When I first got Kita as a puppy back in 2005, I just wanted her to slow down.
Her energy seemed boundless. Her enthusiasm, unstoppable. Her manners? Deplorable.
“Be quiet,” I chided her, as if they should have the self-control of humans. “Don’t bark so much. Don’t chew so much. Don’t pee there. Don’t jump up on everyone. Don’t run! No, no, NO! Don’t you ever get tired?”
As a puppy-owner, I was vaguely aware that dogs get old, but that seemed light years away. I’d heard people grieve over losing their elderly dogs and my heart went out to them, but I couldn’t truly relate. I would look at Kita – this 2-pound bundle of fur, amygdala and curiosity – and figured she would never slow down. I heard that toy dogs typically lived to 15, and when I was cleaning up the latest carpet stain, that seemed like a very long time.
But dogs, being dogs, have one rule. They live to please us. They do their best, even if their owners don’t really know what we’re doing and our rules seem confusing and make little sense to them. They survive by following the pack and so, by age 2, most have become fairly good citizens.
Kita grew into a raven-haired ball of “floof” with tiny paws and the face of a baby bear. But inside, she was half-coyote – happy to run in the woods alongside her big dog brother, Jake, roll in smelly carcasses and drag home roadkill as big as she was.
When Kita turned 8, her idyllic life changed. I got divorced and moved into town. We moved several times as I tried to find a place that was pleasant, yet also affordable and open to pets.
Kita could no longer run free, so I channeled much of my anxiety and pain into long walks with her. She never seemed to get tired. It was so comforting to gaze at the back of Kita’s furry head – her two pointy ears standing straight up as she charged ahead so confidently on her leash.
But life was more confusing now. She was lonelier. There was no big brother Jake to play with, no giant yard in which she could run and run.
Yet Kita accepted it all. Her big concern was that she was with me. She followed me from room to room, and she slept at my feet every night. When I was sad, she lay on the couch beside me, her head resting between her front paws in sympathetic repose. When I laughed, she bounced and hopped – her mouth curved up and pink tongue lolling about in that unmistakable grin of full-on dog joy.
Over time, we continued our walks, but they weren’t nearly as long or as fast. Stairs were her nemesis, causing her to tear her ACL and injure her left elbow. I once had wanted her to slow down. Now I wanted her to hurry up, as a walk around the block could take 45 minutes. She spent an inordinate amount of time sniffing grass and trees, which I thought was a ploy to stretch out our walks. I realize now that her joints probably hurt.
Last year, I moved into a twin home. She now needed to be carried up and down stairs and had a pillbox as extensive as that of a human hypochondriac. She no longer had the sharpness of her younger self. Her eyes clouded over, until she could only see what was right in front of her. She spent most of her time on “her” end of the couch, sleeping in a Gabapentin-tinged fog.
She still loved going outside, but she moved so slowly that a leash seemed unnecessary.
Even so, I hung onto her. She still ate, she still seemed overjoyed when I came home and she occasionally showed brief sparks of the old Kita. I told myself these things whenever someone suggested I put her to sleep. I couldn’t give up on her, just because she now needed more care.
In retrospect, I think Kita hung in there not for herself, but for me. I suspect she had even more pain than I could see, but she somehow knew I wasn’t ready to let go. So she still drew herself up to go on our little walks and to try and eat the foods I’d made for her.
She was still living by the dog rule: pleasing her human, even if my rules seemed confusing and made little sense to her.
It had to get worse before I could see. Kita had five accidents in the house in one day. She would sometimes hobble to the top of the stairs to watch the door and wait for me to come home. The problem was that I was already home, sitting on the couch right behind her. And then she started to detach – choosing to retreat to the bedroom instead of being with me. I’d read how pets do that when they’re ready to go. It was time.
Last weekend was our last together. I fed her steak sandwiches and ice cream. That Sunday afternoon was sunny and beautiful, and we took one last walk. I tried to take pictures of her, but she turned away from me. My heart was already aching from grief and she seemed to sense it. As always, she knew when her human was hurting.
My ex has always loved Kita, and he asked to be at the appointment to say goodbye to her. The veterinary staff was so kind as they respectfully carried out what had to be the least favorite part of their jobs. I was afraid to start crying, for fear it would never stop. It hurt to even breathe.
We buried her back on the country lot where we used to live, in the woods that flank the Buffalo River. She is again next to Jake, who left this world four years ago. It was raining softly, as if even Mother Earth was grieving. We said a few words to honor her, including that phrase that every dog loves to hear, “Good dog.” We marked her grave with a little statue of a cherub, cradling a baby bird.
Today, the house feels so empty and my heart feels even emptier. I keep looking at Kita’s end of the couch, expecting her to be there. That 14 ½ years seems far too short. I’ve discussed this with other pet owners, and we always agree: How could animals – who bring us so much joy and love – live for so short a time, when some of the most evil and destructive people in the world get to live for nearly a century?
One day, the phrase, “borrowed angels” came to me. Dogs are like borrowed angels. They are here to make us laugh and to comfort us and to show us what unconditional love looks like. They are here to teach us patience and tolerance and how to care for others.
They are here to touch people who most need the connection. Often, we will see other people’s senility or isolation or sadness dissolve in the face of a wriggling puppy or sweet senior dog.
Humans, with our “big brains” and all our learned knowledge, can’t do that. Dogs, with their lack of ego and enormous capacity for love, can.
So why do we get so little time with these precious spirits?” I figure there are so many people out there who are suffering and so many who need comfort and love. And so our angels are only lent to us briefly, before their spirit must leave us and return, to comfort someone else.
You may not agree with me, and that is fine. All I know is that this is the only way I can make sense of the weight of this loss.
So Kita, I know you were lent to me when I needed you most. I know you will be back to bring your calming spirit and sweet soul to someone else who needs you.
And this time, I hope you get to be a Rottweiler.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.