I was against the idea from the beginning.
“A dog?” I had asked. “Like a real one?”
Having never grown up with pets, the thought of owning one slightly frightened me—they just seemed like so much work. Aside from that fear, there were also all the reasons that floated around my head, the ones that told me why getting a dog would be so irresponsible: There was the house we lived in, the one that was already too small for us to begin with. There was the broken fence, the one that certainly wouldn’t be able to keep a four-legged friend contained in the yard. There was the fact that no one would be home to let it out during the day. There was the added expense of the pet deposit and food and all of the other costs associated with owning a dog.
Like I said, I was convinced this was a terrible idea.
Yet here I am, holding a three-pound puppy in my hands, staring into a set of midnight-drenched eyes that stand out so starkly against a sea of fluffy, cream-colored fur. It yawns, revealing a tiny eraser-pink tongue, and then happily begins to lick my hand. It feels like sandpaper, and it tickles.
I begin to laugh, and it is at that moment I know there is is absolutely no way I’m going to be able to say no now. This dog—the one that is wiggling in my hands and wiggling its way into my heart—is here to stay.
* * *
The night we brought him home, he gnawed on the corner of a Dex Yellow Pages phone book, an action that helped contribute to the selection of his name. Dexter—Dex for short—was a stray, so we weren’t sure what kind of puppy we had on our hands, but time turned him into beautiful, almost regal, dog. His face and body resembled a golden retriever, and his fur and tail, thick and fluffy and almost lion-like, was similar to a chow-chow’s.
At times, he was a handful: He pulled on his leash too much, and he loved to run away. He ate whole sticks of butter off the kitchen counter and other things he wasn’t supposed to, like table legs and plastic bowls and socks and underwear and the food off Zoey’s dinner plate. He regularly barked at anything that wasn’t human—other dogs and cats and squirrels and rabbits and raccoons. He loved being outside so much that trying to get him to come inside was a challenge, a trait that became especially exhausting during the middle of the night.
But Dexter’s sweetness overshadowed his moments of orneriness: He was playful and happy, and his tail constantly wagged. When he panted, his lips curled up into what appeared to be a smile. He was as tender and gentle as could be when Zoey came along. He loved cuddling and belly rubs and simply just being around the people he loved.
When Dex first came into our lives, he was just a dog. Yet the passage of time, as it often does with pets, quickly turned him into so much more: For 10 years, he was a companion. For 10 years, he was a friend.
But then, suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere—Dexter got sick.
After the cancer appeared, it spread fast across his face, along the bridge of his nose, stealing his vision along the way. Within a few months, he became a shell of the Dex we once knew.
This past week, sadly and heartbreakingly, our time together came to an end.
* * *
I go and see Dexter the day before he’s gone. Though he can’t see, when I call his name, he wags his tail and slowly finds his way over to me. When he reaches my side, there my hands are, petting his 10-year-old fur that is still streaked with the soft cream color he once wore as a puppy. There my eyes are, staring into his once-midnight colored ones, the ones now glazed over with white. And then there I am, kissing the crown of his head, burying my face into his neck, telling him goodbye.
* * *
When I pick Zoey up at school after Dexter has left us, I ask her how she’s doing. Although I don’t specifically ask her, she seems to know what I’m really asking about.
“I’m okay, Mommy,” she says, and though she smiles, her lips don’t curve up as high as they normally do. I can tell they are still laced with the leftover sadness of having to say goodbye to Dex just two days earlier.
“Are you sure?” I ask. I wrap my arms around Zoey, reminding her that if she wants to talk to me about this—or anything for that matter—she can.
Zoey gently pulls back from my embrace and then points to her chest.
“Mommy, did you know that even though our hearts are small there’s no limit to how much love they can hold?” She grabs my hand and places it back on her chest, covering it with her own.
“So even though he’s gone, he’s still here, safe with me in my heart. Just like how you’re there when we are apart.”
“Yes, Zoey, our hearts are amazing things,” I say as I fight back tears and pull her back into a hug. “And one of the most amazing things they can do is help us remember.”
And so there, wrapped in our hug, in the quiet moment the two of us have created—this moment of reverence for the sweet dog that Zoey and I both had the good fortune of calling our first pet—I remember:
Sadly saying goodbye to him on the day I moved out last year, but seeing him still wag his tail whenever he saw me afterward, even though those times were few and far between;
The way he would sit next to Zoey’s dinner chair when she was a toddler, waiting for the scraps of food, and watching her open her pudgy little hand, one she had filled up with treats just for him, and when he licked it, hearing her laugh at the way it tickled, just like I had done all those years ago;
Zoey, saying his name—one of the first words she spoke—and the way it sounded like Deh-ter, and how that Deh-ter became Dexter and then turned into Dexie, her very best friend;
Zoey, at only a few months old, trying hold his paw and the way she’d climb up on him like a jungle gym, and the way he would patiently let her do so;
The way he would lay on the big bay window, all day long, being the neighborhood’s friendly—but not so fierce—watchdog;
Me, lying next to him as he curved around my belly, keeping Zoey safe as she grew inside me, whispering my fears to him in quiet, dark, late night and early morning hours;
How he hopped across grass when he was a puppy because he didn’t like the way it felt on his paws;
The first time he tried to walk with a leash on and didn’t know how, the way he had stood on the sidewalk, unmoving, and then the way he sat down after half a block, tired from the effort;
Laying with him that first night as he whined for the mother he surely missed, and the helplessness I felt, not knowing how to best take care of him. The way he eventually calmed down and finally slept, and the way I stayed there watching him breathe, the way I would do five years later when Zoey arrived.
And as Zoey now shifts inside my arms, trying to get as close to me as she can, I remember that new spring day when a few pounds of fluffy white fur wiggled against my fingers, when two dark shining eyes stared up into my own. I remember the day I felt a space open up in my heart that was just the right size—and just the right shape—to hold a sweet dog named Dexter. It was a space that held him for a decade, and it is a space that will still hold him, safe with me now, and safe with me forever.
Let me know: Have you ever had to say goodbye to a beloved pet? What are your favorite memories of them?
Just joining me on my journey? Catch up on the Everyday Nostalgia series here.
At The Nostalgia Diaries, our goal is to help you simplify, enhance, and engage your lives by focusing on the most important things: remembering, appreciating, believing, and becoming. It’s all about celebrating the past to create better days today.