The most difficult thing about having children is not birthing them or their teenage rebellions. It isn’t that time they told you they wished the woman next door was their mother because you were too mean. The most difficult time is when you see them in pain and you cannot absorb it, make it go away. Whether it’s a cut knee, the betrayal of a friend, the loss of some desired goal or boyfriend, or the death of their beloved pet. It makes no difference. When they are in pain, a parent stands by helpless, a willing vessel to collect and mitigate their suffering, but unable to make the transmutation occur.
I overcame a child’s natural affection for pets when my father secreted my beloved cocker spaniel, Puddles (named for her failure to control her bladder), away to a ‘farm’ in northern Minnesota when I was five or six or seven. I learned, through that loss and several other childhood dramas/traumas, never to love anything so much that I couldn’t survive its loss. Unfortunately having that ability can make one a strangely distant human being. To my credit, I always made sure my kids had pets: cats, dogs, a gerbil that ate the fingers off dolls, rabbits, and, although they were warned not to name them— a menu of farm animals.
Last weekend I was called to care for my granddaughter so that her parents could take my daughter’s beloved dog, Lennon, back to the vet. They were told that the kind thing to do was to end her suffering. Lennon was a small dog, a mutt we rescued when my daughter was eighteen from a pound in northern Minnesota. She had only reached 35 pounds at full weight, but the vet said she’d lost 14 pounds since her last visit. Lennon’s kidneys had failed and she seldom ate. For several months, my daughter had been buying her expensive prescription food that Lennon refused to eat. For her last meal, Lennon nibbled away at chunks of roasted chicken and finally downed a few of the bacon treats she’d been forbidden for over a year.
Lennon was my daughter’s best friend. They slept in the same bed for a decade and a half, until my daughter found her partner and a baby came of that union. I think that poor, old dog stayed as long as she did so that my daughter would have the loyal friend she needed until her partner and a child of her own arrived.
Lennon was, of course, named after John Lennon, but since she was a female, John didn’t seem appropriate. There was a time my daughter was a collector of everything John Lennon. More than merely listen to his music, she read about him extensively. As a high school senior, she won a blue ribbon for her essay describing Lennon as a great American communicator at a statewide History Day competition in Indiana in the early 1990s. It was a year later, after we’d moved to Minnesota that we found the small puppy in need of a home. Lennon loved our rural home. For awhile, she thought she was a cow. Our neighbor’s small herd liked to cluster in the corner of their pasture right next to our front yard. Lennon, who was never leashed back then, would run to greet her sisters each morning and scamper between their legs as they munched their way through breakfast.
Lennon loved cats. She had one of her own when she was just a pup. I forgot that cat’s name, too many of them over the years, but Lennon would play the role of cat and cat would play mouse, until the game got a little too rough. Then cat would reverse the roles and give Lennon a smack on the nose. That would end the game, and the two would curl into a single nest and nap.
Lennon liked to chase things. The birds were too high and too fast, but a butterfly flitting from flower to flower was always good for a chase. We thought Lennon was safe from harm because we were a quarter mile off the rural road, but one butterfly was too much a tease and led the naïve puppy into harm’s way. The driver stopped, knowing he or she had hit something, but then sped off, rather than take responsibility. Lennon spent several weeks in University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital and charmed the staff, just like she would charm so many others after that. Lennon was never let out again without a leash, unless she was in a securely fenced yard. The accident cost her half her tail, some hearing loss, and her ability to make puppies, but it did not diminish her puppy personality and beautifully expressive brown eyes. Lennon would live to charm man, woman, child, and beast for another 16 years after her near miss.
And Lennon loved her usurper. When my granddaughter arrived last September, my daughter created a space near her queen-sized bed so Lennon could be close by. Wherever that baby went, Lennon followed. She kept watch, always from a safe distance. She would lay at the doorway whenever the babe was in her crib across the hall from her parents’ bedroom. As the baby grew and reached out for Lennon’s muzzle, the old dog allowed whiskers to be pulled and handfuls of hair to be claimed by the tiny hands. Lennon never complained. If the baby lay asleep on her mother’s lap, Lennon would go so far as to rest her chin on her owner’s knee and watch the infant breathe. Lennon seemed to content to give up her role as princess of the house without one wit of jealousy.
Last week, as I scratched behind Lennon’s ears for the last time, I thanked her for taking care of my baby all these years. In a week or so we will spread some of Lennon’s ashes along the Oregon beach where she loved to chase seagulls.