My dog died the day after Christmas in 2016, his last full day of life on Earth. He was 17, a “Westie-Something-Something,” cotton-white and very fluffy, kind of like a small walking cloud but well-groomed. His name was Homer: not after the great blind poet from antiquity, but the incompetent nuclear power plant manager from “The Simpsons.”
The name fit his goofy personality. Despite his modest size, Homer always seemed under the impression he was much bigger. He’d bark at strangers, but then start running in the other direction the moment they moved closer to him. He had all the makings of a great guard dog, except he was not actually useful. Homer also loved to insert himself into conversations. And any time he saw a group of three or more people in a bunch, he’d make himself a part of the group, squeezing in between a couple of people’s legs, as if he had something essential to hear and to contribute as well.
Since Dec. 26, 2016, memories like this flash through my head constantly. That morning, my mom woke me up and told me blankly: “Homer is dying.” Her eyes were watery and a little red. I felt my pulse rocket upward as I followed her out. Homer was half-unconscious, still trying to shake off what looked like a morning seizure.
For the first 30 minutes, I was in denial. I told my mom that I’d seen him shake from time to time before, and this was nothing more than that. But denial gave way to reality. Homer’s eyes wouldn’t open much, no matter how much we gently poked at him. And human tears have a way of telling you the truth about what you really know but don’t want to acknowledge. They started flowing, and I knew Homer was really dying.
Reality felt like a cement block crashing into my head. Homer hadn’t eaten regularly for three weeks. He’d barely wanted to take walks. I’d been keeping myself afloat by saying it was just a stomach bug of some sort and he’d be getting over it soon.
I didn’t want him to sit here like this all day, conscious but unable to move. My sister, mom and I were all home for the holidays. (I’d arrived only a few days before.) We took Homer to the vet. I drove. My mom sat in the passenger seat, cradling him in a scarf to keep him comfortable. Midway en route, I noticed he’d opened his eyes in full, looking like he was still figuring out what was going on. They were his trademark black little marbles, shiny, wide and innocent. Maybe it wasn’t his time after all.
I clung to that shard of hope for a while when we got to the vet and waited in the exam room. For a few minutes, Homer was his old self. He got up on the floor a few times and walked around. He did his trademark rapid doggy shake and bake, which always prepped him for a long walk or helped get water or debris off his body. Except now we were in a spotless and nondescript exam room, and reality again smacked me hard. I seized only on the essential phrases coming out of my vet’s mouth: “poor quality of life,” “in pain,” “organ failure,” “poor teeth,” all enough to know what it all meant.
We were told that we could have as long as we needed with him before the procedure started. When the door closed, my mom said she wanted to hold him to make him feel calm. All of us — mom, my sister, myself — got down on the floor. We were scrunched together in a circle, and we just took turns petting him. He was calmer than any of us three, eyes starting to close again. I was a much bigger mess. Every time I tried to do a sustained tummy rub or scratch a little under his chin, the tears and the wails came out.
When it was time for Homer to go down the hall to get his IV inserted, I darted to the parking lot. A half-hour passed. I worried something had gone wrong and that Homer was in pain. An hour later, my mom and my sister finally came out. They said nothing had gone wrong, and that they had stayed with Homer a bit after he had passed, silently sharing a final quiet moment with him before leaving him for good.
We drove home and barely said a word.
My day job is in academia. I teach and research about big societal ills, from growing inequality to the corrosive effects of racism to environmental catastrophes. Seen against all that, grieving over a dog seems like an indulgence. “He’s just a dog,” as so many non-pet owners have said to me over the years.
Yeah. True enough, I guess. But then why do I — and so many dog and pet owners like me — grieve over the Homers of the world the way we do? Why do we see them as our best friends, as family members, as ‘people’ whom we love as much and no less than our closest human companions? It’s a question that’s confounded the pens of Jane Goodall, E.B. White, John Steinbeck and so many others who have meditated on the pet-human relationship.
My own modest contribution to all this? For me, “there’s more serious stuff going on,” or “they’re not human” are precisely the reasons we grieve so much. Our bonds with our pets are our mental sanctuaries. Homer was my refuge: My reminder that however much pettiness, betrayal or bad faith that I — or people around me — might exhibit from time to time, there was such a thing as basic goodness. It emanated from him in episodes like all those silly moments that raced through my head in his final hour.
That’s how I accept the depth of my feelings for my deceased dog. He was just always there. He spent so much time looking after me — without even knowing it — that I returned the favor, even after he passed.
That evening, I asked my mom: “Did he look scared right before he was put down?”
“No,” she assured me. “He was very peaceful and calm. He just closed his eyes.”