My father gave my mother (before they were a mother and a father, and before they were even married) a pomeranian puppy named Teddy. The dog lived for a long time, well into my childhood, and eventually had to be put to sleep.
My mother was a mess. Crying jags, mood swings, you name it. At one point, she went to a local painter (that had done a beautiful painting of my grandparent’s house a few years before) and had a portrait of the dog painted from an old picture. It was a BIG and EXPENSIVE portrait and it hung for years at the end of the hallway–right next to my bedroom door. The only thing that bothered me about the painting (other than feeling like the dog’s eyes were following me) was that there were no pictures of me or my brother in the house, but yet there was a big picture of a dead dog.
One summer (I was either 12 or 13), we “acquired” a dog named Marshmallow, a beautiful husky. The dog’s owners were customers at my father’s garage and brought the dog along in the back of their truck. Marshmallow kept jumping out of the truck and seemed to want to stay with us. After this happened a bunch of times, the dog’s owners asked my father if we wanted to just keep the dog, and my mother, animal lover that she was, immediately piped in and said yes.
Months later, Marshmallow bit a neighborhood kid. We let Marshamallow run free because he didn’t like to be on a leash or chain and he was a very mild-mannered dog. The kid who got bit was a little brat who was provoking the dog, but my father put his foot down and said that we had to get rid of the dog before we got sued. My mother put an ad in the paper. “Free dog to good home.” A squirrely-looking man in a pickup truck showed up to take Marshamallow and said he had a farm where Marshamallow would run free and chase bunny rabbits for the rest of his long long life.
Weeks later, my mother still had a bad feeling about that guy. We had his name, so she pulled out the phone book by calling every single number listed under his last name trying to find a relative of his that would lead her to him. If only we had the internet at pur fingertips then, it may have been a lot easier. We living in the country. Everyone was related to just about everyone else in the area, and this guy had a fairly common last name. We eventually found out that he didn’t have a farm. And he didn’t live where he said he did. My mother and I spent the summer canvassing the countryside, playing detective and tracked down the man who picked up the dog. It turns out that the man went around picking up free animals and then sold them to animal labs for drug testing. By the time we got that far in our detective work, Marshmallow was dead.
My mother had a nervous breakdown. As a teenager, it scared me to death to witness it. I remember thinking “this is all because of a DOG.” Sure, I love animals too. Sure, I think animal testing is cruel. Sure, Marshmallow was a great dog and fun to play with. But I saw animals die all the time. Even at such a tender, self-absorbed age, I realized that there was a circle of life. That those pigs across the street that squealed horribly when they were being slaughtered ended up as the bacon I ate for breakfast. That even though I was heartbroken when my first cat Cookie died, the pain would slowly heal and become less severe. Pets could be loved and you can get attached to them, but in the end they’re just pets.
I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction at the time, and looking back today, I still struggle with it. I swore long ago that as attached I would become to an animal, I would be able to let it go when it’s time came. I’m actually kind of proud of how well I handled Giz’s death. Mike and I knew that the time would come eventually, but I was determined that she wouldn’t suffer. She had such a long life. What I like to think was a happy life. She’s the best pet I’ve ever had and probably the best one I’ll ever have. She didn’t deserve to suffer. When I saw that she was struggling to, well, just be herself, it made it easier to tell the vet to put her to sleep. She wouldn’t have lived through the night anyhow, and if she did it would have been after being poked and prodded and stuck with all kinds of needles by strangers.
Sure, I cried. I was an emotional train wreck to begin with that day. Sure, I miss her. Two weeks later, I still open the door when I come home from work, expecting her to be there.
When we were waiting at the vet, I told Mike that we were getting Giz cremated individually. I’ve put animals to sleep before and have always just done the group cremation. I always thought it was kind of creepy to keep ashes of the deceased around the house, on display. Anyhow, Mike didn’t argue. He agreed that Giz was a one-of-a-kind cat and just shouldn’t be chucked in the furnace with other animals.
I went to pick up her ashes last Wednesday. I wasn’t sure what to expect. A little Chinese take-out box with a Ziploc baggy of ashes in it? Instead, it was a beautiful wooden box with a brass nameplate on top bearing her name and “2008” on it:
The box doesn’t lock, it just latches. Inside are her ashes and a certificate of cremation.
I had already ordered a small stone with her name on it because our intention was to bury her ashes in the garden and put the marker on top. But I can’t bury this box. I just can’t. We discussed it I think we’ll bury the ashes only, and use the box to put mementos of her in it–pictures, a piece of her favorite blanket, etc. Even though she only lived in this house just shy of two years, it will always be her home.
It was then that I realized that I’m becoming my mother (minus the nervous breakdown). This box is to me what Teddy’s painting was to her.
And I think I’m OK with that.