Boy and dog: 10 years later

August 6

This is the end-of-life tale of a faithful, troubled dog, who came to our family sporting a bullet in her leg.

It’s been 10 years since Mocha appeared on the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, accompanied by illustrations by my then 11 year-old son, Sebastian. When our vet, Dr. Stephen Rogers discovered upon x-ray that this newly adopted dog of ours had bullet fragments in one hip, Sebastian and his twin brothers were outraged by the abuses this brindled mix-breed dog had suffered. Over time, we learned to handle the timidity and occasional aggressiveness of this poorly socialized young dog. Sebastian had turned to his sketchbook, creating an alter ego for her, a muscular dog who burst with a righteous power that neither Mocha – nor he – possessed. From his brightly colored pens sprang a laser wielding, Kung-Fu fighting, unexpectedly cultured crusader, to avenge her family against the evil-doers who’d shot her*.

The Mocha Comics, as they came to be called, helped Sebastian negotiate the transition from the benevolence of elementary school to the chaos of middle school. Meanwhile, Mocha slowly eased into her new life, learning how to trust us as we in turn fell helplessly in love with her. Their concurrent journeys of adaptation created a life-long bond.

A year after getting Mocha, we adopted a canine sister. Being part of a pack allowed Mocha to assuage some of her anxiety. She relaxed even further, and most of her old fears finally receded from her daily behaviors. She was always sweet and nurturing with children, but still distrusted such things as tall men. A tall friend of ours, who came over weekly for dinner, was her sworn enemy for almost two years. Then one day, she relented and he became one of her favorite people, her go-to guy for caresses. Once she accepted you into her pack, you were in for life.

Sebastian made it through middle school then high school, if not unscathed, at least in one piece. That August he dutifully – if cautiously – went off to college. The large state school was a bad fit from the start, and the stars did not align either in his living situation or with his classes and professors. He rebounded back home in two months, dispirited and unmoored.

Mocha and Sebastian once again found themselves experiencing a seminal transition together. What followed for Sebastian was a three-year period of soul-searching. As he regained his footing, he began what I thought of as a Liberal Arts Program For One, in which he read, wrote and studied music intensively. He populated each day with these activities, with an impressive discipline. Mocha accompanied him during this time of searching. She watched him practice his newly discovered love of archery, listened to him learning Irish tunes on his violin, and lay in her bed next to the chair where he wrote into the wee hours. During this time, Sebastian rekindled his innate enjoyment of learning. At the end of those three years, his motivation revived, he dove into the rigors of a classical education at St. John’s College in Annapolis, to study ancient Greek, the great philosophers, and the very principals that make up western culture.

Mocha at 12 had begun the inevitable decline into old age. Her bullet-ridden leg was arthritic and often unwilling to hold her up. As her eyes became cloudy, she went further adrift in her mind, imagining enemies at her gates, fighting them in her near-blindness and confusion. Then one day, she began to whimper and stumble, and to walk into corners she couldn’t find her way out of.

Last week, we ended her life. A suspected brain tumor was the final, insurmountable villain that no Kung-fu moves could cure. Dr. Rogers, who had first discovered the bullet that launched a thousand comics, gave her two injections – one to calm her, one to stop her heart. Sebastian, his father and I were with her.

Sebastian is about to begin his sophomore year. He is happy and has found “his people” at last. Mocha was his unquestioning ally through all the years that got him to this place, and he was her charge, her special responsibility. Having propelled her rocket of a boy into orbit before falling away from him back to earth, her job is at last done.

*The original story

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Sarah Larimer · August 6