The Ultimate Adventure Companion
If you’ve never laughed after your blind, diabetic dog wandered into a pool and drowned, then good for you.
It was the summer before my senior year of college, so I was home for one reason or another. My brothers ran into the house, screaming like twins normally do whenever completing some kind of physical activity. They stopped by my room. Floyd was stuck, they said, floating in the pool—and I just smiled and shook my head because sure he was. So, they scampered over to the next open room and grabbed my dad, who galloped out to the pool, I think, in his underwear. He pulled Floyd out and pumped his chest a few times. (My dad is not a veterinarian.) Some water squirted out, but that was it. Nothing else.
My brothers and dad cried. My mom called the house, crying. My little cousins came over, and they cried, too. Tears, then, seemed to be the natural reaction to death. So, when they told me Floyd was dead, I laughed.
OUR FIRST DOG DIED toward the end of sixth grade. Her name was Maddie— a leftover from my mom’s parents’ house. For whatever reason, my parents thought it was a good idea to have a dog around. They were alone. My dad worked weird hours and my mom was in law school, so the dog made sure the house wasn’t ever empty—not a guardian (we were robbed multiple times) but more of a comforting space-filler. When they’d be home together, the dog would be there, too, doing dog things, but things nonetheless, and things that made the house more of a home, I guess.
And then I came along, so: dog, kid, mom, and dad. I remember liking Maddie. I don’t really remember anything before the age of 10 actually, but there are pictures, and we seemed to get along as well as an under-developed human being and mixed-breed canine possibly could.
Maddie was a mutt—the kind of mutt that makes “mutt” seem like its own breed. She had no specific, dog-like, identifiable features. She wasn’t pretty, not big, not small, didn’t have nice fur, and was just a generally loping, not-fast-or-slow, off-beige-colored animal. She didn’t really bark, and I don’t think she pooped or peed in the wrong spots all that often. So, she was only a dog in the sense that genetic classifications labeled her as one. More than anything, she was a living thing that just couldn’t speak or communicate, had a full-body coat of hair, and happened to walk on four legs.
This is why most non-Iditarod, non-Best-in-Show people have dogs. A dog is another thing to interact with, something with visible signs of life that you can manipulate and that reacts, but also something that you can maybe see learn and definitely see move and bark at and scratch and run after other things. That’s what makes a dog different from a Cabbage Patch doll. But with that feedback, that life-meets-life affirmation or whatever you want to call the human-dog relationship also comes death.
And when Maddie died I cried a lot because what else do you do as a 12-year-old? My dad’s dad died when I was five, and, like I said, I couldn’t tell you what it was like to be five. I was sad, definitely sad, when my granddad died, but more sad because everyone else was sad and because I knew I’d never see him again. But I still didn’t really understand what was happening because five years isn’t enough time to develop a brain that understands things like mortality, heart disease, and your dad and uncles carrying a casket.
Maddie’s death was the first real death I’d ever experienced, then. (Rough childhood, I know. The streets of Long Island don’t give a shit what your name is.) I was sad for a while. I held a funeral in our backyard and put her in a shoebox during some family party—which seems really indulgent in a lot of ways, looking back, but 12-year-olds grieve how they need to grieve—and buried her while everyone watched. Then, a day later, I was fine, because I probably had to play the Vikings in the Super Bowl on Playstation or a soccer practice to go to. As a pre-teen, my relationship with Maddie was as one-sided as all child-pet relationships are. The dog’s there when you need it, but doesn’t have to be when you don’t. Everything else—the vet visits, the feeding, the cleaning, the house-breaking, etc.—falls on someone else and gets done in some area of the mind that you subconsciously block off. So, when the dogs gone, it’s just gone. That’s the only change.
WE GOT FLOYD DURING the fall before Maddie’s death. My aunt’s dogs just had a litter, and my parents had to deal with three begging children now—my brothers were seven and had learned how to team up and generally be twice as terrible—so we took one of the dogs. Legend has it that I was the most vocal proponent for Floyd, which is important.
Floyd (born during Hurricane Floyd) was about as much of a dog as Maddie was—except in the opposite sense. He was also a mutt, but a specific, distinguishable one: a hybrid Maltese and Poodle, or Malti-Poo. About a foot-and-a-half long and covered in curly white fur, Floyd was more of a miniature warthog or overgrown gerbil than an actual dog.
He was fun at first—maybe “novel” is the right word—especially since he was so tiny compared to Maddie. We couldn’t pick her up, but Floyd was small enough to hold. He was always small enough to hold, despite his best efforts at eating everything in his two-feet-or-below troposphere. He ate an entire chocolate bunny once, and after one vacation we came home to a specialty-chocolate basket—Long Island!—that was completely empty. I’d always thought dogs died when they ate chocolate. This was not true, according to Floyd.
As he got older, he got fatter. He’d try to keep up with younger dogs, but whenever they’d jump on a bed or a couch or anything taller than two rabbits stacked on top of each other, he’d get a couple of paws up and then slowly slide back, ripping the fabric of whatever piece of furniture he was clinging to, and fall to the ground—not so much discouraged but proud of himself for trying. His bark stayed the same, horribly constant, from the beginning, as if an ambulance siren and nails-on-a-chalk-board consummated their relationship. He’d go quiet if you shook a change-filled, aluminum Chinese food container at him, but having to carry around a General-Tsao’s-receptacle-cum-piggy-bank seemed to defeat the purpose of having a pet.
For as resilient as this little bastard was, his live-for-the-moment, do-it-for-the-story lifestyle—Floyd was the Tucker Max of dogs, in every non-misogynistic sense—eventually caught up with him. He developed diabetes at age seven. He required two shots every day, and by this point I was a disaffected teenager (read: a teenager) who had better things to do. My relationship with Floyd had devolved to the occasional head nod whenever our paths crossed and the rare bark-for-snack exchange, but not much else. Then, a few years later, he went blind. He’d tumble to the bottom of the stairs whenever he had to get down. (Still a mystery: how he ever managed to get up.) He walked into walls all the time. And he’d still bark to be let in or let out of the house, except he’d be barking at our sink or the grill on the porch, thinking he was standing in front of the backdoor. His sense of place: about 15 feet off-center.
IF YOU WERE TO psychoanalyze my reaction to Floyd’s death, you could come away with a few different conclusions: I am a sociopath. I am a self-involved child-man who—wow, it’s so obvious you were the oldest child—had everything given to him growing up, never having to deal with anything that wasn’t exactly how I wanted it. Or, if you’re more forgiving, you’d say that Maddie’s death had created a hard, emotional shell to shield me from Floyd’s death; that I wasn’t ready to experience another pet-related tragedy, so I never opened myself to caring about Floyd as much as I did about his predecessor.
And you might be right, especially if you combined all of those together, but I’m not so sure you are. As I got older, so did Floyd. As I became less of a child but not necessarily more of an adult—or: a high schooler—Floyd started to require more attention—shots, food, help in and out the backdoor—and I couldn’t ignore all the dog-maintenance stuff that comes along with, you know, having a dog. So, instead, I just ignored the entire concept of having a pet altogether.
But Floyd died right before my last year of college, a time, I think, where I was at least some kind of proto-adult, aware of basic human realities and responsibilities. I couldn’t ignore this crippled drug-addict-as-dog, but I also wasn’t around it much anymore because of school. Except, now Floyd was dead. Everyone in my family was devastated, and I wasn’t, which is kind of an embarrassing thing, so I laughed because what else do you do? (We all need to find a way to sleep at night.)
If you own a dog, it’s going to die. Outside of misplaced urination and random sexual outbursts, it’s the only dog-owning constant. Barring any tragedy/fountain of life-type hijinks, owners always outlive their dogs. They become a period of time, this not-human thing that lived for a certain number of years, with a clear beginning and end. You don’t acknowledge this when you take the next one in because you’re not a maniac, but really, every dog becomes a story to tell once it’s gone. Floyd’s story: he shit and peed where he wanted, failed to climb things, ate himself into diabetic blindness, and gave himself his own Viking burial. I'll laugh about that—and not feel terrible for it.