had to put him down.”
“No, I’m sorry, how old was he again?” I ask, knowing it doesn’t matter.
I think about Thor, about the time he fell from the circular stairs because he was blind out of one eye and he couldn’t see the stairs spiraling down to his right. He landed right on his head. He shouldn’t have survived that fall, but he did. He was tough. Fearless. Bear and him were good friends, not the best, but then again, a French bulldog that is blind in one eye and a Jack Russell that is the epitome of rogue independence; they don’t really care if they like each other. They are content with their ball. Their stick. Their toy. That is their life.
“I’m so sorry man — how you doing?”
Silence. Knowing my brother is in pain gets me. It feels like a strong wind is pushing something into my chest. As a kid, I remember holding D2’s hand, taking him into basketball gyms, wrestling, rebounding, and playing a real version Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on my knees with him. I would let him pummel me as Glass Joe so he could learn to fight, then I would send him to tears as the indomitable Mike Tyson. Time smears into something I can’t describe when I think about losing the people and dogs I love. What do I tell my brother? My mind rolls to the future. Of losing the people I love. Thor wasn’t my my best friend. He wasn’t the happy soul that greeted me every morning. But it caused me to stop and think.
“Thor was struggling Trev. He just couldn’t control himself. He was suffering. It was time.”
“Yeah, it’s better this way. I bet he’s in Doggy Heaven playing with his tennis ball now. It’s better,” I say, repeating it to myself to make it true. To make it believable. I want to believe it, but really, I think of what he feels. I think of Thor and his black round eyes blinking back sadness because he knows it’s his time to go. I think of the vet taking my world traveling dog away with liquid chemicals and a needle. I see my Bear fighting this, nibbling on my finger, until the bitter end. We’d all fight death if we felt love like this. I imagine Bear’s eyes closing — and the pain leaving. A dog’s last heartbeat will be one of sacrifice and passion and love for the world they lived in.
I think of putting my dog Bear down and I feel like burning everything to the ground. No one will take my dog from me. No one will take my brothers from me. My parents. My friends. My nieces.
No one, I lie.
“He wanted to be with the cats at night. I think he wanted to go and die with them.”
I haven’t heard my brother cry in years, not since (he kind of) got married at Torch Lake and we huddled together in the middle of the dance floor hugging one another, sobbing. That night, we remembered a lifetime of friendship and sacrifice in one ephemeral embrace. We’d survived. We’d reached goals. We’d become our dreams. It still hurts me to hear Damon’s voice crack on the other end of the line.
I think about losing my family. My dad. My mom. My brothers. Death isn’t that far from me. I’m halfway there —hell, I turn 40 next month.
What am I waiting for?
“Yes, they just know don’t they…” I say, feeling parts of my soul evaporate into the air like steam. Bear will be next. He’s in his human 90’s. I picture myself calling my brother when it’s Bear’s time. I’ll want D2 to say goodbye with me. I will want my mom there. My dad. My family. He’s been with me — through it all — from a kid playing pro hoops to a kid trying to reinvent himself in the real world. What did I do to deserve his undying love — I feed him cardboard-like food and throw him a stick a few times a day and I love him when I feel like it. Is that enough? Suddenly, I envision myself carrying Bear to the vet, kissing his black nose and petting his smooth fur as I try to let go of him. I will talk to him. I’ll soothe him. It’s all right buddy — the demon ball bag won’t scare you anymore.
This begets the question: how will we live the time we have left?
When Bear was a hand-sized puppy, I’d lay him on my chest and listen to his heartbeat as he slept — the quick thump-thump of his little heart made me smile. “A dog always remembers their owners’ smell. It’s important, you hold him first,” my mother told me.
I feel tears mounting. “Thor had an amazing life D2. You guys gave him an amazing life. I wish I could have said goodbye. I’m sorry brother.” But now I’m thinking about Bear’s lifeless body after the vet takes him away, his cute little head drooping off my forearm. We won’t get these moments back will we? I look towards the wall of my Chicago apartment and see the pictures of Venice. It reminds me of Belgium. Of the places and things we’ve seen. The worlds we’ve experienced. My walls are grey, just like Belgium’s weather.
“Do you need anything, brother?” I ask, but the words aren’t good enough. There is nothing I can do. Suddenly, I start giggling through tears, “Do you remember that time Thor fell off the stairs? He shouldn’t have survived that, man. He shouldn’t have. What a tough guy.”
“Yeah, he was. Tough guy is right — ”
My brother and I stop in silence, reminiscing. I wish I could hug him, but he is a half world away and my mind is lost in a labyrinth of memories — both past, present, and future. We will all miss Thoreke. I think of the parents that lose their children, and the partners that lose their loves, and I wonder: how do they rebuild their faith? Their life? Their love?
With honor, a shot of whiskey, and a story well-told. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll do better. I’ll tell my family and brothers and friends I love them when I see them more. I’ll follow through with my curiosity, like a hummingbird, and I’ll connect the world.
“Bear, come here,” I say. I sit up on the couch. Bear opens his eyes. “Come here buddy. Dad wants to say something to you. Come here!” He slides over to me and I pick him up and roll him in my arms and kiss his face. I kiss his wet eyes and nose and he licks my cheek. “I love you buddy. I love you so much.”
I think of my life, and the lessons I’ve learned. Of death. Of transition. Of dream building. Of letting go. Of birth. As I’m holding Bear tight, I realize the most important lessons come from the mystic side of the world you can’t see: there is always more love to give.