I have always been afraid of death. Not of dying, but of the pain of losing those I love.
I was so preoccupied with it as a child, that ever since I can remember, I said I wanted to be a doctor. This delighted my mom and dad to no end, especially when I said the reason was that I wanted to help people. The truth was I wanted to keep them from dying.
For 45 years, through emotional detachment and good fortune, I had mostly avoided that pain I so dreaded. Until a week ago, when my luck ran out and my wife and I said goodbye to our dog, Penelope. She was almost 15.
It’s fitting that having learned so much from her in life, that she had one last thing to teach me.
But before I talk about the end, let me tell you about the beginning. My wife and I had been living together for less than six months, having recently moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, when she insisted that we get a dog.
Although I had a couple of pets growing up, they lived outside, and I felt little connection to them. In Mexico, having an indoor dog was unthinkable, it just wasn’t part of the culture. Penelope, as suits a proper Southern lady, would be raised differently.
Born Jan. 1, 2008, of a coonhound mother and a chocolate Lab father, she had a dozen siblings. About half of them were all white, the other all black. Six weeks after they were born, they barked and bounded in the back of a truck — a monochrome flurry of puppy energy — where Penelope and her brother’s mixed coats stood out.
My wife pointed at the pair, and I grabbed the male dog. She said she meant the female but that, “it was OK if we took that one.” As she always tells the story, with a tone that invokes the hand of providence, I apparently said, “No, no, let’s take the one you wanted.”
Thus, Penelope came into our lives, and, verily, I wanted to drown her in the bathtub.
We lived in a condo that shared walls with three other units and as she cried at night, what mattered to me most was that we were inconveniencing the neighbors. She peed inside the house, chewed anything she could get her paws on and demanded constant attention … for about a week.
Then, it felt longer, and now it feels shorter, but regardless, she very quickly settled into who she would be for the rest of her life: a sweet, relaxed dog who asked for very little and gave so much in return.
As I think about who I was then, and what I thought was important, I have a hard time understanding. I’m embarrassed at how sheltered I was and how even though I was 30 and married, I had so much growing up to do.
In those early days, Penelope’s biggest sin was forcing me out of my routine, out of my solipsistic comfort zone of not having to do anything for anyone else. Slowly, she not only made me a better person, but she opened my world in new ways.
Taking her for walks and going on hikes, her love for being out in nature was infectious. She took me from someone who thought twice about sitting on the grass for fear of an ant or two, to pushing through tick-infested bushes on the hunt for an elusive swimming hole. She really loved the water.
Being with her allowed me to get out of my head and enjoy myself. When I think of happiness, one of the images that always comes up is chasing Penelope, not a care in the world, as she ran around the hills of the Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia. There are pictures, and they are silly.
She also helped me work on managing frustration, from her days when she was a rebellious puppy to her final months, when we dealt with the indignities that come with illness and old age. She could no longer walk by herself or properly control her bodily functions.
Penelope died on Aug. 20, and the pain of losing her has been at times overwhelming — emotionally and physically draining. There is a certain unreality to my days. Life had Penelope in it, so what is this now? My wife calls the whole thing surreal.
Yet, this is one more case of Penelope pushing me to grow up, to understand that death comes with pain, but it also comes with happiness. Even as tears still flow every time I think of her, afterward I am left feeling joy; blessed to have known her and for the time we shared.
I know someday the tears will stop, and the joy will remain.