The other morning, I was walking my dog when a neighbor curiously regarded my three-month-old Saint Bernard puppy and asked, “You got another dog?”
“No,” I replied. “My other puppy died a month ago.”
“Oh my god,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
I went on to explain that Lando was two months shy of his second birthday when a medical emergency forced us to put him down. That’s the abridged version. I’ve mastered that version after telling at least a dozen acquaintances how a puppy in the bloom of his youth winds up getting euthanized at 3:30 one spring morning.
It was lymphoma, I usually say—a fist-sized tumor in his chest cavity, pressing down on his lungs.
His puppy lungs.
Merely invoking cancer puts an end to further questions. Everyone seems to understand the likely outcome when a puppy develops a malignancy. Of course he died. Who looks for cancer in a puppy? You only discover the tumor when his breathing becomes labored and he refuses food, at which point it’s too late.
Which means he never had a chance.
What I want to say to polite inquiries is that sometimes life can feel like the gods are toying with you—that Lando hadn’t even grown up yet, or mastered rolling over, or swum in a lake. Hell, he hadn’t been neutered. His life was just getting underway. I want to say that, for all my grown-up stoicism, I’m angry that life can be so randomly cruel. I just don’t know where to direct my anger.
These are the moments when I feel both vindicated as an atheist—and disappointed by my vindication.
When people ask about Lando, I spare them the unpleasant details of his death—how one May evening he developed bloat, a life-threatening condition in which a dog’s stomach fills with gas and then twists inside the body. I don’t tell them how the emergency vet clinic nearest us was closed—closed—which forced us to drive 20 miles to another clinic, and how Lando vomited white foam in the back seat and whimpered endlessly from what must have been excruciating pain. I leave out how we agreed to pay between $7,000 and $11,000 for the surgery, believing we could possibly save his life. Nor do I explain how we went home that night, full of apprehension but also of hope, to await a phone call that finally came at 1:00 AM.
“Well the surgery went fine,” began the vet when I answered.
The way she emphasized “surgery” implied a good news bad news scenario, which made my stomach clench like a fist.
The vet went on to explain that, when she inserted a tube in Lando’s nose after surgery, she discovered fluid in his chest cavity. My first thought was pneumonia—curable pneumonia—but the vet, without any sense of a silver lining, said the fluid was extremely concerning. She had ordered “emergency diagnostics,” she explained, then promised to call within the hour to share the results.
When she called 30 minutes later, I heard in her voice an arid absence of hope, as if she’d breathed out but hadn’t the power to inhale.
“We found a large mass in his chest,” she said. “A tumor the size of his heart. It’s almost certainly cancer—most likely lymphoma.” She said more, though I don’t remember any of it.
We could have brought Lando home from the clinic that night and let him heal from the abdominal surgery—only to euthanize him a week later as the cancer took its toll. Sitting there on our bed in a kind of dream-state, we decided to spare him that suffering. Instead, we piled once again into our Toyota Highlander and drove 20 miles through a downpour to see our puppy one last time.
By then it was nearly 3 AM.
At the emergency clinic, we were shown to a room with dim lighting and upholstered chairs. I expected the vet to wheel a heavily sedated Lando in on some kind of gurney. But that’s not what happened. To our astonishment, from where we waited in that room, we heard the sound of Lando’s big, soft feet padding down the hallway toward us. After a second more, the door opened and in walked the vet, leading our giant puppy, now utterly depleted, his shoulders sagging, his head down. Lando’s breathing was labored and he moved his feet slowly and ponderously. Despite all this, though, he went immediately to my daughter Mattie, who hugged him and whispered desperately in his ear. Then, as if saying his goodbyes, he moved to my wife Barbara, and eventually to me. I told him how I loved him and how sorry I was that he’d been robbed of the life we planned for him. I apologized for all sorts of things—for the times I lost my temper when he was teething, for not playing tug with him more often, for never having seen that cancer coming.
Eventually, Lando laid himself down and went to sleep, surrounded by his family.
That’s when I nodded to the doctor to proceed.
We drove home that night with a folder full of material on bereavement and how to move on from the loss of a pet. We had Lando’s leather collar as well, with the brass name tag we ordered from Etsy. When we arrived home, Barbara and Mattie went to bed and I spent the next half-hour putting away Lando’s crate, his feeding dishes, all his toys—every sign of him. I knew that when I woke up in a few hours I couldn’t bear any reminders of his absence—of the crater left by the loss of an exuberant 130-pound puppy.
When neighbors ask about our new puppy, a robust Saint Bernard with clear, bright eyes, I leave out all the disturbing, existential details of his predecessor’s death. What’s the point in reminding them—or myself—of the inevitable moment when all pets die? Sometimes, to reassure people it won’t happen to their dog, I say, “It was a freak occurrence.”
I think that helps.
But we all understand that pets have short lives—that the day will come when we drive home to an empty house and nurse our grief until, at some undetermined moment, we decide we need a new puppy to fill the unbearable void.
That’s when the inexplicable process of finding, loving, and losing a dog begins again. I find it reassuring, even redemptive, that so many people undertake that process willingly, knowing that loss awaits them—after 15 years, or 10, or only two. That we risk such paralyzing grief for a dog’s uncomplicated affection signals something noble about humanity.
I’ll take that.