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Hello, goodbye

Lessons in love and heartbreak, as only a dog can teach

As the father of an 8-year-old boy, I’m responsible for, among other things, his emotional education. In this regard, a dog is the ultimate provider of teachable moments. They are, however, not all happy moments. When you get a dog, you take on a life, but you also take on a death.

A year ago, we lost Alice, an Australian Shepherd of gentle bearing. When the vet showed me the x-rays, a cluster of tumors floating in her body like jellyfish in an aquarium, I asked, “If she were three years old and I had a million dollars, what would you do?” But the vet only shook her head. I made a video of her final days and assembled photographs taken during the 12 years that we knew her, including the eight she served as my son Jack’s constant companion. He’s an only child but never felt like one, as long as he had her.
The last day, Alice and I waited with him for the school bus, as we had so many times before, and he cried and said goodbye. I explained that she wasn’t going to be here when he got home. He got on the bus.

Lesson number one:

You have to get on the bus.

Teaching my son to love dogs may be the best thing I could have taught him. He climbed all over Alice when he was a toddler. She gained 10 pounds, eating the food he knocked from his high chair onto the floor. She licked his face clean, which may have been a mistake, because now he is apparently incapable of cleaning it himself. He fed her and made sure her water bowl was full. She kept him safe from robbers. In the end, she taught him the hardest lesson of all, the pain you feel when someone you love dies, and you can’t love them anymore, and you cry and cry, for a long time.

Lesson number two:

After a while, you feel better.

Jack wanted another dog, right away. I wanted to wait. Children suffer loss but don’t need as much time to mourn as grown-ups do. So we visited the Connecticut SPCA and got Lucy, a 2-month-old mutt. Lucy was adorable, and greeted Jack with unbridled enthusiasm. But she’s a handful, more energy than we’re used to, and that was an adjustment. Shortly after we brought her home, I found Jack on the floor, crying. He’s ordinarily a very confident little boy, but this new puppy Lucy was not like Alice. Lucy challenged his sense of mastery, nipped at him, wouldn’t listen. When I asked him why he was crying, he said he was afraid he wouldn’t love Lucy as much as he loved Alice.

He was wrong.

Lesson number three:

Love returns to fix a broken heart.

Some hard day, 10 or 15 years from now, I will have to make a difficult decision on Lucy’s behalf, call a vet, make an appointment. Maybe Jack will come home from high school or college, a grown man, and I’ll say, “Jack, there’s something we need to do…” Maybe we’ll watch the video I made of Alice, or make one together of Lucy.
In the meantime, we have this, a dog, the only animal that evolved to love us, and teaches us how to love in return, in daily attendance.
When you take on a life, you take on a death, but when you take on a death, you get a life.

Peter Nelson is the author of the novel I Thought You Were Dead, which features a wise, loving dog named Stella.

Read more of KIWI’s June/July issue by purchasing our digital edition.

Talk about it

Has your family pet taught your kid any important life lessons? Did you learn anything from your family pet growing up?

  • misty

    I am trying not to cry right now reading this story. Alice sounds just like my dog Tater, the companion for our only son Eli. She was 1 when he was born and has done all the same things as Alice.  I am not looking forward to the day we will have to make a decision about her… hopefully it will be many years from now. I have always said “Every boy needs a dog” and this story shows one of the many reasons why.

  • Lia

    Very sad but true.  It’s not easy to deal with, but you do have to try to teach them or the day a loved one that does pass on suddenly, it’s more difficult on them than an animal.  It’s painful and lingers with them for years.  :-(   Thank you for writing this.  

  • Pansey

    When I was little, we learn about life and death from our pets, now that I’m order and have kids of my own, we have the same lessons, but with a little more understanding.

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