“This is about more than the dog.” Those were the words spoken to me by my best friend, the day after my Cairn terrier died. I’d just spent the previous evening and early morning hours at the emergency vet clinic. Watching Toto die transported me back to my husband’s hospital room, twelve years ago, after the plane he was testing crashed on takeoff.
Toto was epileptic for most of his life. It was not easy, living with his seizures. The smell of urine and feces greeted me on many mornings and on my return from school and work. Toto didn’t understand what had happened; only that he’d made a mess. Countless rugs were ruined and I became one with my mop. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, but he groveled in remorse, despite my soft words.
Walks were the highlight of Toto’s day, and people often stopped to remark that he looked just like the famous dog in the movie. Toto never met another dog he didn’t like and seemed surprised when they didn’t like him back. He thought every repairperson that came to the house was there to play with him. He was loyal to a fault, once protecting me from a neighbor dog by putting himself between the attacker and me. At 22 pounds, Toto was a third the size of the other dog. I owed him for defending me, I reasoned, so I paid for medical tests and expensive medicines to control the seizures. I let him be my guardian because the previous one—the only man I’d ever loved—was gone.
My husband Eric had tried to protect me from all the storms that flew my way. Whether it was rude people, medical problems, or drama at work, he was there. An intense former F-15 fighter pilot and then an experimental test pilot, he liked to be in control of every aspect of his life. He lived with painful migraines but carried on bravely, in spite of them. He was sociable and funny and treated people with respect—from salespeople to the mechanics who worked on his plane, he gave everyone a chance. But he was a difficult man to understand: complicated, passionate, and opinionated about even the most mundane things.
I often say that I don’t understand dogs. I adore them; I just don’t get them. As a former bird zookeeper and lifelong bird watcher, I get birds. They see the world visually, like we do; my pet birds are easy to figure out. Toto was not. His nose was always busy, and I found myself constantly wondering how different the world would seem if I saw it through a highly developed sense of smell. Toto was a clown, much like Eric, and liked to be the center of attention. I think they both delighted in making me laugh.
I didn’t laugh for a long time after Eric died. I remember one of the first times I did: I saw Toto bury a bone in the backyard. It was like watching a cartoon. I didn’t know dogs really did that. I laughed because of the sheer rightness of it. Here, in my shattered world, was something so normal, so predictable. As the years passed, I tried not to let Toto dig his way into my heart. I was simply not going to love an animal with a relatively short life span because I knew when he died, I wouldn’t hurt so badly if I kept my heart secure behind a steel wall. I’d let my Moluccan cockatoo behind that wall because with a life span over 60 years, she would outlive me. I would never have to watch her die. I was adamant; Toto would not get behind the wall. He was epileptic, caused me much work and expense, and was, after all, only a scrappy little dog.
Eric never protected his heart when it came to his collie Penny. She died in his arms when he was 16, and he never got over the loss. What was it about dogs, I often wondered, that one could have such a hold on Eric, even after so many years? After Eric died and Toto came into my life, I was determined never to find out. If you don’t love, you don’t hurt.
Eric’s accident taught me that no matter how deeply you think about a loved one’s possible death, you can never really be ready, not if you open your heart completely. Because that’s what love is—throwing your whole being straight into the abyss and hoping it’s filled with happiness, rather than pain. When we love we expose ourselves, tie a part of ourselves to another. If we lose them, it can be like sitting at a baseball game and being hit with a 90-mile-an-hour fastball just as you take your eyes off the game and reach into your bag for something. You never saw it coming.
Toto took medicine for years to control his seizures, but the pills had a bad side effect. They reduced his liver function. As the years passed, I watched the numbers worsen, and I knew liver failure could happen. I tried to prepare. It would be okay, I reasoned. I took care of him, sure, but I didn’t really love him. And then, one Saturday night, Toto’s spleen ruptured and a catastrophic series of events followed. It was like Eric’s plane crash. You’re never ready.
Eric used to say that the way we deal with obstacles in our lives defines us. It was his definition of character. The way we love defines us too, because loving another with no reservations may be the way in which we truly live. Toto taught me that even a heart hacked into pieces can be mended. I didn’t realize it was happening, and against all my best intentions, Toto made me fall in love with him. Maybe it was the way he greeted me, as though I was the most important person in the world. Maybe it was the glorious abandon with which he romped through a fresh pile of soft snow, rushing back to me with glee, encouraging me to play, to forget all my worries just for a moment. Maybe it was the years of gently burying his head in my lap when he saw me crying for Eric.
When I came home, Toto would launch himself into my open arms, without holding anything back. At night if I’d go out into the dark garage, Toto would be waiting by the door when I returned; a bit worried, perhaps, that something out there would eat me. I’m sure he saw it as his job to protect me. But he never protected his own heart. He gave of himself openly and joyously every minute and trusted that I would take care of him.
Eric showed me that the world is an exciting place, full of adventure, full of love. Toto taught me that simple joys could still be found after a tragedy. But I lost them both. Toto’s vet repeated some of the same phrases I’d heard from Eric’s surgeon: He won’t make it through surgery. He’s acidotic. His systems are failing. The tests look bad. It’s time to say goodbye.
At the end of 36 days in the hospital, after the plane crash, when Eric was just a shell on life support, with catastrophic organ failure, missing body parts, burns so severe he had no face, I refused to let him go. I loved him, and I selfishly thought of myself. I couldn’t live without him; the pain would kill me. Do anything—everything—to save him, I demanded of the medical people, no matter what.
I signed the paperwork for over $7,000 worth of tests and surgery for Toto, even knowing the terrible odds. We were going to travel down that same road again. I wasn’t going to let him die, not when he’d stolen my heart. I wasn’t going through the grief-thing again. We’d save him, no matter what.
Later that night, when the vet told me there was nothing else to do for Toto, that it was time to say goodbye, I thought of Eric. I sat in the waiting room staring at the ceiling, the floor, the clock. I was flooded with feelings, memories and promises. I knew Toto was barely hanging on and that he was in pain.
I shuffled into the back room of the clinic. My little man, as the family called him, was lying on a table, tubes of medicine and monitors hooked to his small body. He couldn’t raise his head, but his dark pleading eyes fell on me.
Holding Toto’s paw, I told him how much I loved him—because oh yes, I did. How could I have fallen so hard for a scruffy terrier? Perhaps the greatest gift Toto gave was in teaching me to love and laugh again. I thought of how much Eric would have adored my little man. Dogs were his favorite animals and he often said he didn’t trust anyone who professed to hate dogs.
Kissing Toto, I thanked him for bringing joy into my life. I didn’t think I could ever go into the garage again without thinking of him, but I knew that as time passed the tears would be replaced with thankfulness that such a beautiful creature had chosen to bestow his love on me—unconditionally.
And then I let him go.