[This post contains a SPOILER for the popular book and movie Marley & Me.]
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Five years ago tomorrow (during the night, tonight), we lost our four-legged baby, Punkin. It still hurts sometimes, but I guess it’s getting easier.
I think Jen thought I was crazy for filling her water dish when we got home after saying goodbye, but I wanted Punkin to know she was still welcome and we were still here to take care of her. We still loved her. But after a few days I could see the rings marking previous water levels as it evaporated, and I accepted that she did not need it anymore.
Jen and I adopted a puppy quickly after we lost Punkin. I thought it would help Jen heal; to fill a void. It happened too quickly for me, and a part of me felt as if I was somehow betraying Punkin. But as I held Raisin in my arms for the first time at home, I very briefly felt Punkin’s presence. I believe she was telling me it was OK to love again.
Raisin, however, has been such a handful that it makes me miss Punkin even more sometimes. The newcomer Montee, who it appears more and more likely that we will be keeping, is a much gentler and calmer dog to us, but is quite a pain in the butt in multiple other ways that differ from Raisin and that Punkin never was. Punkin was truly a gift in every way, a close second for me only to Peppy, the dog I grew up with.
But Punkin and I grew together, too. She was just a year old when I first met her, and turning six when I married Jen and adopted her. I was told she didn’t like men (she lived with Jen and her mother), but she warmed to me instantly. Our love for Jen developed in step. We grew gray hair on our chins at the same time. We played together, walked together, snoozed together, and moved to a new house together. I mentioned her in my wedding vows to Jen.
She was not a dog at all, she was a “people.” At the dog park, it was she that would not let us out of her sight. She had been tempered partly by neighborhood kids who tormented her while she was outside in the front of the house on a chain one day, and calmed more again when she had puppies of her own, but I believe she was already going to be an easygoing animal and a wonderful companion. Both of those things happened before we were roommates. She was partly Labrador, so of course she could be feisty and independent, too. Soon after we were living together, I found myself chasing her down on our new street when she sneaked out an open door and ran off to explore. Fortunately, we then lived on a cul-de-sac where every duplex had a fenced-in yard, so all I had to do was get ahead of her, on the opposite side of the street, and lead her into the fence-blocked end. It worked perfectly, and eventually I got close enough to grab her by a leg as she tried to dash past me, finally establishing who was the boss between us.
She was kind to strangers, too. We never had to worry about her being threatened by visitors, but they would be sniffed and licked, and crotches would sometimes be nosed. She was nice enough that her presence was an alarm to potential intruders, but if they had come inside she would have let them go on about their mischief. Not so with Raisin or Montee.
She really was our baby, as we have not yet been blessed with the human variety. That made it a thousand times harder for us to let her go. For Jen it was harder still, since she had seen Punkin as a newborn, was still in high school when Punkin was young, and held her puppies. Neither of us had a dog for a decade before Punkin. We once made an attempt at getting her a playmate, a boy dog from the shelter. He was too possessive and snapped at her one night, nicking her ear, and that was the end of dog #2. Nothing would come between us and our Punkin. When she had surgery years later and it was too uncomfortable for her to lay down, I stayed up with her all night long. I felt her pain the entire time.
In the late fall of 2010 we received news that she had developed a cancer that was certain to be terminal. A general time frame was given, but it was wide enough that we could hope for the best and then fairly well put it out of our minds for a bit. I did get more detail, or a second opinion, with a scan in December, and it confirmed that she was not likely to have much time left. She showed no signs of being sick or in pain. She didn’t know anything was wrong, and we were not going to tell her anymore, after that scan.
I wanted to take her on at least one more long walk, because she loved walks as much as I did. It was winter, though. That walk never happened. I will always regret that, even though I know I’m not supposed to do that. Our last walk together, it turns out, was at an earlier time and a much more care-free moment. It was what the rest of them were: Perfect.
I remember the last food she ever ate, and wished it were something more: She was a table-scrap dog (which did not help her live longer), and her last taste was from the lid of my food tray when we ordered dinner out from a nearby Mexican restaurant. She was herself that night. There was nothing wrong.
We were asked if we wanted an autopsy, but I am sure enough that I know what happened. The cancerous organ ruptured in her sleep during the night, and she awoke, breathing strangely. I gave her some privacy, but Jen rushed to her aid. We hugged her, helped her, took her to the animal ER. There, she crashed, and they had no time to do anything for her. Should I have responded differently at first? We had recently seen Marley go off behind a tree to take his last breath, and my pal Peppy, I believe held on much longer than she should have because she didn’t want to hurt us. I suspected Punkin would want to spare us from any sadness in seeing her depart. Could I have saved her if I hadn’t left her alone those couple of minutes? I tell myself that it would have bought her only a little more time, and that she likely would have slipped away on a doctor’s table instead of in our arms. I believe it. I have to.
We were also asked if her cancer could be sampled, for research that could save other dogs. It was a very difficult decision, and we declined. She had been through enough and it was time for her to sleep forever. We were allowed to say a final goodbye, which was the hardest part of all.
Those hollow eyes matched the new hole in my heart.
A week later I got a text from Jen that stopped me in my tracks while at work.
Punkin is home.
The box containing her ashes had arrived on our doorstep, much like any other package that has ever arrived there, with no particular special care and absolutely no fanfare.
Punkin was home. Again.
But the reality is that she never really left at all. A little bit of water in the bowl disappears for her in between gulps by Raisin and Montee. That hole in my heart has been plugged by Punkin, herself.
That doesn’t make me miss her, any less…