Family. Everyone has a different definition of the word. In the last seven years, our definition of family extended to include my new brother-in-law, Steve, and his two Chihuahuas, CJ and Dakota.
My sister, Serena, and I never had pets growing up. I’m allergic to cats and dogs are expensive (you were right on that one, Mom and Dad) and they limit mobility for a family that loved the impromptu road trip. So when my sister married Steve, she got a crash course in pet ownership with two of the most well-trained and loving Chihuahuas ever born.
CJ and Dakota were a matched set. CJ was the male and much smaller than Dakota, while Dakota, against all odds, was born and survived with a cleft palate. Her tongue perpetually stuck out of her mouth, a saucy visage for a demanding but loving dog. They came when called, survived Omaha winters in tiny dog boots and gave my dogs no end of grief for not also being Chihuahuas.
When my sister and her family found themselves in deployments where it was difficult for the dogs to come along, they lived with my parents, the dog protestors. They loved them but also missed the ability to go when they wanted to. When CJ had a heart attack and passed away while my sister was in Oklahoma, they felt the sting of loss that they hadn’t felt since they were kids with dogs of their own.
When my sister deployed to England, Dakota stayed with Mom and Dad, this time as dog, comforter and house snuggler. Dakota, for all her mouth issues, never missed a meal and looked a little like a burrito. Her staunch little body would waddle around the house, finding blankets to wrap herself in and laps to burrow into, forever regretting the trip north from Texas.
So when my father called at 7 a.m. a month ago, sobbing, I knew something was horribly wrong.
“She’s gone,” cried the man that complained nonstop about her whining and attention-seeking tactics.
Dakota, at more than 12 years old, had a seizure. As they rushed her to the hospital, she had another. The vets said that she may have had a tumor, water on the stomach or a host of other issues. After calling my sister and brother-in-law in England, they made the decision to let her leave peacefully.
It was only then, once she was gone, that my father could verbalize how much she had meant to him. During a layoff, she kept him company in his home office as he searched for work, meaning and who he was. She was his coworker, confidant and unwitting photo subject. As he talked to me, he asked the question that so many have asked themselves when their pets have passed: why do we do it?
I searched my heart and tried to say the words that felt right.
“We do it because when they are here, they do everything perfectly. They love unconditionally, live joyfully and without regret. They give us the companionship that we don’t know that we need at the time. They leave their mark on you and it hurts when they go but you’re still glad that they stayed,” I said. It felt trite and hollow but true.
There’s no explaining the bond that a person develops between their pets or even their children’s pets. It’s strong and true and ephemeral and lasts long after their small or big bodies cease to breathe. They give us the memories of what joy looked like, whether it was chasing a rabbit, or picking through snowdrifts in tiny boots for desert dog feet or crunching on carrots as if they were fine caviar. Dakota lived a long life, full of love and laughter, not just from her owners but from our whole family.
As I look at my two dogs I know that someday I’ll have to soothe myself with the same ideas. I’ll be unconsolable as they are truly my most constant companions. I want them to be immortal, but nothing perfect lasts forever. So we cherish the time we have and enjoy our family, furry or not. I wouldn’t have it any other way.